It's My Party

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In the final days of his tenure as U.S. president, as he prepared to voluntarily relinquish his office, Thomas Jefferson confided to a friend, “Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.”

In the dying light of his own tenure, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien — the politician who, in Dalton Camp’s inimitable characterization, looks like the guy who should be driving the getaway car — appeared to be trying to lock himself into the vault.

But now that the prime minister has finally signalled that he will step down in early 2004, there is a glimmer of hope that the personality clash between himself and his leading successor, Paul Martin, could give way to something more edifying for the rest of us.

One doesn’t need to be a pie-eyed idealist to hope that substance be part of that political picture; one simply needs to gaze across the ocean.

For Canada’s Liberals are not the only “centre-left” government with no opposition to speak of, whose sole challenge has been for the party to negotiate the transfer of the baton, without fumbling it, from the PM to the ambitious finance minister who had been nipping at his ankles for years.

Relations between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his finance minister, Gordon Brown, have been described by Andrew Rawnsley, author of Servants of the People: New Labour in Power, as “one of the most productive, complex and tumultuous couplings that there has ever been in high British politics.”

And last year, as the government basked in its second election rout of the Conservative Party, Rawnsley warned that “the struggle for supremacy between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will dominate New Labour’s second term. The fight may be the death of one of them.”

To date, however, the two men have channelled their enmity into a constructive contest: jockeying to see who can nail the social democratic colours higher on the mast.

In April, Brown announced the biggest spending increases in a generation for the publicly funded National Health Service. He followed that up this July with massive spending increases — the largest in thirty years — for most major public services, in order to redress “past decades of under-investment in education, health, transport and housing.”

The prime minister, Mr. Blair, often takes to the airwaves in a further effort to shade in his party’s position on the political spectrum (and to ensure his fair share of the credit).

Blair and his rival display a candour that had become all but extinct in this age of triangulation, where the conventional wisdom holds that electoral victories are nailed down by preventing oneself from being pinned down.

As governing politicians, they have committed the heresy of conceding that better public services need to be paid for — maybe even by modest tax increases. Indeed, the prime-minister-in-waiting, Mr. Brown, recently promised that Labour will fight the Conservative Party head-on in the next election, on the slogan of “Schools and Hospitals.”

As an election platform, you have to admit it has a bit more resonance than “Scorn and Hostility” — the official line issuing from Liberal camps all summer.

If this summer’s contest between Chrétien and Martin has taught us anything it’s that knives are hardly the best implement for sketching out a political agenda.

Lately, Mr. Chrétien has suggested that he will focus on policy from here on out — a welcome shift from a government that has often defined itself by what it is not: Not Stockwell Day, not George W. Bush and, most of all, not in a hurry.

For his part, Mr. Martin remains an even deeper enigma. After nearly a decade in public life, it is difficult to discern if the former finance minister stands for anything apart from our national anthem.

Regardless of whether the prime minister invites Mr. Martin back into the cabinet, now that the Liberal Party’s family feud has cooled down, both men have their work cut out for them.

They face a tough task: reconnecting with an increasingly turned-off public.

But, for a hint of how to do this, they might look to their counterparts in Britain.

Painting oneself into corners on the core issues — like health and education — may seem hopelessly out of fashion to political cynics.

But, as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both seem to recognize: a new paint job might be just the thing to pull sceptical voters back into the polling booth to support them one more time.

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