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Thursday, March 1, 2007

INSIDER REPORT Eddie Goldenberg's The Way it Works


March 1, 2007, Books in Canada

The Way it Works: Inside Ottawa
Eddie Goldenberg
A Douglas Gibson Book McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
402 pages, $36.99 cloth
ISBN 0-7710-3352-4


Eddie Goldenberg worked almost continuously for Jean Chrétien in government and politics from 1974 until Chrétien’s retirement in December 2003. The son of the superbly well connected Senator Carl Goldenberg, Eddie got a summer job working for Chrétien in 1972 through John Rae, Chrétien’s executive assistant from 1967-1971 and his perennial campaign manager. At Chrétien’s right hand as a cabinet minister and Leader of the Opposition, Goldenberg became “Senior Policy Adviser” to Prime Minister Chrétien. At cabinet meetings, meetings with premiers and foreign leaders, wherever the action was, Eddie, as he is careful to point out, and the many photographs in the book show, was almost always there. Often he represented Chrétien. He wrote speeches for him. To the public he was unknown.

Despite his title, Goldenberg had no head for the real work of government. Chrétien had the well known genius Chaviva Hosek as Director of Policy. A self-confessed “political junkie”, Goldenberg was a political strategist and fixer seeing that Chrétien got what he wanted. He was the boss’s grinning consigliere. His idea of government is simply spending. His proudest personal achievement in government was engineering the flow of billions to universities and research in the last Chrétien years.

The Way it Works partly lives up to its title, giving an account of how cabinets are formed, what goes on at cabinet meetings - boring presentations, ministers catching up with their paperwork, leaving the table to get coffee, how decisions are made. Goldenberg thinks it all works pretty well. The book is also a defence and celebration of the Chrétien government. In this the implication of the title is that critics do not understand how it works, how it has to work.

He says his aim is to explain that cynicism about politics and government is misplaced. He has some explaining to do. The Liberals came to office on the basis that the GST was the work of the devil, NAFTA a bad deal, military helicopters unaffordable, the deficit no big problem that should crimp spending. They knew all this was untrue. At least they could have figured it out. Goldenberg describes David Dodge, then deputy finance minister, explaining to Hosek and himself the financial crisis Canada faced. Dodge said nothing that had not been in the newspapers for years.

Goldenberg confirms Chrétien’s big picture, chairman of the board approach to government, which got him compared to St. Laurent in the early years. He makes light of people who would not speak their mind to Chrétien or who took things Eddie said in casual conversation as commands from the Prime Minister. But if Chrétien was content to leave ministers to get on with their work he was nonetheless determined to have his way in what interested him. If what that was was not clear people were all the keener to do what they guessed was his will. Chrétien’s reputation as a tough boss was not a delusion of weak and inexperienced politicians under him, or a function of his office. Chrétien was a pure power politician. He enjoyed power and being able to help his friends and hurt his enemies. There was work that had to be done. He could not run the country into the ground and enjoy himself. But he could not enjoy himself if he was not securely in charge.

Chrétien’s one challenge was Paul Martin. Goldenberg paints an unpleasant picture of Martin, though of course the Goldenbergs had known the Martins since the 1930’s. There will be other accounts of Chrétien and Martin. What is unaccountable is that Chrétien should have decided to stay on for a third election in 2000 and hang on for three years after that simply to thwart Martin, as Goldenberg affirms. The failure of the Martin government makes it no more creditable. Chrétien would not give up power except by his own free will. Any other possible successor showing signs of restlessness would have provoked Chrétien. Indeed Allan Rock did.

A highlight of the book is Goldenberg’s account of Canada’s decision on the war with Iraq. He claims Canada’s position was always clear and consistent. How then can there have been such drama as he claims on March 17, 2003 when Britain asked what Canada’s position would be and Chrétien announced to the House of Commons that Canada would not participate?

Goldenberg expresses resentment at what he calls the ultimatum and that it came from Britain. It was not an ultimatum. The coalition was about to go to war and needed to know, Canada having sent mixed signals, whether Canada would be with them. Britain was as much in it as the United States, though necessarily on a smaller scale. Perhaps they felt the inquiry coming from Britain would avoid the anti-American paranoia in evidence.

Now that Iraq is a hellish mess the consensus is that the war was wrong and Canada smart to stand aside. At the time many Canadians thought Canada should join in. Opinion in English Canada was roughly evenly divided. Chrétien could have led either way. Support for the war went way beyond business groups trying to curry favour with the U. S., the only support Goldenberg acknowledges. He rightly minimizes the impact of political difference or closeness on trade relations, driven largely by U. S. domestic politics.

Goldenberg calls it a brave decision but what was Chrétien braving? The U. S. was keen to have support but threatened nothing and did nothing as it was refused. He risked no votes over it. The political risk was all on the other side.

There was some drama on March 17, 2003 because Canada’s position was anything but clear and consistent. Shortly before, three Toronto papers headlined three interpretations: we would go only with the UN; we would go whatever the UN said; we would not go in any circumstances. In the confused debate it seemed that some would have had us send forces to defend Saddam against a putatively illegal invasion. If UN authorisation was the issue we still had to decide whether an invasion was justified. If yes, we should have been pressing the Security Council to approve it. If no, we should have been pressing the Council to say so. Our UN ambassador Paul Heinbecker, a latter day Loring Christie with anti-Americanism replacing Christie’s anglophobia, scurried about promoting a resolution for more time for weapons inspections coupled with explicit authorisation for an invasion, a transparent attempt to thwart Anglo-American plans stymied by French opposition to an invasion in any event.

As Goldenberg maintains that Canada’s position was always what Chrétien stated on March 17, he can give no account of the development of the policy. He describes Heinbecker, Claude Laverdure, Chrétien’s foreign policy adviser, and himself considering the British inquiry for a minute and advising Chrétien to say no. A serious country weighing up its interests and principles does not appear. The Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs barely appear in the story.

In Goldenberg’s insider account the context disappears: Francie Ducros’ “What a moron?”, Carolyn Parrish’s “Damned Americans....I hate those bastards!”. Canada’s prevarication and the anti-Americanism it nourished resulted in Canada’s decision seeming a condemnation of the invasion, a position many in Canada were pleased to adopt. It is this rather than the decision itself that may have had an impact on relations with the US and events in Iraq. Those massacring scores of innocents every week in Baghdad were encouraged by it.

There is real drama in the story of the 1995 Quebec Referendum, set in the context of a kind of Whig history of national unity with all well after the recruitment of Professor Dion, the Supreme Court Reference and the Clarity Act. Time will tell whether Chrétien has not secured Joe Clark a place in history for his description of the Clarity Act as a “blueprint for separation”.

Goldenberg complains that media accounts of government are “incredibly superficial”. The Way it Works reads like a long newspaper feature.

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