The Bad News Bearer

Roy MacGregor December 17 1979

The Bad News Bearer

Roy MacGregor December 17 1979

The Bad News Bearer


Roy MacGregor

“Why Joe Clark's got me as minister of finance, I don't know. " — John Crosbie

It will be said, and will not be particu larly wrong, that this week's budget is the product of a sick man. The truth

begins at three o’clock in the morning in the master bedroom of a ranking St. John’s home, January of 1979. John Crosbie is scared, his left hand anxiously examining what feels like the cool, thick arm of a dead stranger. It is, he knows, his own arm. He would like to sit up, but his right leg has ignored the suggestion, for the leg also is lifeless. Perhaps the limbs are merely asleep, but eight hours later there will be no more “perhaps”— something is dreadfully wrong. The memory of a fortune-teller flickers, but something is dreadfully wrong there, as well. John Crosbie is days away from turning 48: according to the medium’s prediction, he should have been safe for another 10 years. He was too young to die, even for a Crosbie.

What followed in the next few days made the difference between the country having the usual Bay Street-tailored finance minister, complete with buttoneddown tongue, and an outrageous, enigmatic character who looks—and sometimes acts—like an aging Fred Flintstone. The actual turning point took place a few days later in another city in another bed. On doctor’s orders Crosbie was flown out of St. John’s to Toronto, and it was in the Toronto General Hospital that an angiogram discovered blockage in the left carotid artery leading to Crosbie’s brain. He had had what Newfoundlanders call “a tap on the shoulder,” a stroke warning, and it was but the first of two tricks fate had in store for John Crosbie. Reduced, as he now says, to “a quivering hunk of jelly,” Crosbie was resting in his hospital bed when the phone rang with the news that Newfoundland Premier Frank Moores was stepping down. This was precisely what the driven John Crosbie had long dreamed of and, it not being a family trait to lack confidence, he helieved the premiership was his for the taking. For a long moment he considered leaving his Commons seat in Joe Clark’s Opposition in Ottawa, hurling off to yet another

challenge. But then, for the first time in his life, he considered the cost. Death had just winked at him, after all; this was hardly a time for gambling. Better, he decided in the end, to wait and see what the year had in store for Joe Clark. And Joe Clark for him.

A half-mile above Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula the new finance minister sits surrounded by glass, his chartered Bell Long Ranger helicopter desperately

racing a fall storm to Arnold’s Cove. His pilot looks north toward Trinity Bay where clouds the color and apparent texture of granite are gathering in ambush. The wind scouts ahead, itself easily tracked by the line of bristling water that aims toward the helicopter. An aide in the rear seat crosses herself, but John Crosbie barely notices. He sits in the co-pilot’s seat, feet and rudder pedals covered in newspapers, the national section spread full in front of him to block out the disturbing view to the north and permit whatever prayers

John Crosbie has to go off on other errands: it is late October and inflation has hit nine per cent, another interest hike is predicted and the federal finance minister himself in one headline warns that there is “only so much money available.” Little wonder he ignores the storm. Compared to the climate he now moves in, it’s nothing.

Crosbie folds the paper and closes his eyes, resting. It is past noon and he has yet to eat. A foolish lapse, for these days diet is crucial. Strictness there, as well as the four daily Aspirins, and fresh blood will continue to flow from his heart up through the stubborn carotid and into his

brain. And relax—John Crosbie has been barrelling along since the late 1940s when he ran two old people in a buggy off the road as he raced to a political meeting. He has fought, and fought to win, since he was 17 and sat listening to an illegal tap on the Newfoundland telephone system, the hope being that he might discover how the pro-Confederationists were getting the money for their campaign. He has never forgotten March 31, 1949, the day Newfoundland joined the rest of Canada, and how the students at St. Andrew’s College, the Ontario private school he attended sang, 0 Canada at a celebration assembly; nor will he forget how he had rounded up his brother and young Frank Moores and had them ner -vously mount the stage for a proud,tuneless rendition of Ode to Newfoundland. A Crosbie loves a good fight.

“These are tough times and tough decisions,” he had said just prior to the opening of Parliament. “But we can’t shrink from making them.” He was by then well into the budget planning, already steeled to ignore the majority of Joe Clark’s $7 billion in campaign promises. “Success,” he told Toronto’s Empire Club in November, “will involve some hard work, some cutting back, some putting off of real increases in our standard of living, some restraint.” The last Tory budget had been brought down by Donald Fleming on April 10, 1962. It announced that inflation was under control and expressed concern over surplus oil in the West. No one expected Crosbie to pick up where the last Tories had left off. There would be no good news this time.

In a general store outside of Petty Harbour, six miles south of St. John’s, Crosbie stops for an ice cream bar for himself and one for Walter Carter, who would come third for the Conservatives in the Nov. 19 federal byelection in the riding of Burin-St. George. Carter had come to Crosbie for help, but found himself reaching for a silver wrapper with GOOD HUMOR stamped on the side. “You wouldn’t have a prayer, Walter,” Crosbie says, “if the budget came down on the 18th.”

He turns away, chuckling. For the moment he is once again the member who rose in the House over France’s criticism of the Canadian seal hunt and demanded a retaliatory ban on French pâté de foie gras on the grounds that the geese are force-fed. But today he says, “Life is less amusing since I became minister of finance.” From his appointment on June 4 he has been more serious, but hardly less startling: the price of oil must rise to world prices, Crosbie says . . . Canada needs more foreign investment, not less

.. . free trade with the U.S. is a “real option.” He takes the mortgage deductibility scheme and revises it, raises interest rates when Clark had promised to lower them, and waffles noticeably on the Tory drive to privatize Petro-Canada. “I support the government position,” he says. “But I suppose it’s all right to say that my enthusiasm for it is somewhat muted ... Petrocan is doing something useful. Even if it’s government-owned, it doesn’t bother me too much.”

How odd that it doesn’t, though. Nearly eight years ago, when Crosbie was finance minister in Frank Moores’ Newfoundland government—one of seven provincial cabinet posts he has held—he was deeply involved in the nationalization of the Javelin linerboard mill at Stephenville, a dog that may have cost the province more than $400 million in losses. He did that, he says, because the previous

government of Joey Smallwood had set the disaster in motion, but the act haunts him still. Not long after he arrived in Ottawa in the fall of 1976, an unsigned, single-spaced, four-page document appeared under certain members’ doors accusing Crosbie of everything from “personal use” of the Stephenville funds (untrue, even according to his political foes) to stooping “so low that he sued his own father” (true, it was over some complicated tax business years ago, he did it at his father’s urging, and he lost). The linerboard mill should have turned him off public enterprise forever, yet it failed too. More, it demonstrates his nearly total lack of ideology.

Had he been more single-minded as most other Tories seem to be about life he might have found his own party’s actions less confusing. But no sooner had he assured William Hood, the deputy minister

he inherited from the Liberals, of his undying devotion than Hood was removed from office by the prime minister himself. He also arrived in office to find a mystifying phrase lurking about—“stimulative deficit”—but though he tried earnestly to understand what it meant, he could find no Tory willing to explain it to him. “Nobody will admit that they had anything to do with it,” he says. “It just vanished. I can’t find any author.” He might have considered looking in the Senate where Industry, Trade and Commerce Minister Robert René de Cotret is noticeably silent right now. 2

Nothing, however, quite prepared him £ for Sinclair Stevens, the president of the | Treasury Board and the man who might | have been finance minister were it not £ for Crosbie’s carotid artery. All Crosbie | will say is that “there was a little disa° greement.” It was a large disagreement, £

actually, and it apparently grew out of Stevens’ early attempt to play economic confessor to the new government. Crosbie felt the role should go to him, and matters boiled over during an inner cabinet battle concerning the Canada Works projects. Stevens wanted to slash, of course, whereas Crosbie—fully aware that Newfoundlanders measure their winters in federal windfall rather than local snowfall—wanted it kept as is. Crosbie won, but the squabble advanced to the point where the prime minister had to intervene and lay down new rules: Stevens would do the books and concentrate on ordering; the cash register and sales demonstrations would be left to John Crosbie. “I think we both know what our roles are now,” he says.

There were other adjustments to make as well. His image. To see Crosbie only months ago in Sunday drive clothes it was difficult to reconcile the fact that this is a Crosbie of Newfoundland, kind of a subcompact Rockefeller. His own brother, Andrew, requires a foldout calling card just to list his chairmanships, presidencies and directorships (Eastern Provincial Airways, Limited, Chimo Shipping Limited, the Bank of Montreal, just to mention a few). No one doubts that choosing to be the political Crosbie has cost him considerably—he estimates between $4 and $5 million—but John Crosbie has never been as poor as a recent hole in his shoe would suggest.* Nor would his purebred education (gold medallist in law, graduate work at the London School of Economics) seem to indicate a man who would refer to political opponents (Pierre Trudeau and Ed Broadbent) as “Tweedledum and Tweedledummer.” There had to be changes. He no longer refers to a French aide as his “Frankyphone,” his staff has convinced him to tie his ties properly, had him retailored in Finance blue, and suggested — not always successfully — shirts that might be less safe to go walking in at night, but appropriately more subdued.

Such changes, however, are purely cosmetic. Beneath the new clothes he remains a Crosbie, an obsessive, a driven breed who believes that time is the leastrenewable resource. When his brother says, “Spit out of your own mouth,” he means like father, like son—and in this case like grandfather, as well. Sir John Crosbie was knighted for his First World

*When cabinet members revealed their individual holdings last week, Crosbie ’s wealth was still a mystery. He elected to place his assets in a blind trust.

War services as Newfoundland minister of shipping. He died at 56. His son was Chesley Crosbie, who set the financial empire in full motion. He died at 57. John Crosbie, also the eldest son, is likewise driven, but he is also driven by a terrible fear. It is John Crosbie’s greatest secret that he has even turned to a medium for advice, and has not been pleased by the answer: beware between ages 56 and 58. (Nor is this the only instance: a palm

reader in Hong Kong accurately predicted several years ago that Crosbie would one day be handling huge amounts of money.)

A man in a hurry runs. And John Crosbie’s labelling of himself as “a whirling dervish” has everything to do with speed and nothing to do with the dervish’s solemn commitment to poverty and austerity. So consumed is he with two fingers in every pie that recently, when aides approached him hoping to relieve him of some petty work, Crosbie fell full across his desk, clutched his papers and began shouting, “It’s mine! It’s mine! You can’t have it!” Ed Roberts, a Crosbie opponent but admirer when they were both in the Newfoundland legislature, says, “You’ve heard the word ‘workaholic,’ but you’ve no idea what it means until you see John Crosbie in action.”

The buffoon is the driven man’s disguise. After Joey Smallwood handily defeated him for the Newfoundland Liberal party leadership, Crosbie took a hard

measure of himself—painfully shy, dour, “a pisspoor public speaker”—and he reshaped his persona around an Dale Carnegie course. Somehow, a hidden reservoir of humor was tapped in the process, and it has made a welcome difference. “I do not agree that there is no ray of hope as far as prices are concerned,” he recently told NDP finance critic Bob Rae. “There is no ‘Rae’ of hope in the NDP, I will admit that.” Only a week into his new job, he found himself flying to Paris to attend an_important meeting of the Organization’for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). At the airport French protocol had a limousine waiting, a police escort, and traffic halted along the entire route to the city. Crosbie not only refused to sit in the backseat (“I want to see”) but he stunned the French by delivering a perfect Queen Elizabeth wave to flabbergasted motorists along the way.

“This is your friendly finance minister speaking, ladies and gentlemen,” Crosbie says into a portable tape machine. “Elect Walter Carter and he’ll drain the federal treasury dry. Yes sir, Sinclair Stevens may well commit hari-kari if Walter Carter is elected.”

On the far side of the Crosbie living room Walter Carter groans and stares at his polished shoes, patiently waiting for Crosbie to get serious. It is a comfortable room to pass time in, Persian rugs, two fireplaces, tastefully—but for the wood carving of two antelope rutting— decorated. It has the air of a mansion, a tribute more to Crosbie taste than expenditure, since he paid only $28,000 for the home in 1962.

The house tells less about John Crosbie, actually, than do the final three numbers of his Newfoundland car licence plate: 003. Crosbies are bred for the top. As he says himself, “You’ve got to be dead from the neck up if you don’t want to be No. 1.” He always wanted to be premier and have 001 on his licence. The beginning of his political ambition has been conveniently noted in the diary of Joey Smallwood when, on Sept. 19,1965, he made the following entry: “Many visitors at house all day. John Crosbie over—he wants to be a candidate.”

Within a year he was in the Smallwood cabinet, instantly the heir apparent to the aging premier. The falling out, however, was to come almost as quickly, and the emotions surged high enough that Smallwood would one day tell an Ontario university audience that anyone who

wanted to be premier of his province had better first serve an apprenticeship cleaning out piggeries, as he himself once had. That way, they would learn to watch out for two-legged swine as well.

Crosbie came to Smallwood at a time when the premier was raising financial monuments—the Churchill Falls hydro project and the Come By Chance oil refinery—and it was Smallwood’s intention to advance American entrepreneur John Shaheen “a trifling” $5 million (Crosbie says $10 million) in “bridge money” to keep the oil refinery project afloat. “I’d been uneasy ever since I’d gotten into the cabinet,” remembers Crosbie, “knowing I’d made a mistake and having to agree to all kinds of nonsense in the field of industrial development. So this was the last straw.” He told Smallwood he was going to resign, and while Crosbie was off preparing his letter Smallwood fired him. It was a nasty affair. The bitterness peaked in November, 1968, when Crosbie challenged Smallwood for the party leadership, spent an astonishing $600,000 to Joey’s $1 million, and lost.

Revenge came only after Crosbie had switched parties and helped Frank Moores dump Smallwood in the 1971 provincial election. And for a while that was enough. By 1975 he had held down almost every cabinet post there was, his energy coming from a secret refrigerator of chocolate bars he kept in his office. But by 1976 he was bored. Jane Crosbie told her husband he was through with Newfoundland politics; he should leave—even without becoming premier. A federal byelection was coming up in St. John’s West, the Liberals were dangling a cabinet seat in front of him, but he ran for the Tories convinced “You just can’t keep bouncing back and forth.”

Ironically, going to Ottawa gave him precisely what he failed at in provincial politics: top billing. Partly to the distress of federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans James McGrath, with whom Crosbie is supposed to share Newfoundland, Crosbie has emerged as the sole Ottawa figurehead on The Rock, and the responses are flavored with typical island passion. In Placentia Bay a man in mud-caked boots delivers an offeringtwo freshly killed partridges—and leaves without even waiting for his thank you. In Burin-St. George, site of the Nov. 19 byelection, Pierre Trudeau is on the phone to Liberal candidate Roger Simmons, the eventual winner, and he asks Simmons what Ottawa heavy Trudeau can send down to help. Simmons’ answer is instant: “John Crosbie.”

There will always be those in Newfoundland who will remember that Joey

Smallwood took to calling Crosbie “Cromwell” in the days of their most bitter feuds. They remember that Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England from 1653 to 1658, deposed a divine right ruler, perhaps also that Cromwell switched parties. Cromwell paid heavily,

though: three years after Cromwell’s death Charles II had the body exhumed, sliced off Cromwell’s head and stuck it up on a pole for the remainder of his reign. John Crosbie must deal with the knowledge that now, as finance minister, his enemies grow larger by the day, and multiply with each budget. As the official Bad News Bearer, there can be no love in his stars.

“It is my belief,” he says slowly over an evening whisky at his home, “that the public is tired of all the flimflam, the cosmetics, the excuses. I’m not expecting to go any further in Canadian politics. I’m not going to be trying to curry favor or do the things that make you very popular with the public. Therefore, I’ll be prepared to take risks.” Appropriately a plaque has been raised in his St. John’s constituency office: “Yea though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you shall fear no evil; for you are the meanest bastard in the valley.”

The final visit Crosbie paid on his late fall swing through his riding was to the dairy farm of Jack McDonald, on the outskirts of St. John’s. McDonald had recently lost his barn and five good milk cows to fire, but seemed convinced that was but a flicker compared to the heat John Crosbie will be feeling this week upon delivering his first budget in Ottawa. Later, when Crosbie left the farm McDonald caught him for a moment by the arm. “Take care of yourself, b’y,” he warned. “You’ve a rough, rough road ahead of you, John.”