There’s more to the renewed hostilities inside the Liberal Party than a clash of ambitions between Martin Cauchon and Denis Coderre. It’s a much broader canvas than that, involving the two warring Liberal clans, the Trudeau-Chrétien wing and the Turner-Martin side of the family.
Cauchon belongs to the former, Coderre to the latter, and Michael Ignatieff is now caught in middle of a shooting war that has shattered the delicate façade of party unity.
Cauchon’s career path began in his native La Malbaie, where he worked as a butler on the household staff of Paul Desmarais. This is how he would have met Desmarais’s son André and his wife France, whose father, Jean Chrétien, became Liberal leader in 1990, after years of constantly undermining the leadership of John Turner.
It’s either overlooked or mostly forgotten that Cauchon was the Liberal candidate, its poteau, against Brian Mulroney in Charlevoix in the 1988 election. Cauchon later joked that Mulroney was "my MP." In 1993, when Chrétien’s chief Quebec organizer, Pietro Rizutto, couldn’t find a star candidate to run in Outremont, he appointed Cauchon with Chrétien’s approval. Cauchon went on to become justice minister and Quebec lieutenant in Chrétien’s last term, though his accomplishments in both roles are not of historic dimensions.
Then Paul Martin’s supporters pulled off a very Canadian coup in 2002-03, evicting a sitting prime minister of their own party. Along the way, Cauchon was dumped from cabinet, and forced to stand down in Outremont, making way for Martin’s designated Quebec lieutenant, Jean Lapierre.
Coderre came up on the Turner-Martin side of the party, first as a protégé of André Ouellet, later becoming immigration minister in the Chrétien government, and managed to hang on to a minor portfolio in the Martin government.
Which brings us up to the 2006 leadership campaign, where Bob Rae was the candidate of the Trudeau-Chrétien wing, while Ignatieff represented the hopes of the Turner-Martin clan. But their candidacies were fatally flawed. They were the stranger and the foreigner - Rae had spent his life in another party, and Ignatieff most of his career in another country.
Significantly, Cauchon was the co-chairperson of Rae’s leadership campaign, while Coderre organized Quebec for Ignatieff. When Ignatieff staged his bloodless leadership coup after the collapse of the Three Stooges coalition last December, he named Coderre "my Quebec lieutenant." Since the time of Jean Marchand and Marc Lalonde, the Quebec lieutenant in the Liberal Party has been the political boss, with the power to appoint candidates in the name of the leader.
Thus, Nathalie LeProhon, a top business executive recruited by Coderre and approved by Ignatieff to run in Outremont, which the Liberals hope to regain from Tom Mulcair of the NDP. Cauchon, who wants his old seat back, leaked to the media that the local riding wanted him back, and finally took his case to the leader himself. Iggy did what you’d expect him to - he stood by his Quebec lieutenant, and put Cauchon’s service in the past tense.
That should have been the end of it, until Thursday, when Rae joined the fracas, saying "room must be found" for Cauchon. The former NDP premier of Ontario added : "Martin Cauchon was an outstanding minister of justice and has been a fighter for Liberal values all his political life." There’s nothing like an unsolicited third-party endorsement. But it isn’t Rae’s place, as an Ontario MP, to tell the Quebec lieutenant how to run his show, much less tell the leader who should be in caucus. Chrétien himself has been on the phone to Ignatieff and Coderre, and the conversation with the latter was very heated.
And so Ignatieff, having stood by Coderre in the early going, caved to the pressure from the Chrétienites and on Thursday called Cauchon to offer him the nomination in Jeanne-Le Ber, the south-end Montreal seat represented by Liza Frulla before she became a TV star.
Coderre, who spends way too much time on his Facebook page, posted it : "On my recommendation, and that of our team in Quebec, Michael Ignatieff has offered the riding of Jeanne-Le Ber to Martin Cauchon. To be continued." Except that Ignatieff made an offer Cauchon could apparently refuse. "It will be Outremont or nothing," ran the headline in La Presse on Friday over a reply from the Cauchon camp. And so it was in the end. On Friday, Le Prohon stood down and will run in Jeanne-LeBer instead, and Cauchon will run in Outremont, after all. Having supported his Quebec lieutenant, Ignatieff then completely undercut him. Quel mess.
Moreover, Ignatieff’s office put it out that Cauchon was being offered another seat without knowing his answer.
There are two points about this. First, Ignatieff’s entourage, like Martin’s, is top heavy with guys from Toronto who know nothing about Quebec. Second, they can’t seem to get anything right.
In the immortal words of Casey Stengel, about the Amazin’ Mets : "Can’t anybody here play this game ?" Apparently not.