The view from Sussex Drive

Jean Chrétien discusses his role in APEC, the future of the monarchy-and Brian Mulroney

January 11 1999

The view from Sussex Drive

Jean Chrétien discusses his role in APEC, the future of the monarchy-and Brian Mulroney

January 11 1999

The view from Sussex Drive


Jean Chrétien discusses his role in APEC, the future of the monarchy-and Brian Mulroney

THIRTY-SIX YEARS OF national politics have made Jean Chrétien’s creviced features seem an almost-permanent fixture of Canadian politics, and it is no small feat that he has made his familiarity an asset in an age when politicians are generally endured rather than admired. Chrétien prefers to “be underestimated and overachieve the expectation,” as he put it during a 90-minute interview with Maclean’s at the Prime Minister’s residence in Ottawa on Dec. 22. As the midday sun streamed into the living room overlooking the Ottawa River, the Prime Minister took questions from Maclean’s Editor-in-Chief Robert Lewis, National Affairs Columnist Anthony Wilson-Smith and Ottawa Editor Bruce Wallace. The discussion ranged over the monarchy, the APEC pepper spray incident, Quebec, federal-provincial relations, the economy and potential rivals vying for the leadership of his party. Excerpts:

Maclean’s: Thank you very much for inviting us to your home again. Do you plan to stay a while?

Chrétien:Yes, it’s a nice place. It’s a good subsidized housing unit, so why not? Maclean’s: There certainly seemed to be more controversies this past year. Do you find the job is getting easier or more difficult? Chrétien: It’s not easy; it’s not more difficult than I expected. Experience helps. I make jokes about it sometimes, but it’s true. There are really not many problems that appear on my table that I’ve not seen a dozen times. Maclean’s: Do you find with the global economy being what it is that your power has been reduced?

Chrétien: No. But we came from a period where we were financing the government with borrowed money. And that had to end. Maclean’s: But how did you feel last summer when the dollar kept falling, and the advice seemed to be: there’s not much we can do; just sit back and take it?

Chrétien: But it is a reality. You cannot isolate yourself even if you wanted to. You see the debate going on at this moment in Great Britain, for example. They are part of the European Union and they don’t know if they will join the euro [common European currency]. Do you know that the minister of finance of France will have less autonomy with his budget than the premier of Quebec or Ontario or Alberta?

The premiers have more freedom in taxation than there will be [in Europe]. The flexibility in taxation in Canada varies very much from one province to another. Compare Alberta to Newfoundland: it is very different. Apparently in Europe, there will not be much difference between one country and another. Maclean’s: Prime Minister, do we still need a monarch?

Chrétien: It’s not on the agenda of government for two reasons: you need the consent of the 10 provincial governments, and you have to amend the Constitution with unanimity in Canada. And you know how easy that is. So how can you achieve it? Maclean’s: But do you favour the idea of

having a debate about it at least?

Chrétien: I don’t want to debate it personally. I have enough problems with the separatists in Quebec and I don’t want to have problems with the monarchists in Ontario. But it is a legitimate debate.

Maclean’s: You don’t have a personal feeling about it, in your heart?

Chrétien: It is an institution. You know I’m careful about institutions. It’s not part of my family history—Quebecers are not enthusiastic about the monarchy. But on the other hand, it is important for others. In a diversified society like ours, you have to respect the desire of others even if you would like to change it.

For me it is not a priority. But if it is moving, as it is possible in Australia, I think that probably New Zealand will follow and that will become a debate of actuality at that time in Canada. But it’s not on the cabinet table today. Not tomorrow either.

Maclean’s: With what’s happening to President Clinton in the United States, what do you think about the attention that the public now pays to the private lives of politicians? Is it right to do this or is it a private matter?

Chrétien: It’s a private matter. The poll your magazine had on that [showed] people think that the private lives of people have to be respected, especially in the kind of society we

have. I’m happily married, for a long time. But today people divorce or they don’t get married and we have [other kinds of] couples that exist in our society. And we’re not asking questions. Maclean’s: If you knew that a member of your cabinet was being unfaithful, would that cause you to remove them or speak to them about it?

Chrétien: That’s not my business. Some are divorced. Some are remarried. I don’t ask these questions. I look at the competence of the person. Private life does not concern me. Maclean’s: It’s not part of the process of screening?

Chrétien: But then you go into an inquisition. And a lot of people have been extremely successful in life and have a terrible private life. And others have the perfect private life and were terribly unsuccessful in public life. So it’s two different things.

Maclean’s: How do you feel about what’s happening to President Clinton? When you came to office you said it wasn’t a good idea for a prime minister to be friends with an American president, but you and he have actually become close.

Chrétien: Yes, we are friends and I would like him to be able to devote all his time to his job. He’s a good president. We have good relations with the United States. I have good relations with him, on a personal, professional basis.

Maclean’s: There’s a rumour he beat you at golf. Is that true?

Chrétien: This is a state secret. Maclean’s: Are the problems in Washington going to hurt us? Chrétien: No. The economy of the United States is doing well and it’s important for us because more than 80 per cent of our trade is with them. £ And on a political level, the level of hot § files is not great compared to what it I used to be.

I Maclean’s: Are you developing a “ more aggressive stance with the United £ States, striking your own line a little more independently than the Mulroney government did?

Chrétien: We did it since the beginning. I said I don’t want to look like the 51st state of America, so I always had very businesslike relations with the administration. I don’t think I’ve become a buddy of the president. Maclean’s: But where have you drawn the line?

Chrétien: I went to Cuba, for example. We pushed them very hard on land mines. The president [and I] had phone calls in the middle of the night on that. He wanted to sign [the land-mines treaty]. He was all traumatized about his decision.

Maclean’s: Are you getting a lot of heat from Washington on the question of dropping

NATO’s first-strike nuclear policy?

Chrétien: Not yet but it is one policy where we have a difference. And you have to understand, the one good thing with this president is he loves a debate. He’s a bit like Trudeau that way. That’s a difference from other presidents I’ve met where they came and had their notes and read them. Clinton loves to debate. So when you have an issue like that, he does not get mad—it gives him a chance to debate. He will want to convince me that I’m wrong and I will want to convince him that he is wrong. We might end up not agreeing. Maclean’s: Looking back, do you have any regrets, or would you do things a little differently, with the APEC situation? Chrétien: This notion that I told the police what to do is a bit ludicrous. I never talked to the solicitor-general or the head of the RCMP or anybody about that. I had other things to do.

Maclean’s: What about the memos that purport to quote you and your people? Chrétien: Yes, they [refer to] PM. Do you know who PM was? It was basic journalism to try to check. It was Phil Murray, who is the head of the [RCMP]. It’s not great research work not to find that out. Security is not my

job. They impose security on me. Even my own security I’ve nothing to do with. I tried to cut it down. They came back and they said: “It’s not your business Prime Minister, we are protecting you.” So since the incident up here [an intruder armed with a knife broke into 24 Sussex in 1995], I have more. It’s their job. There were other incidents with the police elsewhere in the country. The police decide these things.

I’m not preoccupied [by the inquiry]. I’m offended when people say I tried to take away rights from Canadians. I’m the father of the charter of rights. I gave a lot of rights to natives and so on. But I hope that the commissioner will look into all that and find out. I’m not nervous. And I think there will be other incidents like that There is provision in Canada for demonstrations anywhere I go. And I organized some good ones when I was a student.

Maclean’s: Prime Minister, you don’t seem to be the best of friends with Mr. Mulroney these days.

Chrétien: I don’t see him.

Maclean’s: And he’s had a lot of not very nice things to say about you.

Chrétien: Well, I don’t say anything against him.

Maclean’s: Is there bad blood between the two of you on a personal level?

Chrétien: I don’t know. I don’t see him. I know I don’t talk to him.

Maclean’s: He says you tried to call him after the Airbus affair and he would not take your telephone call, for example.

Chrétien: I don’t remember that I tried to call him.

Maclean’s: How would you describe the nature of your feelings towards Mr. Mulroney? Chrétien: He’s been a prime minister of Canada and he’s done his best. And now there’s a new prime minister of Canada. We did not agree politically, but my path is not crossing his and I never refer to him. I don’t refer to any of my predecessors. Pearson, yes. We had a celebration for Pearson and I was very happy to make a statement.

Maclean’s: But how do you feel when Mr. Mulroney argues you’ve simply implemented

‘This notion that I told the police what to do is a bit ludicrous’

his agenda, and taken credit for it.

Chrétien: It’s a political point he’s trying to make. I know the reality is when he left he had a $42-billion deficit, increasing every year. And I know that we took it from 42 to zero. But if it is his agenda, fine. Look at the results. And that’s it.

Maclean’s: We see an awful lot of young people leaving this country, the so-called brain drain. A lot of professional people are leaving. Chrétien: It’s not new. I’ve heard this argument since I entered politics. There are always people who want to think that the grass is greener elsewhere.

Maclean’s: What you do hear is that the high tax level is a factor.

Chrétien: Yes, but the margin is not that big. And what about payroll taxes—they are much higher in the United States than in Canada. And the quality of life, the crime level. So you choose to live where you want to live. Look at hockey players. Most would prefer to play in Montreal but the money is bigger in the United States. That’s life. They have a bigger TV market. It’s the same thing for the Swedes and the Czechs.

Maclean’s: But shouldn’t we be trying to do something about this? We’re losing doctors, we’re losing engineers, we’re losing hockey players.

Chrétien: Yes but I’m asking you: is it new? Some people are coming from Great Britain to live in Canada to have a life here. Is it a testimony against the government of Britain? Some people, for all sorts of reasons, prefer to go elsewhere. [Our] quality of life is very good and I don’t think that people stay in Canada just for money.

Maclean’s: Do you see people organizing to replace you at all?

Chrétien: I don’t know. It’s for you to give me that information if you see it.

Maclean’s: We do see it, occasionally. But a little less so lately.

Chrétien: Fine. But they might be wasting their time. You know it’s normal that people want to succeed me in the party. I would be extremely disappointed if there was nobody that had neither the talent or the desire to take over. As long as they respect my authority—and they do, all of them. I know many ministers who would like to take over from me eventually. There were a lot of people who got impatient—like John Turner, perhaps Donald Macdonald—because Mr. Trudeau stayed too long. But Mr. Trudeau was winning. So we kept Mr. Trudeau for 16 years. Maclean’s: But you have no date in your head for yourself, no target then?

Chrétien: Well some mornings I do, and the morning after I don’t have it anymore. It depends on the day. □