Canada's Folksy Leader Tries To Lasso a Bucking Quebec

AT this summer's Calgary Stampede, someone asked Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien about his cowboy boots - so he hiked up both pant legs in an ungainly pose that popped instantly into newspapers nationwide.

It is just this sort of folksy disdain for a polished political image that appeals to Canadians. Polls last winter showed 71 percent of Canadians approving of Mr. Chretien, making him the most popular leader of the Western industrialized nations.

But now, after one of the longest political honeymoons in Canadian history, there are signs Chretien is emerging into the ''real world'' of sniping journalists, slipping popularity, and no-win issues.

Chretien's approval rating has fallen 10 percentage points, from 68 percent in May to 58 percent last month, according to Gallup Canada polls. That slide comes as the Canadian chief is under growing pressure to deal with a huge deficit, high unemployment, and Quebec's separatist threat.

Support for Chretien's Liberal Party appears broad in polls, but that may be simply because of the weakness of his opponents, says Conrad Winn, a pollster with COMPAS Inc. in Ottawa.

''Although the federal Liberal Party is secure in power for the foreseeable future, the Chretien government is showing signs of a midterm malaise,'' agrees Bruce Campbell, an Ottawa political analyst. He attributes the slippage in approval of Chretien to tough budget cuts in February and minor political indiscretions by a couple of government ministers.

Yet as Chretien appears to realize, ''minor'' indiscretions in government are not minor at all, analysts say. With Canadian public confidence in government at low ebb, Chretien is trying to dispel cynicism by putting in place ''good government,'' which he talks about constantly. A cabinet shuffle is expected soon to rid the government of errant ministers.

Dampening cynicism

''There is an important reason why the Chretien government is focusing on providing 'good government' to Canadians,'' Mr. Campbell says. ''They hope to decrease the amount of cynicism toward government and thereby provide Canadian political 'elites' [government bureaucrats and top ministers] with greater discretion and bargaining power'' in the battle this fall to keep Quebec inside the Canadian federation.

Polls show most Quebeckers would today vote to remain a part of Canada. And most analysts predict that a fall referendum on separation promised by Quebec's separatist leader Jacques Parizeau will fail.

But, according to Dr. Winn, ''Chretien's challenge is not primarily to win the referendum. That's not going to be too hard. His main challenge is to prevent repeated referendums - to put the separatist plan to bed for a long time.''

To accomplish that more formidable task, Campbell suggests, Chretien may have to offer Quebec a token package of additional powers, or ''renewed federalism,'' to soften Quebeckers' future support for separation.

That idea, however, has been a hard sell among the rest of Canada's provinces, where public opinion favors no further concessions to Quebec.

Can the self-effacing prime minister do what former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried twice and failed to do - accommodate Quebec? Even the hint that he might want to do so would be damaging at this point. And government officials won't talk about their referendum plans.

But what is clear is that most of Chretien's gains in public trust have come by putting as much distance as possible between himself and former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney - whose party was wiped out in the 1993 election that thrust Chretien into power.

Chretien has eschewed Mr. Mulroney's perceived excesses by downsizing the staffing and size of government, getting himself a Chevrolet instead of a limousine, and following through on other campaign promises. He is still working on putting through legislation that would lower what some call the ''sleaze factor'' in Ottawa by regulating lobbyists.

''Mr. Chretien is rated more highly for proving a welcome, admirable contrast to Mr. Mulroney than he is for his limited moves thus far on regulating ethics and wiping out patronage,'' wrote Ottawa Sun columnist Douglas Fisher in a recent column. Mr. Fisher cites a litany of broken promises by the Chretien government that suggests tougher relations with the press.

Fisher's list includes: Shelving plans for environmental reforms; ignoring a campaign promise to enhance child care nationwide; failing to make good on his promise to get rid of the Goods and Services Tax, or GST; failing to come up with coherent reform of the social safety net; and failing to stand by foreign aid commitments and human rights standards.

Priority 1: Holding together

However much he may wish to fulfill that list of commitments, the prime minister is distracted by Quebec separatism and a tight budget. And national unity remains the overriding objective.

Whether Chretien can keep Quebec from voting to split away from Canada will ultimately define success or failure for his long political career. So far he appears to be succeeding in Quebec, where his approval rating is 41 percent, far higher than it has been in recent years.

Still, Reg Whitaker, a political scientist at York University in Toronto, says Chretien must balance priorities carefully to regain public trust with one hand while wooing Quebec with the other. ''He's gotten a tremendous amount of mileage out of not being Brian Mulroney,'' he says Reg Whitaker, a political scientist at York University in Toronto. ''But he's got to go beyond that now.''

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