To commemorate the change in prime ministers, I’ve been re- reading Double Vision, Tony Wilson-Smith and Edward Greenspon’s terrific book on the Chrétien govern- ment’s first term, when all the hard work of deficit reduction was done. Doing so has increased my admiration for our recently dueling prime minis- ters. It’s one thing to write editorials saying different departments should have their budgets cut in half. It’s quite another to go out and actually do it. Hats off to Chrétien and Martin and to people like Doug Young, who took a hatchet to the Ministry of Transport and paid for it with his seat.
Double Vision provides surprising insights on how Chrétien ran his gov- ernment. In many ways, at least early on, he apparently didn’t. Rather, he set guidelines and let strong ministers bat- tle it out. ”œHis revulsion at the central command structure of the Trudeau years had led, almost inevitably, to an overreaction in the other direction. In farming out greater authority to his ministers, he had left…himself…large- ly detached both from ministerial con- flicts and, even more so, from overall government strategy.” That hardly sounds like the Jean Chrétien of the past few years!
Letting ministers get on with it doesn’t mean the PM didn’t have strong ideas about what he wanted done. Greenspon and Wilson-Smith tell a story about how, in the early 1990s, an exasperated Chrétien told a meeting: ”œFor thirty years, I’ve been listening. I’m tired of always listening. Now it’s time for others to listen to me.”
Paul Martin gives the impression of being an inexhaustible listener. But by now he’s had months and months of columns and editorials from every rag and mike across the land giving him long lists of things he must or mustn’t do. If he’s tired of listening, who could blame him?
In case he really has tuned out, here’s some advice for us, not him, as he takes over.
First, let’s all remember, he’s only prime minister, he’s not a deity, not even a minor one. The 40th anniver- sary of the Kennedy assassination came at an instructive time. The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talked on a PBS commemorative special about how exciting it had been to be young in that time, how a stylish ”œidealist without illusions” with a gift for clean-chiselled oratory had lifted people’s hearts, espe- cially young people’s hearts. JFK did that, there’s no denying it.
But for four decades now politicians have suffered by not coming up to the Kennedy standard. And many have only made things worse for themselves by trying to repeat the effect. Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle he was no Jack Kennedy. That’s true. He wasn’t. But who has been?
This isn’t to say young people shouldn’t be inspired. They should be. Older people too, from time to time. On the whole, however, they’ll proba- bly be less disappointed if they seek their inspiration elsewhere. Politics is a hard business and bound to disap- point. If we agree at the outset not to count on Martin to meet our spiritual need to be uplifted, we will all be bet- ter off, Martin most of all.
A second piece of advice, espe- cially as he tries to remake govern- ment, is that we not judge our new prime minister by the standards that for the last few years we have all been saying we decry. What does that mean? Martin has been talking about how he wants to change the way Parliament works. We’re going to have more free votes. Parliamentary committees will have more responsi- bility and, presumably, more power.
I have my doubts about whether that will really happen. It would be a very special politician who struggled for two decades to acquire power only in order to surrender it. Martin doesn’t strike me as a Canadian Gorbachev. Whether he is we will know soon enough. In the short run, however, his caucus may resist being set free. Under the system we have now, backbenchers are widely regarded as a lower form of life. Most aspire to evolve into Cabinet ministers. Given the freedom to implic- itly or even explicitly criticize the per- son who could fulfill their career ambitions, how many of them will take up the opportunity? With time, as respect for backbenchers grows and more and more MPs come to see back- bench life as important and fulfilling, they may eventually grow more outspo- ken, though we may be a while waiting.
But suppose Mr. Martin does decen- tralize power and promote lively, even obstreperous debate in Parlia- ment. We must not then turn around and condemn him for not running as tight a ship as Chrétien did. The federal government would no longer run with the authoritarian efficiency we have become accustomed to in recent years. Discord and debate would be the order of the day. We in the chattering classes, both academics and journalists, usually argue that’s what we want in a democ- racy. We Canadians are notoriously fickle, but if Martin does give us these things, let’s not all immediately decide we really preferred Ottawa run the late- Chrétien way.