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Gerald Butts and other "backroom elites"

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Reference Gerald Butts seems to be popularly dragged-out as a Boogeyman to many of our conversations.  Some writers believe they produce mic drop statement by giving a vague hit of conspiracy theory in which Gerald Butts secretly runs government with presidential like powers.  In reality, he does not deserve mention in any threads on military topics (including where those threads touch on areas of policy or government decision making).  At best, such mentions are straw men or red herrings.

... but, for his anti-fans who just can't mention him enough, I give you some thoughts from Adam Radwanski and a thread of your own.
Gerald Butts: The BFF in the PMO
Ever since Gerald Butts met Justin Trudeau in their days at McGill, the two men have shared a love of literature and a taste for adventure. As the Liberals head into the heart of their mandate this fall, Adam Radwanski, reports on the miner’s son from Glace Bay who’s helping an ambitious Prime Minister reshape Canadian politics
Adam Radwanski
The Globe and Mail
03 Sept 2016

Speaking at a university commencement service in 2005, the writer David Foster Wallace opened with a joke about two young fish who encounter an older fish while out for a swim. “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” the older fish asks. As the younger fish swim on, one asks the other: “What the hell is water?”

The point was about the importance of seeing the most obvious and relevant realities around you, rather than getting too caught up in yourself. Over the course of Mr. Foster Wallace’s address, which went viral, he made a case for empathy, for not being too certain of your own certainties, and for adjusting your “default setting” so you don’t give in to the impulse to see yourself as the centre of the universe.

Since his suicide in 2008, Mr. Foster Wallace has to some people become a bit of a punchline, in a “it’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans” sort of way – lit-bro shorthand, as New York magazine put it, conjuring images of guys who try to show their sophistication by conspicuously wielding copies of his masterwork, Infinite Jest.

If you’re inclined to see fandom of the author in that light, you may be amused (or horrified) to know that Gerald Butts, the top adviser to the Prime Minister of Canada, is fond of telling people that he tries to live by the words in the This Is Water speech. You may be especially inclined toward snickers if you find Justin Trudeau’s version of modern male sensitivity cloying, and think it’s something he has cynically cooked up with Mr. Butts during their decades-long bromance.

But if you come to know more about Mr. Butts, you may be a bit encouraged by this revelation – especially if you understand his most important role for Mr. Trudeau, and how much his ability to maintain perspective will help make or break the government’s trajectory.

Because Mr. Butts maintains an unusually high profile for a political aide in this country, there have been misconceptions about what that role is exactly. He is not Mr. Trudeau’s brain, although that theory was popular heading into last year’s election campaign, among those who doubted the one in Mr. Trudeau’s head. Nor is he Mr. Trudeau’s protector, a pseudo older sibling looking out for his more innocent friend ever since they met at McGill University in the 1990s. He’s not even alone at the top of the food chain among Mr. Trudeau’s aides: Katie Telford, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, has as much clout.

What he is, really, is a sort of co-author as Mr. Trudeau tries to write history – someone who has an innate sense of the big-picture story the Prime Minister is trying to tell, and helps to make sure the government’s decisions are consistent with it. A guardian of the narrative, in the words of David Axelrod – who played a somewhat similar role for Barack Obama, and who offers occasional advice to Mr. Butts and spoke enthusiastically of him in an interview.

Mr. Butts has some experience with this sort of thing. Before the age of 30, he was helping a struggling Ontario opposition politician named Dalton McGuinty invent himself as an education-focused premier. “Gerald helped me be true to myself,” Mr. McGuinty fondly recalls.

But the story Mr. Butts is trying to craft with Mr. Trudeau is more ambitious, abstract and romantic. Maybe Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Butts cooked it up back when they first became friends, as some suspect; probably it evolved over time. These are people who love the idea of big national projects, and who want to leverage Mr. Trudeau’s charisma to build a new global image and self-identity for the country.

Almost a year after Mr. Trudeau led the Liberals to victory, and amid mounting anxiety over troubling economic trends, reflected in second-quarter figures released this week, there is pressure for them to get on with it.

But hints of their ambition have been everywhere – from a first budget loaded with foreshadowing about overhauls to an endless array of social programs, to showy attempts to work with the premiers on a national climate-change strategy, to an attempt to dramatically change our voting system before the next election. It’s evident, too, in the way they keep indulging international fawning over Mr. Trudeau, including during his current trip to China, while Conservatives back home grind their teeth.

I’ve spent considerable time trying to better understand how Mr. Butts approaches the monumental task of helping Mr. Trudeau make something coherent and lasting out of all this, rather than letting it get away from him. I’ve had extensive conversations with more than 40 people who are or have been close to him. While he declined to be interviewed for this story, I’ve also had many chats with him over the years, dating from his days at the Ontario Legislature. That’s not unusual – Mr. Butts talks to a lot of journalists – but it bears noting because he usually does so on background; what he says creeps into stories without attribution.

Even he might struggle to fashion an easily digestible narrative of his own career, the way he does with the politicians he serves, because it is a curious mix of skills, traits and experiences that makes him both a unique asset and a potential liability.

He is unusually gifted at figuring out what lies at the core of the politicians he serves, and how to connect that with what voters care about. He is able to draw on a remarkable network of contacts in the upper echelons of virtually every field, while remaining somewhat grounded in working-class Canada through his roots in small-town Nova Scotia. He knows the traps he wants to avoid in government, by virtue of his time working for Mr. McGuinty. He has a romantic view of the country and its potential, rooted in travels across it and in literary pursuits before he got into politics. He is able to draw on that romanticism to inspire people to work for and with him. Despite occasional hot-headedness in public, he is good at lowering the temperature behind the scenes when things get tense. He has Mr. Trudeau’s trust, in a way few staffers could, because they were best friends first.

He also has a considerable ego: “He’s the smartest guy in the room and he knows it” is a not uncommon description. He can be impatient with people he considers insufficiently committed to the mission he is on, or too concerned with matters he considers trivial. He’s hypercompetitive, intimidating to challenge thanks to debating skills that made him a national champion. He is prone to stepping on others’ turf. He seems to enjoy being in the spotlight, and moving in elite circles, a little more than he’d care to admit.

Life in Ottawa runs the risk of exacerbating the second set of characteristics at the expense of the first. As one of the biggest fish in a town where everyone lives and breathes their line of work in a way nobody else in the country does, it gets harder by the day to keep in touch – to see, through the eyes of people in the real world, your articles of faith, compromises or broken promises.

One need not look hard, this year, to see the dangers of political elites being insulated. There is no Brexit brewing in Canada, and no Donald Trump waiting in the wings either; but an activist government doing what it thinks is best for the country at large will always run the risk of a backlash from people who feel condescended to or overlooked.

As of this fall, we’re entering a couple of years in which we’ll find out what that activism actually involves. In between the initial honeymoon and the run-up to a re-election campaign, the Liberals should be consumed with the implementation of policies with which they will leave their mark. And they will be forced to confront sensitive decisions, such as whether and where to allow oil pipelines, in which it will be much harder to keep supporters happy than it has been so far.

The hope, since Mr. Trudeau will be turning to him for gut checks through that period and likely beyond, is that Mr. Butts will prove able to follow his literary hero’s advice. So it merits a look at the people and experiences that have shaped his world view so far, and what others have observed of him along the way.

Much more at link: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/gerald-butts-the-guardian-of-the-trudeaunarrative/article31692482/

Now we need not ever discuss this man again in threads where we are trying to discuss military or defence matters.
That's a nice overstatement of the problem, but the real problem is mundane.  Trudeau was elected; Butts and Telford and other inner-circle operatives were/are not.  Some like to see the elected politicians and senior mandarins driving the policy bus - even if it's practically a one-man show like Harper's.  Butts got enough coverage during the campaign - I certainly read enough articles by journalists who (ironically) sought to make him out to be the brain behind Trudeau (did they succeed, one wonders) - to make him almost a household name, hence he became the go-to whipping boy.

I agree he gets too much mention here, but we shouldn't lose sight of the problem - unelected, non-civil service advisors with a great deal of influence in the PMO - by creating a straw man and thrashing it and pretending no other issue exists.

Most people seem to want to decrease the power of the PMO's core, and particularly the power of people who are neither elected politicians nor career civil servants.  Or did some event change that recently?

And if the influence of people in the PMO is partly responsible for setting the government's spending preferences and squeezing out fiscal freedom of manoeuvre which might be used for defence, it's relevant to discussions of defence funding.
There is nothing new to PMs having such advisors.  In days of old, they'd be named to the senate.  That we are now seeing more of "the man behind the curtain" is a good thing - regardless if that person's name is Butts or Byrne or ...
Brad Sallows said:
... if the influence of people in the PMO is partly responsible for setting the government's spending preferences and squeezing out fiscal freedom of manoeuvre which might be used for defence, it's relevant to discussions of defence funding.
I would argue it is a red herring or a distraction in the discussion on defence spending.  The spending and budgets discussion focuses on the spending preferences themselves.

The influence of unelected political staffers such as the PMO (including negative impacts) is a separate discussion.
dapaterson said:
There is nothing new to PMs having such advisors.  In days of old, they'd be named to the senate.  That we are now seeing more of "the man behind the curtain" is a good thing - regardless if that person's name is Butts or Byrne or ...

Mon., Jan. 17, 2011

OTTAWA—Keith Davey, the former senator and legendary Liberal organizer, died Monday morning, surrounded by his family in Toronto. He was 84.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Davey “will be remembered as a man who loved his party, loved his politics, loved his family and loved his country. His legacy inspires all those who serve Canada in politics and in Parliament.”

Known as the “rainmaker” for his winning political strategies, Davey came to national prominence in the early 1960s, when he arrived in Ottawa to help bring the Liberal party out of the opposition wilderness and back into government.

I fear that most senior government types are surrounded by very smart people who are often too smart for everyone good. An example is the Duffy affair, the simple solution was to let him stand in front of the committee and do the morally right thing. But instead they tried to find a politically acceptable solution, blind to the simple and moral choice. This Gerald Butts I think gets his high from being the man behind the mask and enjoys the political power that brings far to much for our good. Ur political system is a bit ponderous for good reason. Attempts to circumvent that normally have no good ending.
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