Sometime soon—maybe as early as this week, maybe as late as December—Jean Chrétien will throw in the towel, prorogue the House of Commons and effectively bring an end to his decade as prime minister. He will still have the job title. He may keep it until February, or he may hand it abruptly to Paul Martin after next week’s Liberal leadership convention. The distance between an “early” and a “late” retirement is shrinking so rapidly it now obsesses only the two men concerned, a few bored press gallery hacks, and the odd Liberal backbencher with dreams of a ministerial promotion.
What matters is not the precise date of change so much as the simple fact of it. Ottawa’s parliamentary precincts have been a change-free zone for much of the last decade. The locals can barely hide their impatience for a new chapter to begin.
Political staffers who were too closely identified with the Chrétien regime have been clearing out of town. So-and-so is off to study in London. Someone else has moved to Toronto to work for Dalton McGuinty, Ontario’s new Liberal premier. Still others are preparing to run for Parliament, preferring the mercy of the electorate to that of Martin’s chief of staff, whoever that will be.
This is what happens every time a new regime sets up shop on the banks of the Rideau. One of the first things a cub reporter notices on Parliament Hill is that even an organization as large as a ministry or a government takes its personality from the person at the top. Call it the auteur theory of public administration. Many film critics believe a film represents the director’s vision, no matter how big the cast and crew or who wrote the script. In just the same way, a minister—and all the more so a prime minister—determines not only the priorities of a department or a government, but its personality, its quirks and its flaws.
Brian Mulroney’s Ottawa was flamboyant, chummy, a who-do-you-know town in which cronyism and connections determined advancement. (Well, everyone’s Ottawa is like that, but Mulroney’s was an extreme case.) Pierre Trudeau’s capital, especially in his first mandate, was an endless policy seminar at some Jesuit boarding school of the mind. Technocrats and policy experts refined their planning grids while the real world, ungrateful in its messiness, declined to perform as the charts and the binders said it should.
Canadians will soon see more than just a new leader. PAUL WELLS examines the coming regime change, while JOHN GEDDES weighs the Ins and Outs.
If you mentioned planning to Trudeau in the morning, Chrétien once joked, you would have his attention all day. It was precisely the sort of joke Chrétien would make, because planning is the sort of thing he would rarely do. Chrétien trusted his ability to improvise more than he trusted any schedule or formula concocted by any egghead with a pocket protector. He had no patience for detail, or any illusions about his ability to explain details comprehensibly. He clocked the half-life of useful talk at about 10 minutes, and reserved a particular class of wrath for anyone who dared be long-winded in his presence.
“First item,” he said at his first cabinet meeting after the 1993 election.
Which reminds me: he could be a stubborn cuss, too. Those helicopters are still cancelled. They are going to stay cancelled until his last day on the job—even if it means soldiers who need to fly have to flap their arms to do it.
So in Chrétien’s Ottawa, if you wanted to catch somebody leaving a meeting, you had to show up a half-hour before it was scheduled to end.
If you wanted information about a particular department’s plans for next year, you might as well make something up, because nobody was sure about next week yet.
If you were looking for gossip, you could look somewhere else, because the people closest to Chrétien had a handy little reminder of their place in the pecking order: “Those who know don’t talk. And those who talk don’t know.”
MUM’S THE WORD
Soon enough, the whole city was cast to the director’s vision. The history of Chrétien’s Ottawa will inevitably be skewed because it will be written by, or about, the very few people in it who had any flamboyance or indiscipline at all: people like Brian Tobin, who fought a fish war once, or Warren Kinsella, the strategist whose scrappy instincts warmed the boss’s heart but whose cockiness actually made him a rarity during his occasional stints in the boss’s Ottawa.
CHRÉTIEN trusted his ability to improvise more than he trusted any schedule or formula cooked up by an egghead with a pocket protector. He didn’t like details.
Most of the people who rose in Chrétien’s Ottawa were so reserved, low-key, goal-driven and invisible they might as well be monks. Twenty years from now, nobody will be spinning yarns about wild nights at the press club with Taras Zalusky, who was Jane Stewart’s chief of staff over at Human Resources, or Ken Polk, who wrote the funny bits in Chrétien’s speeches but who was struck dumb on the rare occasions his job required that he speak to a journalist. Guys like Zalusky and Polk kept the trains running on time. They kept secrets locked safely away. The boss liked it that way.
Chrétien’s Ottawa had his weaknesses too. Overconfidence about Quebec before the 1995 referendum, for one, followed by an all-out rush to set things right after. “In every cabinet meeting I was in,” former defence minister Art Eggleton says in Lawrence Martin’s sprawling new Chrétien biography Iron Man, “there was nothing more important than the political situation in Quebec. Nothing close.”
In fact, Quebec came to play the same role in Chrétien’s cosmology that black holes do in Stephen Hawking’s: it represented a singularity where otherwise universal rules ceased to apply. So it was OK to talk on and on, world without end, as long as you were Stéphane Dion and your topic was federalism. It was OK to slop cash around like a ward heeler of yore as long as some of it landed in Shawinigan or in the pocket of a federalist adman. You could even throttle a man in a public park if he was Bill Clennett and rumoured to have separatist sympathies.
Another departure from universal rules could be observed on the rare occasions when Chrétien’s Ottawa pondered the wider world. Henry Kissinger and Charles de Gaulle liked to say their nations had no friends in the world, only interests. For Chrétien’s Canada the formula was precisely inverted. He signed on to his friend Bill Clinton’s Kosovo war, but not to George Bush’s Iraq war. In each case comfort with the ally had as much to do with the choice as did a precise calculation of interest. In his listlessness about world affairs he could be appallingly one-dimensional. He went to China to look for jobs and was chippy when reporters asked whether he was looking for human-rights abuse as well.
TO HIS CREDIT
But he balanced the budget, turned the corner on debt and taxes, put the country’s pensions on a sustainable footing, poured $11 billion into research and innovation since 1998 with hardly a scrap of credit for the effort, saw the backs of three Parti Québécois premiers. Some will want to credit star actors like Martin or Dion for those triumphs. The auteur theory, however, requires that the director receive credit for smart casting choices. Recall that in 1993, Martin wanted to be industry minister.
Now Paul Martin prepares to roll his own cameras for his own production. How will his Ottawa be different?
In important ways it won’t be. Martin remains a Liberal who was closely involved with the big choices of the Chrétien years. He will share his predecessor’s fondness for balanced books and for spending on research, universities and the rest of the knowledge economy. Many of the differences will be matters of style, but when a man has a megaphone the size of the Canadian federal state, style can go a long way.
Martin should be taken at his word when he says his Ottawa will value genuine conversation more than Chrétien’s. His promised democratic reforms—what one Martinite last week called “the dem-ref stuff”—will mean his government is not guaranteed its bills will pass in the House. Votes will matter, so debates will matter. Ministers will have to become better salesmen for their projects because if they cannot sell they will lose.
The Sunday political chat shows should, as a consequence, become more entertaining to watch. Lobby firms will grow fat and happy as interest groups hire them to whisper into MPs’ ears. One of two things will be tested early: either Martin’s famous temper in the face of defeat, or the sincerity of his professed eagerness to encourage dissent. Probably both.
Planning will be back in a big way because Martin can be a spectacularly shaky improviser. At finance he was a set-piece minister, a master of the PowerPoint presentation whose eyes took on a hunted look whenever reporters gathered to scrum him. He will rehearse and stage as much of his administration as events permit, and then a bit more on top of that.
Hyperbole will be back because he is less able than Chrétien to resist clapping himself on the back about the greatness and the boldness of his projects. The capital’s pizza joints will prosper as debates in a dozen offices last late into the night and a new generation of staffers has to order out for dinner.
Loyalty and connections may actually be more important in Martin’s Ottawa than they have been in Chrétien’s. Judging from the extent to which Martin’s entourage in 2003 resembles his entourage in 1990, it is hard to imagine him hiring, say, a communications director he barely knows, as Chrétien did with Peter Donolo in 1991, then again with Françoise Ducros in 1999, then again with Jim Munson in 2002.
The Liberal backbenchers whose eyes go starry when Martin’s name is mentioned will be astonished at how quickly the job reduces him to human scale. But any new leader offers new hope even as he faces new danger. Martin worked easily with his counterparts in a dozen countries when he was the money man; in the global economy he was more of a “foreign minister” than Chrétien had ever been. The biggest hope he offers is that under him, Canada’s complexity might begin to be reflected in the sophistication of its conversations with the wider world.
MARTIN’S promised democratic reforms mean his government is not guaranteed its bills will pass in the House. Votes will matter, so debates will matter.
One always courts trouble when one looks on the bright side of a Canadian prime minister, but let us now do so in spades: Trudeau made Canada a sovereign country. Mulroney made it a trading country. Chrétien has made it a prosperous country. Martin has a chance to make it a country that will take its place in the world. The weary denizens of Ottawa, at least, are eager to watch him try. 1?]
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.