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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Chrétien carries a flickering Trudeau torch
Tuesday, October 3, 2000

There is no doubting the emotion coursing through Jean Chrétien's soul since he learned, flying above the Caribbean on Thursday, that Pierre Trudeau was dead. We have seen him struggle to contain his tears, witnessed a touching scene between him and the Trudeau boys and heard him invoke the Trudeau legacy ("We have a flame to carry") as he warms up for an election.

The media has been filled with great words about Mr. Trudeau, and a lot of nonsense, too. The silliest thing is that it would somehow be disrespectful for Mr. Chrétien to call an election in the wake of his benefactor's death. Many good reasons can be offered in favour of holding a vote next spring, some relating to respect for the electorate. None has anything to do with Mr. Trudeau.

Allowing democracy to march to its beat surely is no sign of disrespect for a fallen democratic leader. Nor would it be exploitive for Mr. Chrétien to employ the Trudeau legacy in an election campaign. He has, after all, been gearing up for a campaign based on Trudeau-style values for months. The more interesting issue is how comfortably Mr. Chrétien actually carries the flame of Trudeau Liberalism.

The beliefs and predispositions that commentators generally label Trudeau Liberalism predated Mr. Trudeau becoming party leader in 1968. Arguably, the spiritual father of this wing of progressive Liberalism was Walter Gordon, a nationalist who was Lester Pearson's closest political adviser and first finance minister before falling from grace in the mid-1960s.

Mr. Gordon's brand of Liberalism, born and bred in what was then known as English-Canada, was characterized by a penchant for political activism, strong central government, anti-American nationalism and economic intervention. At key junctures, though, his worldview lost out in Liberal party councils to the more circumscribed and business-oriented policies of cabinet rival Mitchell Sharp, Mr. Chrétien's true political mentor.

The Gordon Liberals, by and large, didn't join forces with Mr. Trudeau until his near-defeat in the 1972 election. The combination of a minority government and their new influence propelled him in new directions on economic issues.

Mr. Chrétien, then a young cabinet minister, had supported Mr. Sharp vociferously as a leadership candidate in 1968. When it became clear that Mr. Sharp could not win, master and pupil threw their lot in with Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Chrétien rose slowly but surely in the cabinet ranks, joining himself to the hip with Mr. Trudeau on the national question.

Over the years, though, Mr. Chrétien proved himself to be other than a Trudeau Liberal. His instincts tended toward caution, not activism. As the native son of an export-dependent region, he, like Mr. Sharp, generally favoured the free-trade side of the ongoing debate in his party. By temperment, he leaned to relative fiscal conservatism and a modest role for government. He operated more out of calculation than conviction.

These predispositions aside, the populist Mr. Chrétien served as the natural repository of Trudeau Liberal support at his party's 1984 and 1990 leadership conventions. His first cabinet in 1993 was piled to the rafters with self-described Trudeau Liberals who had backed him -- people like David Collenette, Brian Tobin, Ron Irwin, Sergio Marchi and David Dingwall.

Privately, they would often bemoan the low elevation at which Mr. Chrétien carried their torch. He was forever siding with his finance minister, Paul Martin, over his cabinet's left wing. He seemed to them too quick to roll back traditional Liberal programs on the social front and overly accommodating of the provinces, particularly after the 1995 referendum.

Circumstances often dictate actions in politics. Mr. Chrétien probably followed the course of any pragmatist in fighting deficits and cooling federal-provincial fires. Mr. Trudeau might have done the same.

In recent months, Mr. Chrétien has veered heavily in the direction of Trudeau Liberalism. He has advocated spending programs to combat the stresses and strains on lower-income Canadians. He has dueled with the provinces over the role of the central government in health care. He brought in the tough-minded Clarity Bill.

As he readies for an election, the Prime Minister appears closer to adopting the guise of Trudeau Liberalism than at any other time in his career. A strong budgetary position allows him the luxury. The exigencies of political positioning stokes his desire.

The timing seems right to Mr. Chrétien for wrapping himself in the old Trudeau Liberal flag. But by acting out of calculation rather than conviction, he shows he's still not truly part of the club.

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