Less equals more

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 8 1995

Less equals more

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 8 1995

Less equals more

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

A statesman,

Harry Truman once said, is a politician who has been dead for 10 or 15 years. But, as political leaders always discover to their delight, there is a more pleasant route to that status: leave the country. Away from home, there are no angry voters or irksome domestic debates: just the euphemistic “matters of state,” and sympathetic fellow leaders with whom to commiserate on the burdens of power.

In that regard, Jean Chrétien is no different than most of his modern-day predecessors as prime minister: in his first 13 months in office, he was away for 57 days. Later this week, he leaves on a seven-day trip through the Netherlands, Great Britain, France and Russia.

The reason for the trip—ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Europe—needs no explanation. But as always, there are subtexts: it is no coincidence that Chrétien will spend May 8, VE-Day, in Paris. In a supposed referendum year, it will remind Quebecers and some mischievous French politicians that Canadians of both official languages died liberating France. And it is convenient to visit Moscow on an occasion when President Boris Yeltsin does not have to be chided about the brutal behavior of the Russian army in Chechnya.

But there is one traditional travel advantage that Chrétien does not need: if respect and affection were what he craved most, he would do as well to stay at home. Virtually alone among leaders of Western democracies, his popularity has grown rather than shrunk since coming to office. A Gallup poll last week showed that 63 per cent of Canadians approve of his performance as leader. Of those leaders (including Yeltsin) who will come to the G-7 summit of the world’s largest industrialized nations in Halifax in mid-June, Chrétien is the only one who would be certain to win re-election today. His reputation for integrity remains rock-solid even in the wake of such controversies as last week’s cabinet decision opening the lucrative direct-to-home satellite industry up to competition—and thereby helping Power DirecTV, a company in which Chretien’s son-in-law, André Desmarais, is a key figure.

In an environment as fascinated by itself as official Ottawa, there is no shortage of debate over the causes of the Prime Minister’s enduring popularity. The more cynical (and accurate) explanations include the lack of any credible alternative to Chrétien, and the fact that he is not Brian Mulroney. But credit Chrétien and the Liberals for understanding the new formula for political success in the 1990s: Less equals More. The less that the public sees of a leader, the more it likes him. The lesser the size of the promise, the easier it is to keep. The fewer the promises made, the more they are believed. The less Chrétien says about Quebec, the more it frustrates sovereigntists and delights the rest of the country. And the more the public believes that government should do less, the less it blames government when it does precisely that. That is why Chrétien keeps a low profile outside the House of Commons, and spreads responsibility for policy announcements among his cabinet members. That is also why the government moves decisively in comparatively small matters—such as the post-election moves to cancel the Pearson International Airport privatization plan. Contrast that with the ongoing imprecision over the timing and scope of such major issues as the overhaul of social programs.

And along with tactics, consider this: last June in Normandy, Chrétien attended ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day at the Canadian military cemetery in Bény-sur-mer. The memorial service ran late, largely because of the tardy arrival of French President François Mitterrand, and Chrétien was visibly exhausted. After it ended, the French delegation left at once, as did the buses containing Canadian officials and the media. But one straggler was Chrétien, who slipped into the crowd to greet the often-frail veterans and their families. Each time one thanked him, Chrétien said emphatically: “No sir, thank you." He stayed for close to an hour, leaving only after all the veterans were shepherded aboard their charter buses. At Bény-sur-mer that night, you didn’t need a pollster or a pundit to understand why Canadians like Jean Chrétien.

Jean Chrétien learns how to benefit from the public’s distaste for government and politicians