The Buck Stops...where?

Never did I think I’d miss Jean Chrétien, or be appreciative of any of his qualities, personal or professional, arrogant, back-scratching despot that he was. But here I am, one auditor general’s report into his retirement, hankering after the old coot.

Okay, hankering is too strong a word. You won’t find me on a bar stool sighing for the “good old days” when Chrétien manhandled and pepper-sprayed protesters, and snoozed while his wife fended off midnight intruders at 24 Sussex Drive. I used to appreciate him for one thing only, keeping Canada out of the political and human fiasco that the invasion of Iraq has become. Today, I give the boy from Shawinigan credit for two additional things: his timing and his proficiency in the widely underestimated art of scapegoating.

Chrétien’s sense of timing was, to the last, impeccable. Example one: let detested rival Paul Martin be finance minister, balance the budget, and play the tough numbers game you don’t have the noggin for until you announce your retirement, then give him the boot. Example two: exit the official political stage right after turning a hat trick (never mind the elections seemed like they were months rather than years apart) and right before the auditor general’s indictment of the government Augean Stables.

But more pertinent than his sense of timing, of course, is his uncanny ability to pass the buck. It’s almost preternatural. His political career and his decade plus as prime minister both have had (what seems to be) more than one honest politician’s fair share of scandal. Yet nothing ever stuck to the man of Teflon, as the pundits called him through the dozen or so RCMP investigations (four focused on federal grants distributed in his riding). Neither Shawinigate nor hitting the slopes instead of attending King Hussein’s funeral phased him, never mind the $3 billion HRDC boondoggle, in which Chrétien’s unflappability extended to keeping the very flappable Jane Stewart in her high-profile cabinet position.

Compared to the various nuggets that came to light during Chrétien’s rule, the sponsorship scandal is baby potatoes. What’s a $100 million between friends? (Can’t you just hear Jean? “A $100 million here, a $100 million there—the federal budget, it eez big, and I can’t be expected to keep track of eet all.”) But this $100 million has done what the unification of the Right and the Left’s recruitment of Monica Mazig couldn’t: affected the Liberals’ standing in the polls. And all because Paul Martin spent his long prime ministerial apprenticeship wondering how the hell he lost in 1993 to this inarticulate oddball, instead of learning something from the (slightly) older man.

Remember Chrétien’s first response when the sponsorship scandal broke? “Ask the government.” Brilliant. Three words that sent the buck flying straight at Paul. “Who, me? I’m just the former prime minister. What do I know?” And there’s poor Paul Martin, at what should have been the apex of his career, trying to be accountable, competent and electable, and finding that despite being clearly smarter, more articulate, and usually more photogenic than the Godfather, he’s plummeting in the polls. (I can hear him, too. “Life is unfair!” Maybe he’s right. But then, karma isn’t an individual thing.)

Had this “scandal” broke before Chrétien passed on the sceptre, I’ve no doubt we wouldn’t be hearing much about it by now. In the worst case scenario, former public works minister Alfonso Gagliano or another acceptable scapegoat would have gone—or been dragged—to the political guillotine. More likely, Chrétien would have given a couple long incomprehensible speeches that explained nothing and didn’t even hint at an apology, and then launched into a furious personal attack on the Alliance or the Bloc. Attention diverted, somewhere in the middle responsibility shifted, and who the heck are you guys gonna vote for anyway?
Why Canadians let him get away with it, and why they’re, with a vengeance, taking out their earlier impotence on Paul Martin, probably keeps Martin’s advisors (and the man himself) awake at night. Likely, we will never know, and, along with Stephen Harper and Jack Layton, we should simply be grateful that sometimes the universe works in mysterious ways. Who would have thought that Jean Chrétien’s legacy would turn out to be the return of Canadian democracy?

For that is precisely what he has done. By sowing the seeds for the scandal (anyone out there think the PMO, like Gagliano, did not know anything about cash flowing to Quebec? Thank you sir—I mean, anyone without a lobotomy?), then resigning just in time for the hated Martin to reap the fruits, Chrétien has ensured that the next federal election may actually be an election. You know, one in which it might be worth voting, because even Ontario may consider voting for a party other than the Liberals? Stephen Harper and the “new” Conservatives might try to take the credit, as may Jack Layton, but if the Liberal hegemony comes a-tumbling down, Canadians will have one man to thank.

Le petit gars de Shawinigan. And all because Paul Martin hasn’t learned how to pass the buck.

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based Lexpert staff writer who’s a closet Paul Martin supporter. But don’t tell anyone.