Wednesday, December 6, 2000
Halifax Chronicle Herald

PM stupidly plays favourites in U.S. vote

By Brian Lee Crowley

JEAN CHRETIEN is the most successful prime minister in a generation, and perhaps two. He deserves honour and respect for his record of electoral success, and Canadians clearly indicated just a few days ago that they preferred him to any of the other political leaders on offer.

But winning an election is no excuse to take leave of your senses. And that’s clearly what Mr. Chretien did on his recent post-electoral visit to the United States.

At a speech on his first foreign foray since the election, Mr. Chretien made not one, not two, but three blunders. He damaged Canada’s interests, risked harming our relations with our biggest trading partner and ally, and displayed a stunning ignorance of current American politics.

In his remarkable speech before a university audience in North Carolina, the Prime Minister sensibly underlined the need for Canada’s leader to maintain cordial relations with whoever is the president of the United States. When another country buys 40 per cent of your private sector’s production, it is vital to keep the lines of communication open. This is doubly true when the trading partner in question is 10 times larger than you are, and is far less dependent on trade.

But having said how important it is that Canada’s prime minister be able to deal on a friendly basis with the leader of our southern neighbour, he then went out of his way to identify himself with the program and the political fortunes of Al Gore, the candidate least likely to become the next president. It is one thing to use the no doubt positive relationship that Mr. Chretien has with President Bill Clinton as a model for how these relationships should be conducted. It is quite another to imply that Mr. Clinton’s anointed heir is the Canadian prime minister’s preferred candidate to take over the Oval Office.

Precisely because relations with America are so vital, Mr. Chretien must be able to work with Al Gore or George Bush. If George Bush now becomes president, rest assured he will be briefed about how Oncle Jean was busy touting his rival’s virtues to a domestic U.S. audience.

Imagine how the prime minister would feel if our last election had produced a hung Parliament, and the American president had declared to a Canadian audience that, while he didn’t want to take sides, he really had an awfully good working relationship with Stockwell Day, and thought his policies best for Canada.

Worse than this diplomatic faux pas, however, was Mr. Chretien’s next gaffe: the reasons why he liked Gore and the Clinton legacy better than Bush. Mr. Gore has a more attractive platform for U.S. domestic voters because it is more activist, rather than favouring reduced government and significantly lower taxes, says the sage from Shawinigan.

But one could be forgiven for thinking that the Canadian prime minister, if he’s going to express a preference between the candidates, should spare a thought for Canadian domestic interests. Let the Americans work out for themselves who’s got the better domestic agenda. Which candidate is likely to be more in tune with Canada’s needs?

It is not at all clear that the answer is Al Gore. If he wins the presidency, Mr. Gore will be more beholden to the trade union and other protectionist interests than any president in a generation. Yet Canada, as a small and open trading nation, has every interest in seeing trade liberalization speeded up. Sure, Al Gore defended NAFTA from Ross Perot’s attacks, but that was before his craven cosying up to the thugs that disrupted the Seattle trade talks, and before he racked up big political debts to the AFL-CIO. Prosperity in both Canada and the U.S. has gone hand in glove with freer trade and international co-operation, and Bush is more committed to this policy than Gore.

As for his confident assumption that Al Gore is the standard bearer for the Clintonism he professes to admire, Jean Chretien obviously paid no attention to the last year of presidential campaigning. Over the course of his presidency, Bill Clinton consistently refused the rhetoric of envy and of class warfare that Al Gore used to shore up his flagging support on the left. In fact, it was the great victory of Clintonism that it purged the Democratic Party of the old soak-the-rich nostrums of the ’60s, embraced a leaner government and reformed welfare to get people back into productive lives based on working.

Under the Clinton presidency the prime minister professes to admire, tax rates for everybody, rich and poor, have stayed significantly below Canadian rates. Success is rewarded, as is hard work. Government debt and hence interest costs are lower, the projected surpluses are significantly higher. Jean Chretien is not in much of a position to give lessons to the Americans on economic management. On the contrary. Next time he goes to the U.S., maybe he should go to learn rather than to lecture.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: BrianLeeCrowley@aims.ca