The generally conservative Canadian press smelled blood in the water after Prime Minister Jean Chrétien fired Paul Martin, his popular finance minister, Sunday. An op-ed in Monday's Globe and Mail said, "The Liberal Party is now split as it has never been split while exercising power. That split has been latent for years; now, it is public and cavernous, venomous and personal." The Toronto Sun announced, "Chretien hasn't stopped the challenges to his leadership by dumping Martin—he's ignited a civil war that will further distract the party and government for at least the next eight months."
There is some debate as to whether Martin was dismissed or resigned of his own volition. The G and M observed, "Both sides claimed the other was responsible for the demise of the one minister who is a household name to Canadians." Apparently, Martin felt that the prime minister, in announcing that he would serve out his current term and possibly seek a fourth term in 2004, had reneged on an earlier promise to resign early next year. (If he became leader of the Liberal Party, Martin would be Canada's prime minister after Chrétien stepped down.) Chrétien also instructed Cabinet members to dismantle their campaign organizations and to stop raising funds for a leadership race. According to the G and M, "Mr. Martin, who was already unhappy about the direction of the Chrétien government and his diminished influence over it, believed the Prime Minister had undercut his authority and humiliated him in front of his colleagues." It is generally thought that a showdown will come next February, when the Liberal Party reviews its leadership.
Chrétien has few fans among editorial writers. On Monday, the Globe and Mail declared: "Mr. Martin would make an excellent prime minister. Certainly he is far preferable to the current one. The sole bright spot in the shuffle … is that Mr. Martin will now have more leeway to compete for the top job." An op-ed in the same paper portrayed Chrétien as a Lear-like figure who "loved power too much for its own sake to yield it gracefully." It concluded:
It may be split and unhappy, but Mr. Chrétien is counting not so much on the party's loving him but fearing him—fearing his prime ministerial powers, his furies and angers, his wide streak of vengeance. And he is counting, too, on that atavistic Liberal instinct that this party does not do in its leader no matter how great the temptation. The temptation is there. He is named Paul Martin. He haunts Jean Chrétien still.
The more conservative National Post was even more frenzied about the split in the Grits. An op-ed began, "Jean Chrétien is a dead man walking. He will be gone within a year. This will be a very good thing for Canada." Monday's editorial fretted that the ruling party will be distracted from the issues at hand: "What matters to Canada is that the governing party will be consumed not with government, but with politicking for the best part of the next year." Tuesday's leader was harsher, describing the prime minister as "a political shark, living to devour and survive."
In Quebec, Le Devoir said the prime minister is an "authoritarian and intransigent" leader, while Le Soleil suggested, "It's clear that Jean Chrétien is counting on the parliamentary recess and the summer holidays for people to forget the crisis and relegate his rival to the forgotten. But the force of Paul Martin resides in the fact that he will be courted, invited, and listened to throughout the country."
In Western Canada, where has only 14 of the Liberals' 172 parliamentary seats are based, the Chrétien-Martin feud seems irrelevant. A columnist in the Winnipeg Sun said: "One of the nastiest political brouhahas in decades has broken out in Ottawa. And from a Prairie perspective, it feels more like a crisis that's unfolding abroad than at home." An Edmonton Sun commentator agreed:
For a vast majority of Albertans, the internal squabbles now taking place among the Ottawa Liberals are not unlike the nightly goings-on with the bad neighbours at the end of the block. We don't know much about them. We don't vote for them. … And the best thing that could happen is the arrival of a moving van.