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Legion Magazine – January/February 2004 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – January/February 2004

Quite a record! Jean Chrétien departs after 10 years as prime minister, prefaced by 30 years of activity on or close to Parliament Hill, including time as the minister of some eight federal departments, including major ones like Finance and Justice.
This column is all about Chrétien. It was prompted by my familiarity with the course of his career. This began in April 1963 during his first morning on Parliament Hill. This tall, skinny youth accosted me. He was a new member of Parliament. Would I take him round; show him the chamber? So began an acquaintance which has brought me to this opinion: of all the federal politicians I have observed since coming to the House in 1957, Jean Chrétien has proved to be the most surprising political phenomenon. Who would have predicted back then, or for another 15 years or so that he would or could ever become one of the six or seven prime ministers of substance from the Great Depression to a new millennium.

By the time he became prime minister the general public attitudes regarding Chrétien in Canada outside Quebec were positive. But in the year and half or so leading to his departure his popularity had almost disappeared among liberally minded citizens of substance, in part due to their shift to high expectations for his successor. What one might call this loss of grace and gratitude by the prime minister, and a burgeoning impatience with him, was not a Canadian first. To the contrary, such prime ministers as Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent, John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, and Brian Mulroney were far from popular or much lamented at their exit from the highest office.
(Some readers may challenge the worth of this scenario. It seems to take an interval of some years before looking backwards brings out fresh perspectives on the aims and deeds of a prime minister and his administration. Recall that in the long course of WW II and to his retirement in 1948, Mackenzie King was a much detested leader. Like many servicemen and women I despised him, but within a decade some history study, reprising the mighty war effort of Canadians brought me and many others to revise our opinions of King and recognize that this cautious, rather remote fudger had probably been the shrewdest of our prime ministers.)

The most astounding aspect of Chrétien’s rise to the Prime Minister’s Office, and his three majority mandates, has not been much emphasized because it makes many of us uncomfortable. It is by and large an eastern Canadian penchant, not a Prairie or British Columbia one. It is snobbery, a largely tacit, upper-middle class snobbery which is so respectful of education and position as displayed in speech, dress, manners, vocabulary, and, preferably, without obvious evidence of working-class traits. This bias is particularly strong in Quebec, so long dominated in its public life by lawyers and clerics, and it has had a long sway in old Ontario and in the Maritimes.

If you think I am drawing a long bow in this appraisal, contrast what you remember of the political persona and style of Pierre Trudeau and John Turner, two well-born, splendidly educated men with your take on Jean Chrétien, the obvious underdog in this trio of Liberal prime ministers. Or contrast your image of Jean Chrétien with the one you have of Brian Mulroney. Both men were from working class families; each grew up in what were essentially pulp-and-paper towns. Of the two, Mulroney made, and kept on making, determined leaps to acquire polish in appearance and in argument and prose in both official languages. Yes, he mastered classiness in so many ways, most notably in his voice and vocabulary that he became his own caricature as a very slick politician, much as Paul Martin Sr. had become three decades before as an MP, then a prominent minister, and then twice an aspirant for his party’s leadership.

In both Chrétien’s bids for the leadership he was recognizably as he had been at the beginning: jerky and rough in bearing, stance, movement, and speech—in either official language. And he won the second time.

His grit and cleverness was so evident in the extended departure from the PMO he staked out so adroitly, confounding the control of the Liberal party and its riding associations which Paul Martin Jr. had demonstrated but failed to use with total ruthlessness to send Chrétien packing.

Of all the federal politicians who became very noticeable in the postwar Parliament, none but Stanley Knowles, John Diefenbaker, and Herb Gray had longer exposure there than Chrétien, In his years as minister he ranged widely, notably in English Canada and during his long run at Indian Affairs and later as constitutional leg-man for Pierre Trudeau. He, like his boss, appealed so much to English Canadians as staunchly federalist Quebecers. Trudeau’s acuteness in handling the ‘unity’ file and his argumentation for “one Canada” was intellectually impressive but he rarely came close to the simple, patriotic passion of Chrétien’s stock “I love Canada” speeches.

Most of the more successful federal MPs are durable, energetic, and focused on their assignments (within the party and in the House). I never thought to see the match in resilience, stamina, and alertness of the two most active parliamentarians in my time, John Diefenbaker and Stanley Knowles, but Chrétien did. Like them he was neither a serious drinker nor did he need nor spend much time in social activity, although his high energy had him charging along corridors and racing up stairs, go, go, go, keeping in touch with politics, day after day, interested, questioning, listening, and remembering. He remembered far more of what he heard than seems normal. He played up the political ladder, down the ladder, and laterally with his peers, not just in his own caucus but with opposition MPs, particularly the ablest in the opposition. He quickly established a reputation on the Hill as a friendly, busy, unpretentious fellow who revelled in politics, even guying his own massacre of pronunciations and grammar. He was blessed with a wife with grace and poise. She backed his ambitions and went with him wherever possible, an advisor he trusted.

Through reading a few books one may get to know much about Jean Chrétien beyond what he revealed in his autobiography. Consider Lawrence Martin’s second volume of his Chrétien biography, Iron Man, or a shorter canvass of Chrétien as prime minister by former Liberal MP Ed McWhinney, a constitutional lawyer of renown who deals frankly with Chrétien’s successes and shortcomings as prime minister. In June biographer Martin asked Jean Chrétien to synopsize his run as prime minister, and got this succinct but cogent statement, and a book title: “You have to be an iron man to see it through. We wanted to restore the economy and we wanted to build back the unity of the country and have a country that is independent. I delivered the goods. Canada is in good shape today. So I’m going home.”

Ponder those five short sentences. The economy and federal finances were not in good shape when he won office, defeating Kim Campbell and the Progressive Conservatives. The annual deficits and the total debt load were horrendous. The separatist threat from Quebec, symbolized by the passionate Lucien Bouchard was very serious; indeed, Bouchard almost won the 1995 referendum on sovereignty. And “a country that is independent” refers to our relationship with the United States, and his refusal to put Canada into a war in Iraq alongside the Americans, choosing instead (and in line with majority opinion in Canada) to back the United Nations’ policy regarding Iraq. Yes, the economy in 2003 and in the short run ahead is far from splendid but it is as he said “in good shape” considering the whacks the nation had in 2003 from disease, storms, and forest fires.

It has seemed to me that the prime achievement of the Chrétien period in office for most Canadians was closing out the long years of annual deficits and the huge debt and interest load. It is clear from both the McWhinney and Martin books that although this achievement was truly a dual one, Chrétien and Paul Martin, the prime minister came to feel from corporate and media focus on Martin that he himself was being given less credit than he deserved.

Indeed, Lawrence Martin repeatedly illustrates the running series of tensions and increasing estrangement between the PM and his key minister which built up to the crisis in mid-2002 when Chrétien realized the approaching review of his leadership could go against him. His Finance minister had gained control of too many riding associations. Each man is competitive and given to ruthlessness in a crunch. So Chrétien fired Martin from his cabinet but he also recognized a convention rebuff of his leadership was likely, and so he announced that he would not run again and would retire in February 2004. Thus we all have “the long goodbye” and the bizarre situation of an assured successor in the PMO sitting as a plain MP.

The evidence most dispiriting for Chrétien had to be the bubbling animosity towards him in the very caucus whose numbers had thrice given him the right to be prime minister. At the same time the scenario ahead for the PM-in-waiting was less and less propitious. More and more evidence was emerging of a government tinged with sleaze—-unethical patronage, toll-gating contracts, and sheer ministerial vacuity. Further, Chrétien pushed into the parliamentary process a lot of legislation, some major like electoral financing reform, some contentious like same-sex marriage or semi-legalization of marijuana use.

The long goodbye has opened up to citizen critics a lot of the flaws and failings of the Chrétien government, particularly its over-concentration of power in the PMO and relative indifference to Parliament. Then, the shoddy or stupid decisions multiplied, notably in equipping the military and in the near collapse of airlines. In this third Chrétien mandate many veteran backbenchers began balking at the tight grip the PM kept on the cabinet and caucus. Paul Martin played to this, and Chrétien had no substantial answer to explain the restiveness as anything more than sour grapes from those not elevated to ministries.

Chrétien’s conduct and commentary in his last months in office may have been aggravating to a lot of Canadians but he refused to crack, continuing with his usual energy and acuity while making his former star wait and wait and waffle. He had never conceded he had stuck too long with a ministerial slate loaded with inadequate ministers, despite several score of potentially superior ministers on his backbench.

What I wanted to do in this long, largely positive assessment of Jean Chrétien as prime minister was make the case he was not a dithering prime minister nor one much given to losing sight of what was going on in his regime or in federal-provincial affairs. His continuing concern over unity, the economy, and the American colossus surely gave him the right to brag, “I delivered the goods.”

Jean Chrétien, in my opinion, is as intelligent and as industrious in office as any prime minister we have had. Why stress this? Because so many still downgrade him as a rube or simpleton.

So much of what Jean Chrétien did as prime minister was far from what I wanted. Too often as PM he seemed to me either too casual and confident or too cruel and abrupt with a lot of deserving men and women and groups. His vindictiveness showed in the ploy which put Paul Martin into a lengthy limbo. Nonetheless, through four decades of federal partisan politics with its strife and stress, he reached and then retained office when such seemed hopeless for so many years except to him and his wife.