Backstage

The need for privacy in public life

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 23 1998
Backstage

The need for privacy in public life

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 23 1998

The need for privacy in public life

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

About a month after the 1993 federal election, Jean Charest and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien bumped into each other in a corridor of the House of Commons. Despite their shared Quebec roots and time in Parliament, the two men had never yet met privately. They said hello, and then the Prime Minister told Charest: “Drop by and see me some time.” They subsequently met in Chrétien’s office on Parliament Hill, and spent more than an hour chatting about such mutual experiences as the pain of losing a leadership race. The Prime Minister, Charest later told an acquaintance, “impressed me more than I had expected. There is a depth I hadn’t sensed before in public exchanges.”

The warming-up period lasted until the night of the Oct. 30, 1995, referendum, when Chrétien infuriated the Progressive Conservative leader by interrupting his nationally televised speech with one of his own. But one lesson from that exchange still rings true: perhaps more than ever, there is an important place for private actions in public life. Consider several recent examples—with both positive and negative results. For one, political leaders in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have been sniping at each other from a distance for decades over the outcome of the 1969 Churchill Falls hydroelectric agreement.

Formally scheduled discussions aimed at resolving the dispute—and Newfoundland’s lament that it takes only a tiny fraction of electricity sales—always seemed doomed from the outset by angry public rhetoric on both sides. Then, in January, 1997, Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard and Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin ended up together on the Team Canada economic mission to Asia. In quiet, informal discussions, as Tobin recounted last week, the two men began discussing alternative solutions. The result was an agreement on the development of the Lower Churchill River that will now be subject to public hearings.

Similarly, almost from the day that British Columbia Premier Glen Clark and his New Democratic Party were elected in 1996, they and key members of the province’s business community have been at war over economic policy. That atmosphere was discouraging potential investors and poisoning co-operative efforts between the two sides. Finally, Clark and major business figures, led by entrepreneur Jimmy Pattison, began a series of closed-door meetings aimed at clearing the air. Since then, Clark has shuffled his cabinet and begun considering several concessions on fiscal issues, resulting in at least a temporary truce.

Meanwhile, witness the unseemly spectacle that emerged in Charest’s dilemma over whether to remain in Ottawa or pursue

the leadership of the Quebec Liberal party. It demonstrates that there are often times when private words matter much more than public claims. By last week, even as Charest continued agonizing, it was apparent that the credibility of almost everyone involved was damaged, ranging from the Tory caucus in Ottawa to Quebec federalists to Charest himself—even though he had done nothing wrong.

The reason is that because of the pressures and existing climate in politics today, almost all participants in the drama were obliged to lie or fudge when it came to expressing their real feelings. Many senior Tories are privately sympathetic to the notion that Charest could serve Canadians best as leader of the Quebec Liberals. At the same time, some, despite their affection for Charest, saw this as a chance to rejuvenate the party, especially in the West, if Alberta Premier Ralph Klein could be persuaded to come to Ottawa. Both issues are crucial to the future of the Tories and, perhaps, the country. As well, some would like Charest to go because they have their own eyes on his job. Despite all that, observing party solidarity means that real debate on the issue was stifled or held in private. In public, most Tories chanted the mantra that Charest must remain at all costs.

For Quebec federalists, and provincial Liberals, there are different reasons to lie. They worried about appearing to want Charest too much—because, if he did not go, their second choice would appear too weak. Federal Liberals in Ottawa, who want to control federalist strategy themselves, retreated behind demonstrably false arguments—such as the claim that no one makes that much difference to a country’s future. But without René Lévesque, the Parti Québécois might never have gained legitimacy; without Pierre Trudeau, the federalist No side might have lost the referendum in 1980; without Lucien Bouchard, the Yes side would have been dead in the water in 1995. Charest could hold that same power.

Then there is Charest himself, who was immediately presumed to be fibbing when he insisted that he did not want the Liberal job. He was pilloried further when he stopped discussing the issue in public. There was little patience for the fact that for almost a week, while on the road, he was unable to discuss the most important decision of his life privately with his wife and two children.

The result is a culture in which public figures are encouraged to lie—or presumed to be doing so even when they are not. One reason is the media, and their belief in the right to know at once, and at all costs. Another is the perception that a public figure has no right to private thoughts or actions. The result: even as respect for politicians hits its lowest ebb, the demands to monitor their personal life are greater than ever before.

Poor Jean Charest—all he wanted was a chance to discuss his decision first with his wife and children