|Montreal, October 12, 2002 / No 111|
by Ralph Maddocks
During the protracted period prior to our Prime Minister's actual departure from office much ink will flow, and many words will be spoken, as people try to assess Mr Chrétien's legacy. Depending upon the political stripe of the commentator the legacy will be portrayed in positive or negative terms and a truly balanced view will be possible only, to employ that felicitous phrase from Hamlet's soliloquy (Hamlet Act III Scene I), ...When we have shuffled off this mortal coil ...
Thinking about this, I was tempted to submit a simple blank sheet of paper
bearing the headline "Mr Chrétien's Legacy." An idea which I thought
had considerable merit because it would seem to encapsulate reality quite
succinctly. However space is limited so I will try to highlight just a
few of the achievements of the last nine years of Mr Chrétien's
When they are about to leave office all politicians have one thing in common: their egos propel them into making some kind of indelible mark in the annals of their country. This maniacal desire to feature themselves prominently in the history books is apparently uncontrollable. Another thing they all do is to travel widely, at the impoverished taxpayers' expense of course, visiting countries that they probably have never heard of before in order to make self aggrandizing statements before audiences who, not knowing them as well as their constituents, are likely to be much impressed. This is also an occasion to offer more of their impoverished taxpayers' money to their hosts, an offer which is invariably and greedily accepted as it wends its way into some numbered Swiss bank account.
In this particular case we have seen our future ex-Prime Minister visiting Africa offering Canadian taxpayers' money to alleviate the poverty which he blames – quite erroneously – for the terrorism of this world. This display of magnanimity is greeted with the plaudits of those countries' politicians whose economic policies are largely responsible for the aforesaid poverty. With a little luck, given the lengthy period ahead before the actual retirement, they may be able to engineer another visit before their benefactor makes his final exit from the political stage.
Another activity much loved by soon-to-be-retired politicians is to accept as many awards as possible within the time available. Our future ex-Prime Minister received one in New York at the beginning of October. It was called the "Statesman-of-the-Year" award. For a man who tries to portray himself as a Canadian nationalist, it was amusing to note that the award, made of crystal, depicts an eagle grasping a globe in its talons. Now just who is it that has an eagle as its national symbol?
Something retiring leaders also like to do is to make promises about government spending which they are unlikely to have to keep, thereby embarrassing their successors. It was interesting to note that, under opposition questioning about his intended spending laid out in the latest throne speech, the PM remarked, "I am such a big spender that I have led a government that has turned 30 years of continuous deficits into five balanced budgets in a row." A tacit admission that his party was responsible for the production of at least half of those deficits.
Pondering how to make my own assessment of our future ex-Prime Minister's accomplishments, I thought that perhaps I would do well to try to compare a few of the actual results to some of the promises made in the Red Book waved so triumphantly before us in 1993. What a document it was too. Entitled "Creating Opportunity" it was full of grandiose statements about the need to change direction and restore hope in our future. It spoke of replacing "... the GST and mandating an all-party House of Commons Finance Committee to consult with Canadians and with all provincial governments, and recommend a fair workable replacement for the GST." The faithful and naive are waiting still.
It wrote of renegotiating and making the FTA and NAFTA agreements fairer for Canada, moving away from dependence on the USA for trade. As far as I can tell from available material, Canada-US trade has never been higher with 86.8% of all exports going to the USA in 1999 compared to 81% in 1994. The little Red Book of Chairman Jean wrote also of eliminating the 500 interprovincial trade barriers. Some work was done on this problem but many of the barriers exist still, as the MEI pointed out in its paper given on October 24, 2000.
The Red Book promised to reform the way Parliament worked and spoke of limiting the "...growing power of lobbyists and appoint an Ethics Counsellor to enforce rules regulating lobbyists." Well, an Ethics Counsellor was appointed, but the occupant of that post seems to spend much of his time finding ways to extricate the government from the embarrassing situations in which its members periodically plunge themselves.
The Red Book spoke too of appointing an Environmental Auditor General, but I could find no such a person on the Government's own search engine (when it worked) so perhaps the title was changed. Only recently, at the Joburg talking shop, did our soon-to-be-former Prime Minister become excited about the environment, announcing out of the blue that Canada would be signing the Kyoto Treaty. It will be interesting to see how he proposes to improve Canada's environment while keeping out pollution imported from adjoining countries. If his critics are to be believed, our Employment Insurance fund might be showing a large deficit before too long.
The Red Book promised to reduce the annual deficit, claiming that we had experienced "Ten years of Debt and Deficits" and it provided a table showing that the national debt had increased from $167.9 billons in 1983/4 to an estimated $458.6 billions in 1992/3, an increase of 173%. All the unspoken fault of the Progressive Conservatives, a claim which on the face of it is quite true, but the increasing deficit trend had set in long before the unlamented Mr Mulroney took office. It is true that the Liberals under Mr Chrétien did bring in budget surpluses, but how did they do it? They did it by increasing taxes in various ways, mainly in ways that the taxpayer would not notice. They did this to the point that our average personal disposable income in the 1990s boom period was barely at the level it was ten years earlier under the pilloried Mulroney government. During Mr C's regime, ordinary Canadians' incomes before taxes, as a percentage of US incomes, decreased from 87% in 1989 to 78% in 1999. Hardly glowing testimony to his economic policies. Would I be right in thinking that these numbers may not apply to elected members of Parliament? The foregoing makes me quite uneasy when I think what the policies of Mr Chrétien's successor might turn out to be.
The Red Book highlighted cuts of $5.8 billion for what it described as Cold War military helicopters and
This government's performance in the area of defence is perhaps the most appalling display of neglect by any Canadian government within memory. Mr C, like many of his predecessors, doesn't seem to care much for the armed services except when making a gesture to send them into harm's way when the US President of the day requires it. Under a succession of Liberal governments the armed services budget has been reduced, with our operational aircraft decreasing from 700 to slightly over 300 during Mr C's reign. Within a couple of years, according to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, almost half of the armed services vehicles and weapons will be out of service because of a lack of parts and the technical skill to repair them. The Auditor-General warned, before the terrorism of 911 and the impending war with Iraq, that Canada's military budgets were $2 billion below what is required to keep our present forces operational.
It may come as a surprise to some that just a couple of years ago, according to one account, Canada had a less than 21,000-man ground force, which is smaller than that of Bolivia. We had only 114 tanks, all obsolete, a few old guns and inadequate amounts of ammunition for them anyway. Our ground forces consisted of three regiments of combat troops, some 9,000 soldiers, or about half the number of Transit Police employed by New York City. In total, we had some 60,000 inadequately armed forces, and according to the same commentator, the precise functions of over a quarter of them could not even be identified. It does seem though that Canada is well off for generals. We have more generals per soldier than any other industrial nation, although they must be commanding more desks than soldiers.
As we approach the end of Mr C's reign nothing seems to have changed. We have twice the population of the Netherlands which spends a similar amount to us annually but has a highly-trained army of 27,000 soldiers, 330 state-of-the-art Leopard-II tanks; 16 modern surface combat vessels, 4 submarines; and an air force comprising 170 F-16s. Half as much again fire power for the same money. Mr C would have us believe that he and his government are zealous nationalists – which ought to imply a strong commitment to the defence of the country – yet we cannot even airlift our peacekeeping troops to Afghanistan but must rely upon the assistance of others.
Every citizen of a country has a right to expect that its government has the armed forces in place to protect that country's territorial integrity and that they are actually able to do so. This is one of the main reasons we pay taxes. I suppose though that if we were to be attacked we could always call on the Idaho National Guard for help. Apparently they have more up-to-date main battle tanks than we do. As appeared in a previous list of Liberal promises we can find the $13 billion or so needed for a proposed government-run baby sitting scheme, perhaps they really meant baby soldiers.
The 1993 edition of "The Thoughts of Chairman Jean" also mentioned that "We will establish a national Forum on Health chaired by the Prime Minister involving health care experts and consumers..." Today, almost nine years after these words were written a report is expected shortly from the Romanow Commission. A report which, if like most commission studies of the past, will soon be gathering dust in some musty government archive. The recent Auditor General's report was hardly complimentary about the government's handling of the nation's health system. Among other things, she claimed that Ottawa does not know how much it spends on health care and is reluctant to penalize provinces that fail to live up to the Canada Health Act. She said also that the government has fallen short in its collection of data on illnesses such as heart disease, strokes, arthritis, cancer and mental illness. Such diseases which cost an estimated $50-billion a year to treat make it difficult to design prevention and treatment programs.
Someone calculated that in previous throne speeches there were 145 promises of which 79 were broken. The recent Speech from the Throne contained 58 promises of which 29 were said to be recycled from previous speeches or announcements. I find it strange that few comment on this failure to keep promises. The deceit which is implied in making these promises, which will never be kept, is quite astonishing. Why do Canadians not demand more from their elected representatives? Commentators criticise the opposition parties as being largely ineffectual, and it seems to me that they have a point. Why did the opposition not organise a daily attack on the government about the promises which are not being kept? Eventually the press would have reported the answers they got and perhaps made the electorate wake from their slumber.
Returning to the legacy question. As I mentioned earlier, a definitive one will not be possible until long after many of us have left the stage. Perhaps though many will remember him for his frequent pettiness, ruthless partisanship and the questionable ethics of some of his acolytes. Will his Clarity Act outweigh the stigma of almost losing the last referendum in Quebec? Time alone will tell.
Driving on any of the main roads leading to Quebec City one can see large blue billboards welcoming passing travellers to La Capitale nationale. Thinking about a possible title for this piece and pondering this legacy business, it suddenly dawned on me that here it was, staring me in the face. Mr Chrétien has been a proud member of the Canadian Parliament for almost forty years now. Is it possible that he has been going to the wrong place for all these years?
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