BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The life of the ‘coolest cat’ in Ottawa

MICHAEL ROSE September 23 1985
BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The life of the ‘coolest cat’ in Ottawa

MICHAEL ROSE September 23 1985

The life of the ‘coolest cat’ in Ottawa

Last week, as Barbara McDougall faced her first full-blown crisis as minister of state for finance, a messenger arrived at her Ottawa office with a bottle of Courvoisier Four Star brandy. The bearer was McDougall’s longtime friend and Conservative colleague Jean Pigott. Attached to the gift was a note that read, “To the coolest cat in town—something to keep you warm inside.” Said Pigott about the minister’s strong performance during the controversy over the collapse of the Canadian Commercial Bank (CCB): “Barbara

knows she is standing at the centre of a hurricane, but she has been utterly unflappable.”

Indeed, as McDougall stood in the Commons last week to face down accusations of incompetence and calls for her resignation, she displayed a combination of toughness, confidence and poise that is rare in a rookie cabinet minister. “I make no apology for the decisions we have taken,” she told Maclean ’s. “I can defend them both publicly and privately, and I can tell you that I still sleep at night.” But McDougall, 47, is clearly aware that her position at the eye of the storm may make or break her political career. Declared an informed source: “The consensus is that she is playing with her career here. The big question about her —particularly among the more experienced members of cabinet—is whether she is tough enough to stand up.”

Friends and colleagues insist that she is. The eldest of three daughters of a middle-class Toronto family, McDougall entered the business world immediately after graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in political science and economics in 1960. At the time, she became a financial analyst in Vancouver, where she moved with her new husband in 1963. Later she separated from her husband and moved to Edmonton in 1974, where she worked as a financial columnist for a local TV station and an investment adviser at Northwest Trust Co. In 1976 she returned to Toronto to a job with A.E. Ames Securities, but five years later, when her job as vice-president disappeared during the takeover of Ames by Dominion Securities, she set up her own financial consulting firm and she decided to make a serious attempt to enter politics.

From the start, McDougall waged an uphill battle. Although she had worked for more than eight years as a Tory volunteer and organizer, she was still largely unknown when she sought the nomination in the downtown Toronto swing riding of St. Paul’s. After a two-

year campaign, McDougall won the nomination despite the coolness of many members of the Tory establishment who had wanted a better-known candidate. Her strength lay in her tireless campaigning and deft use of key Tory contacts, most of them—like financier H.N.R (Hal) Jackman—from the business elite. Said a prominent

Tory who helped McDougall: “She took on the backroom boys and the jocks and she won.”

With the Sept. 4,1984, Tory election win, McDougall entered the cabinet as the minister responsible for financial institutions. She rose to prominence last spring with the release of a Green Paper recommending broad changes in regulations governing trust, loan and insurance companies. Instantly swept up in a whirlwind of speaking engagements, McDougall proved to be a forceful defender of government policy. During the debates surrounding the ill-fated Michael Wilson budget in May, she was again prominent as she explained another unpopular government initiative —plans to deindex old-age pensions.

Throughout, McDougall has kept up a frenetic schedule of briefings, meetings, speeches and constituency work. Each day before Question Period she meets to plan strategy with Wilson, her senior cabinet colleague—with whom her working relations are excellent, insiders say.

Despite her heavy schedule, a weakness for too many slim brown cigarettes and “the occasional martini,” she finds time for a regular exercise program. But she had to give up playing tennis after she injured her right arm shaking too many hands during the election campaign. Occasionally, according to her staff, she puts a Jane Fonda workout tape on her office videocassette recorder and exercises between meetings.

At the same time, many members of the financial community—including those who oppose the Green Paper —acknowledge that her performance during her first year in office has been effective. Indeed, some of them say that she has permanently changed the perception of the office of minister of state for finance, bringing it out from under the shadow of the finance ministry. Others say that some of her activities have angered William Kennett, the inspector general of banks. “Kennett had operated quite independently of any minister in the past,” said one prominent businessman. “McDougall has tried to make his office more accountable, and Kennett has resisted.”

But the controversy surrounding her handling of the CCB rescue may test her reputation for surefootedness. Said one prominent businessman: “The buck doesn’t necessarily stop at her level, but she does have to accept some responsibility.” For her part, McDougall dismissed a suggestion that the failure of the rescue may have damaged her credibility among Canada’s business elite. “I never gave a damn about my reputation on Bay Street,” she said. “I have been in it but not of it.”

So far the bank affair does not appear to have damaged her standing in cabinet. Last week Brian Mulroney defended her in the House as “one of the most outstanding and competent women in Canada.” And aside from occasional testiness with the reporters—“I’ve said all I’m going to say today. You got your clip. Good-bye.”—McDougall showed no sign of succumbing to the mounting pressure. “Life goes on,” she said. “There are other decisions to be made, other involvements. My mind is not on a public hanging for me or any of my colleagues.”

—MICHAEL ROSE in Ottawa