Backstage

When 'flexibility' breeds success

Jean Chrétien knows he can ignore five key rules of political leadership without risking his popularity

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 23 1998
Backstage

When 'flexibility' breeds success

Jean Chrétien knows he can ignore five key rules of political leadership without risking his popularity

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 23 1998

When 'flexibility' breeds success

Jean Chrétien knows he can ignore five key rules of political leadership without risking his popularity

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Backstage

Two years ago, two Ottawa-based political reporters were granted an interview with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. They decided to start with a soft question—thinking that would put him in good humor for the tougher queries to come. The opening pitch— lobbed with the expectation that he would gleefully bat it out of the park—was this: “What, Prime Minister, would you like most to be remembered for?” To their astonishment, Chrétien flushed, sputtered and then snapped: “I don’t like that question. I am not interested in great visions, because all they cause is trouble.” Instead, he added: “I will settle for the people saying they were happy with me.”

In politics, with all its doublespeak, every story carries at least two possible morals that can be used to please everyone. Supporters of the Prime Minister say that anecdote demonstrates his pragmatism—and his high popularity ratings illustrate the worth of that. Critics say Chrétien’s lack of vision is because he is too busy stealing his opponents’ ideas— while abandoning his own policies.

How nice to witness a truly Canadian consensus—both sides, even as they argue, are arguably right. The Chrétien who last week firmly pledged Canadian military aid against Iraq is the same one who vacillated on the same issue in 1991. The same man who vowed to “scrap” the Goods and Services Tax in 1993 now supports it vigorously. Ditto Chrétien’s change of heart on the need now to buy the same helicopters for the military that he mocked in 1993. And there is the North American Free Trade Agreement he once denounced and now delights in, along with lesser—but no less obvious— turnabouts.

Through all that, Chrétien has won two majorities, and his approval ratings in public opinion polls seldom dip. One explanation is that Chrétien has more in common with the average Canadian than either side may care to admit. That includes a certain, umm, flexibility of opinion, allowing the speaker to say one thing in private and another in public—a characteristic in evidence around any office water cooler. Another is that politics is filled with supposed truisms—but Chrétien long ago learned that not all of them make sense. Consider five rules that he, like other politicians before him, pays lip service to, but otherwise ignores:

1. Once you’ve made up your mind, stick to it. Well, no, as is obvious from the above. But Chrétien is far from the only offender. Before becoming leader of the Progressive Conservatives, Brian Mulroney supported the 1982 patriation of the Constitution and voiced doubts about the viability of free trade. In office, he reversed gears on both. Pierre Trudeau spent much of the 1974 election campaign mocking wage-and-price controls—and implement-

ed them shortly after. Bear in mind that Chrétien, Mulroney and Trudeau are the only three prime ministers in recent history to win majorities in more than one election.

2.Be consistent in all aspects of your party program. A great rule to follow to become a permanent, principled voice of opposition, as is the case with the New Democratic Party on the left and Reform on the right. But to govern, voters prefer parties offering a sort of ideological buffet, seasoned with selected helpings from both right and left. Chrétien is a conservative Liberal on social and fiscal fronts, while Mulroney was a liberal Conservative. Both built broad bases of support—which continue for the policies Mulroney implemented and Chrétien continues.

3. The caucus accurately reflects the voice of average Canadians. A noble sentiment, and a painful fallacy. MPs’ riding offices

are like open-line radio shows; most callers represent either special-interest groups pushing a cause or are malcontents with a bone to pick. There is nothing wrong in this—but those who speak loudest do not necessarily speak for all. Then, there is the self-interest of individual MPs seeking re-election, which may cause them to pursue projects that don’t necessarily match the goals of either their party or the country. For example, many Liberal MPs believe increased spending (especially within their individual ridings) will help them keep their seats—but is such a thing consistent with the national will, or good?

4. Polls are for dogs. John Diefenbaker famously said that, and it has been fashionable ever since to deride the use of surveys, focus groups and their ilk. But like them or not, polls give an accurate snapshot of public opinion; no leader would, or should, make key decisions without considering them.

5. (a) Pay no heed to the media. True, journalists are no more popular than politicians, and the collective weight of the Parliamentary Press Gallery directly influences public opinion less than, say, a single one-liner on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. But never underestimate the ubiquitous “they-say” factor—the sense that once an idea takes root in the public consciousness, no one knows, or cares, where it comes from, even if the source is the dastardly media.

(b) The media reflect the views of average Canadians. Oh sure—just like caucus, with just as much self-interest. Say it again: never think that those who speak the loudest speak for all. Too often, media members are too impressed by noise volume—starting with their own.

Small wonder, then, that Chrétien and other leaders sometimes conclude that what they say and what they really think need not be precisely the same. Perhaps, in the end, Canadians take the words of their political leaders no more—or less—seriously than their own.