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Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Stewart retires as politics heats up

May 10, 2000

After 12 years as Northumberland’s Member of Parliament, Christine Stewart will not run in the next election. Sometimes politicians don’t know when to leave, often waiting until the electorate throws them out of office. It’s a terrible way to leave politics because the person is branded a loser. But that is not the case with Stewart.

The writing was on the wall. Besides what Stewart gave as her reasons, and they are all valid, her future in Ottawa was becoming less clear. She had slowly climbed up the ladder of success with her various positions as minister of state until she became Environment Minister. It was a rough ride while she held the environment portfolio and her unceremonious ejection left no one guessing she was on the outside.

With Prime Minister Jean Chretien looking to lead the Liberal Party into the next election, it is not promising to be an easy election campaign. The federal political landscape looks like a dog’s breakfast, a large messy mass in which nothing specific that can be identified. There are lots of Liberals upset with Chretien for not knowing when to step down (Maybe Stewart could offer him some advice). There is also the fight for the right between the Canadian Alliance and Tories. And the NDP is struggling to be more than a blip on the political radar. The Bloc Quebecois could add to the instability if sovereignty in Quebec gains momentum.

If the Liberals returned and if Stewart was available, there is little chance of becoming a minister again. And there are personal reasons as well. The least of which is the amount of work required to be an MP. The constant demands of working on the Hill, the endless succession of meeting, plus all the local matters, events and politicking leave a person exhausted. She must be tired after 12 years.

Stewart, with her usual grace, knows how to bow out with style, leaving the landscape clear for her successor.

Which bring us back to Northumberland. Rumors were swirling around in the past few weeks about the future of the local federal Liberals (which are a different group than the provincial Liberal association because not everyone in the party plays as hard on both sides of the fence). Gossip was spreading that Stewart might run again. A few party members were sending up trial balloons to check the winds of public opinion for a possible challenge to Stewart’s candidacy at an upcoming meeting.

John Lindsay, president of the federal Liberal association, was quick to quell any speculation, saying he was not aware of any backroom coups d’etat

By leaving now, Stewart has given local Liberals plenty of time to find a suitable replacement. And with the upcoming municipal elections, any Liberals with political experience may give a second thought to running in the fall if there was a good chance of going to Ottawa instead.

But in a larger sense, this is going to make local politics very interesting in the next little while.

Northumberland is small “c” conservative. George Hees held power federally for a long time because the local Tory machine was well oiled and fine-tuned. The late Ed Haynes, a well-known Tory backroom worker, used to say, “You could run a pig under the Tory banner and it would win”.

In the past two federal elections, Stewart has benefited immensely from the right-wing split. If the number of people who voted for Tories and Reform were added together, she would have been defeated both times. It was not unusual to hear right-wing stalwarts cursing well into election night out of frustration.

And they are not wrong. The re-election of Northumberland MPP Doug Galt goes to show how strong the right can be when it is united.

Liberals are counting on the current battle between Tories and the newly formed Canadian Alliance to continue in order to keep the right divided. One insider said there are some Tories who are so furious with the Alliance and they are angry at the lack of leadership from Tory leader Joe Clark, they would vote Liberal. If the Liberals used a fiscally conservative economic plan and controlled spending on social programs, much as they have done in the past, it is conceivable some pink Tories may cross the political divide.

Reform has strong roots in Northumberland. A solid Canadian Alliance candidate could unite the local right wing enough to deliver a victory. And if Clark can’t ignite a fire for Tories, it could be enough of a stimulus to send local Tories looking for a political home with the Alliance.

But don’t take any of that to heart. Local politics is like a wind on Rice Lake. It can be calm as glass and within no time a gale is blowing. Then, as fast as it came, the gale is gone and the wind is calm once again.

We will likely see some calm for the next few weeks. Liberal and Tories will wait quietly as the Canadian Alliance sorts itself out with its leadership race. But once that is done, hang on.

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