Backstage

Of gossip and guessing

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 12 1999
Backstage

Of gossip and guessing

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 12 1999

Of gossip and guessing

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

For those who wonder, here is the definitive word on Jean Chretien’s future, brought to you by the Ottawa press gallery. He plans

to resign as prime minister. Or maybe not. If he does quit, he will wait until the fall of 2000 to do so. Or he’ll run in another election, and then quit. Or stay in the job till he is too feeble to address even a golf ball. But before the Prime Minister decides, he will shuffle his cabinet. Or not. That decision might come soon, or later. It could involve ministers you have actually heard of, or not. In the meantime, the gallery insists, the Liberals are discussing the idea of a shared currency with the United States. Or not—since senior cabinet members, starting with the Prime Minister, deny such plans.

Now you know as much—or little—about those subjects as any member of the press gallery, even though they’ve spent most of their time recently thinking, talking and writing about little else. Along with death, taxes, and pontificating about the need for tax cuts, the staples of Ottawa life—such as it is—involve gossip about what’s going on in cabinet, and guessing the shelf life of political leaders. It’s sort of a wonk’s version of the old hockey Hot Stove League, where the guys got together and second-guessed coaching strategy over beers. It happens in Ottawa without fail every summer, during the slow, silly season. What’s interesting about it—if anything—is what it says about the way that politicians and journalists interact, and feed off each other.

Anyone who says they know the Prime Minister’s plans for the future is fibbing. Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney both conducted business-as-usual up to the day they announced departure plans. This prime minister will do the same. Governing involves preparing for the future: a prime minister who acknowledges not having one has no relevance, or real power. And it’s possible that not even Chrétien knows what he plans to do a year or two from now: he is 65, an age at which people reflect on an ongoing basis about such concerns as health, amount of time spent with grandchildren, and the wishes of their spouse. If he does know, the people outside his family who are likely privy to his thoughts—such as chief of staff Jean Pelletier, senior adviser Eddie Goldenberg, and Montreal businessman John Rae, his longtime friend—won’t tell. As a general rule in such matters, those who know, don’t talk, and those who talk, don’t know.

The same is true of cabinet shuffles. In 1993, when he appointed his first cabinet, Chrétien didn’t decide who would fill four portfolios until the night before the swearing-in ceremony. That didnt stop many journalists and putative ministers from speaking knowledgeably of the cabinet’s compo-

sition for weeks before that.

Both subjects are classic examples of political nonstories: they involve speculation about something that can’t be con-

firmed because it has not happened, and may never take place. That doesn’t stop either from being a popular topic because in Ottawa, just as on the stock market, even supposed knowledge is power—especially when it has an inside feel. Journalists like speculating about the politicians they cover because, among other things, it shows they’re in the loop, makes them part of the story, and allows them to reward some people and punish others in their coverage. It’s been said that if you want to identify a journalist’s best source, look to see who he or she brings as a “date” to the press gallery dinner every year. Similarly, watch how some journalists promote little-known or dark-horse candidates for prominent cabinet positions, or as the next prime minister. By most measures, Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin is a distinct longshot to succeed Chrétien. He speaks only halting French, and a premier s chair, especially in a small, impoverished province, is historically one of the worst launching pads for the prime ministers position. But Tobin became a great friend of some reporters in his Ottawa days, and that’s reflected in the upbeat descriptions of him these days as a bona fide contender in an eventual race.

Then, there’s the fundamental disconnect between life amid Ottawas political culture, and real life elsewhere. A veteran political organizer who spent many years in Ottawa before moving to Toronto observes that he was shocked by one immediate difference: in Ottawa, everything revolves around politics, while elsewhere, nothing does. In a place where your social circle routinely includes civil servants, political aides, people who rely on government contracts, and a journalist or two, the shuffling of a deputy minister, and the dislocation that causes through the ranks, is like a volcano’s tremor.

But the impact of that stops around Ottawa’s city limits. Today, governments win praise for doing less, not more. Chrétien, a master of minimalism, understands that, which puts him more in synch with the public than most journalists covering him: they resent the fact his inaction breeds fewer stories. There’s a legitimate argument that Parliament, the place where all Canadians are represented, deserves close scrutiny, even if most people ignore it. But when reporters obsess about non-events like the Prime Minister’s future and the fate of cabinet sources, the notion of “national interest” is replaced by its polar opposite: self-indulgence. Beyond Ottawa’s constricting confines, plenty of disaffected readers and viewers would be happy to explain the difference.