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December 30, 2000

2000: The year the music died

Liberal rule reminiscent of Hoxha's Albania

Peter C. Newman
National Post

Paul Chiasson, The Canadian Press
Jean Chrétien's eyes used to twinkle, but no more, says Peter C. Newman.

"Something touched me deep inside, The day the music died...." - Don McLean, American Pie

Many songs ago, Don McLean swept the boards with his folkloric lament, American Pie, which became the anthem for a generation.

That melody haunts me as I look back at the past year and ponder the bizarre results of the Nov. 27 election. Because of the unusually low voter turn out, a mere 26% of Canadians elected a cast-iron Liberal majority. This, at a time when the same polls that accurately predicted the margin of Jean Chrétien's impressive victory, claimed 53% of Canadians felt he didn't have what it takes to lead the country into the globalized, 21st Century.

Whatever the campaign's triumphs and tragedies, this was democracy in action, and the results ought not to foster false regrets or spurious doubts about the democratic system. The people spoke, loud and clear, that of the available choices, the Liberals under Jean Chrétien's leadership were emphatically their best option.

And yet.

The election's unintended result is that we have invented a new and potentially lethal political phenomenon: an elected dictatorship. That's what the third Chrétien majority amounts to. He has no rivals who can seize power, inside or outside the Liberal party, and is accountable to no one, especially his lapdog Ethics Commissioner. There is nothing to stop him from running, as did his role model Sir Wilfrid Laurier, for a fourth term. With Paul Martin hiding in the wings, ready to take his well-deserved turn at the helm, we could be bound for another dozen years of Liberal rule. This approaches a hammer-lock on political power reminiscent of Albania under Enver Hoxha.

The defining moment of the recent campaign was one of Joe Clark's shrewd comments, during the English television debate. The Conservative leader had scored a strong debating point by asking the Prime Minister what he had done during his past seven years in power. Instead of rattling off a few examples, the Liberal leader began leafing frantically through his briefing book to find the appropriate page that listed his accomplishments. Joe Clark and the country watched this performance with heads shaking in disbelief, bewildered by a prime minister who wasn't sure how he had spent his time. It was then that Mr. Clark, looking straight at Mr. Chrétien, moved in for the kill: "You've changed," he said flatly, turning the comment into an accusation.

It's true. As a longtime observer of Jean Chrétien, it seems to me what has changed about the Shawinigan politician is simply this: Nothing dances in his eyes.

It's not his age, not his accent, not the quality of his grin (which has more to do with cheek muscles than mirth) that bother me. It's that absence of the twinkle in his eyes, which the poets claim are windows of the soul. Instead, of the warm, fuzzy, self-deprecating humour they once projected, the eyes give off the distant, lunar chill of self-satisfaction.

"I'm De King of De Castle" is their only message.

This is not the man I first met in July, 1965, the day the youthful Jean Chrétien was picked out of the Liberal backbenches to become parliamentary secretary to prime minister Lester Pearson. At 31, his Gallic charm was irresistible, a stir fry of homespun humility and upfront decency. Above all, he projected the image of a man totally comfortable in his skin, one of those rare politicians who would never need adoring crowds or genuflecting flunkies to legitimize his worth. When you asked him a question, he would hesitate like a dutiful child who wants to get it right, and give you an honest answer.

For three long decades, he successfully scuffled in the vestibules of Liberal power, blessed by his inability to make enemies and, the most valuable element in any political success, impeccable timing. (The only election he ever lost was to John Turner in the 1984 Liberal leadership contest, which, had he won it, would have made him the sacrificial lamb in the Mulroney sweep that followed.)

He was elected to the House of Commons a dozen times, treating politics not as a science or an art, but as a game. "Politics," the Chrétien memoirs specify, "is a game of friends." And so it has been. No Canadian prime minister, including Brian Mulroney, has been so relentlessly personal in his distribution of patronage. Except for his inspired choice of Adrienne Clarkson as governor-general, nearly all his appointments have required only one qualification: blood-oath loyalty to Jean Chrétien. Even being a faithful Liberal isn't enough any more.

As prime minister, he gradually grew to appreciate not only the uses of power, but its pleasures, and became addicted to its exercise. Although Mr. Chrétien tries at every opportunity to invoke the memory of Pierre Trudeau as his political amulet, he isn't nearly as tough as his late hero, but he is much more ruthless, which is an altogether different and much less prized commodity. But then, one-party rule is never pleasant, and civility has never claimed space in the Liberals' Red Book.

Paradoxically, it is difficult to identify any great animating purpose behind Jean Chrétien's relentless quest for power. His idea of governing has been to do little and say less. Luckily for him, he hasn't had to do much of either. With the main opposition parties -- the Tories and Reform/Alliance -- dedicating their energies to alternately preaching unity or tearing each other apart, the PM could blithely follow Napoleon's dictum: "Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of defeating himself."

His inaction in office is legendary. His way of dealing with problems is to pretend they don't exist. Not to do so might require fresh policy initiatives. He has, for instance, repeatedly denied Canada's grievous brain drain, as amply documented in Jeffrey Simpson's Star-Spangled Canadians. "We're importing a lot of brains, and some goes and lives in the United States and other [sic] come to Canada, but there's less now than there was years ago," he explained in his definitive statement on the issue. And there it rests.

This once caring and kindly man was at his most insensitive when dealing with the University of British Columbia students protesting the APEC visit of Indonesian president Suharto, who soon afterward was overthrown by his own people and is now on trial for corruption. These were kids who loved democracy, not thugs or even radicals. When they were pepper-sprayed into submission, the Prime Minister first joked that, for him, pepper was something he used on steaks, and later admonished the protestors that they were lucky, because the RCMP could have used baseball bats. There is nothing funny about pepper spray, which is more powerful than tear gas or mace, causing bronchial spasms, eyes that swell shut and extreme nausea.

At some point in the process of governing, the Prime Minister lost touch with his gentler, benign self.

Much has been made of his slips of the tongue and weird pronouncements, but far more troubling is his disconnected thought process. A good example was the time he was asked a legal question during a press conference, and prefaced his reply with the abrupt disclaimer: "I am not a lawyer."

Maybe. But a fellow named Joseph-Jacques Jean Chrétien graduated in law from Laval University in 1958, and went on to qualify as a member of both the Manitoba and Ontario bars, which meant writing tough examinations based on very different legal codes. As minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada from 1980 to 1982, this same individual was chiefly responsible for the negotiations that resulted in the dramatic and successful patriation of Canada's Constitution.

Must have been a different guy. If not, how does Jean Chrétien communicate with himself? He really ought to look up his entry in the Canadian Who's Who. Or wear a name tag.

Asked repeatedly about his political future during and after the election campaign, the Prime Minister has speculated that he will stay " for five or 20 years, or step down after three." A more reliable guide is the record of his past actions, which argues strongly against his early departure. He is healthy, loves his job, is in firm command of his troops and well on his way to becoming Canada's first tenured prime minister. Those who impatiently speculate that he will soon withdraw to Shawinigan vastly overrate his love of fountains and desire for complimentary snacks at local hotels.

Still, history's jury is always out; anything is possible. Shift happens. Arrogance and self-satisfaction seldom guarantee political longevity.

At this frigid year end, the final verse of Don McLean's haunting refrain plays to the rueful mood of many Canadians:

"I knew I was out of luck,

The day the music died..."

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