The Reign of Jean Chretien

By Richards, John | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Reign of Jean Chretien


Richards, John, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


LAST SUMMER, I WROTE AN ARTICLE FOR the Annuaire du Quebec on Jean Chretien's decade-long reign. The first draft was composed on an idyllic afternoon here in East Vancouver. Beyond my kitchen's open windows were scarlet geraniums on the balcony; a background of pines, hemlocks and larches in the garden; blue sky; bees buzzing lazily among the flowers. Chretien's boast seemed justifiable: maybe Canada is the "best country in the world." Even now, in late autumn, with a prospect of rain and leaden skies, his claim cannot be dismissed out of hand. Better than his adversaries, Chretien has embodied the common-sense conclusion that Canada is a good place to live.

ELECTORATES IN THREE PROVINCES--Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan--went to the polls in 1990 and 1991 determined to oust the incumbents. The NDP won in all three, and for the first time found itself governing a majority of Canadians, if only at the provincial level.

New Democrats shared none of Chretien's optimism. Unless social programs became more generous, they intoned, Canada was a disgrace. In British Columbia and Ontario, the NDP sharply increased spending and deficits, ignoring inconvenient evidence: a near-doubling since the 1960s in public-sector share of GDP, continuous federal deficits from 1975 (until 1997), mounting interest costs of public debt, and voter hostility to higher taxes.

For many, the 1993 federal election became a referendum both on the Tories in Ottawa and on their provincial NDP government. Relative to 1988, the NDP popular vote fell by half, and its caucus fell by four fifths. Subsequent elections, both federal and provincial, have confirmed voter mistrust of the party. Only in the two eastern prairie provinces--and perhaps Nova Scotia--can it realistically aspire to office this decade.

In these prairie provinces, the party has a long tradition of pragmatism. Ironically, it was an NDP government--Roy Romanow's, beginning in 1992--that pioneered the major spending cuts required to end the country's protracted deficit budgeting. In this issue Janice MacKinnon, who was Minister of Finance during that government's crucial years of budget-cutting, gives advice to Paul Martin for his incoming administration.

Despite the electoral success of these governments (the Saskatchewan NDP won a fourth term in office in a hard-fought campaign last November), the federal NDP rejected pragmatism and opted for a niche strategy. It has preserved a tight link to public-sector unions, and adopted policies comparable to those of various small left-wing parties in Europe. Given a more conservative Liberal leader in Paul Martin, it may realize a modest recovery. But the die is cast: the NDP is not interested in governing. For Chretien, all this meant he faced no electoral threat on his left flank.

With the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, Lucien Bouchard underwent an existential crisis. Federalism, he concluded, was incompatible with francophone Quebecers' interests. He resigned from Brian Mulroney's cabinet and formed the Bloc Quebecois to promote Rene Levesque's option: political sovereignty plus an economic association ensuring free trade with the rest of Canada. In 1993, the Bloc captured more than two thirds of Quebec ridings and became the official opposition. In the 1995 referendum, Bouchard persuaded roughly 60 per cent of francophone Quebecers to vote Yes.

But what did Yes mean? The referendum question was not clear. Many wanted, as the old joke has it, a strong independent Quebec within a united Canada. With the collapse of Mulroney's coalition of western autonomists and moderate Quebec nationalists, there was no prospect of an entente a l'amiable if Quebec opted for sovereignty-association. To drive home Quebecers' stark choice--sovereignty tout court or the status quo--Chretien and his lieutenant Stephane Dion enacted the Clarity Act. There would be no special status, no distinct society and certainly no sovereignty-association. …

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