Out of touch
Date: Wednesday, September 21 2005
September 20, 2005
Out of touch
Offside on policy and out of town when crisis hits, Pierre Pettigrew is the 'kamikaze' foreign minister
LOUISE ELLIOTT and PAUL WELLS
On Sept. 1, four days after hurricane Katrina made its devastating landfall near New Orleans, the government of George W. Bush was reeling. The squalor and disarray around the Gulf Coast was causing a serious political crisis. The U.S. government was in need of a few good friends. So perhaps it wasn't the ideal moment for Pierre Pettigrew to cancel a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, his opposite number in the U.S. government.
The briefing would have allowed Canada's foreign minister to brief Rice on Canada's response to the hurricane. No small gesture, especially given the delicate state of Canada-U.S. relations over softwood lumber and George W. Bush's missile defence project. Pettigrew says the meeting was scheduled only briefly, as matching windows opened in his and Rice's rapidly changing schedules. "Then what happened was her availability was moved to later in the day, and I had other commitments," he explained.
So Pettigrew had a chance to earn some recognition, and a little unaccustomed gratitude, from a crucial ally in the midst of an emergency. And it just melted away. In short, it was the kind of day Pettigrew has been having a lot of lately.
It's not so long ago that Pierre Pettigrew was the federal Liberals' fair-haired boy, hand-picked for cabinet by Jean Chrétien and such a key Quebec asset that one of Paul Martin's first moves as Prime Minister was to promote him to even greater responsibility. Today he is perhaps the most harshly criticized member of the government. An absentee minister, critics say, who always seems to be out of town when a crisis happens. A man who has publicly disagreed with one of the pillars of Martin's foreign policy. And now he has picked a fight with Quebec nationalists, barely noticed outside Quebec, that threatens to destroy his political viability in his home province.
"When I think about him," one Canadian diplomat stationed overseas said last week, "two movie titles come to mind: the Invisible Man and Dead Man Walking." But others say the man who was once a Liberal star has become a victim: of a meddling Prime Minister's Office, of the minority Parliament, and of Paul Martin's profound disinterest in what Pettigrew has to offer. As such, his latest bout of hyperactivity -- however error-prone -- can be read as an attempt to resurrect his stature within cabinet. "He was disengaged through the summer," one cabinet minister's chief of staff said in an interview. "But he has tried to play the role of a serious minister going into the fall."
Publicly, at least, the PMO remains sanguine. "We don't need to plunge into everything when ministers are carrying the ball effectively," a senior aide to Martin said when asked to comment on Pettigrew. "I can assure you he's got the full support of the Prime Minister." But that support doesn't include endorsement of Pettigrew's most extraordinary recent statement: his desire to keep the Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade together -- after the Martin government has spent almost two years trying to divide one department into two.
Pettigrew was virtually silent on that question last year, leaving others -- including International Trade Minister Jim Peterson -- to defend the proposition leading up to a vote in Parliament. The bill was defeated, but the government continues to press ahead (earlier this month International Trade, which does not, in law, yet exist, announced the appointment of 20 senior officials, creating a virtual ministry all to themselves). Yet Pettigrew told the Ottawa Citizen he'd be happy to see the department kept whole. The reasons for the formal division were never fully explained to him, he complained.
Under some prime ministers, such a spectacular breach of cabinet solidarity would have cost a minister his job. Pettigrew doesn't see why there should be any fuss. There's a blue-ribbon task force studying the implementation of the departmental division, he said in a brief interview from New York, where he was attending last week's United Nations General Assembly. "I simply said, should it recommend to government that we reunite the departments, I would have no problem doing that." But his opponents say his sortie is far more serious. "If the government wants to be taken seriously on foreign affairs, then they have to speak with one voice," says Conservative MP Monte Solberg. "Either the PMO has to accede to Pierre Pettigrew -- or Pierre Pettigrew has to resign."
It's an ignominious place to be for a man who, friends say, has only ever wanted to be Canada's foreign minister. He took a long time to get here. Pettigrew grew up in Sillery, a leafy suburb of Quebec City, and studied political science at Laval University. He was an adviser to Claude Ryan, the monkish leader of the Quebec Liberal party, during the 1980 referendum. Then came a stint in Pierre Trudeau's PMO as a foreign policy adviser. He was a globe-trotting business consultant from 1985 to 1995 with Deloitte & Touche.
At Laval, one of his favourite profs was Léon Dion, a major figure who helped define the sweet spot where proud Quebec nationalism could co-exist with a continued belief in a united Canada. Léon Dion was far less of a firebrand federalist than his son Stéphane Dion has become. But the link to Stéphane's father has made Dion and Pettigrew lifelong friends.
Pettigrew began as Chrétien's minister for la Francophonie and worked his way up to International Trade. By 2003, when Martin became Prime Minister, Dion's willingness to pick a fight over principle put him in bad odour with Martin's entourage, who were desperate to be more conciliatory toward Quebec. But Pettigrew, who shares some of Dion's opinions but tends to be more silver-tongued in his delivery, survived and took over Dion's Intergovernmental Relations portfolio in addition to becoming health minister.
For a guy who was brought to Ottawa as a national-unity saviour after the referendum near-catastrophe of 1995, Pettigrew has surprised many in his home province by picking a huge fight now over the Quebec government's right to represent its interests abroad. At the beginning of September, he was giving a rip-roaring speech to young Liberals when he talked about the ability of Quebecers like himself and Dion to represent their home province in the federal government. A few reporters' ears perked up. Scrumming afterward, they asked what he thought of the Gérin-Lajoie doctrine, by which generations of Quebec governments have argued that they alone could act internationally on Quebec's behalf in fields of provincial jurisdiction like health or education.
Pettigrew called the doctrine an outdated "product of another time." He wanted to find new ways to get Quebec and Ottawa working together, he said, but always with "one voice" for Canada internationally. His comments caused the sort of peculiarly localized storm that Quebec politics sometimes produces. Le Devoir ran his assault on the sacred Gérin-Lajoie doctrine on its front page. Rather than backing down, Pettigrew defended his comments. Commentators wondered for days how a good Sillery boy could get so profoundly out of touch with the Quebec mood.
The Gérin-Lajoie doctrine has never been particularly popular in Ottawa. It stems from a Quebec-Ottawa dispute in 1965 between Paul Gérin-Lajoie, Quebec's education minister, and the federal foreign minister. A distant predecessor of Pierre Pettigrew's. A fellow by the name of Paul Martin, Sr. The feds, led by Martin, wanted to run a bilateral student-exchange program with France. Gérin-Lajoie wanted to run the Quebec part of the exchange because education is a provincial responsibility -- whether it takes place in Quebec or across the ocean. Gérin-Lajoie comes down to how much latitude Quebec should have to act on the global stage as a distinct society, if you'll pardon the expression. In his memoirs, the elder Martin said the quarrel "set the tone for all our future difficulties with the Quebec government."
In his interview with Maclean's last week, Pettigrew shrugged off the controversy. "Sometimes it takes time for people to understand new ideas," Pettigrew said. "I haven't liked to work from dogma or ideologies." But what surprises Quebec-watchers in Ottawa is how sharply Pettigrew's new hard tone on Quebec contrasts with the conciliatory tone Martin tried to set when he became Prime Minister.
Martin has often said he has different ideas about Quebec than Chrétien did. He has been notoriously reluctant to specify precisely what those ideas are, but in general he's worked to portray himself as a man who would rather charm and convert Quebec nationalists than outwit and defeat them. It was Martin who brought Jean Lapierre, a co-founder of the Bloc Québécois, back into the Liberal fold. It was Martin who banished Stéphane Dion from the cabinet, at least at first. It was Lapierre, who remains Martin's Quebec political minister, who cheerfully held news conferences before last year's election to brag about how many Liberal candidates had once held Bloc Québécois and Parti Québécois membership cards.
In his only major speech on Quebec's endless existential debate, delivered in Laval shortly before he dropped the writ for last year's election, Martin pushed the new conciliatory tone as hard as he could. "What we need are Quebecers, with their special perspective as representatives of the North American Francophonie, to help explain our debates on the issues of the day, both here and elsewhere in the world," he said. "What we need are Quebecers who will promote our vision internationally."
It leaves you wondering: on the eve of an election, how could a minister in a government that was once so eager to define itself as Quebec-friendly pick such a nasty fight with elite opinion in Quebec?
The surprise over Pettigrew's sudden appearance in the midst of the Gérin-Lajoie controversy may in part be shock that he's appeared anywhere at all. So far, he's suffered from the widespread perception that on most hot files, he's been way too far from the spotlight. Instead, he's been in his cozy Paris flat on rue Aristide Bruant, a side street at the base of Montmartre.
The existence of the apartment, which Pettigrew already owned before he came to Ottawa in 1996, has never been a secret. At one point he actually appeared in footage the BBC used as an illustration of la vie française, sunning at an outdoor Paris café. But at some point, the minister's Parisian pied-à-terre became a source of acute irritation back home. That's where Pettigrew was on Boxing Day -- when the Asian tsunami struck. And it's from there, sources say, that Pettigrew gave his initial response to requests to return home, including one from his colleague Bill Graham at National Defence, to help deal with Canada's response.
It was a curt "No."
Hours later, Graham was chairing a cabinet committee on the disaster and Pettigrew's parliamentary secretary, Dan McTeague, was sending the first shipment of Canadian aid from CFB Trenton. As for the minister? Pettigrew was in Paris, refusing media requests to go to a studio for interviews. Departmental insiders say he didn't want to draw public attention to his whereabouts.
It took several days -- and an unfriendly command from the PMO -- to pry him back to Canada, where more than 150 employees of his department had been putting in 22-hour days to locate missing Canadians. "He was badly reprimanded after the tsunami," says one senior staffer. That account has been confirmed by others in Pettigrew's office. His staff has defended him, saying he's always in close contact, willing to return home on short notice when necessary. But the pattern repeated itself. When suicide bombers struck the London transit system on July 7, Pettigrew was again in Paris, and didn't show his face publicly after several other incidents, including the Hans Island flap with Denmark and the terrorist bombing at the Sharm el-Sheikh tourist resort in Egypt.
In some ways it's become almost too easy to take aim at him. Take the latest controversy: the saga of Bruno Labonté, Pettigrew's ministerial chauffeur, who served as "personal security adviser" during two foreign trips while Pettigrew was international trade minister in 2001 and 2002. Labonté's trips cost taxpayers $10,000. None of them involved driving. The stories don't relate directly to how the minister does his job, but they have contributed to his current annus horribilis.
His attendance record in the Commons has been spotty. Pettigrew ranks in the bottom fourth of all MPs, and he's missed more sitting days since the 2004 election, 23, than any minister except John Efford at Natural Resources, who was ill with diabetes. You could argue it's normal for a foreign minister to be away a lot. But travel for all ministers has been sharply curtailed during this minority Parliament. Bill Graham, the defence minister who preceded Pettigrew at Foreign Affairs, was away for only three sitting days during the same period.
Five months ago, when the Liberals were taking a constant pounding over the Gomery inquiry revelations and Stephen Harper was threatening to topple the government, Pettigrew seemed ready for early retirement. He let word leak out that he was interested in abandoning politics altogether and assuming the presidency of the Organization of American States. (He speaks fluent Spanish, something he's picked up during his decade as a federal minister.) If such an opportunity was in fact floated, it passed: OAS members reached a consensus on a South American candidate. But the long days of non-denials from Pettigrew's office made it clear the minister was indeed looking for an escape from Ottawa if he could find one.
But who could blame him? Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien both had foreign ministers -- Joe Clark for Mulroney, Lloyd Axworthy for Chrétien -- who had major files to pilot even after the boss had reserved a couple of issues for himself, argues Kim Nossal of the Queen's University political studies department. "A foreign minister's latitude for activism in foreign affairs is directly affected by how much scope the prime minister is willing to grant him," Nossal said. "And I'm not sure how much latitude Paul Martin is giving Pierre Pettigrew."
That's not just because Martin can't rein in his busybody instincts. It's structural, argues Nelson Michaud, who runs the centre for public policy and globalization at Quebec's École nationale d'administration publique. International Trade has been hived off into a separate department, de facto if not de jure. And the most important bundle of foreign issues any Canadian government can face, the Canada-U.S. relationship, has been taken over, almost completely, by new structures in Martin's PMO and the bureaucracy's central planning shop, the Privy Council Office, Michaud has written in Le Soleil. "What's left for Pettigrew? Relatively little for a department that was once seen as among the most prestigious."
Quebec commentators, at least, are persuaded that Pettigrew's new chippiness toward Quebec nationalism is a function of his inability to get much of anything else done. They don't find it a reassuring thought. "If the minister wants to return his department to glory on the back of Quebec, he will be making a mistake," Michaud wrote. "Perhaps the most important of his career."
Chantal Hébert, the Le Devoir columnist, reached a similar conclusion in even pithier fashion. The headline on her column read, "Pierre Pettigrew, Kamikaze."