After the last year and a half’s melodrama on the Rideau, Canadians now have an idea of what, in centuries past, it must have been like to live in a non-constitutional monarchy. The dauphin is ready and waiting and growing older by the minute, but the sovereign lingers. It is not a question of health. There are no hourly bulletins from the bedchamber about laboured breathing or faltering consciousness, merely rumours of a departure before Christmas that would let the new man take over. We are now in an awkward and unprecedented interregnum of 18 months.
This has pluses as well as minuses.
An experienced government hand once told me that the Ottawa bureauc- racy is like a car engine. It works best flat out. Long periods of idling are harmful to it. There are stories a plenty these days about how all Ottawa has been idling for a year. Anyone of any influence is surreptitiously checking with the new leader’s office before com- mitting to any policy of any conse- quence. He naturally doesn’t want to provide overt direction. To do so would be presumptuous and possibly illegal. To be seen to do so might well upset the stately procession to investiture. For their part, ministers must be spending less time thinking up policies and more wondering whether they will still be in office after the changeover finally does come. Those who know they won’t be are quietly looking for work: for them worrying about policy is pointless. They can’t do anything interesting before the change and after it they will be gone.
If you’re like me and believe the still- gargantuan governments of the early 21st century are mainly in the business of busy-work ”” of rolling out multifold pol- icy initiatives, pleasing to the press and to the communications companies who become so useful at election time, and eloquent in their expensive way as an expression of the governing party’s com- passion, if also incapable of actually solv- ing the social problems at which they supposedly aim ”” then paralysis in gov- ernment is welcome. Perhaps Mr. Chrétien could be persuaded to continue his long goodbye until 2005 or 2006.
A recent correspondent to The Economist, provoked by that mag- azine’s condemnation of the recall of California Governor Gray Davis, wrote that ”œwhen elected officials squabble bitterly and obsessively among them- selves, everyone else is freed to get on with productive life…Californians have now taken the next step along that path. As preference for such direct action spreads, many more politicians will divide their attention only between re-election and avoidance of a recall. The resulting paralysis could usher in a true economic miracle.” To help the process along, he wrote, he had ”œalready prepared the forms for the recall of Governor Schwarzenegger.” In this vein, one thinks also of Italy, which over the last 50 years has suf- fered the Western world’s most chaotic government but also some of its most impressive growth rates.
Best not be too cynical. Paralysis cuts both ways. Had Ottawa been immobilized in the 1990s we would not have had the deficit and debt reduction and, to a lesser extent, the policy reforms that have helped improve Canada’s economic perform- ance in recent years. But the 1990s seem far away now, and downsizing is a memory not a promise.
And of course, even as its key players depart for the Senate and other sinecures, the Chrétien government is hardly inert. Far from it. It has proposed two of the most radical changes in social policy since divorce reform, namely the decriminalization of marijuana and the legalization of homosexual marriage. Would we be seeing these two initiatives if Mr. Chrétien had to run for office again? Quebecers as a whole favour both changes more than other Canadians do, but the voters of Shawinigan may be less convinced than their more cosmopoli- tan compatriots in Montreal and they have not always provided Mr. Chrétien with overwhelming majorities.
The prime minister presumably is proceeding because he believes it is the right thing to do and because he feels a freedom of maneouvre that was not available to him before his final elec- tion. He may even think, as departing leaders often seem to do, that the country owes him some policy defer- ence in exchange for all his hard work.
A prime minister who is not run- ning again is not entirely uncon- strained, of course. The Liberal Party of Canada hopes to live on after Mr. Chrétien. As a good Liberal, the prime minister must wish it success. But if the political cost of his policy valedictory is that Paul Martin’s majority is a little smaller in the next federal election, Mr. Chrétien is unlikely to be grief stricken.
In the United States in the 1990s there was great enthusiasm for statutory limits on the terms of politicians. One drawback of term limits is that every elected official becomes a lame duck. Though lame ducks aren’t supposed to be effective, in political systems that allow incumbents great discretion they can often be decisive. A better strategy might be to encourage in them the hope of permanent incumbency before, at the last possible moment, wringing their necks in a terminal election.