Lessons of the Jean Episode

There's a lot to learn from the Michaelle Jean story. Very little of it is pleasant. But almost all of it is important.

First, Canadians have learned some important things about the character of their prime minister, Paul Martin.

If Martin's principal secretary Helene Scherrer is to be believed, Martin selected Jean on the basis of a hunch and a glimpse. That story does make sense: It seems unlikely that Martin would have knowingly signed up for the controversy he has brought upon himself with the Jean choice.

Canadians are discovering that their prime minister has tremendous difficulty making good decisions. Either he dithers and dodges or else he lurches and lunges. He either spends months procrastinating and vacillating--or else he gambles on an impulse. The one thing it seems he can't do is make an informed decision in an orderly way. And that is alarming.

Second, Canadians have learned how much Martin's government is a one-man show. This is not to say that the government lacks talent. It contains serious intellects and strong personalities. But it is clear that when decisions finally do come to be made, Martin does not pay much heed to his Cabinet or his party. It is hard for me to imagine that Stephane Dion or Irwin Cotler would have approved of the Jean appointment--or that Joe Volpe, Ujjal Dosanjh or Scott Brison would have failed to sense in advance how politically costly it would prove outside Quebec. Either they were not warned, or else they were not heard or else they perceived that the Prime Minister was committed and that there was no point in speaking up.

Instead, Martin relies on that tiny coterie of loyalists who served him throughout his 10-year-long undeclared leadership campaign. And that coterie seems to be enabling--rather than counteracting--Martin's weak and jumpy leadership style.

Third, the Martin in-group seems to have genuinely convinced itself that the country loves and admires their boss as much as they do.

Throughout two scandals, first the sponsorship scandal and now the governor-general separatism scandal, the Prime Minister's spokespeople again and again insisted that the Canadian people should trust the integrity of Paul Martin. But the fact is that while Canadians seem for the moment to have accepted Martin's leadership as a lesser evil, they do not trust him: Almost two-thirds of Canadians in a Strategic Counsel poll conducted in May rated him the least trustworthy of the four major party leaders. Yet the Martinites seem unshakably convinced that the Prime Minister's personal character is their greatest advantage rather than their most dangerous vulnerability.

In other words, and to sum up, the three lessons of the Jean episode are:

  1. Canada is governed by an indecisive and impulsive prime minister;
  2. This prime minister takes his advice almost solely from a tight circle of trusted aides;
  3. Those aides are dangerously disconnected from political reality.

This seems like a formula for continuing political trouble, doesn't it?

And even when the Martinites evade one problem, they do so in a way that brings new ones down upon their heads.

Go back to Jean for a moment. Yes, the government has probably successfully outfaced this embarrassment. In the absence of new revelations, media interest in Jean will subside. She will enter into office in September. She will do her vice-regal duties, deliver carefully homogenized speeches and fade away.

Or will she? It's now being reported that Jean's husband Jean-Daniel Lafond is at work on a new documentary about the U.S. role in the Middle East. Maybe the comforts of Rideau Hall will by then have tempered Lafond's affinity for radical chic. Maybe he will allow the PMO to supervise his editing. Maybe the film project will quietly vanish as Lafond enjoys the comforts of his stately new home.

Or maybe instead the husband of the governor-general will produce an anti-American diatribe while commuting back and forth from Rideau Hall--and all of Paul Martin's hard work to rebuild Canada-U.S. relations after the Chretien years will go up in smoke because he did not do his homework on the G-G nomination.

The Liberal Party of Canada has been so politically successful for so long that critics have naturally come to assume: These guys know what they are doing; they may be thugs, they may be crooks, but--the critics believe--surely they calculate risks and plan ahead? But maybe that assumption is wrong. Maybe it's all one weird, wild, careening, jolting, bumping, herky-jerky, back-road ride driven by a man with no plan and no direction--except to twist the wheel as far as he can every time he hits a pothole.

And those potholes keep coming up faster and faster and faster ....

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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