BUSINESS WATCH

The brain’s trust behind Jean Chretien

Chretien’s chief policy adviser is 78-year-old Mitchell Sharp, minister of finance under Pearson and external affairs under Trudeau

Peter C. Newman January 22 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

The brain’s trust behind Jean Chretien

Chretien’s chief policy adviser is 78-year-old Mitchell Sharp, minister of finance under Pearson and external affairs under Trudeau

Peter C. Newman January 22 1990

In the next few days, Jean Chrétien will finally make official his protracted quest for the leadership of the federal Liberal party—and his credentials for the job bear some tough examination.

After all, familiarity does not necessarily breed consent. We all know that crooked smile and Shawinigan-on-the-rocks accent; the face that looks as if someone had been practising taxidermy on it; the Gallic charm that will make voters buy a guarantee against varicose veins, if that should be part of his platform. But under all that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington facade, Jean Chrétien, who celebrated his 56th birthday on Jan. 11, has yet to reveal a single original thought. His past stock-in-trade has been to be brilliantly briefed, fast on his feet, aggressive, tart and effective. His only policy impulses consisted of mildly groping towards orthodox solutions.

If he wins, he will inherit a herd of partisan hacks hardly worth labelling an organized political party. After almost six years in the party leader’s office, John Turner has left behind a clean slate: no policies, no field organization, no money, no Quebec power base. The new leader must rejuvenate the party, recruit a new generation of candidates as well as regional and constituency operatives, but above all, anoint this residue of what was once Canada’s Government Party with a vision of the future and a plan for the present. Being against an already-signed trade agreement simply isn’t enough.

In this context, it’s worth examining the sources of Chrétien’s policy advice. The team surrounding him—Senator Keith Davey, Manitoba Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs, Vancouver lawyer Ross Fitzpatrick, Bank of Nova Scotia vice-president David Hilton, Ontario Treasurer Robert Nixon, Power Corp. of Canada vice-president John Rae, former principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau Jim Coutts, former Trudeau cabinet ministers Judd Buchanan and David Collenette, current Liberal party president Michel Robert, Toronto businessmen Bob Wright and Patrick Lavelle and chief fund raiser Bill Mulholland, and lawyers Allan Lutfy and Eddie Goldenberg—are worthy but not policy-oriented supporters.

Although supporters are trying to defend against the charge that he is “yesterday’s man,” his chief policy adviser is none other than 78-year-old Mitchell Sharp, who first came to Ottawa as an officer in the finance department in 1942. One of the last functioning veterans of the C.D. Howe years, Sharp had a distinguished career in the finance department, and later as deputy minister of trade and commerce, before switching into politics and serving as minister of finance under Lester Pearson and minister of external affairs under Pierre Trudeau.

Sharp, whose mind is as alert and impressive as ever, has spent so many hours briefing Chrétien over the past year that he can claim, with some justification, to be speaking for him—and does so. “I don’t like Meech Lake because the Canadian interest was not well defended during its negotiation,” he told me recently. “Perhaps I’m just sentimental about it, but I’ve always thought that Canada was unique in that we were able to have a structure of government in which minorities were not oppressed, and that the whole purpose of any constitutional change should be to ensure that this continues. The Meech Lake accord doesn’t do that. What I fear, if Meech Lake comes into effect, is a gradual disintegration of the country, not in the sense that it will fall apart but become something that Joe Clark used to call ‘a community of communities.’ ”

The alternative? “Nothing much will happen except that Quebec might not attend future constitutional negotiations,” Sharp adds. “But if Quebecers’ interests are at stake, I don’t think they’ll continue in that position. Certainly, I don’t believe in the kind of blackmail that’s now being worked on to convince Canadians that if Meech Lake doesn’t go through, Quebec will separate. Of all the leadership candidates, only Jean has taken the position that Meech should be renegotiated. I support him because of my very high regard for his abilities, and because he’s the only one who has a big popular following in the province of Quebec, even if he may not have the backing of its intellectuals.”

Sharp also agrees with Chrétien’s opposition to the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement. “The fundamental issue is less an economic one—it’s the very nature of Canada,” he says. “By entering into the bilateral preferential agreement, we decided to no longer resist the continental pull and to accelerate the process of this country’s Americanization.” Despite making such criticisms, both Sharp and Chrétien see great difficulties in withdrawing from the pact. Adds Sharp: “Only if it’s clear by the next election that the agreement has had very deleterious effects on Canada would we consider withdrawing. I’m more inclined to believe we should do everything possible to limit those effects and try to get back into the mainstream by trading more with other parts of the world.”

Meanwhile, Sharp has been masterminding practice news conferences and question periods with Chrétien, where a circle of his supporters taunt him with tough sallies to sharpen his responses. “Jean has probably occupied more of the important ministries than anyone else,” claims Sharp, “and I don’t recall him ever having to eat his words. He’s the only minister of Indian affairs, for example, that the Indians wanted to continue in office.” He adds: “It wouldn’t work to put before Chrétien any draft of a speech you wanted him to make. What he’s very good at is working it over and coming out with quite original ways of expressing ideas, which shows a quality of mind most people don’t have.

“In Chrétien, we have a future leader who can convey his ideas and knows how to get them across quickly. That doesn’t mean all his ideas are right, but he does have a genuine vision of the country and can explain to Quebec separatists why, as Canadians, the Rockies are part of their possession. Jean tells them, ‘My country is Canada, my province is Quebec, my language is French’—and there is nothing inconsistent about that.”

Mitchell Sharp and much of the apparatus that functioned so effectively during the Pearson and Trudeau regimes are backing the Chrétien candidacy. But those glory years are long gone, and it remains very much an open question whether he can revive them.