The focus now is on Jean Chrétien and how he would govern Canada
E. KAYE FULTON
Liberal aides were nervous. Polls last summer showed that Prime Minister Kim Campbell was the most popular federal politician in the country, leaving Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien in the dust. “Were in trouble,” muttered an assistant, trailing Chrétien to a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill. Chrétien halted abruptly. “Look,”he said, “we’ll either win, and win big, or we’ll lose and have a hell of a time doing it. ”
Seemingly oblivious to the unsettling changes in the world, Jean Chrétien is battling the same political dragons that he has fought for so many years. After three decades in public life, and only two weeks before the federal election that could anoint him as prime minister, he is serenely confident that he has the remedies for what ails Canada. It shows in the determined way that he plunges into crowds, gathering their good wishes, radiating self-assurance. It shows when he passionately defends his policies, and himself, from his rivals’ attacks. Most of all, it shows when he casually deflects worried inquiries about his view of Canada’s fate. He promotes one simple solution to the faltering economy: jobs. And he scoffs at the notion that Quebec seriously wants to leave Canada. “You go back through all the stuff before any election and it is always the same vocabulary,” he told Maclean’s last week. “There is nothing new.”
Such unshakable confidence cannot quell the question that haunts Chrétien during this campaign: simply put, would he make a good prime minister? But that same self-assurance has carried him through a lifetime of dramatic personal and political upheaval. It has swept him from his Quebec birthplace of Shawinigan, where he was weaned on the politics of protest, to the centre of power in Ottawa, where he astutely outmanoeuvred his ostensibly more sophisticated colleagues to capture nine successive cabinet posts. Defeated in his first bid for the party leadership in 1984, he returned in 1990 to rally a lost party, on his own terms and at his own pace. Caricatured as “yesterday’s man,” he reached out to his former leadership rivals with calculated grace, trusting them to deliver today’s ideas. Then, in the early stages of the election campaign, he captured control of the agenda with his instinctive understanding that job creation is a bread-and-butter concern. “He has got great intuition about politics,” says Ross Fitzpatrick, the Liberal campaign chairman in British Columbia. ‘There is something about the way that he delegates responsibilities that makes people put out the extra effort without being told precisely how to do it.” Those are formidable virtues in any leader— and they have seen the 59-year-old Chrétien through crises when even his allies feared he would fail. But the 1993 campaign has stretched to the limit Chrétien’s ability to adapt to the prevailing political climate. His political philosophy, a product of the 1960s, often seems at odds with the reality of the 1990s. Although his campaign platform carefully lists the cost of his promises and the spending cuts needed to offset them, Chrétien himself typically resorts to old-fashioned hyperbole to sell his policies. In some ways, his approach is a reminder of the good old days, when Canadians could afford to be idealistic. But it has also blunted his party’s appeal among voters who want specific answers—and who are wary of vague reassurances. As one Liberal strategist put it last week: ‘You have to ask yourself how someone who has not changed his world view in 30 years is going to govern. The danger is that he will always promise much more than he can deliver.”
Chrétien’s pie-in-the-sky rhetoric—his claim to be able to put Canadians back to work and preserve the social safety net while at the same time cutting the deficit—has drawn heavy fire from his rivals. Even some of his senior aides worry that he is exaggerating the impact on the economy of his plan to spend $6 billion of taxpayers’ money to repair the nation’s roads and bridges. By frequently citing that plan as the tonic for the nation’s ills, aides fear Chrétien sounds overly simplis-
tic. His speeches are full of unanswered questions. He has promised to reform the GST—but has not explained how. He has promised to drive down the deficit to three per cent of gross domestic product after three years in office—but has not said what he will do if the economy refuses to grow at the rosy rates that he forecasts. Last week, in a stunning gaffe, he promised to preserve social programs—but he refused to say how. “Let me win the election and, after that, you ask me questions about how I run the government,” he proclaimed. Such vague assurances could lead voters to conclude that Chrétien is just another politician who does not tell the truth. And that could spell the difference between a minority and a majority Liberal government.
If Chrétien does become prime minister, that same habit of vagueness will plague him. Nothing will be easy, and both time and money are short. Despite his lifelong reliance on teamwork, the near-impossibility of delivering on all of his promises could rapidly overshadow his government’s accomplishments. He will likely reform the reviled GST, for example, to make it easier to collect: he will probably allow the provinces to keep a portion of GST revenues if they combine their provincial sales taxes with the federal sales tax. Such reforms may simplify tax collection—but they will probably disappoint voters who hoped that Chrétien would simply wave a magic wand and make the tax disappear.
On the other hand, a Chrétien government would have some durable strengths. Like former prime minister Brian Mulroney, Chrétien would delegate many responsibilities, especially key economic decision-making powers, to hand-picked ministers and aides. But unlike Mulroney, Chrétien is not the sort of leader to hog the limelight. In another departure from the Mulroney years, Chrétien told Maclean’s that he wants to slash the size of ministers’ staffs, drastically reduce the influence of lobbyists and give back power to the bureaucrats. His mentor, former Liberal finance minister Mitchell Sharp, maintains that Chrétien will make a “good”—although perhaps not a great—prime minister: “Jean is a very practical person. He looks beyond the principle and says, ‘What
happens if you apply it?’ He is also very responsible.” That sense of responsibility must soon extend to his campaign style if he wants to avoid serious problems in office.
People have always underestimated Jean Chrétien. As the Conservatives have belatedly learned, he cultivates the image of a rough-hewn, unschooled man of the people. But that unpolished demeanor conceals shrewdness and calculating ambition, traits that were instilled from childhood. The 18th of 19 children, Chrétien was known as the family rebel. Although he achieved good grades, he often skipped school to follow his machinist father Wellie into the union halls and smokey poolrooms. In such unlikely settings he found his cause: a desire to combat the fiercely repressive policies of former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, whose union-bashing policies helped to foment the Quiet Revolution. Determined to challenge his tradition-bound society, Chrétien used a private scholarship and a summer job at the Shawinigan paper mill to pay for his law studies at Laval University in Quebec City. He adopted his father’s staunchly Liberal, federalist views. He told the deeply conservative parish priest to mind “his own damn business” during elections. And by 1963, when he was only 29, the self-confessed “black sheep” had propelled himself from his small-town Quebec roots through law school and into Parliament.
Although Chrétien emulated the style of the Quebec populists, it was prime minister Lester Pearson who taught him how to target his fiery attacks. Patient and reasoned, Pearson kept reminding the young unilingual francophone that the secret to partisan success was teamwork. (It was a lesson that Chrétien took to heart, 27 years later, when he began to assemble his current campaign team and platform.) Although neither man spoke the other’s language fluently, they shared an abiding love of baseball. In 1965, Pearson recognized Chretien’s talents by appointing him to the largely honorary post of parliamentary secretary. It was Pearson’s signal that he expected Chrétien to excel.
In 1967, a senior Liberal aide was sent to check up on Chrétien, the newly appointed junior minister of finance. “How are you doing, Jean?” he asked. Chrétien gestured at a stack of paperwork. ‘You see that pile of papers?” he replied slyly. “That is what my deputy minister wants. As soon as I get something that I want, he will get something that he wants. ”
Chrétien’s hyperbole blunts his appeal
In Quebec, especially, there will always be comparisons between Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Chrétien. In 1968, Trudeau bedazzled the nation, sweeping to victory with a majority government. The new prime minister was urbane and sophisticated, an intellectual with a rapier wit. He was everything that Jean Chrétien was not—and never would be. But Chrétien intuitively knew how to make the bureaucrats do his bidding, working hand in hand with them and horse-trading over pet projects.
When Trudeau replaced Pearson, the unpolished Chrétien was relegated to a cabinet backwater, indian affairs and northern development. During his six years in the portfolio, he explored the nation, cultivating a passionate attachment to the land—even claiming the Rockies as his own. Chrétien, in fact, was at his strongest in Indian Affairs, where his formidable skills with people and his intuition were valuable assets. The natives did not like many of his initiatives, especially his attempt to abolish the Indian Act and remove their special status. But they liked him.
Still, being hailed as a nice guy is often not enough. Many cabinet posts demand a grasp of details that Chrétien still refuses to acknowledge. He has an abiding intolerance for long briefing books. Refusing to get bogged down, he usually wants to know only two things: how much a policy is going to cost and how it will play with the public. That does not necessarily mean that the facts are beyond him. But as his experience in the finance portfolio from 1977 to 1979 illustrates, his approach was certainly unorthodox. Former deputy finance minister Tommy Shoyama, now retired and living in Victoria, recalls long weekend walks with the minister near his Ottawa home, discussing the nation’s finances. “He would call me up and say, Tom, we need to talk, let’s go for a walk,’ ” said Shoyama. “Chrétien was much more verbal than past ministers.”
That approach could serve him well as prime minister—but only if he delegates to the right people. But Chrétien’s refusal to learn the details got him into serious trouble in Finance. As the first French-Canadian in that post, Chrétien revelled in the credibility that the title conferred. But he was often caught off guard because he had not mastered the numbers. In 1978, Trudeau announced cuts of $2 billion in federal spending—without informing the minister who was expected to make them. It was a revealing glimpse of Trudeau’s estimation of Chrétien’s abilities.
In the months leading up to the 1993 campaign, Chrétien’s aides warned him that he could not afford to he drawn into emotional debates about Quebec’s future. Then, Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard scornfully suggested that Chrétien was not wanted in his home province— and should run in English Canada. It was one taunt too many—Chrétien told his aides that he simply had to defend himself. During last week’s televised French debate, he lashed out at Bouchard: “I am as much of a Quebecer as you are.” The line sounded spontaneous. In fact, Chrétien’s anger was carefully rehearsed.
The line that Chrétien walks in Quebec has always been tortuous. Commentators in Quebec branded him a sheep when, in his very first House of Commons vote, he joined his colleagues in supporting Pearson’s decision to station U.S. nuclear-armed missiles on Canadian soil. A year later, his successful crusade to change the name of Trans-Canada Airlines to Air Canada—because it translated better—went almost unacknowledged in his home province. Quebec is Chrétien’s black hole. He is its most shameless booster and its least favorite son. To the profound embarrassment of Quebecers, he used to curry favor in English Canada by referring to himself as a “pea-souper.” At home, while Trudeau combated separatism with lofty disdain, Chrétien ridiculed nationalist aspirations with ruthless zeal. But he earned the lasting scorn of many Quebecers in 1981 when he worked with premiers from the other nine provinces to forge a deal to bring home Canada’s Constitution without Quebec’s consent.
Chrétien walks a tortuous line in Quebec
Chrétien’s uneasy relationship with Quebec could cause major problems for himself—and for the nation. For 30 years, he has refused to accept the legitimacy of sovereigntist aspirations. He dismisses the Bloc Québécois as a mere protest party. But in so doing, he ignores the Bloc’s hard-headed appeal to Quebecers’ wallets—signified by its call for Quebec to leave before Canada’s debt grows any larger.
Chrétien maintains that if the unemployment problem is solved, most Quebecers will want to stay. “For me, it’s a dream,” he says. “There will always be some people who will want to have independence. Politicians make [the Constitution] a problem. But the people do not make it theirs.”
Many of Chrétien’s closest friends, including Sharp, believe that his reading material consists only of magazines and newpapers.
Told that last week, Chrétien seemed crushed. His voice assumed a startling fragility. “He cannot have said that,” he protested. “I read a lot. But I have never talked with anybody about what I am reading. It is not the business of anybody. I never ask anybody,
What did you read last week?’ It is an element of snobbism to discuss that.”
No one could ever accuse Jean Chrétien of snobbery. Although his private law practice in the 1980s and his best-selling autobiography, Straight From The Heart, have left him financially secure, he lives a frugal, simple life. Ottawa residents often spot him striding alone through the city, or sipping sweet and sour soup at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in a nondescript Ottawa neighborhood. Unlike H chrétien at the 1984 some politicians, he does not ^ Liberal leadership hide the fact that he savors the convention: ‘There occasional beer or glass of fine w¡¡¡ always be some wine after a round of golf at his people who will want local club, the Royal Ottawa, independence. Forme, When he and his wife, Aline, ¡ps a dream.’ moved into the Opposition
Leader’s residence at Stornoway, they discovered that there was no china. Rather than billing taxpayers, they bought their own dishes, which they plan to leave to their four grandchildren.
Publicly ebullient, the private Chrétien is shy. In part, that diffidence is the result of a birth defect that left him with a deaf right ear and a twisted mouth. To compensate, Chrétien adopted his once-endearing homespun act—which many Liberals now regard as a liabili-
ty. During his 1990 leadership bid, his advisers tried to change him: they had him cap his teeth, they forced him to read from a TelePrompTer, they clipped his oratorical wings. It didn’t work. Voters sensed the artifice. So the Liberals are resigned to a middle course, hoping that Canadians will accept Chrétien as he is while, privately, urging him to project more sophistication. “One of his weaknesses,” Sharp acknowledges, “is that he believes that precision in expression tends to detract from his populist appeal.”
Few people—except his family —get beyond that folksy exterior. Intensely private, Chrétien depends on Aline, his wife of 36 years, for personal and professional advice. Their daughter, France, is married to André Desmarais, the son of Montreal industrialist Paul Desmarais. Their son Hubert operates a Japanese car dealership in Hull. But it is their third child, Michel, an adopted Gwich’in Indian, who briefly pushed the private Chrétien into the public eye. Convicted of sexual assault last year in Montreal, Michel is living in Yellowknife with his natural mother until his appeal is heard. As Chrétien’s friend former Manitoba liberal leader Sharon Carstairs told Maclean’s: “Never have I admired Jean more than when he sat in that courtroom, day after day, knowing, in the eyes of some, that was going to be a political liability. As far as he was concerned, that was his son and he was not going to desert him.”
The party that Chrétien inherited in 1990 was in a shambles— broke, dispirited and bereft of ideas. Many did not even like their new leader. Chrétien bullied the warring elements of his party into working together. He organized a 1990 policy conference in Aylmer, Que., at which he reined in his “ party’s free-spending tendencies. Under his leadership, the party would call for better spending—not more. And he rejected proposals that he believed were too costly. Said Montreal MP Paul Martin, the campaign’s policy co-chairman: “He would say, two or three times, ‘I don’t want to say we’re going to do that because I don’t know if we can.’ The great thing that Jean brought into those discussions is what the limits of government are.”
If Chrétien becomes prime minister, he will try to do for the nation what he did for his party. That may be beyond his managerial skills. If he pays too little attention to details, the temptation to spend could overwhelm his government. If he is too cautious, he could resist the bold innovations needed in the 1990s. Moreover, his overblown rhetoric risks raising expectations that can never be met. After Canadians examine the Liberals’ programs and promises, they must ask themselves if Chrétien’s old-fashioned approach is the solution to tomorrow’s problems. □