Burying the past

Jean Chrétien is a 100-per-cent Yes man

October 5 1992

Burying the past

Jean Chrétien is a 100-per-cent Yes man

October 5 1992

Burying the past

Jean Chrétien is a 100-per-cent Yes man

Although Jean Chrétien ’s federal Liberals enjoy a commanding lead in national opinion polls, the party faces potential divisions over Chrétien ’s support of the Charlottetown constitutional accord. That problem was heightened by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s essay in Maclean’s last week in which he attacked the notion of making any constitutional concessions to Quebec nationalists. In his fourthfloor office on Parliament Hill, Chrétien, sitting behind the desk once used by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, spoke for more than an hour last week to Maclean’s Editor Kevin Doyle and Ottawa Bureau Chief Anthony Wilson-Smith. Excerpts:

Maclean’s: Some federal Liberals privately say that it is possible to agree with most of the ideas Pierre Trudeau raised in his Maclean’s essay, but still vote Yes. Do you agree with the tone of Trudeau’s remarks?

Chrétien: I just say that the statement he made is that if you put your hat on as a lawyer, you can argue that case [that Trudeau made]. For me, I had a problem with the [recognition of Quebec as a] distinct society. Now, that is defined and is in the Canada clause, so I can live with it. Trudeau says that it is an obvious fact that Quebec is a distinct society, but that it should have been in the preamble of the Constitution. For me, it is not a perfect deal. But it is the only deal we have. Maclean’s: What do you say to English Canadians who agree with Trudeau’s assertion that it does not matter what you give to Quebec, because Quebec nationalists will always ask for more?

Chrétien: It depends on who is the prime minister. We are stuck with a problem that did not need to be re-opened. If Mulroney had shut up in 1987, and not opened that Pandora’s box, we would not be where we are. In 1987, Quebecers were spending all their time talking about these young entrepreneurs of theirs who were taking over the world. Then, Mulroney opened the wound, and that led to Meech Lake and so on. I want to turn the page on this. I say that when Mulroney does not have the Constitution any more, we will have him naked on the economy, and that will not be a pretty sight. Maclean’s: Will Trudeau’s intervention divide the Liberal party more than might have been the case?

Chrétien: I do not know. But we have made a decision to vote Yes, and that is it.

Maclean’s: What will you do if a Liberal MP breaks ranks?

Chrétien: They know that the party has decided. That is it. It is like in elections. You can hate a candidate who is running, but support him if you want your party to win.

Maclean’s: What constitutes the acceptable margin of victory for the Yes side?

Chrétien: Canada is fundamentally four big regions. Some would argue that there is a fifth one developing in British Columbia and the North. But in my vision it is four big, different regions—and a majority [in each of those regions] would suffice.

Maclean’s: What is your assessment of the deal? Chrétien: The government did not fight hard enough for an economic union of provinces, and they did not get it. I also always said that equality in the Senate would come at the expense of its effectiveness, and that is exactly what happened. But this deal is like a house. You may like the dining room, the living room, the bedrooms, and hate the backyard. Well, you have to make up your mind whether you are taking the whole house.

Maclean’s: Is the possibility of inadvertently helping Mul-

roney a factor in how hard you work for the Yes side?

Chrétien: I am not a star of this referendum. I am just one of the players. In 1980, I was in charge of the federal organization in the referendum, and if there was a mistake people came to me. That is not the case this time. But anyway, I am working hard.

Maclean’s: Are you as passionate now as you were in 1980?

Chrétien: That is a complaint I hear, but I never see any journalists at my speeches. And if they are not there, they cannot tell if I am as passionate as I was.

Maclean’s: The Royal Bank of Canada has prepared a report on the many economic dangers that would be created by the breakup of the country. Is this kind of study useful for politicians?

Chrétien: When you are too clear on that, people say you are practising economic blackmail. It depends on how you present it. One day, someone asked me what would happen to his pension if we separate. Rather than say, it will be cut, I replied, “I have been minister of finance, minister of this-and-that, and I really do not know. If the Quebec dollar is worth two Canadian dollars, do not worry. You will be able to play golf in Florida. But if it is worth 50 cents to the Canadian dollar, buy yourself some cross-country skis right away.” So the guy goes away with the notion that he has a problem that I am not solving for him.

Maclean’s: Do you agree with the decision to ask Canadians to choose between a simple Yes or No in this referendum?

Chrétien: It is our [Yes] side that has made the question, so we cannot complain about the terms. We cannot blame the Parti Québécois— we are trapped with that question. Now, [PQ Leader Jacques] Parizeau has been helpful by saying that if the No side wins, it is big progress to sovereignty. And other No leaders say that they do not want a deal at all—they want separation. I like that kind of talk. It makes it clear what they are really after.

Maclean’s: In 1980, you campaigned actively with Joe Clark and the Tories for federalism. Are relations between you and the Tories too bad now to allow you to campaign alongside each other?

Chrétien: We are all on the same side. The question is, is it useful tactically to have everyone in the same town at the same time? If I am going to be fifth violinist there, then maybe it makes sense for me to be somewhere else, where I will be soloist.

Maclean’s: Many economic indicators now are roughly the same as they were in the worst year of the Depression. What would a Liberal government do to turn the trend?

Chrétien: This idea of laissez-faire, dribbledown economy is not working. You have to create growth, renew optimism. We signed this Free Trade Agreement because people argued that if we did not do so, the Americans will be even more protectionist than they already are. Well, that is not a good enough argument. Recently, I was in a riding in Nova Scotia where an American company had

bought the local factory and closed it to lessen competition. In the days of [the Foreign Investment Review Agency] we would not have allowed that. But now, that happens regularly, and we do not even ask them questions anymore.

Maclean’s: So as prime minister, you would just throw the agreement out?

Chrétien: No. I want rules. There are those who say to me that I am naive when I say that I want to renegotiate the deal with the Americans. Do you think that if the Americans thought they had a bad deal that they would not renegotiate? They do not want to do that, so they think that they have a good deal. And if they have a good deal, they will be willing to negotiate to keep it. The problem is not with tariffs. The problems are with subsidizing and dumping and how you define when that is happening. You know, a farmer in California pays a fifth as much for his water than a consumer in Los Angeles. That is a hell of a subsidy. That is unfair.

Maclean’s: Would you emphasize government spending to get the economy moving? And the deficit would have to wait while you did that? Chrétien: They could work together. Because if you create growth, if you have a better mood in the country, people start to buy, so that you have more revenue.

Maclean’s: Under the Free Trade Agreement, the tariff penalty for abusing the Auto Pact will be phased out. Is that something that you would want to change?

Chrétien: For me, the Auto Pact has been a hell of a success. The intent was that we were to produce in Canada the same number of cars, more or less, as we buy. It was working great. I don’t know why they are changing it. Maclean’s: If the constitutional issue is not resolved, would a Liberal government resume talking or move to the economy?

Chrétien: I will not run [for prime minister] telling the Canadians that I have a great program for the Constitution, [that] it will be my priority. Because they will shoot me. And I want to be alive to be Prime Minister. Maclean’s: Who will you face in the next election?

Chrétien: I don’t know and I don’t care. Maclean’s: Would your choice be Mulroney? Chrétien: Of course. He created the Reform party and the Bloc Québécois. That’s a hell of a success. He has destroyed his own party. Maclean’s: Do you feel sometimes that you and your policies and your party have been in a sense overlooked by the media?

Chrétien: If there’s blood on the floor, if somebody’s stabbing you or complaining or not happy, that’s news. This summer I have visited 80 ridings, made more than 100 speeches and we had to inform the press that we were working. I had a choice. I could do that or just play golf at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club every week, every day and have my beer at the press club. If I did that, they’d say, “Chrétien is working damn hard. We’ve seen him around all summer.” But I don’t complain. □