Two Liberal warhorses passed away recently

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Without Alfonso Gagliano in Quebec and Ron Irwin in Ontario, Jean Chrétien’s almost unprecedented majority three-peat would never have happened.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on December 21, 2020.

Two Liberal warhorses passed away within days of each other recently.

Both served as ministers in the government of Jean Chrétien and were best known for their love of the political side of politics.

Ron Irwin had politics in his blood. He loved the Liberal Party almost as much as his beloved hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, where he served as mayor and minister.

Alfonso Gagliano was more of a backroom operator, working as Quebec lieutenant to ensure the inner workings of the Liberal Party political apparatus were not sclerotic.

Many politicians have little understanding of or involvement in the critical role played by the party in an election.

But in every cabinet, there are political ministers whose job it is to build a robust party organization which can make or break an election.

In 1988, the government of Brian Mulroney won a majority because 20 winning Tory seats, primarily in the Toronto area, were decided in their favour by margins of less than 1.000 votes.

In this scenario, the party workers, not policies, can claim credit for victory. That means having boots on the ground and money in the coffers.

Irwin and Gagliano were responsible for many of those mechanics even while they served as ministers in the government, Gagliano working in Quebec and Ron mostly in Ontario.

Irwin was appointed by Chrétien to make sure that after every election, (three majority wins), the next party convention would give the boss a resounding vote of support. In the Liberal Party, the constitution called for a post-election leadership review vote, even when the party won a majority in the previous election.

As Quebec lieutenant, Gagliano was responsible for making sure that party operations were well-oiled and well-funded. That meant heading up the tough job of political fundraising.

Both were politicians who loved the people, and the party side of politics. To campaign with Gagliano in Saint Leonard, Que., or Irwin in the “Soo” was to witness political people beloved by their constituents.

Without either of them, Jean Chrétien’s almost unprecedented majority three-peat would never have happened.

Supporters of Paul Martin were waiting in the wings during three successive elections, readying for a takeover.

To guarantee that outcome, they sought to control party machinations.

That is the back story to the findings of the Gomery Commission. Commission conclusions were subsequently discredited by a federal court judge in 2008 and that decision was upheld on appeal. The judge said neither Jean Chrétien nor Jean Pelletier was to blame for the mismanagement of the program designed to heighten federal presence in Quebec.

When Gagliano passed away last week, most of the headlines were devoted to his alleged role in the scandal that ultimately cost Paul Martin the government.

Liberal Party coffers in Quebec dried up because of the bitter internal war between Martin and Chrétien and it was Gagliano’s unlucky responsibility to head up fundraising.

Martin’s people, strategically placed in important positions across the country, put the word out that no supporter should be contributing a penny to the party until he took it over.

After Chrétien beat Martin in the leadership race of 1990, Martin retained a group of key political organizers, whose job it was to secure control of the party in every province.

Each organizer had a budget to entertain prospects and keep a close watch on federal and provincial party activities, making sure they elected “friendlies” in all available positions.

Their message was simple: to be friends of the next prime minister, do not support or donate to this one.

“Friendlies” were working to secure a change of leadership so Martin might finally achieve his goal of becoming prime minister.

In some provinces, ministers who were working for Martin insisted that government appointments should never go to Chrétien supporters.

As Chrétien’s political life was coming to an end, even former supporters were trying to make common cause with Martin to position themselves in a future government. That is the way of politics.

But neither Gagliano nor Irwin would join in that game. They were loyal to their leader and worked their hearts out in a climate where the biggest political challenge was the civil war roiling in the party.

Irwin managed to avoid fallout from that war but Gagliano was not so lucky.

Thankfully, in post-political life, this Italian immigrant found the peace that eluded him and became a prized vintner of wine that bears his name.

May two loyal warriors rest in peace.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.