August 31, 2002
Someone once asked Jean Chrétien who his favourite hockey player was. Jacques Plante, he replied: the Hall of Fame goaltender who played professionally until well into his 40s. Why Plante – other than longevity? “Because he never made the first move.”
That is Mr. Chrétien’s political career in a nutshell. Like a goalie defending his net against an onrushing winger, he waits, and waits, until the other guy commits himself, or makes a mistake, or just loses interest. Then, and only then, does he make his move.
Actually, he takes it further than that. Mr. Chrétien is content not merely to wait to achieve his objective, but even to travel in the opposite direction for a time, on the theory that the shortest distance between two points is sometimes a large U. Should his original plan run into some obstacle, his position will describe a long, slow arc, like some orbiting comet.
For awhile he will retreat, perhaps even disavowing his previous position, or seeming to, until the issue subsides. His opponents may not be so foolish as to think they have won. But lacking an immediate casus belli, they will inevitably become less vigilant, or find reasons to fight amongst themselves – until the day, months or even years later, when Comet Chrétien comes hurtling back from the far side of the sun, on the same trajectory on which he had been headed from the start.
I have watched Mr. Chrétien turn this trick on any number of issues, from Quebec to the deficit. So it was hardly surprising to read of his sudden quickening of interest in ratifying the Kyoto climate accord. The Liberals’ early rush of enthusiasm for the accord long ago seemed to fade, especially in light of the fierce opposition it had aroused in Alberta – or more particularly, owing to the very different reception it had been given in Quebec. (If you want to know Mr. Chrétien’s position on any given issue at any given time, you have only to look at it through the prism of national unity.)
Wary of being whipsawed between the two, the Liberals took refuge in a statement of quite masterful ambiguity. “We want to sign Kyoto . . .” ministers would always begin. And? And? And, er, that was about it: At that point, the sentence would trail off into meaningless vapour. Pro- and anti-Kyoto forces were left to draw their own conclusions. Either it meant “we want to sign, and we will, eventually.” Or it meant “we want to sign, but as it stands, we can’t.”
The addition, years after the Liberals had first signed on to Kyoto in principle and months after they had promised to ratify the final agreement, of a new “condition” on Canada’s signature added a further layer of ambiguity. Suddenly, Mr. Chrétien was demanding that reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in the United States arising from the replacement of coal with Canadian natural gas be credited against Canada’s emission totals – a dubious notion on the merits, and almost certain to be rejected by the other parties to Kyoto, notably the European countries, who might be expected to take a firm line against unilateral, retroactive revisions to a text, many years in the making, on which 178 countries had already agreed.
So what did Mr. Chrétien’s new position mean? Was he saying that we will sign, just as soon as we get the credits we demand? Or was it, we won’t sign unless we do? Was the provision a deal-breaker, or merely a fond wish? Was Canada striking a hard line on the credits, which are not greatly significant in themselves, in order to give Mr. Chrétien the political cover he needed, especially in Western Canada, to ratify the accord? Or were they the pretext for the government to walk away from it, blaming the intransigence of the Europeans?
As the months wore on, the latter interpretation seemed to take hold, even in the wilder political reaches of Alberta, where there is always “another National Energy Program” lurking just around the corner. The more various government ministers insisted “we want to sign Kyoto . . .”, the more savvy oil-patch executives, who had once feared Kyoto would become a reality, winked to each other.
Indeed, they had still another reason to feel complacent; another level of ambiguity. The Chrétien government had promised it would not move to ratify the accord without “consultation” with the provinces and the energy industry. Or perhaps, that it would ratify, after they had been consulted. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter. Kyoto was going nowhere.
Only now they wake up to find that they’ve been had. The Prime Minister, we learn from a volley of leaks, intends to bulldoze legislation ratifying the accord through the Commons this fall, as part of his farewell tour. Alberta is furious, the oilpatch is up in arms, but what can they do?
And besides, what does “consultation” mean, anyway? If it means advised or informed, the government can plausibly argue they’ve been “consulted” to death. If it means their consent has been obtained or even sought, well, they can’t say they weren’t warned.