The 20th and the 21st Prime Ministers

7 Jan

I co-produced a television program airing tonight (and available online by tomorrow) featuring back-to-back interviews with former Liberal Prime Ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin – the Johnny and Joey Ramone of Canadian politics. (A bigger journalistic coup would have been to interview them together, but that isn’t likely to happen in the case of these two particular PMs.)

Whether they like it or not, Chrétien’s and Martin’s names will forever be linked in the history books, as partners in government and rivals in politics. In fact, there already have been a good selection of books written about the two leaders and their complicated relationship. Here are a few excerpts from a short handful of those books, tracing that relationship through bad times and good … and bad, again:


‘The worst moments of the (1990 Liberal) leadership race came during a policy forum in Montreal on Sunday afternoon, June 3, long after Chrétien had built an insurmountable lead… When Chrétien rose to speak, some youth delegates bedecked with Paul Martin buttons chanted “Judas” and “Vendu” (sellout)… Chrétien never forgot the moment. In an interview six years later, he complained bitterly that the agitators had largely come from Toronto. True enough: one Martin delegate confessed that with little understanding of French, he had confusingly been chanting the word “Fondue.”‘ – Double Vision: The Inside Story of the Liberals in Power, by Edward Greenspon and Anthony Wilson-Smith, 1996

‘On the first day of the transition (to Liberal rule in 1993), Chrétien had expressed certainty about just two positions, those destined for his two leadership rivals from 1990. Sheila Copps would be deputy prime minister… And Martin would go to Finance. He and Martin had known each other for many years; they got together once or twice a year to fish or golf… The relationship had frayed during the bitter leadership race. But while many of thier followers would carry their animosities forward into government, Chrétien and Martin, at least, seemed to have made their peace. In Martin, the prime-minister-designate thought he had a figure with the requisite credibility in the business community and the resolve to take on the key finance portfolio.’ – Double Vision

‘They had differed before — and would probably differ again. Martin, a born activist, viewed politics as a medium through which society reformed itself so as to be better prepared for the future. His was a governing mind. Chrétien, a natural conservative, viewed politics more as a means of preserving existing goods. Mountains should be climbed only when it was absolutely impossible to get around them. He cared more for the consensus than the content. His was a political mind.’ – Double Vision

‘Chrétien feared Martin’s ambition because it so obviously mirrored and threatened his own. They worked out a modus operandi as prime minister and finance minister, to mutual political benefit, but distance and distrust marked their personal relations. Long periods passed during which the two men rarely spoke, communications being conducted between subalterns. Two camps emerged in the party – Chrétienites and Martinites – that stretched from cabinet through caucus to national executive to constituency presidents to the rank-and-file. Nothing like this had ever occurred inside a governing party in Canadian history.’ – The Friendly Dictatorship, Jeffrey Simpson, 2001

‘Eventually, the differences between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin grew wide enough to split them apart. This came as no surprise to me and others who know them both well. It was inevitable. You can argue that one or the other could have deferred more than he did, I suppose. But these are two strong individuals, after all, and in some ways it is remarkable that they made it work so well for so long.’ – Brian Tobin, All in Good Time, 2002

‘That frisson of terror that many felt (in June, 2002) when they heard that Paul Martin was no longer guarding the nation’s chequebook did not mark the summit of his career, but it meant the summit was in sight. From fearing that Martin was indispensable, it was a short step for his party, and much of the country, to decide that Chrétien wasn’t. On the day he lost his cabinet job, the dauphin was already only a short climb away from the job he had wanted for decades.’ – Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper’s New Conservatism, Paul Wells, 2006

‘The goal of the new Martin regime… was to be all things to all people. Or more things to more people. Well, let’s be honest: to not be one guy in particular to a very large number of people. Which guy? Oh, you know. Dennis Dawson, the Martin camp’s ranking Quebec strategist, recalls that at the time of… (Martin’s November 2003 leadership) acceptance speech, “we were basically hitting the roof as far as polling was concerned. And it wasn’t based on Paul being Paul. It was based on Paul being anybody but Chrétien.”‘ – Right Side Up


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