Chretien's Year-end Interview 97

On a balmy late-December afternoon, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was in conversation with Maclean’s at his official residence when the telephone rang for the second time. Gesturing to an aide to silence the call, Chrétien said: "Push 'Do Not Disturb.' " The aide hit the button, exclaiming: "Ah, DND.

Chretien's Year-end Interview 97

On a balmy late-December afternoon, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was in conversation with Maclean's at his official residence when the telephone rang for the second time. Gesturing to an aide to silence the call, Chrétien said: "Push 'Do Not Disturb.' " The aide hit the button, exclaiming: "Ah, DND. I thought it was National Defence." Responded Chrétien with mock dismay: "They do not have a direct line here." That jocular reference to the controversy about the department's helicopter purchase plan revealed a Prime Minister in a chipper mood as he responded to questions in an hour-long interview at 24 Sussex Drive with Editor-in-Chief Robert Lewis and National Affairs Columnist Anthony Wilson-Smith. The discussion ranged over subjects from the economy and the Calgary declaration on the future shape of Canada to his role in the land mines agreement. On the personal side, the Prime Minister was pleased that the night before he had included his brothers and sisters in a boisterous Christmas party with his staff. Chrétien also conceded that his wife, Aline, who joined him for a photo session in the front parlor, had been upset for weeks in 1995 after an intruder with a knife broke into 24 Sussex Drive while they were sleeping. At times, Chrétien was remarkably forthright - conceding that the bitter attacks by opponents in his native province of Quebec are painful and that he did not like the role of leading the official Opposition. On a topic of intense speculation - his political future - the Prime Minister was more blunt and forthright than ever. He intends to serve out his current term - and then decide what comes next. Excerpts:

Maclean's: As we look back at the past year, what has changed?

Chrétien: We are more relaxed at this moment because it's less tough. Economically, the country is going quite well. We have more than four-per-cent growth with little inflation. Unemployment is going down, although not as rapidly as I would like. Parliament is functioning well and we have some very good successes. The land-mines treaty is a great success for the party, and the country. The ministers are more experienced and comfortable in their jobs. We have debates, of course - it would not be a cabinet if there weren't. I'm not a dictator, I just listen to them.

Maclean's: What difference have you and your government made in the past year?

Chrétien: People feel good. The government's role is to make people gain confidence in themselves. The election was unusual: nobody predicted anything but that the Liberals would win, so it became in many ways a huge byelection. Seven per cent of the voters did not bother to go to the polls because they were not highly motivated to kick us out and not highly motivated to come to vote, knowing that we would win.

Maclean's: Does the changed composition of this House make a difference?

Chrétien: For the anglophones in Canada - and perhaps even a lot of francophones - they feel better not to have the Bloc Québécois asking all the first questions [as the official Opposition]. It's more normal to have an Opposition that is not a separatist party. [Four opposition parties] in the House help in a way for us. There's a lot of competition among them. When I go to Question Period as the Prime Minister, it's not a big burden. My staff don't have to push me like when I was in the Opposition - which was not a role I liked. In Opposition, your role is to oppose. For me, it was not natural. Very often, ministers would give me an answer that I agreed with. I had to get up and ask a supplementary question faking that typical outrage that makes good television clips.

Maclean's: You've decided to use the emerging surplus to deal with debt. What, beyond that, are the government's top two or three priorities?

Chrétien: We have two. We're investing $850 million this year in child poverty in collaboration with the provinces, and we want to invest in learning. Canada has the highest per capita number of university graduates in all the world, but we have to maintain that and facilitate that for more people.

Maclean's: You've already put money back into health, social policy and postsecondary education. Do you see more money going towards those items in the '98 budget?

Chrétien: No, I don't see that at this moment unless something happened. We have restored $1.5 billion that was supposed to be cut. Now, we will look at the priorities that we have as a government and as a nation to make investments, but within a very prudent way.

Maclean's: Do you plan to give the provinces a greater role in the Canada Health Act?

Chrétien: The Canada Health Act is the law and the law will apply. Now, what we want to do is to have a mechanism so that if we see that they are not within the law or they feel that they would like to do something different, there will be consultation to try to find a solution in a rational way.

Maclean's: But will there be a greater role for the provinces?

Chrétien: Yes, I don't mind to give them a greater role. What is important is the result. But we maintain our constitutional powers and jurisdictions.

Maclean's: The courts are making a lot of decisions on what seem to be moral issues. That includes euthanasia, and the legality of marijuana use for epilepsy sufferers. Are these court matters or should the elected Parliament be doing more?

Chrétien: These are very difficult social issues. Very often, parliamentarians don't want to legislate. If Parliament feels that the Supreme Court is moving in one direction too fast against its will, the pressure will come from parliamentarians and from the cabinet eventually to deal with the problem.

Maclean's: Under what circumstances would you contemplate having a federal referendum in Quebec, or do you rule that out?

Chrétien: I never rule anything out. You've got to keep all the options open. We have the right to consult the people of Quebec and Alberta and British Columbia and anybody.

Maclean's: Are you referring to the possibility of a federal consultation about the Calgary declaration in Quebec?

Chrétien: I don't say no, I don't say yes, let's wait to see the evolution of the file.

Maclean's: Do you think there is any possibility there won't be another Quebec referendum?

Chrétien: Of course, if the Liberals were to win the election there would not. It will be a big debate in the next election. People in Quebec are absolutely fed up with it. My view is that the Parti Québécois government could be defeated.

Maclean's: You played an informal role in the construction of the Calgary declaration. Are you continuing to stay in touch with the premiers about this?

Chrétien: Oh yes. We talked with them during the summer, as you all know. I told them that it was important for Canada that they did the agreement and they understood it and they moved. And there was consultation with me on the wording and so on. But I said, 'It is your resolution, not mine.' They wanted to know if I could live with it, and I said yes.

Maclean's: In the 1970s, you were so popular in Quebec that a lot of the provincial Liberals wanted you to run for the leadership. Since then, your popularity has fallen sharply. Can that be changed?

Chrétien: It's coming back. There was a poll that said Lucien Bouchard now is the third [most popular politician in Quebec] - and I was number 4: not a big gap between myself and Bouchard. They blamed me for everything. You know all the damage it caused me because, after I won the leadership, [then-Newfoundland premier] Clyde Wells hugged me. It had nothing to do with what happened in Quebec [with the collapse of the Meech Lake accord]. But they distorted that and blah blah blah. Now, the people are more realistic. It's tough when you have everybody who for years never gave you a break. They were all shooting at me.

Maclean's: It must hurt personally?

Chrétien: Of course it hurt, but we're used to that. You have to look at yourself and say, I did what I did out of conviction.

Maclean's: What would turn it around in your view?

Chrétien: Performance. For example, the number of phone calls and comments and friends who've told my family about the land-mines success. Quebecers were very proud of that. In fact, [longtime separatist activist Pierre] Bourgault wrote a column about it. Bourgault praised me. [Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd] Axworthy did work hard, but I was personally extremely involved. I called on every leader in the Commonwealth, I signed up how many I don't know right at the Commonwealth, and the same thing at the Francophonie summit. So the people of Quebec look at the performance and the economy, the balancing of the budget, the performance as a government, and now they don't shoot at me as much. They're shooting at Bouchard now.

Maclean's: Our year-end poll indicates that at this point Plan B - pointing out the negative consequences of sovereignty - is working in Quebec. Do you wish you had clarified the debate in this way before the 1995 referendum?

Chrétien: We did. In September, 1995, I said, 'You won't break the country with one vote of majority.' I said you don't have the guts to ask a clear question. This was part of the debate. The people were not listening. And that's another problem.

Maclean's: Turning to international issues, do you think the Americans are becoming more isolationist?

Chrétien: Ah, it's always a yo-yo type of thing. One of the arguments I had on free trade was that people said the Americans are getting more protectionist so we should be part of a protectionist bloc with them.

Maclean's: Would you be prepared to bring the terms of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment to the House of Commons for a debate at some point?

Chrétien: We can debate that any time in Parliament. We're the biggest trading nation in the world per capita so we have to be part of this system, otherwise we'll be excluded. If a treaty is agreed upon, usually we go to the House of Commons and we vote, but we're not there yet.

Maclean's: There's an assertion that you broke faith with the provinces when you went to Kyoto, Japan, and signed an environmental agreement that had different terms from what they expected.

Chrétien: No, they said, 'You have flexibility.' And I said to them, 'Don't worry, we will not put you in a position where it would be tougher than the Americans to achieve the goal.' I think we've done quite well. The commitment was we will not put you in a worse position to compete with the Americans.

Maclean's: Does the Nov. 5, 1995, break-in still affect you?

Chrétien: No, except that now I have more security. It did bother my wife for a while. For weeks, she would wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning. But for me, no - in a job like this there are risks. It's part of the territory, I guess.

Maclean's: Being a leader often causes people to age more quickly, and noticeably. Do you feel any differently in your energy level than four years ago?

Chrétien: No, I feel pretty good physically. I still run the stairs going to the office, I swim and I play golf. I ski. I don't have all my hair, but I'm 63 and my hair, I'm not all grey. And look, I'm still the same weight basically. I gained a few pounds when I arrived here because the food was a bit too good and the drinks were a bit too easy to get, the wine, and so I had to cut these things.

Maclean's: Do you work out at all, like aerobics?

Chrétien: No. I swim two, three times a week. Last Sunday, it was damn cold, but the night before, my wife read to me that when you feel that you're too old to do something, it's the time to do it. So I woke up in the morning and I saw it was cold: I said 'I'm going skiing, I think it's too cold for a guy of my age to go skiing this morning' - and geez, it was cold. But I feel in good shape.

Maclean's: What do your siblings think about having a brother as Prime Minister?

Chrétien: Well, they like it. They're worried a bit. They watch the news more than I and they get more upset than I am with you guys. But they are happy and proud of it.

Maclean's: How long do you expect to keep this house, this view?

Chrétien: The house - it's like living in a hotel here. There's a lot of official dinners; we all dream of having servants, but when you have them, you sometimes don't want to see them. We like our privacy. So we go to Harrington Lake. We don't have staff any more at Harrington Lake. We cancelled the staff there. I've been elected for five years and I intend to serve my term, and at the end of it I will decide what is needed for me. I never told my dad or mom or confessor I would be prime minister so I have no commitment with destiny. I like it.

Maclean's: But wouldn't you like to be prime minister when the millennium comes?

Chrétien: But I will be prime minister until I get sick. The millennium is two years away and I have a mandate of four years.

Maclean's: There's some feeling that you might go before that.

Chrétien: No, you don't go and ask the people to vote for you and quit right after. I would have not run. We're in a very good political situation and I am the leader of this party and so I intend to deliver what I said I was to deliver. And now the millennium is coming, but not only that, I am the first prime minister in 40 years who has to deal with this problem of the fiscal surplus. So let me enjoy it a little.

Maclean's December 29, 1997