The Back Page

GETTING BETTER WITH AGE

Ever notice how much smarter Bouchard and others are—after politics?

PAUL WELLS October 31 2005
The Back Page

GETTING BETTER WITH AGE

Ever notice how much smarter Bouchard and others are—after politics?

PAUL WELLS October 31 2005

GETTING BETTER WITH AGE

The Back Page

Ever notice how much smarter Bouchard and others are—after politics?

PAUL WELLS

I HAVE DECIDED all politicians should retire immediately. Not because they are unpleasant to have around; most are sheer delight. Rather, all politicians should quit because politicians almost always make more sense after they leave office than they did before. Last week’s best example was Lucien Bouchard.

Of course the former Quebec premier is seriously brilliant. But you’d be hard pressed to name three things he got done when he finally landed the big job. He tended to blame others for the rather snoozy nature of his tenure in the premier’s chair: mostly Jean Chrétien,

Jean Charest, or Jean Q. Public.

But suddenly last week, out came Bouchard—along with a handful of other prominent Quebecers—to offer an incisive diagnosis of the province’s problems, and serious changes to help fix them. The whole document was like a list of things Bouchard had never dared admit before.

Even though Quebec has “succeeded remarkably in catching up with the rest of Canada over the past half-century,” the Quebec government “is like a bulky albatross that is unable to take flight,” Bouchard and his cohorts wrote. “We must avoid blaming others for our own problems.”

Are Quebec’s problems all caused by the feds’ refusal to send enough tax dollars to the provinces? To believe that “is to dream in Technicolor or to be inept at arithmetic.” Really? Now he tells us. How about seceding from Canada? “Whatever choice Quebecers make, the challenges facing us remain the same.”

Those challenges, the Bouchard gang argues in an echo of Paul Martin’s recent speeches, are demographic decline at home and the rise of a competitive Asia abroad. The first remedy: pay down public debt. How? Increase hydro rates and put the extra revenue straight to the debt. Then what? “Freed from part of the burden of debt, the Quebec government could take action in an area that is essential to a prosperous future: massive investments in education and training.”

Not even the state can foot all of the bill

for a first-rate knowledge economy. Who else can chip in? Rich kids. Time for an end to Quebec’s university tuition freeze, “a policy that flies in the face of common sense.” And since the knowledge economy is global and increasingly borderless, “the government must also make far greater effort to ensure that all Quebecers speak and write English, as well as a third language.”

Here, at last, is a real program for change. To be precise, it’s Jean Charest’s program. But apparently we can’t expect Charest to get serious about implementing it until he retires.

Each of us can write his own list of politicians who got smarter when they got out. Bob Rae. Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton. Perhaps the classic modern case of a guy whose mind cleared as soon as he saw the Exit door was Frank McKenna. In 1997, four days before he retired after a decade as New Brunswick’s premier, McKenna gave a speech full of the sort of stuff everyone knows but nobody

votes for. “Dependency—unemployment insurance, welfare cheques, transfer payments—have all become a narcotic to us to which we have become addicted.”

These days, one hears, McKenna wants to come back into electoral politics as leader of the federal Liberals. Fun question: would he deliver the same speech today?

I ask because I live in Ottawa, a city full of politicians who haven’t retired yet. And these days the universe of the possible in that town seems to have shrunk to the size of a thumbtack.

Paul Martin actually gave a big speech that identified the challenges Bouchard named. How’s he doing on remedies? The critics are raving. Martha Piper, president of the University of British Columbia: “We are marking time.” Anne Golden, president of the Conference Board of Canada: “Snoozing.” Don Drummond, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank: “Every single thing [they’re] doing is productivity-unfriendly.”

Anyone got a better idea? Well, we’ve pretty firmly established that the Conservatives are angry at David Dingwall. There’s a plan. The NDP showed genuine signs of life in May, but it’s been awhile. We’ve spent more time debating chewing-gum expenses lately than we have debating the challenges every retired politician in Canada could name.

If they all retired, perspectives might lengthen and ambition serve as a rebuke to little projects and baby steps. Or here’s an intermediate step: maybe our politicians could think, a bit more often, about the things they’ll wish they’d done when they do retire. Tony Blair said something oddly touching at a Labour conference last month. “Every time I’ve ever introduced a reform in government I wish, in retrospect, I had gone further.” And he’s Tony Blair. Imagine the regret this lot will suffer. iî'îl

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