As members of the new and old Liberal caucuses met yesterday in Ottawa, the message from many was clear: Those dark days of sacrifice and austerity are a distant memory -- the old, caring Liberals are back.
"The bad days and the tough days are behind us," said Joe Fontana, an Ontario MP who chairs the Liberal caucus. "You're going to see a government that . . . is poised to take care of some of the opportunities that are around the corner for Canadians.
"This caucus is really, really hyped up about the fact that we can be creative again . . . and not only have to look at cuts. As we balance our budget, you can do a heck of a lot of things in terms of flexibility you have within your fiscal framework."
Specifically, Mr. Fontana said the elimination of the deficit within the next two years -- and perhaps sooner -- will enable the Liberal government to "invest" in research and development, families, children and health care.
"What you'll see is some very, very innovative government action," he said. "All of the hard work has been done now -- the cutting is over, the economy is building. . . . This country's going to be rockin' for the next four years."
The new Liberal caucus -- down 22 seats from 1993 to a slim majority of 155 -- is facing the challenge of trying to reconcile conflicting electoral outcomes within Canada's regions.
Ontario elected Liberals in 101 of its 103 seats, an apparent endorsement of the status quo. But the governing party lost more than half its seats in Atlantic Canada -- a clear consequence of the cutbacks -- and also elected fewer members in the West, though seemingly for reasons related to national unity.
Carolyn Parrish, re-elected for a second term in Ontario's Mississauga West, said she expects the government to move toward the left on the political spectrum.
"I think what we've done to this point is what had to be done -- it was done out of necessity, it was done because the country needed it," she told reporters. "Now that that job is done, we have to look at preserving the Canada we've always known and the Canada that has always been Liberal."
Roger Gallaway, MP for the Ontario riding of Sarnia-Lambton, said caucus members from Canada's most populous province expect the Prime Minister to heed the election-day message from voters east of Quebec. In Atlantic Canada, where Liberals took 31 of the 32 seats in 1993, voters elected eight New Democrats, 13 Tories and 11 Liberals.
"People are looking for something slightly to the left," Mr. Gallaway said of Canadians in general. "They're not looking for a continuation of the last four budgets."
Even some who are urging Mr. Chrétien to keep the national wallet in his back pocket and to proudly recall the fiscal accomplishments of the past 3 years acknowledge they seem to be swimming against the current of caucus opinion.
"The voters sent a message to the government that they thought our policies were too harsh on Atlantic Canada, and that message, I think, has been received," said Francis LeBlanc, who lost his bid for re-election in Nova Scotia (he represented Pictou-Antigonish-Guysborough for two terms). However, he called on the cabinet to stay the fiscal course.
"The government should maintain its course and in Atlantic Canada support measures and initiatives that will make a difference in terms of job creation. That doesn't mean throwing money at job creation."
Paul Zed, surprised by his loss in the New Brunswick constituency of Fundy-Royal, told colleagues he had heard only half of the voters' message as he canvassed during the campaign. Voters had told him what a good job he had done as their MP, he said, but then went on to explain how they were unhappy with the Chrétien government.
Asked whether she was caught in an ebb tide, former Halifax MP Mary Clancy noted that all 11 Nova Scotia Liberals were defeated. "It wasn't an ebb," she said, "it was a tidal wave."
Georgette Sheridan, who lost to Reform in Saskatchewan's Saskatoon-Humboldt, resorted to humour to explain the outcome. "By the end of the first week, the Reformers were coming over the stockade. By the third week, they had reached the women's quarters."
At their final caucus meeting, the defeated Liberals were given engraved plaques signed by Mr. Chrétien thanking them for their contribution to the Liberal Party.
The mood was "bittersweet," Mr. LeBlanc said. "You felt good for all of the people who were coming back and sad when you realized you are not going to be here to work with them."
There was no one issue that sparked the Atlantic results, he said, as much as a general unhappiness with the government, particularly with the harmonized sales tax, which added 15 per cent to many items not subject to provincial sales taxes before, and with the Liberals' inability to offer enough hope that there would be jobs and other dividends flowing from the harsh cuts.
MP Shaughnessy Cohen, who won Ontario's Windsor-St.Clair riding after a tough race by NDP candidate Joe Comartin, said there was one clear lesson from the election: "Never underestimate the NDP."
For Fisheries Minister Fred Mifflin, who won re-election in Newfoundland's Bonavista-Trinity-Conception only 570 votes ahead of NDP candidate Frazer March, "The message is: Stay the course, but we have to make it look a bit more Liberal."
Although most of the grumbling stayed within the caucus walls, some MPs thought that national campaign co-chairman David Smith showed an insensitivity toward those who lost when he spent most of his speech to the caucus boasting about the 101 seats the Liberals won in Ontario.
There was also unhappiness on the part of several candidates, both winners and losers, with the lack of strategic direction in the overall Liberal campaign.
They say Mr. Chrétien and the rest of the team never enunciated clearly enough strong reasons to vote for the Liberals again.