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  UPDATED AT 2:27 AM  EDT

Chrétien signals earlier departure

  • JANE TABER and DREW FAGAN From Thursday's Globe and Mail Thursday, November 13, 2003 Prime Minister prorogues Parliament; sets Jan. 12 return date

    Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made clear yesterday that he will leave office by Jan. 12 and shut down Parliament on the same day that Liberals from across Canada began congregating to elect Paul Martin as party leader.

    Mr. Chrétien's announcement that he will prorogue Parliament signals the end of his 10-year regime and is the beginning of the transition process from a Chrétien government to a Martin government.

    Mr. Chrétien said he will meet with Mr. Martin on Tuesday and give him his departure date. "I will discuss with him the changing of government," Mr. Chrétien said yesterday. "The time has come to move along."

    The government announced yesterday that it will prorogue, or shut down, Parliament until Jan 12. Because parliamentary proceedings might have been a problem for a government with one prime minister but a different party leader, Mr. Chrétien had been widely expected to leave office before the resumption.

    Yesterday, he confirmed that he will not be in office on Jan. 13, two days after his 70th birthday.

    "There will be a new cabinet, and I will not be a minister, . . ." Mr. Chrétien said.

    Proroguing Parliament will leave in limbo several key pieces of legislation, including a bill to redraw the country's electoral boundaries that is a crucial element of the Liberals' plan to call a spring election.

    Until yesterday, Mr. Chrétien had said he would leave some time in February.

    But even as the Prime Minister made the clearest signal yet of his retirement intentions, the continuing bitterness between the Chrétien and Martin camps was on display: Mr. Martin's officials noted the lack of consultation about the decision to prorogue.

    As he arrived at the party convention, Mr. Chrétien made pointed comments to reporters about the leadership vote to be held tomorrow. He joked that Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, who is a distant second in the race, might yet end up on top. And he refused to confirm that he will appear with the winner - certainly Mr. Martin, who has the support of most of the delegates - on the stage after the vote is tabulated, although his aides insist he will do so. "I don't know the program for that," he said.

    For his part, Mr. Martin told reporters that he hoped the Prime Minister would appear on stage with him, and added that he would respect the timetable that Mr. Chrétien suggests for leaving office.

    "In the past, I've said that I'm prepared to go with the Prime Minister's schedule. I maintain that," Mr. Martin said.

    Mr. Chrétien also rejected the advice of former prime minister John Turner, who said yesterday that the Prime Minister should move on "once the deed is done Friday night."

    But he is leaving earlier than his intended departure date of February, the date he had announced in August of 2002 when he shocked his party with the news he would retire.

    A Martin spokesman said a clearer picture of the transition will start to emerge after the meeting Tuesday.

    "We presume the fog will lift on Tuesday," Scott Reid said.

    The Prime Minister's decision to prorogue and to set Jan. 12 as the date for Parliament's return was announced in a press release that also provided a long list of accomplishments in Mr. Chrétien's last months in office. But the Prime Minister, who will say goodbye at a gala sendoff tonight, also challenged Mr. Martin to finish the job he had started, which includes passing key bills such as an ethics package and the decriminalization of marijuana.

    "This is vintage Chrétien," Sarnia Liberal MP Roger Gallaway said. "He likes to go on the offensive. He's setting the stage, setting the agenda."

    Meanwhile, there remain some expectations that the Prime Minister will actually leave office in middle or late December after the Commonwealth heads of government meet in Nigeria.

    That time frame would give Mr. Martin up to a month to name his cabinet and design a Throne Speech to open Parliament some time in January, probably later than the 12th.

    The Prime Minister's director of communications, Jim Munson, said Mr. Chrétien's announcement helps Mr. Martin with election planning.

    "He [the Prime Minister]wanted to see Parliament get back to work because the Senate stalled two important bills, and that gives Mr. Martin an opportune time to get the electoral boundaries bill through [Parliament]and time to call an election when he chooses to," Mr. Munson said.

    Late last week, the Senate adjourned without passing the ethics passage or a bill to create seven new electoral ridings.

    The electoral boundaries bill, which would increase the number of seats in the House of Commons to 308, has been a particular priority of the Martin camp, which has vowed not to call an election before the changes take effect. The bill is now expected to pass when Parliament resumes under a Martin government.

    That should provide plenty of time for Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley to complete the technical work before a spring election is called. Mr. Kingsley said in an interview yesterday that he will continue with that work even before the bill has passed.

    Mr. Chrétien's officials said yesterday that the Prime Minister's 30-minute address tonight will speak of the Liberal Party as one family and will cover his successes in office.

    It is being described as an "upbeat" and "humble" speech in which the Prime Minister will acknowledge Mr. Martin and offer his support to the new leader.

    He will caution party members not to dismiss the likely merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party, urging them not to take their electoral successes for granted. With reports from Campbell Clark and Daniel Leblanc

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