Rock Quits Leadership Race

BILINGUAL, HANDSOME, smart, personable and successful, with a made-for-TV family to boot - an attractive lawyer wife and four cute-as-buttons children. Allan Rock seemed to have everything needed for a high-flying political career.

Rock Quits Leadership Race

BILINGUAL, HANDSOME, smart, personable and successful, with a made-for-TV family to boot - an attractive lawyer wife and four cute-as-buttons children. Allan Rock seemed to have everything needed for a high-flying political career. And since being elected in 1993, he's spent more than nine years apprenticing for the top job in three heavyweight portfolios - justice, health and industry. But somehow, the former high-priced Toronto lawyer and Law Society of Upper Canada treasurer never lived up to the heady expectations. And last week, Rock made it official, formally abandoning his dream of replacing Jean CHRÉTIEN as prime minister - and acknowledging that he didn't have the support, or the possibility of attaining it, to make a credible showing against former finance minister Paul MARTIN. "This is not our time," he conceded.

Will it ever come? Second acts are not unknown in politics. Who would have thought Chrétien would govern after being wiped out by John Turner in 1984? Turner himself had waited in the wings after quitting the Trudeau cabinet in 1975. And is not Martin himself the embodiment of second acts in Canadian politics? So, naturally, Rock refused to close that door at his news conference last week. Throughout, he characterized his decision to back away from the fight as "not now" or not "at this time," before signing off with "à la prochaine."

He sounded wistful as he said it - small wonder, given the obstacles he faces. In the short term, he must mend his relationship with Martin, the "prohibitive favourite," as Rock described him. The rivals and their camps have been sparring for years. It turned venomous last February when Rock accused Martin of fixing the rules to restrict the recruitment of new party members, something the incendiary Warren Kinsella, a Rock supporter, likened to "racial profiling" because it hampered Rock's ability to raid ethnic communities for new Liberals. "The very worst kind of politics," an angry Martin shot back. They've hardly had a kind word to say about each other since.

The two camps moved to patch things up immediately following Rock's announcement. Said one Martin aide: "They've been friends in the past. Paul has had Rock and Debby to the farm. Paul and Sheila have been to Allan's for dinner. The relations became strained because the dynamics of the race made them contestants." With that competition over, a Rock official ventured it would be surprising if Martin failed to name "the second most significant" Liberal in the post-Chrétien government to the cabinet.

Rock would not speculate, but told Maclean's: "I've worked with Paul for nine years in the cabinet, we've worked together closely, we put together the health budget, so there's no question I can work with any of my colleagues." Yet he would not endorse Martin, partly, said one colleague, because it would look opportunistic. Even if he were to find himself on the backbenches, Rock insisted he would remain in national politics.

A bigger hurdle is Rock's tattered reputation. When Turner, Chrétien and Martin failed in their initial attempts to win the leadership, they retained a sizable following of supporters who continued to believe the best man had lost. Few in Rock's camp would say that today. They acknowledge that, at best, the senior minister has been both luckless and error-prone. While others may have been blessed with Teflon suits, "Allan walks around with shit magnets in his pockets," one famously said.

Handed the justice portfolio, he quickly stumbled into the Airbus affair. He launched an investigation of Brian Mulroney's alleged role in Air Canada's 1988 purchase of 34 Airbus jetliners - which ended up costing the government $2 million after the former prime minister sued and Ottawa was forced to settle, apologize and acknowledge there was no evidence of wrongdoing. As health minister, Rock was roundly criticized for limiting compensation to hepatitis C sufferers infected by tainted blood. After the Sept. 11 tragedy, he sidestepped patent laws by contracting a generic manufacturer to supply Canada with anti-anthrax pills, then later rescinded the deal. He was ridiculed for hiring a private firm to supply medical marijuana, a program that has yet to bear fruit. Even his achievement in Justice in shepherding through the controversial gun registry program blew up in his face this fall when Auditor General Sheila Fraser revealed that Rock's cost estimate of $2 million for setting up the registry and running it would turn out to be almost $1 billion off target.

To his credit, Rock did not attempt to evade responsibility last week. "I didn't go into politics to pass the time, I went in to make a difference, I wanted to be active," he explained. "Have I made mistakes? Yes. I'm still learning." To keep a senior portfolio under Martin, or have an opportunity for a second chance at the top spot, he must remain in the game and play better defence, said one close supporter: "He has the opportunity now to regroup and be a solid minister - then who knows what may happen?"

The crystal ball is clearer for the Liberal party. Ironically, Rock's acknowledgement of Martin's invincibility gives other aspirants more impetus, not less, to enter the race. The biggest beneficiary is Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, who is expected to announce soon. In the last campaign, she placed third and is unlikely to fare any worse this time. With two ideological soulmates - Rock and Brian Tobin, the previous industry minister who called it quits a year ago - out of the running, she inherits the centre-left wing of the party. Copps staked out her ground in a speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade last week, saying she wants to establish gender equality for Liberal party candidates within two elections, recognize gay marriages and dramatically boost funding for post-secondary education.

The pressure will also increase for Finance Minister John Manley to officially enter. The party wants a semblance of a race and the Ottawa MP, who also serves as deputy prime minister, is the only cabinet member of stature left. Barring an act of God, he won't win, but there may be enough anti-Martin Liberals hiding in the bushes to ensure he won't be embarrassed. Rock's threshold for entering had been the prospect of winning between 25 and 30 per cent of delegates at the Nov. 12-15 convention, and in the pared-down field, Manley may be able to achieve comparable numbers. "I think we'll attract some of Rock's organizers and supporters," Manley said. "My friends are organizing and they tell me they're raising funds and they're attracting support around the country, and nothing today has happened that would change my intention."

Others were also eyeing the leadership sweepstakes last week. Justice Minister Martin Cauchon and Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal may still enter as regional candidates from Quebec and British Columbia respectively. In the end, the convention may feature the usual hustle and bustle, although the result may be preordained. "Sheila will run because nobody can stop Sheila from running," said one Liberal. For Manley, it's about positioning: he'll likely conclude he's better off volunteering for the good of the party. But as for Rock, last week the light went out for one of the party's formerly brightest stars - perhaps for good.

Maclean's January 27, 2003