Chrétien has no surprises up his sleeve
James Travers - National Editor

OTTAWA - A COUNTRY hungry for change will have to sustain itself on a light snack, at least until Parliament formally goes back to work at the end of January.

Since capturing the elusive prize of a third consecutive majority, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has resolutely turned his back on radical change. Talk of a major, pre-Christmas cabinet shuffle turned out to be just that. Adding to the sense of lethargy, Finance Minister Paul Martin announced this week that for the first time in more than 30 years, the federal government would not bring down a winter budget.

That means the course is steady as she goes for a government that seemed tired and out of ideas before Chrétien called a second early election. Ministers, many of whom were eyeing new portfolios, will stay in place and the fall mini-budget, a document discounted as crass electioneering, will have to serve as the country's economic blueprint.

If it weren't for the recent and impressive demonstration of Chrétien's impeccable political instincts, the temptation to fault the government's do-nothing tactics would be overwhelming. After all, there is little doubt Liberals were re-elected with the expectation Canada's government party would shake the torpor of last term.

In election surveys conducted for The Star by Ekos Research, Canadians said they favour change over the status quo by an overwhelming 2-to-1 ratio. More impressive still, they said they want that change to be bold and dramatic, not incremental.

Ekos president Frank Graves says those results are consistent with other company surveys that found only 4 per cent of once notoriously risk-adverse Canadians now find change threatening.

In an interview this week, Graves attributed that shift to widespread economic optimism and growing confidence that this country and its people are ready and able to cope with the challenges of globalization and the new economy.

During the fall campaign, Chrétien, who has never been accused of being a techno-geek, tried to hitch the Liberal wagon to the runaway train of the new economic order. He wore thin his welcome at cutting-edge companies, promised more federal money for innovators and spoke glowingly of technological wonders that seemed comfortably beyond his grasp.

The reality, one that hasn't escaped most Canadians, is that rapid change and sweeping new visions are not the Prime Minister's strength. For good reason, Chrétien is known as a shrewd, perhaps brilliant, politician and a skilled, if cautious, manager. Developed over 37 years in a line of work that punishes mistakes more generously than it rewards risk-taking, the Prime Minister's style is to efficiently, sometimes ruthlessly, manage those problems that can't be ignored and manage them one at a time.

Chrétien's approach is hardly flashy, but it gets results when the government's priorities dovetail with its abilities. That happened when Chrétien did what his predecessors couldn't do by putting Canada's fiscal house in order. Among other things, he cut 50,000 jobs from the federal civil service and $30 billion from program spending. Often forgotten but equally important, that wrenching program review forced the bureaucracy to rethink its role and its interaction with the private sector.

The other cornerstone of Chrétien's governance is his relationship with ministers. While there is no confusion over who ultimately makes decisions, he delegates authority and, in return, expects performance. To be successful, that system requires senior ministers who hold portfolios long enough to understand them and a prime minister wise enough to listen.

Despite his anger over Martin's too-obvious leadership ambitions, Chrétien has given that support to his finance minister, producing most of this government's memorable achievements. For that reason, as well as the rift it would cause in the party, Chrétien won't move Martin and is in no hurry to shift other senior ministers who now must revive legislation that died with the election. That list is so long that it includes legislation that disappeared with the 1997 election and never found its way back to Parliament.

If there is going to be meaningful change, it will be revealed in the Speech from the Throne and in some restructuring of departments, particularly Jane Stewart's deeply troubled and much-too-large Human Resources. Expect a renewed focus on social policy, accompanied by a renewed commitment to spend 50 per cent of the budget surplus on new programs, along with some relatively minor structural tinkering.

That's not the stuff of legacies but, as Chrétien put it succinctly this week, ``The legacy is to do the job the best you can.'' And that sounds like business as usual from a government that would rather manage competently than dream of what might be.

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