Business

Settling into a suicide seat

Roy MacGregor June 18 1979
Business

Settling into a suicide seat

Roy MacGregor June 18 1979

Settling into a suicide seat

Business

Roy MacGregor

In the evening of the third day following his swearing-in as Canada's 31st finance minister, John Crosbie is

finally able to allow himself two fingers of scotch and yet another idle thought. “Mathematics,” he says, eyes closed, feet on empty desk, “was always a weakness of mine.” He is contemplating

what he calls the fifth incarnation of a John Crosbie characteristic: political suicide. “I’ve already been minister of finance once and barely survived. I don’t expect to survive long this time.” The one time, back when Crosbie served in Newfoundland provincial politics, was enough; this time he had hoped for energy, but when Clark held out finance, where the only thing guaranteed to go down is the minister himself, Crosbie found himself keeping quietly accepting. “I didn’t campaign for it. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t want it,” he says. “But I’m very proud to have been offered the job. Since I’ve no further political ambitions I’m ready for the scrap heap—whenever it comes.” Why, then, was Crosbie the least contentious of all Clark’s appointments? “I’m no economist,”

Crosbie freely admits. “I’m no expert.” What he is, according to his own brother,

Andrew, is “one tough sonof-a-bitch.” Or, as Newfoundland Liberal leader Don Jamieson puts it, “ruthless, in the appropriate sense of the word.”

He will need to be both. If the new minister of external affairs, Flora MacDonald, is already scrambling with one Joe Clark election promise (see page 26), the path ahead for John Crosbie may soon see him walking backward, praying that the knives come quickly. As casually as one might distribute a never-ending supply of fish, Joe Clark stood near the mountains in the final days of the campaign and talked of his coming budget: $2 billion in personal tax cuts, deductibility of mortgageinterest payments and property taxes, up to $5,000 in annual investment write-

offs for small businesses, up to $125 million in research and development incentive, abolition of capital gains tax on shares of publicly owned Canadian companies. As one Tory said: “If I were the minister of finance, I’d give our program to the department and go off to the south of France.”

The University of Toronto’s Institute for Policy Analysis has said the pro-

gram would produce higher inflation, continuing unemployment, soaring corporate profits and an increased deficit. Fortunately for Crosbie, he has a large sense of humor. Tired of the Newfoundland sealing debate, he once rose in the House of Commons to propose that Canada answer France’s ban of harp seal furs by banning imported French wine because the grapes had been brutalized. That studied siege of the Liberals’ economic record made the wealthy, 48year-old Crosbie an instant Ottawa

power after being elected in a 1976 St. John’s byelection. “He is entertaining and persuasive,” former Liberal cabinet minister Barney Danson once said,“if one doesn’t stop to think about it.” Beneath the buffoonery lurks an agile and educated mind (top law student in the country in 1956, graduate work at the London School of Economics). At this Thursday’s cabinet meeting, Cros-

bie will table a nine-day wonder intended to serve as the financial framework for future policy. This week he will also attend the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development meeting in Paris. Among other matters he will discuss with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal is the U.S. tilt toward a recession. Crosbie must decide whether Canada should roll with the punch or try to block it at the expense of further inflation. Then there is the 85-cent dollar to consider. Although Crosbie said the floating dollar “shows there is something wrong with our economic health,” it will continue to float.

Above all, however, the first budget will not be the budget Clark dangled before greedy voters in the final days of the campaign. Though Clark said last week that he remains fully committed to all promises, Crosbie says the only one he’s committed to for his first “cautious” budget is the mortgage deductibility scheme. The tax cuts, he argues, are in “a different

league.” The budget will be a personal one, Crosbie says: “If the present government doesn’t agree, then there’ll be somebody else as minister of finance.” Crosbie is proud of his reputation as a fighter—“When someone goes for my jugular, I go for their you-knowwhat”—and it is this characteristic that earned him the name “Cromwell” from Newfoundland’s former premier Joey Smallwood. Once heir apparent to Smallwood, Crosbie switched from the Liberal party to the provincial Conservatives in 1971 to ensure Smallwood’s defeat the following year. Between Smallwood’s premiership and that of

Frank Moores, Crosbie held seven cabinet portfolios and, though he believes he could have succeeded Moores, he decided 10 years of provincial politics was enough. There was a cabinet guarantee from the federal Liberals, but he decided to go with Clark, the “tough little cookie.”

Over the years, Crosbie showed he could not only change parties, he could change John Crosbie. Once a plodding, dour lawyer who spoke “atrociously,” Crosbie used a Dale Carnegie course and self-discipline to re-create himself as a folksy, acerbic politician. He has been called an opportunist, but, in fact, he is a political and economic pragmatist. The changes continue. Crosbie ran for his first office on the slogan, “You have a right to know.” Last week he decided to abridge that slightly as the true weight of the latest office began pushing down: “You have a right to know— if you can find out.”