Remembering the Chrétien PMO: will that be Donolo's way? -

Remembering the Chrétien PMO: will that be Donolo’s way?


Peter Donolo returns to Ottawa enjoying high standing among the media and political insiders. That’s justified. Donolo was undeniably an effective communications director under Jean Chrétien, and he also happens to be a likeable guy.

Yet I can’t help but think that something central is being missed in the way his return is being cast. One of the main things I remember from having covered the Chrétien Prime Minister’s Office—especially in, say, its first five years—was having to get used to its obsessively tight control over both the government and the Liberal caucus.

This was a clear change from the exercise of power under Brian Mulroney. His Conservative government, at least as I remember it from its last few years, was dominated by a handful of key cabinet ministers—not by a ferociously dominant PMO. Of course, Mulroney’s own staff were powerful, but ministers like Don Mazankowski, Michael Wilson, Joe Clark, and, yes, even Kim Campbell when she was justice minister, were voices and forces in their own right.

By that I mean not just that they ran their departments and pursued policy files, but also that they generally seemed to have a fair degree of autonomy when it came to communicating their messages. This changed under Chrétien: by and large, only his finance minister, Paul Martin (admittedly a major exception) appeared to be able to function with substantial independence for long stretches.

It took a few years after Chrétien’s 1993 election victory for Ottawa to come to a broad understanding of how centralized his rule was turning out to be. A major Maclean’s cover story by my former colleague Bruce Wallace in October 1998 went a long way toward crystallizing that as a widely held view. And the Chrétien PMO’s particular management style became a point of growing concern the following year, in the wider debate about Ottawa’s long-term trend toward fewer and fewer real decision-makers, set off by the publication Donald Savoie’s hugely influential book Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics.

All this is to suggest that the key question about Donolo is not whether he’s a nice guy with a knack for putting a positive spin on the political news of the day. The more important point is whether, based on the undeniable political successes he was a key architect of during Chrétien’s day, he will now bring a similar tendency toward top-down discipline. At its worst, that bent can stifle democratic debate, policy creativity, and citizen engagement in our shared political life.

I would contend, with many others, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has brought an even more tightly wound governing style to the Langevin Block. Cabinet ministers’ offices and senior bureaucrats seem to me to be more closely monitored and micromanaged than ever.

We can’t afford for Canadian federal politics to devolve into a test of which party’s leader can impose the most control over his MPs, insist on the most constrained communications, and eliminate the most mistakes by daring the least.

Competence and professionalism in federal politics shouldn’t be equated with risk-aversion and damage-control. Yet it far too often is. A few months from now, Peter Donolo should be judged not on whether he brought back Chrétien-style discipline, but whether he gave Liberals enough confidence in the basic soundness of their leader’s operation to think big, talk boldly and accept routine setbacks as the cost of lasting accomplishments.


Remembering the Chrétien PMO: will that be Donolo’s way?

  1. Yes, because Lord knows how the press is not at all complicit in aiding either Chretien or Harper in keeping information shielded. After all, the all agree to only ask one question and have no followups because.. well.. that's just the way it's done.

  2. But, John, aren't political leaders in one heck of a pickle on this?

    If a we want leaders who let MPs speak their minds, then we can't treat everything an MP says as though ot came from the leader's mouth.

    A hypothetical: An MP says something publicly that, while reasonable and well thought out, is not exactly what the leader is saying on an given issue. In your opinion, will most headlines scream "victory for independent thought," or are they more likely to go with the sexier "internal party strife" ?

    I happen to agree with you that party leaders should loosen those leashes and let the presumably intelligent people they
    have around them say what they have to say. I think taht would draw even more good people to the mix in the long run, as you suggest.

    But that implies a pact of sorts between parties, and also with the media and the public: we can't ask for more individual independence from elected politicians, then accuse party leaders of being weak or vulnerable when it happens.

    • Nicely put.

    • Agreed! It is a total Catch 22 for politicians. Damned if they do, and damned if they don't!

      In the present circumstances, as detailed in the Wells posting, the Liberals are suffering from a bad case of institutional memory loss. In the absence of experience, they really need someone who is reliable and proven who can crack the whip. This is a fundamental requirement if ever they expect voter confidence to return.

      Does anyone know more about why Donolo left his position?
      Where did he stand on the whole Martin/Chretien camp split that the party has never really recovered from?
      Was he already gone when the knives came out?

    • Well said. It's a vicious cycle: the parties clamp down on dissent, the media picks out what minute dissent there is and celebrates it, the parties clamp down even more, the media celebrates the smallest squeak of dissent even more, etc. The public is not really involved here.

      • There was a very good series on CBC radio on this sorta thing – political spin and the history of media interactions and reactions with our politicians. Ira Basin was the guy who put it together.

    • The media sang Garth Turner's praises for openly defying the big cheese,
      and his constituents turfed him.

      The media is NOT always right.

  3. Sounds like somebody is worried about losing some "sources"

  4. To hear the way it's being reported currently, it's as if the OLO has no discipline whatsoever. And to be frank, there hasn't been a whole heck of a lot of vision coming from said free-for-all, so I'm not inclined to say that having a top-down structure would be worse than what we have now.

    How much of what you've called micromanagement stems from an inexperienced caucus? I'm new to this addiction we call politics: did Mulroney have an experienced or green caucus? And what did Chretien have to work with, in terms of his caucus' or cabinet's experience, when he first came into office?

  5. That's just what the Liberals need. The leadership is too indecisive before. Maybe now things will start to roll. I am tired of Harpers FAKE ACTION PLAN and although everything seems to have quietened down now after the December mess I am fairly certain that there are still a lot of VERY unhappy people out there who wish fo a different type of government. This is just the quiet before the storm. A few cracks are aready starting to form in King Harpers armour again and I don't think he'll be able to contain it next time round. See

  6. That's just what the Liberals need. The leadership is too indecisive before. Maybe now things will start to roll. I am tired of Harpers FAKE ACTION PLAN and although everything seems to have quietened down now after the December mess I am fairly certain that there are still a lot of VERY unhappy people out there who wish for a different type of government. This is just the quiet before the storm. A few cracks are aready starting to form in King Harpers armour again and I don't think he'll be able to contain it next time round.

  7. Interesting piece JG. You reminded me that i wasn't always a fan of Chretien's style ; I liked the man yes.
    As i remember it the trust your cabinet mininsters style of Mulroney [ to his credit ] was also the preferred mo of Trudeau, even though he's the one who's often blamed for kicking off the over-centralizing of power in the pmo. In this sense Harper seems to be very much Chretien's pupil. Although to be strictly fair Chretien did allow a good deal more latitude than Harper has until now to his cabinet.
    The trend is a bad one,and it may only get worse. Although i hardly see Ignatieff either desiring to, or being capable of the ruthless sort of party discipline/control that is Harper's hallmark. But i too worry that Mi and the liberals in general will simply conclude that you have to play harper's game if you hope to beat him. It's been the low road to political success in Canada for a good many years now.

  8. The LPC have left over MP’s from the Cretien years and that isn’t helping. Why can’t people cope with the idea that Canadians are ok with Harper, for the time being?

    • If by "people" you mean Liberal supporters, it's because they spent a long time hyperventilating about how Scary a Guy Harper was and how we would all wish we'd been disemboweled by the time he'd enacted his nefarious hidden agenda.

      • Actually it's because Liberal supporters are Liberal supporters, but feel free to spin that one however you like.

      • Remind me again what Harper's hidden agenda is?

        • It's not hidden. He wants to destroy the Liberal Party, his biggest political rival, and try to permanently move Canada more to the right. In particular he wants to limit the role of the federal govt in Canada and devolve more power to provinces and the private sector. Wells has written about it often.

          It's what the Alberta Firewall strategy was about way back when.

          It's on the record. He just doesn't talk about it, although he hints at it every now and then like he did in his recent comments about "left-leaning judges" and "teaching a lesson" to the other parties.

          • I hope you're right, but what I've seen so far of Harper doesn't give me much confidence.

  9. Because most of them aren't.

  10. And remind me again, what are 'Liberal values'?

  11. It's gone down a bit lately. But it's still around 60% i'd guess.

  12. Isn't part of the problem the lack of resources that news organizations allocate to in-depth investigative journalism? It looks to me that those covering the Hill are only too happy to receive press releases from various parties and use that as the basis for "stories". I don't blame the journos for this; they're just like anyone else in any other occupation and willing to take the easy way out. Furthermore, they're not given the time and editorial support to go out and dig deeper.

    The people that ARE doing the necessary legwork (and headwork) seem to be for the most part "independants", people who aren't getting paid as a journalist necessarily, and the results of their work often only available on the web, where it may or may not get picked up by mainstream media outlets.

    The media generally likes to present itself as holding a "public trust" in holding political actors "accountable", but in fact they are, with the posssible exception of CBC and community radio/television, a business that operates under business principles. That includes keeping their costs down.