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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

The arrogance of prime ministerial power

The Globe and Mail
Thursday, October 12, 2000

The Boss strode down the corridor toward the cabinet room a week ago yesterday with his customary purposefulness. His spokesman had told the press the day before, the afternoon of Pierre Trudeau's funeral, that "nobody has even begun to think" yet about memorials. But the Boss's thought processes were in full flight.

He moved to the middle of the room, taking the seat that stands a couple of centimetres higher than the others. As of today, he said, I am renaming Canada's highest peak Mount Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Boss doesn't like needless discussion; endless chatter represents his least favourite memory of the Trudeau years. But as a born-again Trudeau Liberal, he tolerated his ministers spewing forth for a nanosecond or two before bringing down the gavel.

The meeting behind him, Jean Chrétien placed a courtesy call to Sacha Trudeau and duly informed the press that the peak known for 110 years as Mount Logan had been rechristened.

A prime minister can be as impetuous or arbitrary as he pleases. Employees of The Globe and Mail are supposed to abide by the motto on our editorial page: "The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures." Liberal prime ministers suffer no such prohibitions.

Two years ago, University of Moncton professor Donald Savoie wrote a book chronicling the growing concentration of political power in the office of Canada's prime minister. Prof. Savoie noted that, under earlier prime ministers, MPs had become nobodies. More recently, he wrote, even cabinet ministers had been relegated to the status of "a focus group."

In and of itself, the renaming of Mount Logan ranks as a relatively minor abuse of prime ministerial authority. Sir William Logan, the pioneering geologist so responsible for the mapping of Canada, certainly deserves better. Mr. Chrétien didn't have to insult one great Canadian to honour another.

The Prime Minister also ought to have been more respectful of the process that exists for naming geographical features. The 27-member Geographic Names Board of Canada has been in the naming game for 103 years. Its Web site lists 24 pages of naming principles. None say the prime minister should act by fiat.

Ultimately, the significance of this particular incident lies in its illumination of the classic late government syndrome of substituting one's ability to do something with the rightness of doing it. As governments age, especially ones unaccustomed to real opposition, they become less patient with obstacles and dissent. They begin to believe that power derives from within, not from without. The inner circle narrows while the list of enemies broadens. In 1993, the Liberal Party consulted across the country in preparing its platform. Seven years later, no more than a handful of senior advisers to the Prime Minister are privy to the document. The inner Chrétien circle is drawn very tightly.

In the same vein as the wrongful naming of a mountain, George Baker, the secretary of state for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, got caught playing the worst kind of pork-barrel politics last week. He wrote a letter stating that renewed funding of $10-million for a federal-provincial high-tech promotion agency would depend on it relocating from St. John's to his riding. "Grand Falls-Windsor has decided to specialize in this area and I am going to make sure that an appropriate level of federal funding is available," he said. You might've thought he would have at least faked embarrassment when the letter became public. Fat chance. Grinning and winking, he remarked how wonderful it would be if the agency moved to his riding, but, who knew, perhaps another Liberal riding might win out.

Mr. Baker phoned me yesterday on his way home from a funeral in Newfoundland after I asked his office under what authority he was acting and whether a $10-million approval wasn't beyond a secretary of state's remit. He agreed his spending limit is only $3-million, but demurred that the decision to move the agency lies solely with the province.

The human genome project has apparently isolated the gene for Liberal arrogance. While it would be uncharitable to take the government to task for behaviour coded in its chromosomes, Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Baker sometimes make it hard to resist. Perhaps that's why even friends of the government are hoping for a stronger opposition next time out.

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