We have a quaint custom in this country.  We cheerfully accept that our political leaders will defend their decisions and policies with rationales which are pure fabrications.  Their real motive may be expediency, greed or pride but we will listen with straight faces as political leaders explain their actions with fancy and fanciful rationales.  The excitement begins when a politician is so foolish as to think that people actually believe his or her fancy explanations.

This is what happened to Jean Chrétien with his new power to appoint candidates for the next election.  At their national policy convention held February in Hull, the Liberal party membership voted overwhelmingly to give their leader this new power.

Jean Chrétien explained that he needed to be able to put together the best possible team and, without such a power, the party might fail to attract quality candidates.  Men and women of superior ability would be put off by the messy business of signing up thousands of new members to win a nomination.

In Hull, everyone knew that this rationale was nonsense.  The reason that top quality candidates do not seek to become Mps has little to do with the rigors of fighting a nomination race.  It has much more to do with the problems created by moving to Ottawa, stepping outside one’s career stream, the loss of executive level pay and the stress of maintaining public popularity.  These are the real reasons that so-called star candidates are reluctant to step forward and the party leaders were not proposing to do anything about these.

It is true that, in the past, some Liberal nomination meetings turned into huge events when candidates signed up thousands of members each.  In some cases the canes used ethnic organizations as their base for signing up hundreds of members.  None of this concerned the Liberal party.  The process only became unacceptable during the 1990 leadership campaign which saw Jean Chrétien elected.

What the Liberals saw, much to their horror, was that pro-life people in riding after riding could sign up enough members to control the riding association.  This put Tom Wappel on the leadership platform where he then talked about abortion.  The party hierarchy knew that what pro-life people had done in the leadership campaign they could do again during the general election.  Chrétien faced the near certainty that a substantial number of candidates in the next election would, like Wappel, be outspokenly and uncompromisingly pro-life.

If Chrétien and his backers found the Wappel leadership campaign embarrassing, they found the prospect of even more Wappels being elected positively frightening.  Chrétien and his supporters were just plain spooked by the ability of Liberals for Life to out-organize the party machine.

The pro-life threat posed by the pro-life folks was much greater than that posed by any ethnic organization.  Pro-life people had the strength in dozens of ridings across the country to nominate candidates of their choosing.  No ethnic group could control more than half a dozen ridings.  More importantly, the pro-lifers were not interested in wheeling and dealing in the traditional manner, displaying instead a determination to be true to their principles.  It was a fear for Liberals for Life that lead to the new rule.  The hierarchy wasted no time and introduced the new rule at the first national convention following the leadership campaign.

Chrétien made the mistake of believing his own fancy rationale about needing the power to put together the best possible team.  In November, he appointed former Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton as the candidate in the riding of York Centre.  Being a mix of Italian and Jewish neighbourhoods, York Centre is as safe a Liberal seat as you will find in this country.  A local city counselor was working hard to get the nomination, knowing that if he won the nomination he could start packing his bags for Ottawa.  Peter Li Preti had sold some three thousand memberships, when Chrétien announced that he was appointing former Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton to be the candidate.

That’s when the fireworks started.  Suddenly a very popular idea was receiving a lot of flak.  Three Toronto MPs, John Nunziata, Dennis Mills, and Joe Volpe protested.  None of the three had fought against the proposal back in Hull when it was understood that the power would be used against those pro-life nasties.

The media and commentators then picked up the story and portrayed Chrétien’s action as anti-democratic.  In Hull, the media had played a different tune.  The Ottawa Citizen’s report on the vote which gave Chrétien his new power was headlined “Chrétien bars party hijackers”.

The Eggleton appointment became national news.  Chrétien’s mistake was in using his powers against someone who had support among the local Liberal establishment.  Li Preti had the support of Italian community leaders and powerful local Liberals.

Seeking to cool the controversy, Chrétien let it be known that he would be using the power of appointment perhaps seven or ten more times at most, and that he would use it against the original targets.  The Toronto Sun reported in the week following Eggleton’s appointment that Chrétien would be appointing candidates in three Toronto ridings: Etobicoke Centre, Etobicoke Lakeshore and Beaches-Woodbine.  In each of these three ridings a pro-life Liberal had been odds-on favourite to take the nomination.

No screams about democratic values followed this bit of news, despite the fact that two of the three candidates are Liberals of long standing.  In Etobicoke Centre, the pro-life candidate is Jim Conrad who has been active in the party for 25 years.  In Beaches-Woodbine, the pro-life candidate has run as a Liberal candidate in two previous elections.

Chrétien got tarred for being undemocratic only when he attacked someone with connections to Toronto’s own Liberal establishment.  John Nunziata led the charge.  He gets marks for courage.  While Volpe and Mills both agreed to drop the issue, Nunziata refused to be silenced and was subsequently stripped of his position as Employment and Immigration critic.

At the same time, Nunziata also gets a special reward for hypocrisy.  At the Hull convention he actively supported the proposal, going as far as to charge that Liberals for Life were subverting the democratic process.  Nine months later, Nunziata finally turns things right side up and denounces the rule as an affront to democracy, but only because an ally became an unexpected target of the rule.

Despite whatever John Nunziata or Jean Chrétien may claim, their dispute is about power.  Any talk of democratic principles or of finding the best candidates is a smoke-screen.  Both of these men are determined to help their own political allies and, at all costs, to keep Liberals for Life out of power.

Notable Quotes

Family Values

“Needless to say, it [family] ought to be the most important part of everyone’s life.  That’s the core of life.  We live in an individualist, me-first generation…everybody’s running around wondering why they can’t find happiness.  I think that family values are important.  I think that Hollywood has been irresponsible in some of the movies that it’s made.”


(Oscar winning actor.)

Ignorance is bliss

“Probably nothing has been as damaging to our cause as the advances in technology which have allowed pictures of the developing fetus, because people now talk about the fetus in much different terms than they did fifteen years ago.  They talk about it as a human being, which is not something that I have an easy answer on how to cure.”


(pollster for the National Abortion Right Action League in the U.S., addressing their 20th annual conference)

Maureen’s Fetal Slip

“…not only do they (reproductive technologies) entail the creation of human life, but they also entail a very serious problem of autonomy issues and equality issues – sex selection for instance, which seems to target the female fetus in its abortion.  It raises serious issues of abortion – selective abortion for instance, which is a situation where they put back too many embryos in an IVF (in vitro fertilization) process – they implant and you’ve got eight babies (our emphasis) – uh, eight fetuses instead of one or two and they get rid of some of them – and of course that raises very serious and legal questions.”


(FIRED AS A MEMBER OF Royal Commission on Reproductive Technologies for raising ethical questions; wife of Joe Clark and vocal pro-abortionist)