Footsie and fighting free

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, November 24 – Online Edition, Posted at 9:03 PM EST

Montreal — Fighting to save his government's majority, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien unleashed a furious attack on Tory Leader Joe Clark Friday, saying his party had played "footsie" with separatists in the past and is planning to ally itself with the separatist Bloc Québécois in the future.

At a Liberal rally Friday night in Toronto, Mr. Chrétien told more than 1,000 supporters, "Joe Clark should stop playing footsie with the separatists."

He said Mr. Clark would like a minority government but that it would be a gift to Quebec separatists. "It will be giving the balance of power to the Bloc Québécois and the separatists," he said.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Chrétien told an audience of seniors in Montreal that Mr. Clark had said "he would make an alliance with the Bloc Québécois." There was an audible gasp in the room when he said it.

Mr. Chrétien based his charge on an article in the Montreal daily La Presse, which was headlined: Clark ready to conclude an alliance with the Bloc. The article quoted a rambling passage from an interview with Mr. Clark in which the Tory Leader seemed to be saying that if his party is in opposition after the election, it will consider seeking the support of all the other opposition parties.

Mr. Clark was also quoted as saying, "the program of the Bloc Québécois is not a separatist program," and that the BQ's supporters are really voting against Mr. Chrétien rather than for separatism.

Yesterday Mr. Clark denied he would cozy up to the Bloc Québécois in any formal alliance.

"I don't think the word coalition was ever used," Mr. Clark said. "I'm not contemplating a coalition. I'm not contemplating an alliance."

Mr. Clark said he envisions temporary alliances with other parties on particular issues, rather than a long-standing pact with any one party. For example, the Bloc and the Tories could work together to change employment insurance to protect seasonal communities. And the Tories and the Canadian Alliance might be able to find common ground to ensure the reigning government upholds funding on health care, Mr. Clark told reporters.

Nevertheless, Mr. Chrétien lambasted Mr. Clark in his speech at the seniors' home. "I'm telling you, Joe, that we will never make a deal with the separatists because we believe the country will not be divided."

He said the BQ's program is "absolutely" separatist. "C'mon, Joe, c'mon, Joe," he chided, calling Mr. Clark "naive." Later he told reporters that a minority government, which might result if the smaller parties win sufficient seats, could contribute to the resurgence of separatism in Quebec.

Until the last week of the election campaign, Mr. Chrétien virtually ignored Mr. Clark and the Tories. All that has changed. Now, the Liberals are worried about the Tories' growing strength in Atlantic Canada and Eastern Ontario, evident in the Ipsos-Reid poll published today in The Globe and Mail. Mr. Clark could stand between Mr. Chrétien and the third consecutive majority he is seeking.

Mr. Chrétien defended his attack on Mr. Clark to reporters, saying that is the way politics works. "If they hit you, you hit back," he said. "And if they give you an opportunity to hit, you hit. If he had shut up and said nothing, I'd have ignored it."

As the Ipsos-Reid poll suggests, the Liberals' campaign seems to have succeeded in its primary objective: to cap the potential growth of the Canadian Alliance. Until this week, Mr. Chrétien aimed his rhetorical fire almost exclusively at the Alliance, accusing them of having a "hidden agenda" on everything from medicare to abortion to old-age security.

However, as the poll also shows, the Alliance and the Tories have been effective in exploiting the public's doubts about Mr. Chrétien, if not his party. The result has been that some voters, particularly in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces, are turning to a third alternative: Mr. Clark's Tories.

As a result, Mr. Chrétien has hammered away at Mr. Clark this week. He raises Mr. Clark's opposition to the government's "clarity bill" on Quebec sovereignty at every stop. He has complained that Mr. Clark once contacted him to get a judgeship for his brother. He has accused Mr. Clark of making personal attacks on him.

Yesterday, Mr. Chrétien cranked up the rhetoric even further, suggesting that a vote for Mr. Clark might help the cause of sovereignty. He said that Mr. Clark, like NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, wants a minority government to ensure his own political survival. Seizing on a comment by Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe that a minority would help the cause of sovereignty, Mr. Chrétien told reporters, "The consequence [of a minority] is promoting the chances of a revival of the cause of Duceppe."

He reminded reporters that the Tories had actively recruited former sovereigntists in Quebec after the failure of the 1980 referendum on sovereignty. "You remember this terrible period when we had all sorts of playing footsie with the separatists," he said.

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