From the moment that he became defence minister last September, Robert Coates, 56, stood out as a political wild card in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s cabinet. The earthy and dogmatically conservative parliamentary veteran craved the defence portfolio since he was first elected as part of John Diefenbaker’s minority government in 1957. Throughout his nearly 28 years in the House of Commons,
Coates advocated increased military spending, preached law and order, and supported, almost slavishly, U.S. defence policies. And he had little patience with anyone who disagreed with him. In the five months since his appointment as defence minister, the Mulroney loyalist became the military’s biggest fan. But he displayed a loose grip on the complexities of his portfolio, crossed swords publicly with fellow ministers and needlessly insulted Canada’s growing peace lobby. With that reputation and record, his resignation last week was both a blow and a private relief to the Mulroney government.
Small-town: Coates was born on March 10,
1928, in the small industrial town of Amherst,
N.S. There, his wife,
Mary, lives year-round in a cozy white house while Coates rents an Ottawa apartment, commuting home to Amherst on weekends.
Coates, the son of a cattle buyer, received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Mount Allison University in nearby Sackville, N.B., in 1951 and, three years later, graduated from Dalhousie University law school in Halifax. In 1954 he married Mary Blanche Wade of Perth Junction, N.B. The couple has two children: David Wade, 29, a teacher, and Amy Marijo, 27, a Toronto lawyer. In 1957 Coates, then 29, stood as a candidate in Cumberland
riding and went to Parliament in the Diefenbaker sweep. In 10 elections since, he was re-elected each time.
Back-bencher: With his first election victory, Coates settled into the role of dogged back-bencher—a man who studiously performed his duties in the riding but rarely shone on the Commons floor. He only came to national attention in 1966 when he aided Diefenbaker
in his futile bid to keep the Conservative leadership. As a strong and ferociously loyal supporter, Coates chronicled that struggle in a bitter book, The Night of the Knives.
Throughout the next 17 years Coates was a constant critic in caucus of the party’s two leaders, fellow Nova Scotian Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark. In 1969 he joined his hero Diefenbaker in a renegade Conservative group that voted against the Official Languages Act. When Clark succeeded Stanfield in February, 1976, Coates tried to play a more active role in party affairs. He won the
party presidency in late 1977 and worked hard over the next 18 months to secure victory in the May, 1979, federal election. But Clark did not name Coates to his cabinet. When Clark’s minority government fell seven months after taking office, Coates was an incredulous —and unconsulted—bystander. By the time he gave up his post as party president in March, 1981, he was one of Mulroney’s earliest and most loyal supporters.
Right-wing: But although Coates appealed to a constituency of right-wing Conservatives who still longed for the Diefenbaker days, he alienated many moderate party members. In 1977 he toured South Africa as a guest of the state and then wrote a series of laudatory articles about the apartheid regime. He demanded capital punishment for all premeditated murders. He also criticized 1968 Criminal Code amendments that removed sanctions against homosexuality, stating that “the easier we make it for people to be homosexual, the more we will have.”
Ironically, when Mulroney paid his political debt and put Coates in cabinet, the bitterness faccumulated over 16 years began to fall away. ^But the new minister £ never did manage to develop political acumen. Last fall he gloated to Winnipeg businessmen that the peace movement was “in very bad shape ” —which was “only right and proper.” He praised the controversial U.S. Star Wars initiative as a boon to Canadian industry at the same time as his cabinet colleague External Affairs Minister Clark expressed concern about its implications for world peace. One of his few accomplishments in office was to ensure that the services will get distinctive uniforms at a cost of more than $ 55 million. His tragedy is that he waited 27 long and bitter years for a job that lasted only five months.
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