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.