Cover

A Case of Business as Usual

For Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, government grants are a way of political life

Bruce Wallace February 14 2000
Cover

A Case of Business as Usual

For Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, government grants are a way of political life

Bruce Wallace February 14 2000

A Case of Business as Usual

Cover

For Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, government grants are a way of political life

Bruce Wallace

If anyone is looking for an act of

contrition from the Liberal government over the unaccounted millions of dollars that seeped through the federal human resources department, don’t expect Jean Chrétien to deliver it. The Prime Minister's reaction to trouble last week was anything but apologetic. Coming out of a Liberal caucus meeting in Ottawa, Chrétien stubbornly defended the programs that are at the heart of the criticism buffeting his government. “When we have money for the creation of jobs for young people, creation of jobs for the unemployed, training for those who want to improve their situation so they will be able to earn money later, I will not apologize,” he declared. With that, Chrétien signalled he was applying his usual damage-control techniques: ministers will be defended, problems minimized, mistakes never admitted.

Whether that approach will, in this case, satisfy Canadians remains to be seen. This is not the first government to be caught wasting taxpayers’ money, but it is the first such scandal to break in a political environment of public sector belttightening and an overstressed health-care system. Chrétiens defence of Ottawa helping students get that hard-to-find summer job will have to compete with television images of Wiarton Willie the groundhog and his handler’s federally sponsored $50,000-a-year budget. Mindful of the potential for a huge backlash, the Liberals adopted a strategy aimed at getting the focus off the mismanaged money, and onto what they saw as the safer ideological debate over whether government should be spending money to create jobs at all.

Chrétien leaves no doubt he is comfortable arguing the latter. “If you are a supporter of the party that wants to reduce the taxes of the rich and cut the money of the poor, fine,” he

snapped. “I’m a Liberal. I’m not like that.” Despite years of deficit fighting, job-creation programs have flourished under the Chrétien Liberals. “The Prime Minister would not show callous indifference to a program with flaws,” says prominent Ontario Liberal and Chrétien ally David Smith. “But he thinks these kinds of programs are, from time to time, a legitimate exercise for the federal government.” And Liberal MPs enthusiastically welcome the chance to sprinkle federal cheques around their ridings. Aides also say Chrétien is very comfortable ordering senior officials not to throw up undue constraints on MPs trying to push projects through the bureaucracy for their constituency.

If that smacks of “old politics”—and even some of Chretien’s friends acknowledge it does—it does not unsettle the Prime Minister. He is more likely to boast than apologize for the millions of dollars of job creation grants that have flowed to his Saint-Maurice riding—some to finance dubious hotel projects. While aides urge the wisdom of investing in more proven schemes such as telephone call centres, Chrétien persists in his long-held—if economically questionable—belief that building hotels will boost tourism and combat unemployment in his depressed home region. In fact, if the Chrétien entourage betrayed any frustration last week, it was over Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart’s initially scathing descriptions of the mismanagement in her department. She broke one of Chrétiens cardinal rules: downplay problems.

But the unfolding drama does have one twist not usually found in the Prime Minister’s crisis-management script. Chrétien prefers to let ministers battle their own way out of trouble. By stepping in to rescue a floundering Stewart on live television last week, the Prime Minister has now put his credibility on the line. It may have been an instinctive act—the Prime Minister drawn in by his personal feelings towards Stewart, whose father, former Ontario Liberal leader Robert Nixon, is a close friend. Or Chrétien may have simply felt the need to take control of a spiralling crisis that threatened his government’s reputation for fiscal probity and competence. Whatever the reason for throwing Stewart a lifeline, Chrétien now finds himself in the path of a gathering storm, his own fortunes more closely tied to the damage it leaves behind. 03