Columns

Life in the PM’s bunker

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 30 2000
Columns

Life in the PM’s bunker

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 30 2000

Life in the PM’s bunker

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

For the first five years of his tenure as prime minister, Jean Chrétien was terrifically well served by Peter Donolo, the whip-smart, pun-loving and thoroughly decent guy who was, by almost everyone’s reckoning, the most effective communications adviser to any PM in decades. The boyish-looking Donolo more often than not managed to appease both the PM and the press gallery: anyone who has ever held that job will say that you can usually manage one or the other, but seldom both. Donolo knew how to keep the PM loose—and he also had enough influence to speak frankly to Chrétien, and have his advice heeded. Perhaps the most important counsel Donolo gave to the PM in the early days of government was to lay low and let his ministers do the talking. People, Donolo said, don’t want their prime minister to be in their faces—or they’re likely to opt for a change of view.

Donolo has been gone for two years—to a deserved reward as Canada’s consul general in Milan—and you wonder how much Chrétien thinks about him. Not enough, apparendy, to heed his advice: these days, there’s no Canadian leader who’s more front and centre with voters. Ask the average Canadian to name as many cabinet ministers as they can, and chances are that most would know Paul Martin, many would know Sheila Copps, and perhaps Herb Gray, Allan Rock and Brian Tobin, and they’d shake their heads after that. In Quebec, subtract Tobin and Rock and add Stéphane Dion—the bête noire of nationalists—and maybe Pierre Pettigrew.

The PM’s supporters argue that his high visibility is inevitable after so many years, and that it’s also the result of his determination to personally back beleaguered ministers. He put his credibility on the line for Jane Stewart during the controversy this year over mismanagement and politically motivated spending by her human resources department. He helped shield Dion in taking charge of the so-called clarity bill—which sets ground rules for secession—-when it was vigorously denounced in Quebec. And there he was last week, waving off a devastating report by Auditor General Denis Desautels documenting waste in a variety of departments.

That willingness to get his hands dirty can seem commendable: the PM is there for his people, through thick and thin. But that notion is problematic in the way it’s applied. Chrétiens increased time in the public eye is largely because of the general weakness of his cabinet—he can’t trust many of them to manage or defend themselves effectively. From the class of’93, people like André Ouellet, Roy MacLaren, Marcel Massé and now Lloyd Axworthy have moved on, while the Libs have done little to refresh their talent pool. (One exception is the highly respected economist and new candidate John McCallum.) If the measure of a good leader is the ability

to attract and keep competent people, the PM barely gets a passing grade compared with other previous leaders. Pierre Trudeau had heavyweights like Marc Lalonde, Donald Macdonald and Chrétien, while Brian Mulroney could count on the likes of Don Mazankowski, Mike Wilson and Joe Clark.

It’s normal to have some turnover after seven years in office—especially with another election in the offing. Even in the innermost circle, loyalists like Donolo and Penny Collenette, the PM’s former appointments secretary, moved on to other things. Over time, the circle of trusted advisers becomes even smaller—and more annoyed with all the forces on the outside, pressing up against them. When bunker mentality sets in, every issue becomes Them versus Us. And there are so many enemies: the opposition parties, netdesome reporters, Quebec sovereigntists, ungrateful westerners and Canadians who simply want to hear that the government will manage their money responsibly. Not to mention those traitorous Libs who wish the PM would go away, and let Paul Martin have his shot.

In such a world, protecting loyalists matters more than discerning between right and wrong—so when there’s a problem, the leader defends, delays, denies and dissembles. That behaviour distinguishes petty parish-pump politicians from real statesmen, who acknowledge problems, try to fix them and then drive on. From the outside, you’d think it would be appropriate for the PM to promise, after the Desautels report, that the government will do better in managing money. Instead, an edgy PM played block-and-tackle with a Toronto Star reporter who dared question him, while his MPs caused a hearing on the report to be cancelled because, they said, they couldn’t find the room where it was to be held. So are they unspeakably arrogant, or just hopelessly inept?

But in some ways with the Libs, the more times change, the more their mind-set remains the same. On Nov. 4, it will be seven years since the first Chrétien cabinet was sworn in. One highlight that day took place after the ceremony at Rideau Hall. The ministers trooped out, and climbed into minibuses. The symbolism of such transport after the limousines of the Mulroney era was obvious. Because most reporters attended the swearing-in, few were at the buses’ destination point behind the Centre Block on Parliament Hill. There, they were met by a fleet of government limousines—one for each minister. The minibuses vanished, never to be seen again. It still stands as a classic example of one of the Libs’ unwritten rules of governance: if you pretend often enough that you stand for one thing, that matters more than what you actually do. You learn to think like that after a while, insulated, isolated and out of touch, inside a gilded bunker.