Books

Two premiers in from the cold

FROM PROTEST TO POWER: PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON A LIFE IN POLITICS

October 28 1996
Books

Two premiers in from the cold

FROM PROTEST TO POWER: PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON A LIFE IN POLITICS

October 28 1996

Two premiers in from the cold

Books

FROM PROTEST TO POWER: PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON A LIFE IN POLITICS

By Bob Rae (Viking/Penguin,

295 pages, $32)

Politicians who leave office are wise to seek perspective in the passage of time before taking pen to paper. A spell away from the political arena can help them find their place in the world rather than continuing to assume that they are at its centre. In this age of selfjustification, however, many cannot wait. Bob Rae has jumped right in to tell the story of his first five decades. A child of a diplomat, his early life was peripatetic, including sojourns in Geneva and Washington. He returned to Canada for a university degree, spent three years at Oxford, and then earned a law degree from the University of Toronto. He was quickly elected as a New Democratic Party MP in Ottawa, became Opposition leader for the NDP in Ontario in 1982 and reigned as premier from 1990 to 1995. The bulk of the book is devoted to his life as premier. But almost everything Rae recounts in From Protest to Power is already common knowledge to anyone attentive to the Canadian news media during the past decade. There is precious little perspective, and there are few inside stories.

In the one case where Rae does provide an inside scoop—he recounts a bitter meeting in January, 1993, with B.C. Premier Mike Harcourt, Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow, Canadian Labour Congress president Bob White and other labor leaders to talk about deficit reduction—he gives a version of events that others dispute. According to Rae, White said (apparently in all seriousness) that Ontario should default on its debt, much as the Reichmanns had done. The author uses this as an example of how narrow and unhelpful the labor leadership was to his government. For Rae, this story is part of a larger saga of how labor refused to buy into his Social Contract, which promised to save jobs by revoking contracts with the public service unions and reducing salaries.

White has challenged Rae’s version of the meeting and the significance of his remark about defaulting on the province’s debt.

Bob Rae defends his record—and dismisses some old foes

Whatever really happened during that meeting, one thing is clear: Rae still harbors a great deal of anger and resentment towards his party’s traditional allies.

One theme Rae weaves through the book is that he was a clearheaded leader who understood situations when others did not. In one passage, he recalls his colleagues’ uneasiness just at the point when the NDP was about to sign an accord with David Peterson’s Liberals in 1985—an agreement that tossed the Conservatives from power after 42 years and provided two years of exceptionally progressive legislation in the province. “The nervous Nellies in the party had convinced themselves that the accord with Peterson would finish us off,” he writes. “I was convinced of the opposite, that by changing governments, and forging an agenda without political uncertainty and the game of political blackmail we would emerge stronger. I was even| tually proved right.”

I Rae mixes this immodest 5 approach with an I-told-you-so 1 bitterness. He seems to think ° that people who were not sat£ isfied by his government’s actions deserve the tough treatment they are getting now from the Harris government. It does little to enhance his stature. “We never went far enough to satisfy child-care advocates, arts organizations, columnists and others who demand the full moon or nothing at all,” he writes. “Now, they have their starless sky.” On another occasion, noting his tolerance of demonstrators, he says: “No doubt these days they’d be billyclubbed and dragged off to jail.”

What is missing from the book is any sense of strong leadership— there is no evidence that Rae intended to forge new alliances to help change the world in the way, say, that his hero Tommy Douglas was able to do. That, of course, was the opportunity that his surprise election presented. But he was not able to deliver, to the immense disappointment of many. He proved unable to rise above the old parliamentary modes; indeed, several times in the book he remarks upon his skills at Question Period. When he was briefly detained at a protest against the logging of the Temagami wilderness area in 1989, the year before he became premier, he says: “I had taken a

stand, and gone beyond traditional politics.” But, in Rae’s account, the event smacks more of a public relations opportunity than a commitment to a different style of politics. As his premiership makes clear, Rae was not the kind of leader who was able to define new ground or rally people around a larger vision.

The last chapter of From Protest to Power is a general commentary on the 1990s, but it reads as a hastily stitched-together collection of facts and opinions. More disappointing is that it provides few useful political insights for the Canadian left or anyone else. This chapter would have been a terrific opportunity to outline the challenge of creating a society in which people care for and are responsive to each other, in which there is a strong sense of community that finds expression in collective action—but that is not the Bob Rae style. Indeed, he has moved on to a job with a Toronto corporate law firm where those kinds of values do not get translated into billable hours.

JOHN SEWELL

A MEASURE OF DEFIANCE

By Mike Harcourt with Wayne Skene (Douglas & McIntyre, 223 pages, $29.95)

He had to read the document three times before the full enormity of it sank in. The report on the affairs of a Vancouver Island charity with socialist roots and finances deeply entangled with those of its director, a long-standing member of the New Democratic Party in British Columbia, ran to 136 damning pages. By the time Premier Mike Harcourt had read them for the third time on that rainy October Sunday one year ago, he knew precisely what they added up to: the end of his career in politics. One month later, he announced his decision to retire. Now, with the autumn rains once again lashing British Columbia, Harcourt is back—by his own account, refreshed and reinvigorated. And with the publication of his memoir, A Measure of Defiance, he gives his own account of his time in politics, including its inglorious end. About that, at least, he is as blunt as the report that brought it about. Writes the former premier: “I took a bullet for the New Democratic Party.”

Having done so, he is clearly not about to undermine the effect of his sacrifice by washing the party’s dirty linen in public. The revelations in A Measure of Defiance are few. And they are hardly titillating—unless the image of New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna waggling his fingers over his head and trying to intuit the intentions of an absent Robert Bourassa at constitutional conferences qualifies.

Instead, in workmanlike prose, Harcourt energetically defends his accomplishments, his record, and what might be called, for lack of a better phrase, his political testosterone count.

His government’s accomplishments—settling disputes between loggers and environmentalists, starting negotiations with B.C. natives over land claims and building trade links with Asia—are listed and repeated frequently to support the claim that they dragged British Columbia out of the feudalism of the Social Credit era onto the doorstep of the 21st century. There may be some truth in that. But there is none to another Harcourt assertion: that “our government essentially balanced the budget.” In fact, surpluses claimed for the provincial budgets of 1995-1996 and 1996-1997 have turned out to be accounting fictions, concealing a B.C. deficit that threatened to reach $1 billion before Clark’s cabinet launched a round of emergency spending cuts this summer.

Meanwhile, the defiance that Harcourt brings to his task is a little too measured. His comments about his successor in office, Glen Clark, who seldom sheathed his ambition while serving in Harcourt’s cabinet, are so restrained as to seem disingenuous. The worst Harcourt can bring himself to say is that Clark occasionally “freelanced” more than he should have.

That much loyalty may be laudable. It is also tedious. Harcourt is much more engaging, and provocative, when he aims his limited invective at the “swamp creatures” of the B.C. news media, whose negative reporting and frequent characterization of him as “weak” he largely blames for his undoing. He singles out several reporters by name, accusing Vancouver Sun political columnist Vaughn Palmer, CKNW radio reporter Kim Emerson and call-in host Rafe Mair, as well as BCTV legislative reporter Keith Baldrey, of persistently and wilfully distorting his government’s record. He describes the B.C. media generally as “unfair and subjective,” “renegade,” “pathological,” and, most colorfully, “the scrum of the earth.” At one news conference during his final days, Harcourt writes, “They acted as if they had chased down their quarry and now demanded to see it bleed. It was one of the most primitive exhibitions I have ever witnessed.”

Mike Harcourt gives his account of the B.C, wars

It would be easy to discount Harcourt’s rant against his province’s media as the bile of a politician forced from office in expiation for other people’s sins. It would also be wrong. Harcourt’s complaints about the B.C. media have legitimate roots. CKNW’s Mair and the Sun's Palmer are particularly prone to let vilification of the NDP (and others) run away with the facts. Recently, Palmer managed to land one final sucker punch on his old adversary by using his column to ridicule Harcourt’s memoirs a week before they were available to most readers. And it is not necessary to share Harcourt’s hagiographie vision of his own government to agree with him that a media culture that celebrates politics as a blood sport is corrosive to the more humane view of government as a place where, “men and women, acting as citizens, get together and express their collective hopes and possibilities,” in philosopher Jean Elshtain’s words.

Still, it was Harcourt’s misfortune not to appreciate that politics, for all that it may represent the art of compromise, also remains the modern equivalent of two large men beating each other with clubs to see who gets to run the cave. Harcourt justly claims to have mastered the art of guiding hostile opposing camps towards common ground. He was not so good with clubs. What his memoirs make clear is that he never understood why that was a shortcoming.

CHRIS WOOD