In the living room at 24 Sussex Drive, Aline Chrétien straightened the Prime Minister’s tie and urged him to stop talking to a visitor so he would look better for a Maclean’s portrait last week. Later, the Prime Minister made clear that his wife of 40 years is his most trusted adviser. Chrétien also stressed in an interview that he has no intention of stepping
down, despite the evident jockeying among his senior ministers to succeed him. “You don’t go and ask the people to vote for you and quit right after,” he observed (page 46).
Clearly, the assertive mood of the Chrétiens was partly to still the ambitions of the younger aspirants to his throne, but also a sign that he is attempting to reassert his leadership at the start of his second term.
Chrétien has heard the whispers: that he is out of date, that he has lost it, that he has no vision. And he responds with an entirely uncomplicated view of what he has to do: “The government role is to make people confident in themselves. That has been a success. People feel good.”
Support for that claim is evident in the 14th year-end Maclean’s poll. Respondents reported that they were more optimistic this year than in the past. And on a range of issues, from Quebec to the deficit, significant percentages supported government policies. Chrétien also got good marks for his ability to handle the national unity issue—despite the near-death experience of the 1995 Quebec referendum.
But politics is a fickle world and 1998 may prove to be the true test of Chrétien’s feel-good brand of governing. The Liberals’ handling of the GST controversy, the Pearson airport lease in Toronto and
the defence department helicopter deal form a trilogy of celebrated flip-flops—the kind of doo-doo that can stick even to Teflon. Then, there is what George Bush called the “vision thing.” It is debatable that Canadians are willing to enter the new millennium content with a government that relies on a kind of national relaxation therapy as its central thrust. With unemployment still stubbornly high, with tu-
ition rising at universities and health-care standards steadily eroding, Chrétien may need to set some firm goals so that his party does not run out of steam. So far, his priorities are ill-defined: while maintaining a firm hand on the nation’s finances, he is committed to “investing” in child poverty programs and in a scholarship fund for university students. Still, the Prime Minister ended the year in an upbeat mood, surrounded by his large family, with his most trusted friend and adviser at his side. He even boasted about one activity that is usually not a fit subject for public discourse—his golf game. Back in October during the Commonwealth Conference, he realized the dream of any golfer and played the storied
Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. He had time to play just nine holes but, he exclaimed, he was only four strokes over par. For Chrétien it was a metaphor for his year. Above average—with room for improvement.
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