Jean Chrétien went too far when he tried to implement One Man Rule
AS THE DAY of Jean Chrétien’s forced resignation recedes, it is becoming clear that what brought him down was not Paul Martin’s impatience, but Chrétien’s own distorted view of prime ministerial power. The near decade he has spent in office is characterized by his rude attempts to move the country from One Party Rule (which according to the Liberals’ catechism is their divine right) to One Man Rule. And that, even the most loyal Liberals could no longer stomach.
He was one tough mother, unable or unwilling to demonstrate grace under pressure, or under anything else. He treated his parliamentary caucus like a servile retinue instead of the source of his power, and it was Martin’s recognition of the difference that allowed him to steal the party away from its leader.
Under Chrétien, the PMO became not just action central but a kangaroo court. Every decision that counted was made in his office. Patronage appointments required only one qualification: blood-oath loyalty to Big Jean. Being a faithful Liberal was no longer enough.
Trying to sum up the Chrétien decade is difficult because apart from the Clarity Bill and wiping out the deficit, he leaves behind little memorable legislation and not a single memorable phrase, sentence or thought. Though he won three majorities, he did almost nothing with them except to clear his desk of the pesky daily annoyances of high office. Popular mandates can be revolutionary instruments, not only because of the political clout they bestow on the winners but for the imaginative policies and brave actions they can inspire.
Chrétien’s repertoire of original thought was limited to the audacious notion that he was qualified to be prime minister of Canada. This outrageous idea took wings without any magical conversions in his personal character, expanded view of the country, or modification of his
autocratic operational code.
His greatest boast, that he won three general elections, is dubious at best. He did win those majorities, but not because he was Jean Chrétien. It was precisely because he wasn’t Kim Campbell (1993), Preston Manning (1997), or Stockwell Day (2000) that he won each contest. During his time in office no acceptable alternatives appeared in the wings except for Paul Martin, whose balancing of the budget turned out to be the government’s major accomplishment. The fact that the finance minister deservedly received most of the credit turned him into the PM’s nemesis.
Prime ministers ought to be judged not by what they do day to day, but by their greatest moments. Two such occasions stand out during the Chrétien years. The first was the 1995 cliff-edge referendum defeat, so close that 27,000 ballots cast the other way would have realized Premier Jacques Parizeau’s dream of an independent Quebec. Afterwards, according to witnesses, Chrétien broke down before his caucus instead of trying to rally the nation. The second occasion, of course, was 9/11, and not an evocative word or gesture survive from his reactions to that epochally tragic event.
One explanation may be that Chrétien throughout his reign has suffered from a bad case of Dorothy Joudrie syndrome. (She was the Calgary socialite who in 1995 shot her estranged husband six times with a .25 calibre semi-automatic, but got off an attempted murder charge because the
Chrétien’s repertoire of original thought was limited to the audacious notion that he was qualified to be prime minister of Canada
jury bought the argument that she had been acting “in a robotic mode” that rendered her acts involuntary.) This mood of listless pre-ordination characterized most of Chrétien’s initiatives, and it is entirely in character that his only (excuse the expression) concrete legacy will most likely be a four-laned Trans-Canada Highway. (Admittedly, “Hey honey, let’s drag race The Jean Chrétien tonight!” does have a certain ring to it.)
Even with the Clarity Bill, which prevents Quebec’s unilateral secession, there is considerable irony in the fact that Jean Chrétien sponsored anything having to do with clarity. It was virtually impossible to follow his train of thought. He turned incoherence into an art form, and it served him well. How do you attack a politician when you’re never sure of what he said?
What made Jean Chrétien so untouchable, until now, was that he seemed to truly feel comfortable in his skin and had the knack of connecting with ordinary Canadians, who believed that he was one of them. By the time he came to power in 1993, Canadian politics had long been a blood sport, dating all the way back to the Diefenbaker-Pearson feud of the 1960s, the Trudeau Revolution of the 1970s and the turbulent Mulroney decade that followed. Voters had grown tired of politicians threatening plagues of locusts and other disasters if their constitutional wet dreams were rejected. For a generation, Canada appeared to be run for the benefit of blow-dried Central Canadian elitists and their self-serving Perrier agendas.
Jean Chrétien’s elevation to the prime ministership injected into this stupefying environment a restful mood of permanent summer doldrums. Here was a guy who was allergic to visionary politics and never confronted the public with problems, challenges or bad news. He not only understood but shared the bafflement of most Canadians with a world that was changing faster than their comprehension of it.
These parlous times require a political leader far more articulate, flexible and inspiring. Someone who will make us look back at the Chrétien years as a wasted and troubling interregnum. lifi
Peter C. Newman’s column appears monthly. firstname.lastname@example.org
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