I wrote speeches for him, helped out on question period, approved his correspondence, stuff like that. I didn’t ever have anything to do with his trips across Canada. Other guys did that.
Early on, one story made the rounds in the office of the leader of the Opposition, however. All of us heard it and we didn’t forget it.
Chrétien was in the hinterland. He and his one assistant clambered off the plane and they saw It.
It was a limo – all shiny, big and black, a beaming local Liberal organizer beside it. The organizer had rented the limo to squire Chretien around.
Chrétien’s face reddened. The assistant stammered. The local organized frowned.
“We will not get in that,” said the assistant, trying to be nice. “We will wait here until someone shows up with a Chevy or a car like that, please, one ideally made in Canada.
“It shouldn’t be fancy.”
Suffice to say that all of us who worked for Chrétien – and all the local Liberal organizers – got the message.
The message, per the political bard Tip O’Neill, is this: In politics, take the job seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.
That’s the main problem with the expense account stuff now buffeting the current Liberal government of Justin Trudeau: some people take themselves way too seriously. They work hard, so they tell themselves they deserve that shiny black limo. They think – to recall that line that will forever live in infamy – they’re entitled to their entitlements.
More than $10,000 to hire a photographer to snap pictures of a minister and her staff (Staff? Why?). Thousands spent on limos and lounge passes. Untold thousands to ferry the prime minister’s staff and relatives to sunny beaches on government jets – and the evidence later altered to show something else.
None of these people are corrupt, as some conservative voices now suggest. They are not stupid, either. They are not intrinsically evil, as far as I know.
They are, however, about to learn Kinsella’s Political Rule No. 1: Big political graves are dug with tiny shovels.
Sixteen-dollar orange juice. Gucci loafers. Gold-plated faucets on a plane. Claiming per diems for a house you don’t actually live in.
None added up to big dollars. But all of them contributed to very powerful losing power.
The Trudeau regime spinners are now trotting out the same facile lines as every government (the Chrétien one excluded, that is) since time immemorial:
- “The other guys did it too!” – This didn’t work when you were seven and you and your sibling ate all the Halloween candy, and it certainly won’t work now. Saying you are as covered in sin as the other guy isn’t an excuse, it’s an admission of guilt.
- “It’s cheaper than the alternative!” – The Environment minister gave this one a whirl. “We could have flown over a photographer from Canada but we saved you lots of money by hiring a photographer in Paris!” First, you have those government-issue smart phones to take pictures and government-issue staffers to snap the damn shutter. Second, there’s no such thing as a cheap anything in Paris.
- “Canadians don’t care. Nothing to see here, move along!” – The Harper guys loved this one. They used it all the time. Got them kicked out of government, didn’t it? Ipso facto, Kinsella’s Political Rule No. 2: A significant number of Canadians don’t know how many millions are in a billion. But they sure know you can afford to pay for parking out of your paycheque.
As I sat with Chretien on a bench on Sparks Street, munching a $2 hotdog paid for out of our own pockets – bureaucrats on their way to fancy expense-account lunches, agape at the prime ministerial presence – I made a mental note to scribble down Kinsella’s Political Rules Three and Four for later use:
- Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.
- It’s not your money, political folks. Its ours!
(Also, don’t ever get in the limo.)
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.