Backstage

A little help from his friends

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 14 2000
Backstage

A little help from his friends

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 14 2000

A little help from his friends

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Backstage

Shortly after the 1993 federal election, then-agriculture minister Ralph Goodale gave an interview to a reporter in which he discussed complex trade issues at length. Despite the profusion of words, the journalist later wrote, Goodale didn’t say a thing of substance. When the article appeared, an aide showed it to Jean Chrétien, who snickered with delight. “Now that,” he said, “is how a minister should talk.”

That attitude is what makes the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for the “Clarity Act”—the legislation that seeks to impose straight talk on Quebec secessionists—so remarkable. For the most part, Chrétien considers full disclosure an ««necessary evil. That’s one reason the Prime Minister loves Jane Stewart: she’s the only person in cabinet (now that Sergio Marchi is gone) who makes Goodale sound concise and precise. Stewart’s speech is a form of rhetorical Muzak, with the same clichés endlessly replayed in a single unchanging, carefully modulated loop, no matter the question or circumstances.

Whether those performances are driven by deliberate obfuscation or horrendous advice from handlers is as unclear as the manner by which Stewart’s human resources department lost track of up to $ 1 billion of taxpayers’ money. But those questions don’t ultimately matter, since nothing too bad will ever happen to Stewart on Chrétiens watch. Stewart’s dad is former Ontario Liberal leader Bob Nixon, one of the Prime Minister’s oldest friends, and Chrétien recalls bouncing her on his knee when she was a child. Five days before the 1995 referendum, when the Prime Minister broke down and wept in caucus because of disarray on the federalist side, Stewart immediately offered a reassuring hug, and persuaded him to stay in the room. Few others would dare approach the proud, private Chrétien at such a time. Last week, the Prime Minister responded in kind, deflecting a media blitzkrieg on her by offering himself up instead, and then doing everything shy of pistol-whipping his caucus into publicly defending her. Some Liberals think Stewart is his choice to succeed him—though after the last two weeks, that’s not likely.

Chrétiens defence of Stewart, like his strategic embrace of clarity, runs contrary to his professed views. In 1991, he told the House of Commons that “if there is any bungling in a department,” the “minister will have to take full responsibility.” He also once said that “in politics, there is no room for friendship”—because personal considerations cloud the hard, necessary decisions a leader must make. But that was when the Liberals were in opposition—and this is now the second half of a second majority term of government. In opposition, he

was seeking to win new friends and influence more people. But after six years of government, Chrétien has all the influence he needs, and the only friends who matter are those, like Stewart, committed to keeping him in office.

The key to government lies in administering to what are sometimes called the Five P’s: people, process, policy, politics and power. Politicians are most precise about policies in opposition, when there is no chance to implement them. In office, they discover that the process of passing legislation is complex, so they swallow suspicions about the civil servants who advise them, and make nice. Internal politics can also be crucial: you need influence and allies to win support for pet bills, and to establish them as legislative priorities. And if you’re seeking more money as a cabinet minister for your department, you compete with colleagues also pushing projects. So it pays to accumulate credit with the person in power— and the easiest way is to show blind loyalty.

What’s missing in those equations is the fifth component: people, the ordinary Canadians who are supposed to be the priority. A government caught doling out cash indiscriminately—in this case to some groups that didn’t even apply —should be contrite, and prepared to accept blame. But Chrétien believes that being prime minister means never having to say you’re sorry. He won’t blame Stewart, or predecessor Pierre Pettigrew, one of the government’s only ministers popular with the Quebec media. And it’s inconvenient to blame civil servants because Mel Cappe, the deputy minister who oversaw the mess, is now clerk of the Privy Council, working directly alongside Chrétien.

In political circles, “Beltway Syndrome” refers to the belief in government that the people you deal with firsthand are the only ones who matter. It’s most often found in secondterm governments, such as this one. In 1993, the Liberals seemed serious about changing their previous profligate lifestyle: to balance the budget, they cut spending, cancelled programs, and didn’t mind ticking off traditional allies. But really, they’re like those overweight people who go for quickfix diets, starving themselves long enough to slim down. As soon as everyone takes notice, they let their belts out, and tub up again. Giddy with post-deficit euphoria, the Libs have rediscovered gluttony. Rather than apologize, they rationalize—insisting their unannounced, uncontrolled, unsupervised multibillion-dollar spending is good for Canada. Now, senior Liberals suggest the next budget will contain $4 billion in new spending. More ice cream for all— whether you want it or not.