Chrétien, a Closet Autocrat?

It did not take an Ottawa insider to know George Baker was on slippery ground with his own government.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 19, 1998

It did not take an Ottawa insider to know George Baker was on slippery ground with his own government.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 19, 1998

Chrétien a Closet Autocrat?

It did not take an Ottawa insider to know George Baker was on slippery ground with his own government. Over nearly 25 years on the Liberal party's back benches, the popular Newfoundland MP has always been something of a rarity in the House of Commons: a firmly independent thinker who never allowed his zip and wit to be infected by Ottawa's contagious blandness. As chairman of the Commons' fisheries committee since the last election, Baker had turned his scathing but always good-humored and articulate fire on the Liberal's handling of Canada's damaged fishing industry. Last March, his committee produced a searing report condemning the government's role in the wreck of the East Coast fishery. It told Ottawa to break agreements that allow foreign fleets to fish Canadian waters. It demanded senior bureaucrats in the department of fisheries and oceans be fired. And, when Fisheries Minister David Anderson and his officials refused to provide original reports from independent observers aboard foreign vessels, he asked the Commons to find them in contempt of Parliament.

It was widely apparent the Liberals would not allow such an assault from within to continue. In recent months, emissaries from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's office hinted Baker might want to tone down his attacks, pointing out that his committee chairmanship was up for renewal in September. "Committees in our system are just not supposed to operate in the freewheeling way this committee operated," explains one Liberal MP on the fisheries panel. So when the new rollcall of parliamentary committees was published late last month, it was conspicuous, but hardly shocking, that Baker's name was missing.

The Gander/Grand Falls MP has gone to ground, insisting he withdrew his name for unexplained personal reasons and that the Prime Minister did "not kick me out." His uncharacteristic silence unsettles many of his colleagues, who wonder why an MP known for his willingness to defy party discipline in the past seems to have caved to pressure from above. Those who know him best insist Baker is simply a realist who realized he could not brazenly buck his own party leadership forever. He chose to retain the smattering of influence that drips down to those MPs who stay in line, they say, rather than facing the frustrations and impotence of being an outcast. But the incident also drew back the curtain on how power is wielded in Jean Chrétien's Ottawa. By allowing one more maverick to be forced into line, by permitting such relatively minor dissent to be crushed on his watch, the Prime Minister gave ammunition to the growing chorus of critics who argue the self-styled little guy from Shawinigan is actually a closet autocrat, ruthlessly intolerant of opinions other than his own.

For nearly five years now, Chrétien has retained consistently solid approval ratings over 50 per cent simply by sticking to his role as a humble antidote to the grating bravura of Brian Mulroney. But with his government entering the middle of its second mandate, with no apparent mission and producing little in the way of legislation, Chrétien finds his own governing style coming under scrutiny. There are unsettling signs that the Chrétien entourage has dropped its mask of modesty and is starting to show its fangs. Among the most telling recent developments was the controversial - but for the government, convenient - firing of Bernard Dussault, who, as chief actuary of the Canada Pension Plan, insists he was asked to fudge figures in the government's favor. And last week, there was Chrétien's brazen defence in the House of Commons of Solicitor General Andy Scott's carelessness in discussing legal cases with another passenger on a commercial aircraft.

The most obvious catalyst for putting Chrétien under closer examination, however, is the current inquiry into events at last November's Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vancouver. Documents suggest Chrétien - or at least members of his inner circle in the Prime Minister's Office - micromanaged security plans for the summit, where RCMP officers appeared to run roughshod over University of British Columbia students protesting the presence of Asian dictators on their campus.

The Prime Minister's role in the APEC fiasco remains to be fleshed out, but there have been previous indications of Chrétien's impatience with protesters and those who challenge him directly. The most memorable came when Chrétien demonstrated what he jokingly calls his "Shawinigan handshake" by grabbing unemployed worker Bill Clennett by the throat and shoving him aside during a 1996 Flag Day walkabout in Hull, Que. Many Canadians also caught a glimpse of a more insensitive version of Chrétien when he gave the brush-off to a worried unemployed woman during a now-famous CBC televised "town hall" meeting.

But what matters to the cabinet ministers, bureaucrats, backbenchers and lobbyists in Ottawa is not so much how the Prime Minister treats other Canadians as how he treats them. And Chrétien is getting some rough reviews of late. "He has a reputation as a people person, but I don't know where it comes from," says one angry Quebec Liberal backbencher. "He never has time for us. He's a very self-centred guy." A senator appointed by Chrétien to the upper chamber describes his old friend as "running a dictatorship." And Independent MP John Nunziata, who speaks with the freedom of a man who has already been kicked out of the Liberal caucus for voting against the 1996 budget, argues that "this country is run by a half dozen people, half of whom were never elected by anybody, and they are in the PMO."

Some Liberal backbenchers used a vote last week on a Reform MP's private member's bill to show their unhappiness with how they are being treated. Twenty-six Liberals voted, against explicit instructions from Scott, in favor of a bill that would protect children from sex offenders who have been pardoned for their crimes. Chrétien's communications director Peter Donolo cited the mini-rebellion as an example of the Prime Minister's willingness to tolerate dissent. And Donolo reiterated that Chrétien calls the weekly caucus gatherings "his most important meeting of the week."

In any event, at last week's national caucus, the 26 MPs who voted for the Reform MP's bill were heavily chastised by Scott's parliamentary secretary Jacques Saada for their disloyalty. "Chrétien's office is aware they have a growing problem with the caucus and they say they want to fix things," says one Ontario MP who is in regular contact with the Prime Minister and the PMO. "They could start," he added sarcastically, "by taking less than four months to answer our phone calls and letters."

Backbench bellyaching is, of course, as old as the back bench. But several cabinet ministers and senior civil servants, speaking anonymously, agree that the Chrétien PMO guards more power, more jealously, among fewer close advisers, than any they have seen. "Forget cabinet," says one deputy minister. "This place is run out of a small, tight PMO, and if you want to get anything done you go to them and cut your own deal." University of Moncton political scientist Donald Savoie, who has just finished conducting dozens of interviews with past and present cabinet ministers for a new book, agrees. "It is the centre and the people in it who count," says Savoie, whose Governing from the Centre, a study of the growing power of executive government in Canada, will be published next spring. "Our national institutions, starting with Parliament - and I'll include the cabinet - are in bad shape. They are being bypassed." And former top civil servant Gordon Robertson, who worked for prime ministers from Mackenzie King to Pierre Trudeau (neither of whom ever shrank from imposing their authority), argues that "the concentration of power in the hands of this prime minister is as great as I have ever seen it."

The power, most observers agree, is exercised by a small, discreet coterie around Chrétien. Unlike many Mulroney-era advisers, a gossipy bunch forever eager to demonstrate their influence to journalists, the Chrétien palace guard has shown great discipline in keeping low public profiles. That curtain of anonymity may lift when the APEC inquiry hears from at least two of them: former operations director Jean Carle, who has since left the Prime Minister's staff for a job at the Business Development Bank, and chief of staff Jean Pelletier. Carle's bulldozer personality, in particular, inspired fear and some none-too-subtle loathing among other Liberals during his time in the PMO.

More mystique surrounds Pelletier, though he, too, is feared - as well as respected. One civil servant who has dealt with him on a daily basis describes Pelletier as "a real gentleman, soft-spoken, polite - and someone I would never cross." He has "the power of a minister plus the power of access," adds a cabinet minister from Quebec. "I think it suits the PMO for Pelletier to have this prince of darkness image," notes one Ontario MP. "Unhappy Liberals can blame him, not Chrétien." The inner sanctum is rounded out by Donolo and longtime Chrétien confidant Eddie Goldenberg, who leaves his imprint on nearly every policy decision.

In Liberal circles, there is increasing unease at how these advisers seem to have an obsession with protecting the Prime Minister - over the broader government interest. A longtime Chrétien associate from Montreal business and political circles points to the Prime Minister's Millennium Scholarship Fund, which will provide grants to lower income university students, as an example of the group's narrow vision. In Quebec, the fund's blatant intrusion into an area of provincial jurisdiction aroused vociferous anger - even among Chrétien's federalist allies. It was, says the Montreal Liberal, an example of what happens when "a policy dreamed up by the PM and his closest aides never gets wider debate before it is announced."

The PMO is not just willing to offend provincial sensibilities; Chrétien has occasionally hung cabinet ministers out to dry to suit his own ends. And last year, he managed to do both in one swoop. A senior Liberal aide still bristles at how Chrétien undercut Environment Minister Christine Stewart and Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale just before the Kyoto conference on global climate change. Chrétien had sent the two ministers to a federal-provincial meeting in Regina to get a consensus on how fast and by how much Canada could agree to cut its carbon emissions. Just days after an agreement was reached, Chrétien arbitrarily announced his own, "greener" target. "The PMO thought they could get some quick environmental credentials for the PM," says the aide, "when all they ended up doing was embarrassing and discrediting two ministers with the provinces."

The friendly but intensely combative Donolo challenges that view, contending the rumbles of criticism come from a "frustrated Canadian media and political opposition that for five years has seen support for Jean Chrétien essentially undiminished, and seems to get mad at Canadians for not being more angry at Chrétien." Donolo says there are many checks on the power of a prime minister, from hostile provincial governments to a muscular judiciary. And he says the current fuss over whether Chrétien governs too autocratically is nothing more than hypocrisy on the part of his critics. "When he was elected, people were saying he is going to be just like Ronald Reagan, who wasn't up to the job, who snoozed during it and who wouldn't run things. And now," says an animated Donolo, his voice rising as he warms to the Prime Minister's defence, "they are complaining that he runs things too much!"

One way Chrétien deflects charges of governing like a despot is to point to the long leash he gives his ministers. Since 1993, he has trumpeted his willingness to let them do their jobs without undue interference. "The PM is often willing to let us do things, even when he himself is not convinced we're right," agrees one senior cabinet minister. "Chrétien can be forceful. If he has an opinion he lets you hear it. But his ministers don't live in fear of him."

The most telling example of Chrétien's willingness to acquiesce to a minister on an issue where he did not agree was when Finance Minister Paul Martin wanted to overhaul the old age security system in 1995. Martin argued it was good policy; Chrétien suspected it was bad politics. But he allowed Martin to go ahead anyway. By last summer, it was clear that a powerful lobby of senior citizens and soon-to-be retirees was so strongly opposed to Martin's plan that the government would have to back off. In July, the finance minister made an uncomfortable pilgrimage to Chrétien's office for one of their rare face-to-face meetings. Chrétien had been right, Martin told him, and agreed to abandon one of his most cherished programs. Aides on both sides say Chrétien didn't gloat. "The PM could have said, 'I told you so,' but he didn't," says a Chrétien aide. "Martin was ready to eat humble pie but the PM never served it."

But Martin remains a special case, the one minister whose personal stock is so high with Canadians that Chrétien may not be able to risk losing him. And ministerial freedom does not devolve power as might at first appear. By encouraging his ministers to deal with him directly rather than through the traditional, collegial cabinet process, Chrétien has added to his power. Full meetings of cabinet have become rubber-stamping exercises, say many ministers and officials who attend the sessions. "Decisions have already been taken by the time they get to cabinet," says one top aide to a minister. "Cabinet is just ramming stuff through."

Nothing illustrates the impotence of cabinet discussions more than the dismal failure of last year's pre-budget exercise. Blessed with a small surplus for the first time since the Liberals returned to power in 1993, the Privy Council Office instructed ministers to prepare a wish list of new spending projects, and to defend them before their colleagues in cabinet. The idea horrified Martin and Chrétien, who correctly predicted it would become a wild and undisciplined grab for money - though Chrétien let the process proceed. But it quickly became apparent to other cabinet members that their appeals were going nowhere, provoking one of the nastier cabinet exchanges since the last election.

With Martin rejecting each request for money as it came up, Health Minister Allan Rock finally exploded in anger at how cabinet consultation had become a charade. "We all ran around, briefing our ministers on how to sell the departments and coming up with ways we could spend money, and in the end we all just looked silly," recalls a deputy minister in another department. "It was obvious that Martin and the PM had already decided where to spend the money." Ministers got the message. In subsequent months, they appealed directly to Chrétien for their projects. Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy went that route to get his $100 million for an anti-land mines fund; Heritage Minister Sheila Copps did the same for a new television production fund. "We have learned our lesson," one senior ministerial aide said last week. "From now on, we deal directly with Chrétien."

Jean Chrétien did not, of course, invent the Canadian system of government that bestows so much power on a prime minister. In the 19th century, British political theorist Walter Bagehot argued that the Westminster parliamentary system gives prime ministers the power of a temporary dictatorship. A Canadian prime minister, governing with a majority in Parliament, faces few checks on his authority. Consider the list of his powers: he selects his cabinet and has final approval over the placement of every senior public servant. He appoints the Supreme Court of Canada and all federal judges. He appoints senators and controls thousands of other appointments to public agencies and corporations (the Liberals have just introduced a bill which critics say would weaken the CBC's independence by making the president and board of directors serve "during pleasure" of the government). He appoints the commissioner of the RCMP. Through the party whip, he even gets to impose his will over which MPs get to sit on committees, and on who is permitted to rise to ask questions in Question Period.

The real centralization of power in Canada, says historian and former Liberal MP John English, began under Pierre Trudeau, who as a minister in Lester Pearson's cabinet had been appalled by its lack of cohesion and discipline. Trudeau introduced a more heavily structured system, with more cabinet meetings and an expanded PMO. It made him the first prime minister to be accused of governing in presidential style, though the charge was also well-aired against Mulroney. "Trudeau dramatically strengthened the power of the prime minister," says political scientist Savoie. "And we are still living with that."

Chrétien has his own, not-so-fond memories of the Pearson and Trudeau cabinets, in particular the latter's love for many and long meetings. But Chrétien is governing at a time when a particular set of political circumstances gives him perhaps more unrivalled clout than any of his predecessors. He faces an opposition divided neatly into regions, with no party showing any sign of being a viable national alternative to the Liberals. And all four opposition parties barely register in double-digits in national opinion polls.

The result of this seemingly unassailable standing effectively dampens any caucus unrest with the leader. "Our MPs have come to believe it is almost constitutionally wrong to assert their views," argues historian Christopher Moore, author of the well-received book 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal. Moore is a critic of the extreme power of the executive. But he blames the lap-dog nature of parliamentarians for the lack of prime ministerial accountability. "We have been talking for 100 years about reforming or abolishing the Senate, and we've missed the fact that the House of Commons has virtually abolished itself," he says. "The night they are elected you know what an MP is going to do for the next four years: vote how the government tells it, whenever it needs it. They should just fax in their votes if that's all they're going to do."

Some chagrined MPs agree with that assessment. "People say: 'No matter what we do, our polls stay high, over 50 per cent," admits one Quebec MP. "If we were in trouble we might speak out more. But why risk power or rock the boat when things are going well?" Unhappy MPs seem to be unable to stand collectively against the Prime Minister's wishes, even when they do not like doing what they are told. Many were upset at being herded into the House last April to vote with the government on its policy of only partial compensation for Hepatitis C victims. Chrétien, questionably, portrayed the vote as a matter of confidence in the government, and no one broke ranks. "I felt embarrassed, foolish, standing to vote for something we had never been asked about before it was done and that many of us hated," said one backbencher.

But MPs tend to stay in line to be eligible for a variety of party favors and perks. The most luscious carrot, all agree, is travel: the government determines who gets to accompany ministers on foreign business. And the whips, who derive their power from the Prime Minister, also decide who gets to ask questions in the House. It is not a matter of MPs jumping to their feet quickly to attract the Speaker's attention. The Speaker recognizes only those MPs whose names appear on the list of questioners provided each day by the parties. "You can't be an individual in parliament," says one Atlantic Liberal backbencher. "I'd never get to ask a question, and my constituents would start asking: 'How come we never see you in the House.' "

In any event, the questioning of ministers from the Liberal backbench is a strictly scripted exercise. Backbenchers must submit their questions to deputy whip Marlene Catterall several days ahead of time. Ministers are then shown the question and must agree to let it be asked. If they do, the backbencher is then summoned to Catterall's office to rehearse the question.

The government also determines which MPs sit on which committees, one of the few chances for parliamentarians to make a contribution on issues they care about. But with rare exceptions, committee work is also controlled by the government (the environment committee, chaired by bulldog Ontario MP Charles Caccia, remains unshackled and has given the Liberals a very rough ride on its policies). Committees are usually chaired by MPs sympathetic to the minister whose legislation they are supposed to review (many Liberals raise eyebrows at the political optics of the justice committee, which is chaired by Ontario MP Shaughnessy Cohen - who shares an apartment with Justice Minister Anne McLellan). "If you believe committees do real work, you'll believe professional wrestling is real," sneers one backbencher.

One by-product of the lack of bite in committees is that civil servants now barely conceal their scorn for the quality of MPs' questions in committee. Relations between Parliament and the public service are, by accounts on both sides, horrible. "There is not a rebel among them," sniffs one deputy minister of the MPs. "Do they really all think if they play the game they are going to be cabinet ministers one day?"

Barring an unlikely collapse in the polls, there seems little likelihood of Parliament reasserting its authority. Chrétien's mentor, Mitchell Sharp, once noted, "Everybody complains about the power of a prime minister until they get the keys to the place. Then they don't want any checks on their power either." A Chrétien minister, while agreeing that power is highly concentrated, argues that Chrétien's government should only be judged by its results. "We are not fundamentalists, we don't have an ideological view of the country," says the minister. "The Liberal party is a broad coalition and that alone acts as a check on how far we can go."

Whether that is sufficient comfort to most Canadians remains an open question. Chrétien rose to the top because of his legendary perseverance, but also because Canadians trust him, and perhaps see a bit of themselves in his style. He is, as a longtime Montreal associate noted, "a fine man, and he is honest, and we need those attributes in public life." But recent weeks have seen a pile-up of incidents that have the potential to chip that image: the actuary's firing; the stubborn defence of a solicitor general caught discussing police matters to a friend on a plane; and Chrétien's unflagging determination to silence any opinions that do not purr along with his own. Viewed individually, none may be the stuff on which governments fall. But together, they might have the cumulative weight to change the way Canadians regard a politician they thought they already knew.

Maclean's October 19, 1998