L’etat, c’est Jean
Conventional wisdom goes like this: In the past, the people of Canada deferred to authority. A few white guys in suits ran things behind closed doors and we, the peasants, thought that was just fine as long as our lords and masters kept us stuffed with bread and amused by circuses.
But then came the Revolution: The Charlottetown Accord was torched and the Conservatives guillotined. Traditional institutions lost the unquestioning respect of the peasants. As Peter Newman put it in his best-seller, The Canadian Revolution: From Deference To Defiance, Canadians “staged a revolt against the notion of having their personal decisions made for them by self-selected hierarchies dedicated to their own perpetuation.”
Mr. Newman wrote that in 1995. To read it after the 2000 election is to be, well, embarrassed. Not embarrassed for Mr. Newman and the pundits who still spout this stuff. Embarrassed for us. Embarrassed that Canada’s peasants just endorsed the rule of a tiny clique of guys in suits dedicated above all to the clique’s perpetuation.
For that is surely the best description of the government of Jean Chretien. The prime minister is stronger than any since Mackenzie King held war-time emergency powers. Parliament is Mr. Chretien’s whipped cur. He is a Canadian Cromwell. With his latest win, he could make himself the Sun King.
The centralization of power isn’t Mr. Chretien’s invention, of course. It began with Pierre Trudeau and was enhanced by Brian Mulroney. But it was Mr. Chretien who made the prime minister into a Lord Protector.
MPs may have been nobodies away from Parliament in Trudeau’s day, but now they’re nobodies sitting in the Commons. The operation of the government is more reliant on janitors than MPs, especially Liberal backbenchers, whose jobs have literally been reduced to standing and sitting on command. Their thoughts are as irrelevant as those of rowers on a Roman galley — demonstrated by the pathetic spectacle of a Liberal MP crying as she voted against her conscience. The few who balk at this humiliation, such as John Nunziata, are taken to the galley’s aft and tossed overboard like so much fish chum.
More astoundingly, even cabinet ministers have been stripped of real authority. Political scientist Donald Savoie describes cabinet as little more than a focus group for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
That leaves all power in the person of Jean Chretien — and the handful of courtiers and jesters who have his ear. Law, regulation, appointment: All the acts of the federal government are subject to the whim of one man. L’etat, c’est Jean.
One might think that post-revolutionary peasants would at least insist on monitoring the work of this one man, but it seems we can’t be bothered. Mr. Chretien rarely holds press conferences but no one complains. Nor do we seem to care that, as the information commissioner reported days before the election call, the PMO is obstructing the operation of the Access to Information Act, even refusing to allow the commissioner to review PMO records. “No other minister, in almost 17 years,” the commissioner wrote, “has refused to co-operate.” Were the peasants enraged? Hardly. The report got a little media play and promptly vanished.
The same shrug has greeted every revelation of grant-fiddling, pork-barrelling, and other jiggery-pokery. Tax dollars poured into Shawinigan? Versailles must have fountains. The prime minister leaned on a federal bank president on behalf of a shady former associate? It’s “the usual operation.” The prime minister has an ethics counsellor named by him, who applies rules written by him, and answers only to him? A prince cannot be judged as other men, as Machiavelli wrote.
Nothing we heard about the Imperial Prime Minister has ever bothered us much. Given the chance to judge the man, unprecedented numbers didn’t bother to cast a ballot, producing the lowest turnout in Canadian history. Those who did show up gave Mr. Chretien an even bigger majority.
True, the alternatives were ugly, but we peasants aren’t interested in change of any sort. The idea of citizen-initiated referendums evoked only horror. “Imagine a country,” historian Michael Bliss wrote at the end of the campaign, “whose people recoil at the thought of voting on public issues.”
That’s us. We have bread in our bellies and a circus in Parliament to keep us amused. As long as the economy keeps humming, we peasants are quite content to be ruled from behind closed doors by a tyrant and his sycophants.
The Revolution is over. Much to our delight, we lost.