New leader, new hope in Ottawa

December 11, 2003

WHEN Prime Minister Jean Chretien steps down as Canada's leader tomorrow, his departure won't be lamented by many politicians north or south of the U.S. border.

In Canada, the combative, imperious Liberal Party chief who assumed office in 1993 is widely viewed as having long overstayed his welcome. His canny understanding of power politics and his street-fighter stubbornness - and a long-splintered opposition - allowed Mr. Chretien to hold on despite criticisms of patronage abuses, ethical laxity within his Cabinet and waning public popularity.

Canadian-U.S. political relations have sunk to new lows, in part because of the Canadian leader's disdain for President Bush - fueled perhaps by his strong friendship with former President Bill Clinton - and of his seeming delight in emphasizing Canada's differences with the United States.

The reality is quite the opposite, with robust trade, investment, tourism and personal respect between the two North American neighbors at high levels. Canadian troops are serving under U.S. command in Afghanistan for the first time since the Korean War, even as Mr. Chretien asserted Canada's independence in refusing to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

A protM-igM-i of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Quebec-born Mr. Chretien, 69, has been in national politics for four decades, the parliamentary leader of the Liberals since 1990 and now the longest-serving political leader in the West.

In August last year, he announced he would step down in February 2004, reserving an untoward 18 months in office to dispense lengthy farewells and liberal patronage. With the majority Liberal Party finally electing his successor, former Finance Minister Paul Martin, Mr. Chretien agreed to go two months earlier.

Mr. Martin, 65, a shipping tycoon who is credited with reducing Canada's massive debt in the 1990s, pledges to guide Canadian foreign policy closer to the United States. He's been on the outs with Mr. Chretien since being fired from the Cabinet over a year ago, after openly pushing for the prime minister's job.

Policy differences between the United States and Canada will most likely be muted under the new prime minister, even as they persist: U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber and wheat, Canada's moves to decriminalize marijuana use and legalize same-sex marriage, and Canadian support of the Kyoto climate-change treaty opposed by Mr. Bush. Mr. Chretien's recent gestures at diplomatic fence-mending - sending planes and personnel to rebuild Iraq and announcing talks on a joint missile defense system - will surely take on a higher profile.

Canadians will most remember Mr. Chretien for weathering the 1995 Quebec separatist referendum, and his subsequent tough stands against special status for his native province. Living standards rose, inflation and unemployment dropped, and debt and tax burdens were lowered on his watch, though largely helped by global growth.

With the farewell of Canada's Iron Man, there is an opportunity to improve relations with the United States, an opportunity that both neighbors should appreciate.

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