Backstage

Learning how to network

If he is to succeed, Chrétien needs to he able to reach out to others whose views he does not share or even understand

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 29 1997
Backstage

Learning how to network

If he is to succeed, Chrétien needs to he able to reach out to others whose views he does not share or even understand

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 29 1997

Learning how to network

Backstage

If he is to succeed, Chrétien needs to he able to reach out to others whose views he does not share or even understand

Anthony Wilson-Smith

In the final weeks before the Sept. 14 unity meeting in Calgary featuring nine of Canada’s 10 premiers, the unofficial but unmistakable message from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s office on the subject was that Chrétien appreciated the premiers’ efforts, but was not particularly hopeful. “The question you have to ask,” said one of his advisers, “is whether on this issue, it is better to try and fail, or to simply not try at all?” Because of the negative consequences in Quebec if the premiers could not agree on anything, the adviser said: ‘The view of many people is that it is better to not do anything.” But that view was not held by Chrétien, who quietly met with all nine premiers before the meeting. Among other things, he sent a government Challenger jet to pick up Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow and Alberta’s Ralph Klein, and brought them to dinner at 24 Sussex Drive. Their meeting included several bottles of fine 20-year-old wine that Chrétien unearthed in the cellar of the Prime Minister’s residence. He also sent the jet to Manitoba to pick up Gary Filmon for a similar dinner, flew to Montreal on Labor Day to see Ontario’s Mike Harris (who was attending the Canadian Open golf tournament), arranged a meeting with British Columbia’s Glen Clark at Vancouver’s airport, and golfed with the Atlantic premiers. Then, there was another golf game with Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, and an hour-long meeting in his office on Parliament Hill with Reform Leader Preston Manning.

There are several lessons from all that. One is that Chrétien, despite those efforts, remains as leery of the unity issue as ever: his surreptitious efforts before the premiers met were followed by a reluctance to take any credit after the relative success of the meeting (page 14).

“It would be wrong,” said his communications adviser Peter Donolo, “for anyone to assume to attribute a great role to the Prime Minister in this. It was the premiers’ doing.” That reticence is based on reality—although that is not always an impediment to politicians’ claims. But there are two other key considerations: a unity offer is much more likely to sell in the trouble spots of Quebec and British Columbia if Chrétien’s name is not attached too prominently to it, and the real negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces over shifting power and responsibilities have not yet begun.

But there is another aspect to the Prime Minister’s efforts that is worth remarking on: since coming to office in November, 1993, Chrétien has been developing the art of behind-the-scenes networking. That, like it or not, is an essential tool for most successful politicians—but one which Chrétien either seldom tried or was

not very good at during his earlier years in politics. Despite the folksy Captain Canada image that he came to be known for publicly, he was remarked upon by other politicians for speaking in private with a bluntness that amounted to occasional rudeness—and for not working very hard to cultivate allies. He is too impatient to be comfortable working the phones to build and maintain relationships in the manner of Brian Mulroney or John Turner, whose Rolodexes were legendary. Asked once why he did not do so, he snorted and responded: “I don’t like talking to people unless one of us has something specific to say.”

Similarly, it has never been very hard to discern who Chrétien actively dislikes: that category would include Manning, Mulroney, Turner and almost all Quebec sovereigntists (and most especially Jacques Parizeau, who carries the double sin in Chrétien’s eyes of being both a devout separatist and a snob).

In the days in the early 1980s when Chrétien was Pierre Trudeau’s highest-profile Quebec minister, he made little effort to befriend other MPs from his home province. He preferred to go home to his wife, Aline, rather than attend their regular social gatherings. That perceived snub, his friends concede, cost him dearly in the 1984 Liberal leadership race, when he was shocked and hurt to discover that most Quebec MPs supported Turner. Now, Chrétien is fanatical about the importance of caucus meetings and giving all MPs a chance to speak to him. But he still genuinely does not understand that despite those efforts, his chilly private manner and reliance on a small group of advisers for key advice leads many of his caucus to consider him aloof.

The problem for Chrétien has been that these gaps in his social makeup translate into his biggest political problems.

A believer in strong central government at heart, he is instinctively frustrated by the premiers’ demands for more powers. Because Chrétien has no patience with Quebec nationalists, he does not understand their concerns, or know how to reach out to them. Because he dislikes Reform—a result of their harsh denunciations of traditional politics—he has underestimated their resilience and appeal in the West.

Now, with a new Parliament opening this week, those issues are at the forefront. The premiers want a “redistribution” of powers, a Quebec referendum may be only a year away, and Reform is the official Opposition. As he begins a second mandate of majority government, Chrétien has reason to be proud of his political strengths. He can feel even prouder if he tries, at this late stage, to reach out to those whose views he does not share or understand.