Leaning on friends

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 5 1994

Leaning on friends

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 5 1994

Leaning on friends



If you want a friend you can count on in Washington, former president Harry Truman once said, you had better get a dog. He did so.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who, in the past year, has increasingly been compared to Truman because of his combination of pragmatism and folksy charm, is not a dog-owner. But through the power vested in prime ministers and exercised by him last week, he now has at least three people in Ottawa on whom he can surely rely as friends: newly appointed senators JeanRobert Gauthier and John Bryden, and the new governor general, Roméo LeBlanc.

Is it wrong to appoint people with partisan political backgrounds to positions in

government? That depends which party you are a partisan of. Preston Manning, an elected politician who seems to think elected politicians are inherently evil, offers this fascinating, if tortuous logic: anyone who knows anything about politics and cares enough to have been involved with a party should apparently be excluded from consideration for precisely those rea-

sons. Lucien Bouchard, who wants Que-

bec to renounce any link with those same federal offices, nonetheless sometimes displays a touching reverence for them (and was effusive in his praise of LeBlanc). And Chrétien appears to have forgotten his own declaration in his autobiography, Straight from the Heart, that “decisionmaking is more than a matter of polls.” Instead, the Prime Minister, whose ego is showing uncharacteristic swelling in recent weeks, cited his own popularity in the polls to justify those appointments. “If I were to discard all the people who have expressed confidence in this Prime Minister, then 75 per cent of the Canadian people would be disqualified,” he told the House of Commons. (Not to worry: that number will be lowered quickly enough if he keeps making statements like that.)

Still, in making appointments to the Senate—where the Progressive Conservatives retain a six-seat majority—the Liberals are right to argue that party loyalty has its place. About the worst that can be said of Bryden, a successful former civil servant and businessman and an even more successful federal and provincial organizer for

the Liberals in New Brunswick, is that he is typical of many of the appointments made by various governments in Canada’s 127-year history. And Gauthier,

by the measure of almost anyone other

than Reform supporters, is an outstanding choice: a veteran, fully bilingual MP of great dedication and principle. Unless or until the Senate is changed or abolished, the government needs to make sure it has enough supporters to pass legislation through it.

LeBlanc’s appointment, on the other hand, has both merits and equally obvious flaws. He is, like the Prime Minister, lowkey, personally well-liked and bilingual, and is a francophone from outside Quebec

In a rare show of ego, Jean Chrétien says he is too popular to be wrong

who has worked hard for his community. And while there is still a public pretence that the governor general will be nonpartisan, LeBlanc’s political career has been characterized, as much as anything, by his diehard allegiance to Chrétien and his causes. LeBlanc was one of the few cabinet ministers to back Chrétien’s leadership bid in 1984,

chose not to be part of John Turner’s subsequent cabinet because of

his apparent disappointment at Chrétien’s loss, joined Chrétien in opposing the Meech Lake accord, backed Chrétien in the 1990 Liberal leadership race, and ran the Liberals’ quick-response team in the last election. Those efforts set him apart from other francophones with long liberal pedigrees whose credentials are arguably more impressive, such as Marc Lalonde and Gérard Pelletier.

Should friendship with a Prime Minister and a long history of political involvement exclude someone from public office? No. But someone coming into the governor general’s office with such credentials might pay special heed to a predecessor, Lord Tweedsmuir. “Man, according to Aristotle, is a political animal, but there is an exception in the case of a governor general,” he said in 1937. “If he touches on [public policy], he must confine himself to what may be called governor-generalities.” And the Prime Minister and new governor general should accept that the partisan interests that first united them are the same qualities they must now abandon in their relations with each other.