Chrétien Shuffles Cabinet | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Chrétien Shuffles Cabinet

On the weekend before he planned to shuffle his cabinet, Jean Chrétien was tired but in a teasing mood.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 5, 1996

Chrétien Shuffles Cabinet

On the weekend before he planned to shuffle his cabinet, Jean Chrétien was tired but in a teasing mood. Visibly exhausted in the aftermath of a 12-day trip to Asia and a 13-hour time change, his eyes were puffy and he slumped gratefully into a plush chair, but he could not resist a traditional prime ministerial prerogative - to torment a reporter. At the close of a half-hour conversation with Maclean's, Chrétien raised the issue of the pending cabinet shuffle. He could, he said, simply name a replacement for departed fisheries minister Brian Tobin - or "it could be more than that." After several noncommittal remarks, he lowered his voice conspiratorially, and began: "Off the record" As the expectant reporter bent towards him, a smiling Chrétien completed his own sentence: "Off the record, I will not tell you anything."

By week's end, Chrétien let actions speak rather than words, with a sweeping shuffle that reshapes the face of his government, but still leaves many of his most loyal caucus colleagues comfortably seated at the cabinet table. At the same time, without tipping his hand in advance, he prepared to decide on a series of recommendations that, Maclean's has learned, could amount to the most fundamental shift of powers from Ottawa to the provinces this century.

So say this about Canada's 20th Prime Minister: he is either surprisingly consistent, or consistently surprising. On a personal level, Chrétien is no more likely to leak information privately to a journalist than he is to commit himself publicly on any issue in advance if he can possibly avoid it. For him, either act would be rash and therefore completely out of character - a character that, one longtime friend says, consists of "three Cs - cautious, consistent and conservative."

But even as many Canadians, including some Liberals, question whether he is the right man at the right time for the job of prime minister, Chrétien is busy recasting both his government and some of its key policies. More than 30 years after he was first elected, he remains capable of startling, large-scale gestures, such as the shuffle and his plans to shift the balance of powers. One of the paradoxes of Chrétien in power is that even those who think they know him well are never quite certain what he will do next. "In terms of the personality of Jean Chrétien," says New Brunswick's Frank McKenna, the longest-serving premier, "what you see is what you get, with few surprises. As a political leader, what you need to know about him is that, more than anything else, he is a pragmatist."

And that, as Chrétien himself agrees, means that he seldom lets political ideology stand in the way of a potential resolution to a problem. A senior minister in Pierre Trudeau's cabinet at a time when the federal deficit grew at its fastest rate since Confederation, he now presides over the deepest spending cuts of any prime minister. A devout opponent of special status for Quebec and a supporter of strong central government throughout his political life, he now publicly supports formal recognition of the province as a "distinct society" and is preparing to decentralize power to all provinces in the name of "efficiency" and "the two-way street of changing the federation." An MP in the Pearson government that brought in medicare in 1966, he now has appointed a new health minister, David Dingwall, whose mandate in coming months will almost certainly involve reducing the scope of Ottawa's involvement in health care.

Similarly, some of Chrétien's other cabinet choices indicated a willingness to change course again. His biggest coup was in attracting two relatively young, high-profile francophone Quebecers - constitutional expert Stéphane Dion and international trade analyst Pierre Pettigrew - into the cabinet at a time when his government's popularity is at a particularly low ebb in the province. But those appointments carried an unspoken price: Pettigrew, a onetime adviser to former provincial Liberal leader Claude Ryan, is a strong-willed and outspoken figure whose vision of federalism is tinged with sympathy for moderate Quebec nationalism. Similarly, Dion is an ardent federalist, but his bluntness and inexperience with electoral politics may put him at odds with Chrétien's fondness for ministers who keep a low profile. In an unusual statement that Dion released as he was appointed - and which was approved in advance by Chrétien - the new intergovernmental affairs minister stressed his support for "intelligent decentralization" and cited Switzerland, one of the most decentralized federations in the industrialized world, as a potential model. Asked about Dion's remarks, Chrétien said: "I agree with him." The new minister stepped into another controversial area the following day, when he told an interviewer that if Quebec can separate from Canada, natives and municipalities can separate from Quebec. Another Quebec minister, Lucienne Robillard, who moved from Labor to Citizenship and Immigration, also created a stir. After indicating that the reference to the monarchy will be deleted from a new oath of citizenship, Robillard further suggested that citizens of an independent Quebec would not be able to retain Canadian citizenship and passports.

In addition, the shift of several high-profile ministers to new portfolios indicates a similar shift in priorities. Lloyd Axworthy, regarded as the last left-leaning Liberal in cabinet, indicated to Foreign Affairs officials that he would give a far higher priority to human-rights issues than his predecessor in that ministry, André Ouellet. By putting former transport minister Doug Young in Axworthy's former portfolio of human resources, Chrétien signalled that further cuts are in store to social programs: Young, a blunt-spoken and ardent opponent of big government, virtually dismantled much of his former portfolio, selling off Crown corporations and slashing jobs and multimillion-dollar subsidy programs. Similarly, by shifting former intergovernmental affairs minister Marcel Massé to his new post as president of the Treasury Board, Chrétien put a further priority on reducing and reforming federal spending. Massé, a longtime civil servant, will work closely with Finance Minister Paul Martin on implementing such reductions in the coming budget. At the same time, though, the Prime Minister disappointed many in British Columbia who had hoped that Tobin's replacement at Fisheries would come from the West Coast. Instead, he named Newfoundlander Fred Mifflin to the post, and his only gesture to British Columbia's new political clout was to name Vancouver MP Hedy Fry as a junior minister responsible for multiculturalism and women.

The changes among his senior ministers suggest that Chrétien, after close to 27 months of standing firm against pressure to shift his cabinet and its priorities, has decided that dramatic measures are needed. For most of Chrétien's time in office, his personality and his policies were enough to satisfy most Canadians. Or, at least, they were enough, until the Oct. 30 Quebec referendum. The closeness of the result, with the federalist side winning by fewer than 54,000 of the 4.6 million votes cast, jolted sensibilities from coast to coast and cast into doubt the future of the country as Canadians have known it.

And, at the same time, it raised questions about the leadership qualities of the man heading a national government that almost found itself without a united nation to govern. Chrétien, after all, was the person who told Canadians repeatedly before the referendum not to worry about the result - and then saw the sovereigntist side perform so strongly that, as he acknowledged publicly for the first time in the interview with Maclean's, internal federalist polls showed the Yes side leading by six points with less than a week to go. The phenomenal effect of Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard when he took over de facto leadership of the Yes side from Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau was, Chrétien said, "almost an act of God."

But Chrétien now faces more earthly realities. One is the distinct sign that he and his message are not being as well received by Canadians as they were before the referendum. Since then, his approval rating has fallen from a high of 68 per cent - the best figure ever recorded by a prime minister - to a still-acceptable, but significantly lower, 54 per cent. And while the referendum result left Canadians anxious and unsure, the reaction within the Liberal Commons caucus since then has not been much better. "We [MPs] were completely shut out of the debate, and that can never be allowed to happen again," says Ronald MacDonald, the Liberal MP for Nova Scotia's Dartmouth riding. "Right up until the end, the Prime Minister had this 'don't worry, be happy' attitude, when there was plenty to worry about." Now, MacDonald says that he and other frustrated backbenchers take little solace in last week's shuffle - and he is particularly concerned about the fact that an unelected Quebecer, Dion, was elevated to the key intergovernmental affairs portfolio. Says MacDonald: "This debate can no longer involve only Quebecers when the entire country is at stake. Everyone has to have input." Similarly, he was upset by Dion's remarks in favor of more decentralization of federal powers, adding: "Don't tell people in the Maritimes or Newfoundland that decentralization is no big thing, because it would be a huge bloody blow for us." Still, MacDonald says he remains a strong supporter of Chrétien because "he isn't afraid to let people like me blow off steam like this."

But other MPs privately say they return each weekend to their ridings to discover their constituents increasingly divided over the government's action - or inaction - on issues ranging from gun control to the protection of gay rights to the future of social programs. When they raise those concerns, and questions about Quebec, annoyed backbenchers say they find Chrétien imperious and intolerant. "He is," says one Ontario backbencher, "one mean son of a bitch when you have the nerve to disagree with him."

Another frustrated Ontario MP, who describes himself nonetheless as a Chrétien loyalist, telephoned the Prime Minister a week before Christmas to suggest that unless he began spending more time talking with his caucus members, he would soon "face a revolt." The grumbling is particularly strong among Ontario MPs, who - with 97 of the province's 99 seats - make up more than half of the 175 elected Liberals. Even some ministers complain that they feel excluded from his real inner circle, a select group of formal advisers within his office, along with a handful in private life, who are overwhelmingly male middle-aged Quebecers he has known for several decades. And many Liberal MPs, in the wake of the November break-in at the Prime Minister's residence at 24 Sussex Drive, soon repeated the bleak joke that Chrétien should turn control for security over to his fiercely protective senior policy adviser Eddie Goldenberg - "because anyone who can keep the entire caucus away from the Prime Minister can easily handle a single assailant."

So, faced with all that, does Chrétien, who 16 months ago told Maclean's that the most surprising thing about being Prime Minister is that it "is not as hard as I thought it would be," now want to reconsider that statement? Absolutely not, says the Prime Minister, with an impatient shake of the head: "I don't say that it's not difficult, just that it could be more difficult than it has been so far."

Along with the caution that has always marked his personal manner, Chrétien is also a man of sometimes surprising contradictions. Although most Canadians are familiar with his fondness for describing himself as a "little guy from Shawinigan," he has spent more than half his life living in Ottawa, and much of that in the relative comfort that comes with either a cabinet minister's salary, or the estimated $300,000 to $400,000 a year he earned in his hiatus from active politics between 1986 and 1990. Some of his small-town populist roots are still evident in private: among familiar company, he curses often, though mildly, likes to tell the occasional off-color story, and can discourse on professional baseball, hockey and football teams and their fortunes with the practised ease of any armchair quarterback. He likes the occasional beer; occasionally drives his security contingent to despair by sneaking into public movie theatres with his wife, Aline, without them; complains that in Ottawa, "there are no real places to just unwind and have a good time"; and, says a friend, can "still shoot a mean game of pool." He is intensely competitive in everything he does, ranging from golf - one of his great passions - to waterskiing and piloting his small jet boat, the Red October, at high speeds from the dock at the prime minister's summer residence at Harrington Lake.

For better and for worse, Chrétien's work habits are, around Ottawa political and civil service circles, the stuff of legend. He is famously impatient with long briefings on complex issues, and insists that information be given to him in one-page long, itemized bullet form. Similarly, anyone who has briefed him on an issue more than once knows that the best, and sometimes only, way to retain his attention is to include a colorful anecdote to illustrate the point. Those qualities lead some observers, including both detractors and admirers, to compare his governing style with that of former American president Ronald Reagan, who was similarly fond of anecdotes and uninterested in detail. But those qualities, Chrétien supporters insist, should not be taken as evidence of a lack of either intelligence or understanding. "I can never get over his ability on complex issues to immediately ask the one question that cuts right to the heart of the matter," says Chaviva Hosek, the former Ontario Liberal minister who is now one of Chrétien's senior policy advisers.

In fact, Chrétien is a much more complex, private man than most Canadians likely realize. He is a lover of art and classical music, with a sophisticated knowledge of both. Despite the gregarious, wisecracking image he often affected in his younger years as a minister, he has, by choice, a relatively small circle of friends - and most of them have little to do with politics. Unlike most career politicians, who work hard at building networks and cultivating as many contacts as possible, Chrétien does neither. "In politics," he once said, "there is no room for friendship." But he applies that maxim only when it is convenient: some of his oldest and closest friends, such as Goldenberg and chief of staff Jean Pelletier, work directly for him. And among longtime associates, Chrétien has always inspired an intense level of loyalty that transcends opportunism, or the peaks and valleys of electoral politics. Tobin, as he left his position as fisheries minister to become Newfoundland premier, told friends how touched he was that, during a series of discussions about his future, Chrétien behaved towards him more as a friend than as a prime minister. Goldenberg and Chrétien's other long-standing adviser, Power Corp. executive John Rae (brother of former Ontario premier Bob Rae), are both friends of more than 25 years' standing who put their own professional lives aside to work full time for Chrétien in his 1990 leadership campaign, when his goal of becoming prime minister seemed far from sight.

And while caucus members like to blame Goldenberg and Pelletier for their lack of access to the Prime Minister, that appears to be a convenient fiction for all concerned, since there is no evidence that the two men are doing anything other than carrying out Chrétien's wishes. Chrétien is succinct in describing his vision of the role of MPs: "I let people speak, I let people disagree, and after that, I discuss with my cabinet, and we decide, and that's democracy."

But some MPs complain that Chrétien does not even always do that. During the referendum, as anxiety grew, a group of Ontario MPs came up with a series of ideas aimed at promoting national unity. But when they asked to present them to Chrétien, says one MP who describes himself as a Chrétien loyalist, they were told to go instead to Montreal-area MP Alfonso Gagliano - a Chrétien loyalist who, in turn, told them to stay quiet and not to involve themselves in the issue.

On the other hand, Chrétien's loyalty to those who have been close to him is well established - and exists, say some detractors, to a fault. Despite complaints that Ontario is underrepresented in cabinet, the only new member is rookie MP Jane Stewart, who becomes revenue minister. Stewart is the daughter of Robert Nixon, a former Ontario Liberal leader and one of Chrétien's close friends. But her performance as chairwoman of the Ontario caucus has drawn mixed reviews, and some MPs grumble that her appointment has more to do with her family ties. Similarly, Chrétien kept Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin, one of his longest-standing associates, in cabinet, despite the fact that Irwin, regarded by many as an uneven performer, has said privately that he does not plan to run again. All of the other ministers not planning to run again, including Ouellet, Secretary of State for Women's Affairs Sheila Finestone and International Trade Minister Roy MacLaren, were asked to step down to make way for new blood.

But none of those complaints, from either within or outside the party, appear likely to dent Chrétien's leadership in the short term. For one, there is no obvious successor to him within the party. The two ministers most often mentioned are Finance Minister Martin and Justice Minister Allan Rock. But both men bring their own political baggage with them: Finance is a bruising portfolio in terms of winning public support, and Rock is regarded within the party as lacking both the appetite and political cunning needed to become leader. Similarly, although the Reform party seems to have consolidated its place on the national political scene, its support has not increased significantly since the 1993 election - and the same is true of the New Democrats and the Conservatives.

But the absence of credible alternatives is not the only reason for Chrétien's continued resilience. Among politicians of most political stripes and in mainstream English Canada, his personal popularity is largely undiminished even as his policies are cast in doubt. "The thing about this Prime Minister," says Manitoba Tory Premier Gary Filmon, "is that everything starts with the fact that he is a very, very nice, unassuming guy." Similarly, outgoing British Columbia Premier Mike Harcourt of the NDP says: "My relations with him are proof that you can disagree on issues but still get along well as people."

And even when others have doubted him, as was the case during Chrétien's uneven performance as Opposition leader from 1990 to 1993, he has seldom wavered in his certainty that he has both the ability and the solutions to lead the country. During the brief but spectacular honeymoon in the summer of 1993 that followed Kim Campbell's rise to prime minister, Chrétien, recalls his Communications Director Peter Donolo, "never showed even a split second of doubt that we would win a majority." In both word and deed, Chrétien is clearly looking ahead to the next election, which is likely to be held in the fall of 1997. And Chrétien is unequivocal about his own intentions, saying: "I always had and still have the intention of leading my party into the next election." He may have slipped in the polls, and some of his caucus may be kicking, but if Chrétien has his own way, those same MPs will still have Jean Chrétien to kick around for years to come.

Maclean's February 5, 1996