Thestar.com
PM appears to have slain his dragons
By Chantal Hebert
National Affairs Columnist
CP FILE PHOTO
PRIME MINISTER JEAN CHRETIEN
RELATED LINKS
Economic slump makes boomers nervous: Poll (Aug. 30)
Chantal Hebert: PM appears to have slain his dragons (Aug. 30)
Quebec race 'tight,' new survery indicates (Aug. 30)
Chretien's on a roll (Aug. 30)
Inasmuch as having nothing left to prove is one of the best reasons to close a successful chapter, Prime Minister Jean Chretien has all that it takes to write a glowing epilogue to his political career anytime he wants.

As the latest Toronto Star-CBC-La Presse poll demonstrates, Chretien seems to have dealt with all the dragons on his political horizon.

Almost a year after having secured a third majority, support for his Liberal party has increased from coast to coast. And Chretien - as a leader - has less real competition today than he did 12 months ago.

Among the other leaders, only the Tories' Joe Clark is having as good a year as Chretien. But he has been unable to translate his trustworthiness into votes.

As a result, the East-West divide that was so uncomfortably obvious when much of Western Canada rejected the Liberals last fall has faded. The Canadian Alliance's downfall has benefited Chretien and his troops beyond their wildest hopes in British Columbia and turned them into a force to be reckoned with for the first time in decades in Alberta.

In Ontario, Chretien so dominates the political spectrum that neither the Queen's Park Tories nor the squabbling federal parties on the right are a serious challenge to federal Liberal supremacy.

Sweetest of all, Chretien's rehabilitation in Quebec, which was already under way in the last election, has continued unabated despite months of controversy surrounding his role in the financing of a hotel in his Saint-Maurice riding and the commitment of Quebec's new premier to resuscitate the sovereignty debate.

One would have to go back to the Trudeau era for the last time the federal Liberals were at their current high of 50 per cent in voting intentions in Quebec.

While the Prime Minister used to be a major Liberal liability on his home turf, he is now as trusted as either Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest or Premier Bernard Landry. Moreover, Chretien is the only one of the three who has gained trust over the past six months.

The Liberal rise in fortunes in Western Canada is largely due to an opposition vacuum, but the same can hardly be said in Quebec where the federal and provincial sovereignist parties are alive and well and - in the latter case - comfortably in power. But the Bloc Quebecois and the Parti Quebecois have yet to generate even a hint of momentum for sovereignty, making the scenario of another referendum anytime soon improbable.

Quebec sovereignists are not the only ones having a hard time mobilizing their troops against Chretien and his low-profile agenda.

The NDP - which had wanted to ride the anti-globalization wave back to relevance - is failing miserably. It remains in a slump in Ontario and does not register at all in large areas of the country.

Even more significantly, Canadians' confidence in their capacity to secure a decent place in the new world order is overwhelming, to the point of bordering on blind trust in the future.

The public has also been turning a deaf ear to opposition warnings of government insouciance in the face of a deteriorating economy.

EKOS Research has found that, for all of the pessimistic economic news of the past year, Canadians remain largely unconcerned by the angst that has become the bread and butter of the business media.

The Chretien government has not brought down a budget since the spring of 2000. Nor does it plan to for at least another six months. It speaks to how much trust the Prime Minister and his team have built that the public is so willing to take them at their word that all is in order with the country's finances amidst rumours to the contrary.

There are those who look to the clear blue sky over Chretien's head and use it as a basis to predict that he will stay on beyond this mandate.

But this prime minister has always been more of a competitive political animal than a policy wonk. And now, as challenges go, Chretien is clearly in a cycle of diminishing returns.

And so, those who insist on trying to guess the Prime Minister's next career move might do better to focus on the smaller clouds looming on his horizon. As this poll shows, the outcome of the next Quebec election is, in no way, a foregone conclusion. The PQ, much like Chretien, has been given up for dead in the past, only to live to fight another day.

Should Charest fail to wrestle power from the PQ when Quebec next goes to the polls, Chretien might well find a stronger rationale for staying on in a sovereignist storm warning than in the clear sailing that is otherwise in his forecast.



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