Right man for his time

Canada’s most con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter? It’s not who you think

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - FORUM - The col­umns is adapted from a re­cent speech by Ot­tawa au­thor Bob Plamondon, based on his lat­est book, The Shaw­ini­gan Fox: How Jean Chré­tien De­fied the Elites and Re­shaped Canada (Great River Me­dia Inc.). BOB PLAMONDON

Sir John A. Mac­don­ald, Robert Bor­den, R.B. Ben­nett, John Diefen­baker, Brian Mul­roney and Stephen Harper were lead­ers of ma­jor­ity Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ments who all left their mark on our coun­try.

But who was the big­gest con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter? Who most less­ened the bur­den of govern­ment, paid down pub­lic debt, pro­moted Cana­dian goods and ser­vices around the world, val­ued work more than wel­fare and kept the fed­eral govern­ment out of pro­vin­cial af­fairs?

Hav­ing writ­ten a book that cov­ers ev­ery Con­ser­va­tive leader from Mac­don­ald to Harper, I con­clude Canada’s most con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter was Jean Chré­tien — a Lib­eral.

Let me ask, which con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter said this? “We have to break that men­tal­ity in which peo­ple work long enough to qual­ify for so­cial as­sis­tance, then quit. It’s bet­ter to have them at 50 per cent pro­duc­tiv­ity than to be sit­ting at home drink­ing beer. It’s not the govern­ment that’s com­plain­ing, it’s the wives of the unem­ployed, who were up­set about their hus­bands hang­ing around the house.”

While it was in­stinc­tive for Chré­tien to sup­port those who were down on their luck or who had be­come dis­abled, he had no sym­pa­thy for the lazy. In Chré­tien’s small-town Shaw­ini­gan way of think­ing, it was dis­re­spect­ful to live off the hard work of oth­ers.

When a Saskatchewan woman with three univer­sity de­grees con­fronted Chré­tien at a town hall meet­ing about her lack of job op­por­tu­ni­ties, he replied that some peo­ple were lucky and some were un­lucky.

“If you can’t find a job,” Chré­tien said, “you should move.”

When Chré­tien be­came pres­i­dent of the Trea­sury Board in the 1970s, his Lib­eral col­leagues called him Dr. No, a nick­name he took pride in.

As prime min­is­ter, Chre­tien was not a tax-and-spend Lib­eral. Both went down un­der Chré­tien.

He ended a string of 27 con­sec­u­tive deficits and be­gan a string of 11 con­sec­u­tive sur­pluses. Even af­ter the books were bal­anced in 1997, he did not ramp up govern­ment spend­ing.

He re­mod­elled, but did not ex­pand ba­sic so­cial pro­grams. His most sig­nif­i­cant re­forms were in the area of em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance. He made sure that if you quit your job, there would be no EI. If you made good money dur­ing sea­sonal work and col­lected EI, the ben­e­fits were clawed back.

On the eco­nomic front, al­most ev­ery­thing he did was con­nected to job cre­ation. He let the dol­lar float to its nat­u­ral level. He rat­i­fied NAFTA, then led Team Canada trade mis­sions. He was a driv­ing force be­hind the de­vel­op­ment of the oil­sands.

Un­der his lead­er­ship, the un­em­ploy­ment rate de­clined by one-third. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery stan­dard-of-liv­ing mea­sure im­proved un­der Chré­tien.

It was Paul Martin, as fi­nance min­is­ter, who de­liv­ered the bud­gets and claimed the credit. But it was Chré­tien who kept his govern­ment and cabi­net in line on eco­nomic mat­ters. It was Chré­tien who es­tab­lished and man­aged the pro­gram re­view process. It was Chre­tien who made the tough de­ci­sions.

It helped that Chré­tien didn’t ap­pear to en­joy gut­ting govern­ment pro­grams. “I’m a Lib­eral, and I feel like a Lib­eral, and it’s painful. But it’s needed,” he said.

Chré­tien was con­ser­va­tive in other ways. While main­tain­ing the same level of im­mi­gra­tion as Mul­roney, he dou­bled the pro­por­tion from the eco­nomic class. In fed­eral-pro­vin­cial af­fairs, he loos­ened re­stric­tions on how prov­inces could spend fed­eral trans­fers and gave them more clout over en­vi­ron­men­tal re­views and labour-mar­ket train­ing.

Chré­tien was the right man for the times when the coun­try was di­vided, broke and fa­tigued from con­sti­tu­tional wran­gling.

He had the abil­ity to see the big pic­ture and to boil is­sues down to their essence. He said the only peo­ple who could not sum­ma­rize an is­sue to a sin­gle page were the ones who didn’t know what they were talk­ing about. Chré­tien un­der­stood fine print is not where political lead­er­ship is ex­er­cised.

But his plain-spo­ken style grated on the in­tel­lec­tu­als, aca­demics and elites. Prime min­is­te­rial his­to­rian Michael Bliss wrote that Chré­tien was “mod­er­ately com­pe­tent and only mod­er­ately cor­rupt.” Peter C. New­man wrote that Chré­tien led a bale­ful and list­less ad­min­is­tra­tion with­out a defin­ing legacy.

Re­spect for Chré­tien was hard to come by even from within his own party. This, de­spite his pro­gres­sive cre­den­tials in ob­tain­ing a land­mine treaty, help­ing to es­tab­lish the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court, and sign­ing the Ky­oto Pro­to­col.

It’s only now we see that Chré­tien has amassed a legacy that places him in the cat­e­gory of one of our great prime min­is­ters.

Canada was more united when Chré­tien left of­fice than it had been over the pre­vi­ous 50 years. Govern­ment fi­nances went from near-col­lapse to one of lead­er­ship in the G7. He kept us out of the Iraq war when just about ev­ery pow­er­ful in­ter­est in the coun­try was urg­ing him to do oth­er­wise. And he re­built the in­tel­lec­tual in­fra­struc­ture, turn­ing a brain drain into a brain gain, in­spired by his be­lief that ed­u­ca­tion was the great lev­eller in Cana­dian so­ci­ety.

Chré­tien may not have had Mac­don­ald’s great na­tional vi­sion, but he did ev­ery­thing he could to strengthen what Mac­don­ald had started.


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