Former prime minister Jean Chretien says deciding when it’s time to step down and leave politics is simple, but “very personal.”
Chretien sat down with CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos for a wide-ranging exclusive interview airing Sunday to discuss how Canada has changed, when it’s time to leave politics and how to work with political opponents.
Chretien — who held the country’s top job for a decade — turned 90 this week, after having also recently celebrated 30 years since he became prime minister, and 60 years since he became an MP.
“I’m having a good time at my age,” Chretien said.
Chretien stepped down as Liberal leader and prime minister in December 2003.
While the current prime minister has insisted he plans to run again in the next general election, which by then would also put him at a decade on the job, many have speculated over whether Trudeau will step down instead, handing over the reins to someone new.
“It is for him to decide … what is the best for him, what is the best for the party, and what is the best for the country,” he also said. “And it’s very personal decision.”
But when asked how difficult that decision is to make, Chretien said “it’s easy.”
“You have to make the right decision,” he said. “A decision is a decision.”
He added there will be many on both sides of the argument who will try to sway Trudeau’s choice, but that’s “the name of the game” in politics, “and you have to live with it.”
With Chretien in a unique position of knowing when it’s time to leave political life, Kapelos asked what he would say if Trudeau sought his advice.
“He would not ask me,” Chretien said. “So why to debate?”
HIS MOST CONSEQUENTIAL CHOICES
Chretien listed three major decisions that he believes to be the most consequential during his time as prime minister.
The first, he said, was balancing the books, pulling the country out of a $42-billion deficit before delivering five successive balanced budgets.
Secondly, he said, was passing the Clarity Act, which laid out rules for referendums, following the 1995 Quebec referendum.
“A lot of people said ‘Don’t do that, you’re willing to start the storm’ and there was no storm,” he said.
“And after that when I said ‘No’ to the war in Iraq,” he added. “You know, it’s something that was a very important decision to show that we were not the 51st state of America, that we were an independent country.”
WORKING WITH THE OPPOSITION
On the occasion of Chretien’s birthday celebration this week, former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper sent a video of well wishes.
“He even sang for me,” Chretien said. “You know, people think that we’re enemies. No. We are opponents, we’re not enemies.”
He said in the decades he was in politics, he learned it’s like playing hockey: whatever happens on the ice, “after that we go together and have a beer.”
“That is life,” he added.
Working with those across the aisle in the House of Commons is essential to discuss ideas even when there are disagreements, Chretien said.
“And in fact, in many ways, it’s easier to be friendly for the people in front of you,” he joked. “They’re not trying to replace you from the back.”
Chretien also said there’s the benefit of hindsight, and looking back, it’s easier to see where there were friendships, and that everyone is there working to do better for the country.
HOW CANADA AND POLITICS HAVE CHANGED
When asked about the perception of politics today, and the idea that it resonates with people’s anger and frustrations, Chretien said not much has changed on that front since he was in power.
He said there will always be a reason for people to be discontent, pointing to the high interest rates and the national debt when he became prime minister, but also highlighting that Canada now has the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio in the G7, despite a cost-of-living crisis.
“We’re doing quite well in Canada compared to anybody else,” he said. “And what I used to say is that when I look at myself, I despair, but when I compare myself, I feel very good.”
Chretien added that things often appear worse than they are, because bad news grabs attention.
“As I say, a dog who bites a man is not news, but if a man wants to bite a dog, it will be hell of a big news, and it’s two animals doing the same thing,” he said.
“We have to be realists and look at life and do what you can,” he added. “And for me, I’ve always done my best, and I couldn’t do better than my best.”
“Perhaps my best was not good enough for some, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
You can watch Chretien’s full interview on CTV’s Question Period Sunday at 11 a.m. ET or in the video player at the top of this article.
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