Ottawa Citizen
Friday 23 March 2001

Chretien stands by bumbling Fry

Fry likely to get lost in next shuffle

Joan Bryden
The Ottawa Citizen

Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press / 'Yesterday I mistakenly linked the city of Prince George with a specific hate activity,' Hedy Fry, the secretary of state for multiculturalism, said yesterday in the House of Commons, a day after she insisted that cross-burnings were taking place in the B.C. lumber city 'as we speak.'

Hedy Fry shouldn't draw too much comfort from the fact that her boss refused to fire her yesterday.

Judging from the way Prime Minister Jean Chretien has dealt with chronically troublesome ministers in the past, the secretary of state for multiculturalism could well get the boot when Mr. Chretien next shuffles his cabinet, probably this summer.

Even before her latest gaffe, many Liberal insiders put Ms. Fry at the top of their lists of ministers most likely to be dumped. She is widely considered ineffectual, arrogant and abrasive and has a history of bumbling.

For instance, during last fall's election, Ms. Fry decided, against the advice of Liberal organizers, to give a warm-up speech prior to Mr. Chretien's appearance at a Vancouver rally. She wound up deflecting media coverage of the main event by launching into an inflammatory critique of Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day's evangelical Christian beliefs.

Mr. Day, she asserted, wants to "abuse his political power by making all Canadians believe, as he said, that Jesus Christ is the God of the whole universe. I say that is an insult to every Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, everybody else who believes in other religions."

Many insiders expected that remark would cost Ms. Fry her junior cabinet post after the election. As it turned out, Mr. Chretien decided not to change his cabinet, at least until the summer, giving Ms. Fry a chance to rehabilitate herself.

But if Ms. Fry had hoped Mr. Chretien would forget her penchant for over-the-top rhetoric, "he's had a good reminder" this week, observed one Liberal insider, referring to her assertion that racists are burning crosses on the lawns of Prince George, B.C.

So why not just dump her now? Mr. Chretien has always resisted firing a minister in the midst of a controversy. He believes caving in to opposition MPs' demands for a minister's head only feeds their lust for more blood and destabilizes the government.

Mr. Chretien takes the view that firing must be reserved as a last resort for the most blatant and egregious offences. To turf a minister for a minor misdeed would set a precedent. If, for instance, he dumped Ms. Fry for saying something stupid, he'd be hard-pressed to deny opposition demands for the resignation of any minister in future who said something dumb.

Hence, with perpetually weak ministers in the past, such as Michel Dupuy, Diane Marleau and Christine Stewart, Mr. Chretien has always rejected opposition howls for resignations.

He's waited until the controversies have passed and then used comprehensive cabinet shuffles to quietly return the bumblers to the backbench.

Copyright 2001 Ottawa Citizen Group Inc.