Backstage Ottawa

Breaking their word

The Liberals look about in anger, blaming anybody but themselves for the backtracking

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 30 1996
Backstage Ottawa

Breaking their word

The Liberals look about in anger, blaming anybody but themselves for the backtracking

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 30 1996

Breaking their word

The Liberals look about in anger, blaming anybody but themselves for the backtracking

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Backstage Ottawa

Call it the Boomerang Effect of Canadian politics: whatever weapon you think you are so cleverly aiming at political enemies will, inevitably, turn around and come right back at you. Throughout the year leading up to the 1993 federal election, the Liberals hounded the Progressive Conservative government mercilessly over issues that included the question of a coverup of Canadian Forces misbehavior in Somalia, the alleged dismantling of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and general frustration with the widely maligned Goods and Services Tax.

The good news is that those who long for earlier, simpler times now have them: in politics, yesterday lives on in Ottawa today. And the Liberals, who saw nothing but easy answers to those issues while in opposition, now share the same befuddlement that gripped the Tories. Unable to look ahead to their final year in office with any real enthusiasm, they prefer to look about in anger, blaming anybody but themselves for their backtracking.

The surest sign of a government that is either overtired, overconfident—or both—is one that can see a problem coming, but still can’t defuse it, or even admit to it. Increasingly, that has been the pattern of the government in general, and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in particular. Much of the Liberals’ initial popularity was arguably based on their swift, decisive steps to try to end festering controversies, including their cancellation of the $4.8-billion Tory plan to purchase new military helicopters. But such steps are the exception, not the rule, for a prime minister who generally regards inaction as one of the finest forms of government initiative. Almost from the day of their election, it was clear to Liberal insiders that they would be unable to fulfil their GST promise. Still, they waited two and a half years to confirm that, thereby delaying the day of reckoning while raising public expectations and lowering their own credibility. The same can be said for last week’s $ 127-million cut to the CBC budget. In opposition, the Liberals’ Red

Book primly noted that funding cuts to the CBC “illustrate the Tories’ failure to appreciate the importance of cultural and industrial development.” Now, the Liberals choose to remember only the section of the same chapter that promises to commit to “stable” multiyear financing for the CBC and other arts groups. True, they may now argue they are keeping the specifics of their promise—but “stable,” it should be remembered, also describes someone who is comatose and barely clinging to life.

The issue, ultimately, is not whether the Liberals were right to stick with the GST and cut CBC funding. In both instances, a strong case can be made that they had no choice. No one was able to suggest a reasonable alternative to the GST. And, at a time when funding is being cut for medicare and welfare, it’s hard to argue that the preferred medium of the chattering classes should somehow be exempt.

But the Liberals’ real problem is their refusal to admit that they have one. Publicly and privately, the Prime Minister—who at least once said he would “scrap” the GST—grows ever more vehement in insisting that he did not break his word. Ditto the CBC cuts, where the Liberals will not apologize for violating the spirit, if not the letter, of their Red Book. Ditto once more the refusal of Chrétien and Defence Minister David Collenette to even acknowledge the possibility that an independent commission may find some fault in their handpicked chief of defence staff, Gen. Jean Boyle.

Few people outside politics understand the pressures that alternately unite and divide members of the same political party. On any one issue, grassroot members, fundraisers, MPs, cabinet ministers, and prime ministerial advisers may all have sharply different views and agendas. A good prime minister knows two key skills: how to make his or her views win out, and how, in the aftermath, to act accordingly and decisively.

By that measure, Chrétien almost always knows how to win. How, and when, to act is quite another story.