Jean Chretien and the paradox of the Liberals
TheStar.com – News/Canada – Liberal politicians are a strange breed. They build useful social institutions. Then they destroy them.
Jan 22 2014. By: Thomas Walkom National Affairs
The Liberals are a paradox. They build institutions and then demolish them. They insist they walk the middle line even when they don’t.
They pride themselves on their crafty pragmatism. But they can be fooled time and time again by their own PR.
I don’t know whether Jean Chrétien truly exemplifies this paradox. But a gala banquet held Tuesday night to honour the former prime minister certainly did.
Its tone was triumphal as political warlords, past and present, paid homage to Chrétien on theoccasion of his 80th birthday.
He was lauded for being part of the Liberal government that, 50 years ago, worked to build and expand the great social programs of the 20th century. These included federally funded welfare, medicare and what is now called employment insurance.
Then he was lauded for decimating these same social programs when, as prime minister during the 1990s, he slashed spending in order to eliminate the federal deficit.
Many people might find this contradictory behaviour odd. Liberals, it seems, do not. As current party leader Justin Trudeau joked — quoting Chrétien — Liberals keep their wallets in their right-hand pockets and their hearts on the left.
What they don’t always realize, however, is that the two sides are connected. Social justice costs money. Grand gestures mean little if they are not backed by cash.
At times during his career, it seems Chrétien did understand this. Late in his term as prime minister, he realized that his draconian spending cuts had jeopardized popular support for Canada’s national, publicly funded health insurance system.
That’s why he asked his old friend Roy Romanow, a former New Democratic Party premier of Saskatchewan, to head a royal commission into medicare.
To no one’s surprise, Romanow’s report included a recommendation that Ottawa increase its share of health-care funding. Under Chrétien’s successor, Paul Martin, that’s exactly what happened.
(Incidentally, as various reports from the soon-to-be disbanded Health Council of Canada show, that extra money did reduce wait times for certain surgical procedures, thus alleviating one of medicare’s most pressing problems).
But in other areas, the Liberal governments of Chrétien and Martin gaily cherry-picked from the platforms of their right-wing opponents.
Did business complain of too much red tape in areas such as health safety and meat inspection? The Liberals were happy to oblige — either by deregulating directly or by reorganizing Ottawa’s bureaucracy to ensure that regulators met the needs of those they were supposed to monitor.
Were taxes too high for corporations and wealthy individuals? The Liberals would cut them.
In effect, the money saved by skimping on the poor and unemployed was spent on tax cuts for higher-income earners.
Were the provinces irked by Ottawa’s habit of setting up national social programs like medicare? No problem. Chrétien agreed to something called the social union framework, which requires the approval of at least six provinces before Ottawa can act.
None of this is meant to portray Chrétien as a villain. He is who he is. He governed during a time when the right was in ascendency worldwide. And like any successful politician, he tried to balance interests — including his own.
But at the same time, the saga of Jean Chrétien should be a cautionary tale.
During his 50 years in politics, he did considerable good. His role in the patriation of Canada’s Constitution was crucial. He kept Canada largely out of the Iraq War (although not from the conflict in Afghanistan).
But he also suffered from something that, for too many Liberal politicians, is a congenital shortcoming. In an effort to hew to what he believed was the middle way, he ended up destroying much that his own party had built.
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