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Former prime minister Jean Chretien speaks during a news conference after the InterAction Council's meeting in Quebec City on May 31, 2011. (CLEMENT ALLARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Former prime minister Jean Chretien speaks during a news conference after the InterAction Council's meeting in Quebec City on May 31, 2011. (CLEMENT ALLARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

'Yesterday's Man'

Chrétien confident Liberals will claw their way back Add to ...

Don't write off the Liberal Party just yet, warns Jean Chrétien - who recalls being referred to as "yesterday's man" before winning three back-to-back majority governments.

"When I was elected they said 'today's man'," he laughed. "Canada is a moderate nation and people are comfortable when we are not on the extremes. Since 100 years we have been a centrist country."

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The former Liberal prime minister was speaking to The Globe from Quebec City, where he was host of the InterAction Council - an elite group of 33 former world leaders he has co-chaired for the past four years. It includes former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, former Mexican president Vicente Fox and former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton spoke to group, whose meetings ended Tuesday. The council covered global economic issues and U.S. President Barack Obama latest proposal on Israeli and Palestinian peace talks.

Mr. Chrétien said the council applauded Mr. Obama's attempt to "restart the whole damn thing" but chose his words carefully when asked about Prime Minister's Stephen Harper's reluctance at the G8 to endorse the U.S. plan, which is based on a return to Israel's 1967 borders plus land swaps negotiated with the Palestinians.

"You know, you won't get me into domestic politics," Mr. Chrétien said. "The policy of this government is not the one that we had. You have only to compare - just compare and conclude."

This, of course, suggests he does not at all agree with Mr. Harper position.

In addition, the group discussed the economy, which was also on the minds of G8 leaders when they met last week in France. It's preoccupying Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who is poised to bring in his budget Monday and mused this weekend about the possibility of another global decline.

Mr. Chrétien said there is always "some danger" of slipping back into a recession. "We express worries," he said. "Like everybody we are not sure. The situation is somewhat better around the globe than it was two years ago. But what is the prognosis we are not sure. People are very unable to be very firm in predicting what will happen. So it was not pessimistic or overly optimistic either."

And although he did not want to talk about domestic politics he couldn't resist credit for the shape that Canada is in today.

"I am very happy that when we were the government we managed to balance the books and fix the system of the banks in the proper fashion that has been beneficial to the Canadians since that day," he said. "So that made us in a better position to face the crisis than anybody else. Of course I don't expect the Prime Minister to say this is because of us ... but most of the Canadians recognize that."

Mr. Chrétien noted that the "bankers were all mad at me and even Harper was giving me hell in those days - and now he takes credit."

And while he says he's not in the business of predictions, Mr. Chrétien is confident his Liberal Party is far from dead. He sees the right-left cleavage in the country as temporary and noted that while the Grits were in bad shape after Pierre Trudeau left in 1984, they were able to mount a successful come back. "Politics is made of hard work and you make your luck," he said.

He's also happy about Bob Rae becoming interim leader, given that Mr. Rae was his first choice. "People always want to have the guys who have no experience," he said. "You don't learn hockey on the bench in university; you learn it on the ice. When you've been on the ice for a long time, it's very useful. You remember me, I was the man of the past. You remember, yesterday's man."

And while we're on the subject of hockey, what about Winnipeg and its new NHL team? "I am happy for them," Mr. Chretien said. "It's good."

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