COVER

THE POWER GAME

Hard times and the PM'S style have changed the way influence works in Ottawa

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 14 1996
COVER

THE POWER GAME

Hard times and the PM'S style have changed the way influence works in Ottawa

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 14 1996

THE POWER GAME

Hard times and the PM'S style have changed the way influence works in Ottawa

COVER

ESSAY

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

In the not always generous world of politics, power— paradoxically—is something that most people would rather give than receive. Those who give it, by definition, have power to spare; those who receive it can just as quickly lose it. Just ask David Collenette. One day last week, he was defence minister, presiding over tens of thousands of employees, and recognized as one of Ottawa’s most influential people. The next day, Collenette was just one of 295 members of Parliament. His resignation changed the lives of three other Liberal MPs who saw their own power increased almost by happenstance (page 30).

Of course, in the cash-strapped, resource-shy atmosphere that prevails in Ottawa in the 1990s, neither power nor the temptations it brings are of the scale they once were. There is no money to spend on new programs, less money to spend on existing ones, a nation of voters suspicious of politicians, and a lineup of provincial premiers waiting for the first opportunity to claim authority over areas now controlled by the federal government. But the federal government remains a force in the lives of all Canadians, whether they like it or not. That is true in both positive and less-happy ways—by the services or subsidies it offers individuals or their businesses, or by the taxes it levies or legislation it passes.

What has changed is the nature of power, largely defined by the person who holds the most of it. In that sense, Ottawa under Jean Chrétien is markedly different than it was in nine years under Brian Mulroney.

Then, power and access were things that everyone boasted about and claimed to have, starting with Mulroney, who revelled in telling associates anecdotes about his experiences with the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Similarly, lobbyists bragged of their friendship—real or imagined—with the prime minister, as did political aides. Traditional civil servants were regarded with suspicion or sometimes outright contempt. But on the more positive side of the ledger, Mulroney paid close attention to the views of all of his caucus members.

The nature of power under Jean Chrétien is more discreet. Lobbyists have become a much more endangered species, the salaries and sizes of ministerial staffs have been slashed, and civil servants have returned to prominent positions of influence. Few people boast of their close ties to the Prime Minister because they know that is the surest way to end them. “I have a bunch of people I call regularly for advice, and I am not gonna say who they are,” Chrétien told an acquaintance recently. “And they are sure not gonna say who they are, because they know that if they do, I won’t call them anymore.” Unelected officials have a horror of gaining a high profile because Chrétien believes that anyone who is not elected should be neither seen nor heard discussing government policy.

At the same time, the role of the backbench government MP is at its lowest ebb since the days of Pierre Trudeau, who once observed contemptuously that “away from the Hill, they’re nobodies.” Chrétien dislikes surprises, and does not suffer dissent gladly. When he makes changes, as he did with his cabinet shuffle last week, it is usually because they have been thrust on him by circumstances. Because of the pressure on MPs to support him at all times or face the consequences, backbenchers now are treated with near equal disdain both on

and off the Hill. But Chrétien, despite the dismissive remarks he frequently makes about the Mulroney government, has also proven fond of appointing old friends to high positions, such as former Liberal MP Roméo LeBlanc as Governor General, and a series of new senators whose chief credentials are their past organizing and fund-raising successes for the Liberal party.

Regardless of the fiscal environment or political party forming the government, though, Ottawa remains obsessed by power: who has it, how to use it, how to lose it, how to get more, and how to take it away from others. Money talks, power in latter-day Ottawa walks discreetly. What matters most is access: the ability to make the big phone call, have calls returned and, by extension, to get things done. The Maclean’s list of Ottawa’s 50 top power brokers is precisely that—the people in or around the federal government who either take, or make, such calls, and therefore make things happen that can affect the entire country. It was compiled by members of Maclean’s Ottawa bureau, working with senior editors at the magazine, and is also the product of informal discussions with many people in Ottawa—although, naturally, they will remain nameless.

Those on the list range from backroom political fixers to nonpartisan career civil servants, from federal cabinet ministers to anti-Ottawa provincial premiers, from retirees to some of the nation’s most prominent business executives. The only group excluded from the list are those who have their own lines of power that run parallel to, but separate from, political Ottawa. That includes, for example, the nine judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, the governor of the Bank of Canada, Gordon Thiessen, and LeBlanc. For the sake of clarity, the 50 power brokers are divided into five categories, while up, down or sideways arrows indicate what direction their career paths appear to be heading. “The People’s Choices” are elected politicians at either the federal or provincial level. “The Inner Circle” comprises the partisan political people with great influence on the Prime Minister who talk to him on a regular, often daily, basis. “More than Civil Servants” are the nonpartisan civil servants who, because of the importance of their department or the respect they have personally earned, can move a project along quickly—or keep it in limbo forever. “Cool heads” are people who are not working directly for government but receive attention because of the quality of their ideas. “Wheelers, Healers and Dealers” are often, although not always, partisan party people who serve as a bridge between the elected members of a government devoted to the interests of all Canadians, and the more specific interests of the party workers who helped put them there. Finally, “Money Talkers” are the representatives of Big Business who, almost regardless of what party is in power, are listened to because of the size of the bankrolls and payrolls they command.

In addition to those categories, there are three separate groups totalling 15 people who are on the margins of the list. “The Underrated” are precisely that—people who attract little attention, but whose views consistently have impact. Similarly, “Up And Comers” are in the process of earning a respectful hearing, and will likely break into any such list in years to come. Finally, ‘The Overrated” refers to those who would normally command great influence—but who, by either changing circumstances or mishandling of their positions, do not.

Any such list is, by nature, subjective rather than scientific. And cabinet shuffles, shifts in policy priorities, a public misstep or an unexpected political coup can either stop a career dead or thrust a previous unknown into the limelight. One year from now, the only certainty is that the list of people of prominence, and their positions on it, will inevitably have changed.