Back when he was Liberal leader, I worked for Jean Chrétien.
I was his Special Assistant. 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 to different parts of Canada, thank God. 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 about it, and we didn’t forget it.
Chrétien was out and about in the hinterland – Northern Ontario, I think, but it doesn’t matter. He and his one assistant clambered off the plane, alighted on the tarmac, and they saw It.
It was a limo.
It stood there, all shiny and big and black, a beaming local Liberal organizer beside it. The local organizer had rented the limo to squire the Liberal leader around during his visit.
Chrétien’s face reddened. The assistant stammered. The local organizer frowned.
“We will not get in that,” said the assistant, trying to be as nice as possible. “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.”
There may have been some swear words somewhere in there, too, but this is a family newspaper. Suffice to say that all of us who worked for Jean Chrétien – and all of the local Liberal organizers, too – got the message.
The message, per the political bard (Tip O’Neill, natch), is this: in politics, take the job seriously.
But don’t take yourself seriously.
That’s the main problem, of course, with the expense account stuff now buffeting the Trudeau government: some people are taking themselves way too seriously. They work hard, so they tell themselves they deserve that shiny black limo, purring as It awaits them at a curb somewhere. They think – to recall that line that will forever live infamy – they’re entitled to their entitlements.
More than ten thousand bucks to hire a photographer to snap pictures of a Minister and her staff (Staff? STAFF? Um, 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 are now suggesting. They are not stupid people, either. They are not intrinsically evil, as far as I know.
They are, however, about to learn Kinsella’s Political Rule Number One: 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 of ’em 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 spin lines as every government (the Chrétien one excluded, that is) since time immemorial. Here they are.
• “The other guys did it too!” – This one 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 for a while. Said they: “We could have flown over a photographer from Canada, but we saved you lots of money by hiring a photographer in Paris!” Um, no. Firstly, you have those government-issue smart phone things to take pictures, and government-issue staffers to snap the damn shutter. Secondly, 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 Number Two: a significant number of Canadians don’t know how many million are in a billion. But they sure as shit know you can afford to pay for your own parking out of your own paycheque.
And therein lies the rub. As I sat with Jean Chretien on a Summertime bench on Sparks Street, munching a two-dollar hot dog paid for out of our own pockets – bureaucrats on their way to fancy expense account lunches at the NAC, agape at the Prime Ministerial presence – I made a mental note to scribble down Kinsella’s Political Rules Three and Four for later use.
They are: Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.
And: IT’S NOT YOUR MONEY, POLITICAL FOLKS.
(Also, don’t ever get in the limo.)