Quebec smackdown

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National Post, Friday, September 25, 2009

If you can't get enough of wrestling on television, take note: There's a new version of WWF over at the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal party, where Denis Coderre and Martin Cauchon are slamming each other into the ropes and jumping all over each other. Only it's not fake, it's the real thing -- a vicious blood feud that has blown the fragile facade of party unity to smithereens this week.

Everyone's a loser in this fight. But no one loses more than the referee, Michael Ignatieff, who has declared Coderre the victor in a nasty battle over the nomination in the historic Liberal redoubt of Outremont, currently held by Tom Mulcair of the NDP.

Here's the background: Cauchon was the MP for the riding from 1993 to 2004, when Paul Martin dumped him as justice minister and forced him to resign as the sitting member to make way for Jean Lapierre, who also replaced him as the party's Quebec lieutenant. Following Martin's defeat in 2006, Lapierre quit to resume his broadcasting career, and the Liberals subsequently lost Outremont in both the 2007 byelection and the 2008 general election.

When Ignatieff acceded to the Liberal leadership following the flame-out of the Three Stooges coalition last December, he named Coderre his Quebec lieutenant and chief organizer. From the days of Marc Lalonde under Pierre Trudeau, the Quebec lieutenant in the Liberal party has been the boss in Quebec, with considerable latitude over nominations and, when the party is in office, over all Quebec appointments.

Coderre has been flexing his muscles, and there's nothing very subtle about it. Like his mentor, Andre Ouellet, he is a bit of a debardeur, a longshoreman.

Coderre has decided the candidate in Outremont will be Nathalie le Prohon, a former CEO of Nokia Canada and a senior VP at IBM. She is also well connected to Jean Charest and the Quebec Liberals.

Not so fast, said Cauchon, it's my seat and I want it back. When he got nowhere with Coderre, he took his case public, with his friends telling the media he was the local riding association's choice. When that didn't get him anywhere, he went straight to Iggy, who announced on Monday -- to the surprise of no one -- that he was standing behind his Quebec lieutenant, and rather patronizingly put Cauchon's service to party and country in the past tense.

That should have been the end of this rather unseemly spat, but apparently it is not.

Now Bob Rae, Iggy's lifelong friend and erstwhile leadership rival, has jumped into the fray, saying "room must be found" for Cauchon. "Martin Cauchon was an outstanding minister of justice and has been a fighter for Liberal values all his political life," Rae told Joan Bryden of The Canadian Press, who has the Liberal caucus wired for sound.

That's not exactly a stirring endorsement -- especially the part about Liberal values, since it is coming from Rae, who spent most of his political life in the NDP.

Besides, now you have a member from Toronto telling the party who should be a candidate in Quebec. Uh, Bob, that's not your call as an MP. It's the leader's call. And the party in Quebec won't appreciate a guy from Ontario telling it how to run its affairs.

And then there's the back story between Cauchon and Coderre, once so close as colleagues in Jean Chretien's cabinet that they once even did an interview together. But their friendship has become a casualty of their ambition. Each sees himself as the Quebec candidate in the next leadership cycle, but Coderre has thrown Cauchon right out of the ring.

Coderre has been flexing his muscles elsewhere -- he's asking four incumbent MPs from the Montreal area, including the former leader, Stephane Dion, to step aside and make way for star candidates who would be nominated by acclamation in their place. Neither Dion, nor the others -- Raymonde Falco, Lise Zarac and Bernard Patry -- is inclined to do Coderre any favours. And he has yet to explain why, in the name of nominating more women, he would push two women aside.

The logic of that is somewhat elusive, and there is a sense that here Coderre has overplayed his hand. Moreover, the Liberals are fighting among themselves again. And for Iggy, that's a very bad thing.

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