Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

La Petite Vision, Les Grands Decisions: Chretien's Paradoxical Record in Social Policy

Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

La Petite Vision, Les Grands Decisions: Chretien's Paradoxical Record in Social Policy

Article excerpt


In Canada, social policy looms large on our political landscape and in our personal lives. It encompasses the largest part of public expenditures at both orders of government, a great deal of the work of public service bureaucracies, and much of the stuff of intergovernmental relations and executive federalism in Canada. Focusing on federal social initiatives of the Chretien Liberals from 1993 to 2004, therefore, is a far larger subject than this article can embrace. Fortunately, several articles in this special issue examine aspects of social policy, including Aboriginal peoples, cities and housing, health care, immigration, the role of the third sector, and women. Thus, the analysis here concentrates on three elements of social policy under Chretien: the politics of budget deficits, surpluses and intergovernmental transfers; financial assistance to families with children; and intergovernmental agreements on early childhood development, early learning and child care services. These are among the most significant social policy developments witnessed over the last ten years, and provide an opportunity to reflect on the shift in policy and the practice of politics that transpired over Chretien's tenure as Prime Minister. Even still, any one article will unavoidably pass over many of the nuances, complexities, and contradictions of a government's legacy.

Chretien is widely regarded as a politician who lacked a striking vision of lofty ideals and ambitious objectives, be it economic, constitutional or social. There is much academic, media, and public support for this representation. (1) In a ranking of Canada's Prime Ministers, Chretien is described by historians J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer as having "no great abiding vision of the country." (12) Chretien's biographer, Lawrence Martin, similarly has written of his political philosophy that, "he never did see the world in terms of blueprints." (3)

The argument of this article is that Chretien's impact on social policy developments was, and will continue to be, more substantial than la petite vision implies, due to his political style, the inherent power of the role of the first minister within Canadian politics, and the cumulative impact of numerous decisions overtime. The article proceeds in four sections. The first section offers a brief overview of the policy preferences and style of Chretien, and suggests that he had a strong and ongoing interest in and influence over federal social policy. The second section examines the all-important fiscal context, however it is politically constructed, within which social spending and policy-making must operate. Implications of the deficit reduction phase and then the fiscal surplus phase is discussed to display some of the budgetary forces at play during the Chretien years. It was through debates over, and decisions about, the deficit and then spending and tax relief that Chretien often exercised his power over social policy. In the third section, I examine a major part of the Chretien social policy record, namely improving the quality of life and income security of Canadian families with children. The Canada Child Tax Benefit, introduced by the Chretien Liberals, has become the central federal policy instrument for providing financial support to families with children. In addition, the intergovernmental agreements on early childhood development and child care now represent the federal government's main partnerships with provinces and territories in investing in services for families with younger children. The fourth section sets out the overall conclusions that emerge from the analysis, centred on the paradoxical nature of Chretien's record in social policy.


"In relation to prime ministerial policy preferences," Doern and Phidd note that,

   virtually all recent occupants of the office, except perhaps Brian
   Mulroney [and, I would add, John Turner], have leaned to the social
   policy side of the policy continuum. … 
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