Wow. People have underestimated Jean Chretien his entire career. His success has been written off to weak opposition. But, love him or hate him, everyone who watched him today saw why he’s one of the most successful politicians in Canada’s history. Regardless of what you think of the guy, it’s impossible not to have been impressed with his performance today.
Right from the opening statement, he set the tone. THIS is how the scandal should have been handled in the first place. One year ago when Sheila Fraser dropped the bombshell, Martin panicked and changed his story every day. First, it was "rogue beaurocrats". Then there was "political direction". He claimed he was "out of the loop" on Quebec but vowed to "get to the bottom of it". Then the Mad as Hell tour started with Martin going across the country with a clear message:
"THIS IS THE WORST SCANDAL EVER!!! LIBERALS ARE TERRIBLE!!!! I'M MAD AS HELL!!!! DON'T VOTE FOR LIBERALS!!!!!!!!!"
Contrast that to Jean Chretien's defense today. First of all, he admitted that mistakes were made. There's no hiding from that. This was a huge waste of government dollars and taxpayers have a right to be annoyed. But context was given for the program. Remember, this Prime Minister was accused relentlessly (somewhat unfairly) of being too passive during the 1995 Referendum so he had to do something. Maybe it wasn't the most brilliant idea and had flaws, but in 1995 and 1996 the threat of separation was very real. Anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t remember the power Lucien Bouchard held over Quebeckers. And that's why this program was set up. Chretien also offered up the very reasonable explanation as to why "Liberal-friendly" firms got contracts: The contract is either going to a Liberal or a Separatist firm. If you're promoting national unity, you don't give the contract to a separatist firm. Well, duh. There aren’t a lot of NDP-friendly firms in Quebec.
And then there were the golf balls. Sheer brilliance. I won’t say much about that because every paper in the country will lead with it tomorrow, but the way they were used, the lines he delivered, the subtle shots at Gomery’s ties to Ogilvy Renault and Bernard Roy…it was political theatre at its best. The fact that he held off defending himself until he knew it would have the greatest impact was also a very wise move. Westmount cheap.
And since all of his enemies were feeling blows on Tuesday, there was also a parting shot or two at Martin. I quote:
"During the course of my administration, the minister of finance and I always agreed to set aside $50 million a year for expenditures related to national unity that would be decided upon during the course of the year,"
Now, contrast this to what Martin has said:
"I had no idea what was going on here." – Prime Minister Paul Martin after the release of the report
"It is no secret that I did not have an easy relationship with those around the prime minister. In short, my advice was not routinely sought on issues related to Quebec." – Paul Martin
Should make Thursday even more interesting! As always, Martin’s got a tough act to follow.