Canada's Teflon Leader Finds Criticism Sticking

AFTER a two-year stint in which he could do no wrong, Canadian leader Jean Chretien seems suddenly unable to do anything right.

The Canadian prime minister has enjoyed perhaps the longest political honeymoon of any recent Western leader. But lately Mr. Chretien has found his popularity sliding as an increasingly restive public questions his leadership after a close call in Quebec's referendum on secession.

Many Canadians now want to know what specific steps he will take to keep the country together. Since the Oct. 30 vote, they haven't heard anything they like.

"I think people are growing very anxious about Chretien's federal government and its capacity to prevent [Canada's] breakup," says Conrad Winn, a pollster with COMPAS, Inc. "There's anxiety over what Ottawa can do to fix things quickly."

Public approval of Chretien's Liberal Party fell from 71 percent a year ago to 58 percent in September, according to the Angus Reid Group. And since the referendum, Liberal support has fallen to 51 percent, according to a Dec. 13 Gallup poll. Some say a further drop is likely.

That is a drastic shift in public perceptions for a prime minister who 12 months before the referendum enjoyed popularity not seen since former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in the early 1960s. The shift has come in sync with verbal poundings from opposition politicians and fresh digs from columnists and other pundits.

This sort of criticism used to slide off Chretien, but it is now beginning to stick. The public blames him for underestimating the separatists and for shifting his emphasis away from fixing the economy to fixing Quebec's status within Canada. That was not always a priority for him.

Elected in October 1993 with a strong majority, Chretien succeeded by keeping his legislative efforts focused on job training, job creation, and deficit cutting. Until the referendum, he had promised not to bring up the "c-word" - constitutional change.

He understood that Canadians detest the interminable debate after two failed attempts in the 1980s at constitutional renewal to meet Quebec demands. But he has been sucked into the Quebec vortex.

During the referendum campaign, Chretien broke that key promise. The c-word was uttered in the week before the vote, when Chretien and federalist forces, according to some observers, panicked. At two rallies in Quebec, Chretien promised Quebeckers constitutional change even though the Canadian public had not given him a mandate for it.

Since the vote, he hastily put together legislation recognizing Quebec as a "distinct society" and granting it a constitutional veto. That move has been widely derided in Quebec.

Far from winning points with his unity plan, Chretien's usually sure-footed political sense of English Canada slipped when he lumped British Columbia and Alberta together in a shared constitutional veto. The move had those premiers howling and Chretien backpedaling. A revised version gives British Columbia its own veto. But the damage was done.

"It is clear that the referendum wounded him politically," says Reginald Whitaker, a political scientist at York University in Toronto. "But where Chretien has really gone off the rails is ... in understanding English Canada."

The close referendum vote has emboldened the separatists under Lucien Bouchard, who has promised another referendum in a year or two. Still, Chretien, a native Quebecker himself, has refused to go much beyond his unity plan to outline a new aggressive game plan to deal with the next referendum.

Reform Party leader Preston Manning has grown so frustrated at the government's lack of specifics in response to his questions that he last week offered a motion to have Chretien essentially impeached for allegedly undermining the Constitution.

Yet there really are no political alternatives to the prime minister, whose opponents are fragmented. The official opposition in Parliament is the Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec separatist party founded by Mr. Bouchard. Mr. Manning's Reform Party aspires to be the opposition party, but has no representation in Quebec or the Atlantic provinces.

Even inside Chretien's own party, there are no obvious replacements. Frustration, however, is growing.

Chretien's weakening public support is unlikely to affect foreign policy or trade, given his strong majority in parliament. But it will make it harder to push through difficult deficit cuts that slash Canadians' much-loved social safety net. And it will make it less likely Chretien can rally public support for changes that will appease Quebec and avert a crisis during the next referendum.

"He's highly vulnerable," says Dr. Winn, the pollster. "But he's not in [immediate] trouble simply because there are no other options."

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