Jean Chrétien: Ambition or arrogance?
By JEFF GRAY
Globe and Mail Update
A health-care deal with the provinces. A mini-budget laden with tax cuts. The welcoming of a fiery former Newfoundland premier to the cabinet. And poll after poll showing the Liberals with a massive, commanding lead.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has a reputation as a cautious politician, and so his decision to call an early election with all of these cards in his hand comes as small surprise - although some say he is taking a chance.
Perhaps Mr. Chrétien's careful, pragmatic approach at the top of the slippery pole isn't surprising - his journey to the Prime Minister's Office has been a long, hard and unlikely fight.
He likes to portray himself as a down-to-earth, smalltown boy who worked his way up to the country's most powerful job - le petit gars de Shawinigan.
But if he ever was, Mr. Chrétien is certainly no longer a country bumpkin, having been first elected to Parliament in 1963 - when Opposition Leader Stockwell Day was 13 years old - and serving since then in almost every major government ministry.
Born on Jan. 11, 1934, he started out with the cards stacked against him. “Jean Chrétien in youth is small, skinny, deaf in one ear, deformed at the mouth, slightly dyslexic, poor of pocket and intellectually unadorned,” wrote biographer Lawrence Martin in The Globe and Mail before the 1997 election.
But Mr. Chrétien, who studied law at Laval University, went on to become minister of national revenue under Lester Pearson, and under political mentor Pierre Trudeau, he served as minister of justice, finance, industry, trade and commerce, energy and mines, the Treasury Board and Indian affairs.
He was also at Mr. Trudeau's side during the 1980 referendum in Quebec, and during the 1982 patriation of the Constitution, as minister responsible for the negotiations - the two events have since tainted his political legacy in his home province.
In 1984, John Turner beat him for the Liberal leadership, and Mr. Chrétien resigned from the Commons in 1986, returning to the practice of law.
But after winning the party leadership at a 1990 convention in Calgary, Mr. Chrétien, with his “red book” of campaign promises, oversaw the almost-total collapse of the Kim Campbell-led Progressive Conservatives in 1993.
Since coming to power, he and his Liberals have backtracked on promises to scrap the goods and services tax, renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement. And, in the 1995 budget, they made massive cuts in health and education transfer payments to the provinces.
Perhaps Mr. Chrétien's darkest hour came as federalists and separatists faced off in the 1995 Quebec referendum, which was won by only a few thousand votes.
More recently, Mr. Chrétien has faced criticism for centralizing power in the hands of his office and his closest aides, to the point that some commentators think cabinet debates have become mere focus-group discussions.
He has also had to deal with pressure to retire, and the jockeying within his party for the top job, with Finance Minister Paul Martin seen as the most ambitious - and dangerous - of the bunch.
This year, the Opposition and the media have hammered his government for bungling jobs-grants programs administered by Human Resources Development Canada. The Auditor-General concluded the week before the election call that the government poorly tracked $3-billion in grants doled out by HRDC.
And there have been at least a dozen RCMP investigations, four of them focused on federal grants doled out in the Prime Minister's Quebec riding of Saint-Maurice.
But the teflon-like Mr. Chrétien and his folksy style remain popular, although a recent poll said Canadians were likely to think him “arrogant.” The veteran campaigner has been quick to take credit for the buoyant economy and the mounting surpluses in Ottawa's coffers, themes surely to be repeated on the stump in the weeks ahead.
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