True - but seldom more so, or with worse effect, than last week. At various times, Chrétien was verbally pummelled by voters on national television, called a "liar" in a national newspaper and by a member of the Opposition, roasted on open-line shows, privately criticized by some cabinet colleagues, and accused of making false promises by a former member of his caucus. It was all enough to leave anyone grinch-like - especially a 62-year-old career politician whose two great emblems of pride are his reputation for integrity and his unwavering popularity in a three-year-long stream of public opinion polls. And the tempest was all the more stunning because the two areas for which he was most attacked - his government's record on job creation and promises to reform the Goods and Services tax - were both issues that Chrétien and his advisers thought had been put behind him months earlier.
But when Chrétien appeared on a CBC town-hall forum with a select group described by the network as "representative Canadians," the ferocity of the attacks and Chrétien's stumbling responses left the Liberals stunned. "Perhaps," said one cabinet minister privately, "it will serve as a necessary wake-up call that these issues are not going away. We need to acknowledge that." A senior aide to the Prime Minister was more succinct. "We will not," the aide said, "be using clips from this for our election campaign."
That flip remark speaks to a much deeper concern among Liberals: with an election likely as early as six months from now - and almost certainly not later than a year away - the Prime Minister's credibility is both the party's greatest asset and, at the moment, its greatest potential weakness. Did Chrétien lie when he told Canadians during the 1993 election campaign that he would "kill" and "abolish" the tax? His ultimate solution was to continue efforts begun by the previous Conservative government to harmonize the GST with provincial taxes in order to create one blended rate. And did Chrétien mislead Canadians when he promised to create jobs and preserve the country's network of health and social programs? With the jobless rate still hovering at 10 per cent, and spending slashed on everything from health care to unemployment insurance and welfare payments, at least some members of the CBC town-hall audience were convinced he did mislead them.
In fairness to Chrétien, the Prime Minister, still suffering from jet lag after a gruelling late November trip to Asia, continues to wake up every morning at 3 a.m. and was visibly tired during his CBC appearance. And, because of a childhood illness that left him with no hearing in one ear, he is often ill-at-ease in public gatherings. But, in his few recent public appearances, Chrétien has sometimes walked a fine line between fact and fiction - and it appears to be catching up with him. Earlier this fall, he told a group of high-school students that he keeps in touch with the concerns of Canadians by sometimes talking to a homeless man near 24 Sussex Drive. After reporters sought - unsuccessfully - to find the man, the Prime Minister was forced to admit he had not spoken to a homeless person since he was in Opposition. That, among other things, led Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton two weeks ago to label him a "liar." But LeBreton's unrelated criticism of Chrétien's wife, Aline, in the same speech undermined the effect of her remarks.
But last week, Chrétien had no such escape. In both the tone and content of some of his responses to questions from the CBC audience, he at times appeared uncaring or out-of-touch. The Prime Minister bluntly told one woman with three university degrees - and no job for four years - that she should consider moving elsewhere to seek work. An unemployed fisheries worker from Cape Breton - where the jobless rate in some towns tops 20 per cent - was advised to create her own business. And his irritated response to a woman who reminded him of his verbal promises to scrap the GST was "Read the Red Book" - the party's electoral platform.
In the wake of the broadcast, Chrétien and some of his advisers were convinced he had been the victim of a televised mugging by CBC producers who deliberately chose aggressive guests - and provided them with hard questions. In fact, right after the session, the Prime Minister told one of his cabinet ministers that he had seen guests "carrying written questions" - clearly implying that they had been planted. Although CBC officials denied planting questions, they did acknowledge that prospective guests were interviewed in advance by the network about the questions they would ask the Prime Minister if they were invited to participate in the forum. The only difference, the officials said, between last week's town-hall telecast and those of the previous two years was that questioners were told to remain standing - which may have made them more persistent. Just as significantly, the television forum, and related attacks, gave new energy to the Opposition parties - and for one of the few times in the past three years, Reform party Leader Preston Manning bested Chrétien during a House of Commons exchange, as he mocked the Prime Minister's GST declarations.
For the Liberals, last week's stumbles present a clear danger: they may be destined to take their place among those sound bites that live forever in infamy - even if what is remembered is not precisely what was said or meant. Canadian political history already provides several memorable examples of that. During the 1957 federal election campaign, the Liberal government of Louis Saint-Laurent and the political fortunes of cabinet strongman C. D. Howe both came crashing down - in large part because of a rhetorical comment attributed to Howe: "What's a million?" That was seized upon by other parties as proof of Liberal arrogance and the government's isolation from real-life concerns. But Howe, who was alleged to have made the remark in the Commons in 1945, never actually did so.
Instead, during a debate over defence spending, Howe admitted that a million could easily be trimmed from the $1.3-billion total: "but a million dollars from the war appropriation bill would not be a very important matter." Twelve years later, the Opposition abbreviated, and paraphrased, his remarks to deadly effect. Similarly, Pierre Trudeau is remembered for arrogantly asking Western farmers, "Why should I sell your wheat?" In fact, Trudeau, after asking the question rhetorically, then went on to explain all the obstacles that the Canadian government faced in trying to export wheat on the international market.
But if any of this bothers Chrétien personally, he isn't saying. In his interview with Maclean's, he refused to express regrets for any comments. Of his campaign commitments to "abolish" or "kill" the GST, he said he was quoted out of context because, he explains, "I was always very careful to say that we will have to replace it with other revenues. And when you have an integrated tax, you don't have the GST, you have something else." Similarly, he refused to back away from his assertion that someone who cannot find a job in their home town should consider moving. Said the Prime Minister: "I could not lie to them, tell them, 'Don't worry, we'll find you a job tomorrow.' It's not like that."
Fair enough. But at the very least, it is a substantially different tone than the one adopted by candidate Chrétien in the 1993 election campaign. At the time, he promised that a proposed $6-billion infrastructure program would not only improve roads but kick start consumer confidence and create jobs, all at the same time. That was also the campaign during which Chrétien, after the Tories ran ads mocking his facial expressions (also the result of his childhood illness), responded deftly, "At least, unlike them, I only talk out of one side of my mouth." Since then, Chrétien's government has embraced the gospel of deficit reduction, announced plans to slash 40,000 jobs from the federal payroll, and begun warning Canadians that leaner, meaner times lie ahead. The question now is whether meaner times also await the Prime Minister.
Maclean's December 23, 1996
Author ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...