Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

BUSINESS AS USUAL

In times of crisis, Chrétien relies on the familiar

JOHN GEDDES October 8 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

BUSINESS AS USUAL

In times of crisis, Chrétien relies on the familiar

JOHN GEDDES October 8 2001

BUSINESS AS USUAL

In times of crisis, Chrétien relies on the familiar

JOHN GEDDES

Jean Chrétien’s fall political season looked routine before Sept. 11. There were jitters about the economy, but Finance Minister Paul Martin would handle them the same way he had the Asian flu and the peso crisis. There was pressure from some Liberals to inject new life into the aging government, but a modest agenda on the environment, industrial innovation and aboriginal poverty would satisfy the activists. Then smoke, rubble and agony filled the world’s TV screens, and the tidy domestic policy frame around Chrétiens third mandate as prime minister was smashed.

Instead of responding to wholly unprecedented events with extraordinary measures, he has clung tenaciously to the appearance of normalcy. With the world still gaping at the empty space on the New York City skyline, U.S. President George W. Bush set about convincing Americans that this calamity could be turned into a cause. Chrétien has been conveying to Canadians, from that horrible morning on, that the best response to frightening new circumstances is to fall back on the familiar. Parliament would not be recalled early, and neither would the cabinet. His own statements would convey sympathy, never urgency. His visit to New York last Saturday—fully 18 days after the attack and well after other world leaders had toured Ground Zero—came late enough that it amounted to a solemn duty, not a potent political gesture when public opinion on the attacks was still being formed.

Canadians already knew a lot about Chrétien. Now they know that even a wrenching twist of history cannot make him deviate from these traits that define his political style:

HE DOES NOT SPEAK STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART The title of his best-selling autobiography summed up Chrétiens reputation from his days as the feisty utility player of Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet. His carefully nurtured populist image, and his impassioned speech-making during Quebec’s 1980 referendum, earned him a reputation as a straight talker. But he has turned out to be the most guarded of prime ministers, his heart a mystery. “I’m sure the public would like to have some stirring rhetoric,” University of Toronto political science professor and Trudeau biographer Stephen Clarkson said of the nation’s mood after Sept. 11, “but that’s just not the kind of person Jean Chrétien is.” His muted speech in the House on the terrorist attacks made “patience and wisdom” his slogan. His government would not “rush” or be “stampeded” or do “what makes us feel better in the short run.” No clarion cry to action here. No catharsis.

HE GOVERNS FROM THE CENTRE The fact that Chrétien did not call back the cabinet early to deal with the fallout from the U.S. catastrophe surprised many. But not University of Moncton political science professor Donald Savoie, whose influential 1999 book, Governing from the Centre, explains how Chrétien runs things directly from the Prime Minister’s Office, with the finance department as the only other major power centre in the federal system.

The cabinet is no longer the real repository of political clout. So Chrétien relied on a handful of ministers and advisers rather than, say, a special cabinet committee, to direct the day-to-day response to the crisis. “It’s not the way Canada ran the Second World War; we had a war cabinet,” Savoie says. “But that’s the nature of how we govern Canada now. It’s of some concern. We’ve moved to a presidential system, without the checks and balances of the presidential system.”

HE IS ATRUDEAU-ERA LIBERAL ON FOREIGN AND DEFENCE POLICIES Chrétien has avoided seeming too closely aligned with Washington on the reaction to the terrorist attacks. Darrell Bricker, president of public affairs for the polling firm Ipsos-Reid, a says that’s typical of the Sixties’ liberal ll mind-set. “Trudeau was always looking for a Third Option,” Bricker says, “where we would put together something in foreign policy that would balance off other international interests against the U.S.” Looking for ways to stay aloof from Washington means focusing on diplomacy and jj| foreign aid, not armed might.

So Chrétien instinctively avoids war rhetoric and is comfortable with Canada J| playing at most a minor role in any U.S.led military strike against terrorists. Back in 1991, when Brian Mulroney was leading Canada into the U.S.-led coalition that pushed Iraq out of Kuwait, Chrétien, then opposition leader, controversially opposed Canadian involvement in the Gulf War.

And as prime minister, he made the Canadian Forces a particular target for budget cuts. During 1995 to 1999, the main years of the fight to wipe out the deficit, defence spending was slashed by 18 per cent, while spending by all other departments shrank by just four per cent.

HE READS THE POLLS AND KNOWS HOW CANADIANS THINK For those who have slammed him for what they see as an unforgivably blasé response to the terrorist threat, the possibility that Chrétien is actually in tune with Canadians is unsettling. But Bricker argues that he has read the public mood perfectly. An Ipsos-Reid poll found that 73 per cent of Canadians support joining the United States to battle terrorism. But if that meant terrorists might strike back at civilians in Canada, support shrank to just 54 per cent. By contrast, U.S. polls show 89-per-cent support for military action, an overwhelming sentiment that slips to a still-solid 80 per cent if Americans are asked to factor in the likelihood of more terrorist attacks at home, along with economic sacrifices.

In other words, Bushs strong rhetoric resonates with Americans. If Chrétien were to echo it, many Canadians might feel ill at ease. “Caution is probably the right position to take,” says Bricker. “He has a natural nervousness about getting too close to the Americans, combined with an understanding that public opinion is not as firm in Canada on this as it is in the U.S.”

HE’S A MANAGER, NOTAN IMPROVISER Chrétien is not nimble enough to respond creatively to sudden changes in the challenges that confront him. The closest he’s come to political disaster was when Lucien Bouchard unexpectedly took over from Jacques Parizeau to lead the separatist forces in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Suddenly facing a much more daunting adversary, Chrétien looked weak as the federalist side came perilously close to defeat. Yet he went on to craft a methodical, yet bold, permanent policy response. The so-called clarity law, masterminded by Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, will make it much harder for a future Quebec regime to successfully stage a referendum.

Savoie suggests a similar pattern might unfold in the follow-up to Sept. 11. Chretien may have looked flat-footed in the early days of the crisis, but he now has a chance to doggedly push through sound policies in the weeks to come—from banning terrorist fund-raising to making Canadian immigration documents harder to forge. “We’re not asking him for a grand vision or to inspire a nation,” says Savoie. “We’re asking him to manage a government file.”

How Canadians view their Prime Minister’s performance will depend on whether Savoie is right about their limited expectations. If managing the new terrorism file is good enough, Chrétien may yet be judged to have done the job. But if Savoie underestimates the yearning for vision and inspiration in a dark time, then this fall may go down as the point where, in so long a political career, Chrétien finally came up short.