Overstaying your welcome in the bowels of government

The late Allan J. MacEachen’s words of caution for bureaucrats still ring true: beware of entitlement, arrogance and cynicism

The only reason sane people get involved in politics – or create a work of art, write a book, build a bridge, climb mountains – is because they want to be immortal. We’re all going to die sooner or later, and we want to be remembered for something.

How else do you explain giving up stable family life, decent incomes and the ability to say what you actually think?

The next time you’re at an airport and you see some unhinged lunatic screaming at a member of Parliament waiting at the luggage carousel – and the MP has to grin and bear it – remember this: precious few politicians ever get their name appended to the side of an airport.

They are there because they want to do something memorable, something momentous. And then they die.

Allan J. MacEachen died last week. He was 96.

There were the requisite number of news stories about his sad passing, most likely written far in advance (he was 96, after all).

The stories, as such stories do, recalled his achievements. There were many. MacEachen was a Cape Bretoner – and, like all Cape Bretoners I’ve met, could get very close to rich and powerful people, and get them to do what he wanted them to do.

The son of a coal miner (and who from Cape Breton isn’t?), MacEachen alighted in the House of Commons in 1953. He lost his seat once, in the 1958 Conservative sweep led by John Diefenbaker, but then was re-elected eight more times. Not bad.

He was close to Lester B. Pearson (the one whose name is on an airport) and Pierre Trudeau (the non-selfie one). As such, he was entrusted with shepherding into law things like the Canada Health Act and reforming medicare. He reformed labour law to make things better for workers and was widely considered to be the social conscience of the Liberal Party of Canada.

He wasn’t perfect, naturally. As an Albertan, I can testify to the fact that MacEachen’s 1980 budget – the one that ushered in the National Energy Program – was a suicide note, not a budget. It destroyed the Liberal Party in the West for a generation, and its very name still stirs up waves of heat and hatred.

I didn’t know the man. But when my boss Jean Chretien won the 1993 election and the prime minister’s office told me I would be a chief of staff in a ministry, someone smart (another Cape Bretoner, David Dingwall) suggested I go see “Allan J.” as they called him. “He’ll tell you how to be a chief of staff and how government works,” Dingwall said.

I entered MacEachen’s Centre Block office. The great man sat at his desk, the window looking out on the lawn behind him. He was in silhouette. I felt like I was meeting with Colonel Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

Preliminaries done, MacEachen rendered his advice. I never forgot what he said.

“Two things,” he said. “Don’t stay longer than two years,. You will grow cynical, and that will hurt you and it will hurt the ones you serve.”

He paused.

“The ones who stay longer than two years ultimately become glorified bag-carriers.”

Will MacEachen be remembered? Will school children speak his name?

I doubt it. Few of us will be remembered for anything by anyone. Our kids and grandkids, maybe, but that’s it.

But I remembered his words and I religiously followed his advice. Before two years were out, I was nurturing a deep and visceral loathing for governing. I despised Paul Martin’s followers for what they were doing to undermine Chretien, and I despised three senior people around Chretien who were looking the other way. If I ever came back to government in Ottawa, I promised himself, it would be as my own boss, as an MP (it didn’t work out but I tried).

If any Parliament Hill staffers are reading this, two things:

  • Check out the achievements of Allan J. MacEachen. Read up on him. He was a giant, a colossus. He deserves to be remembered.
  • Heed his words. The current Liberal government is now at the two-year mark. The indications of entitlement, arrogance and cynicism are everywhere to be seen.

Don’t stay longer than two years. Don’t become what you came to Ottawa to change.

Not immortal words, perhaps, but words worth remembering.

Troy Media columnist Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.


Allan J. MacEachen bureaucracy

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