A team of Montrealers advises Mulroney

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 25 1991


A team of Montrealers advises Mulroney

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 25 1991



A team of Montrealers advises Mulroney

He is the first among equals, advising the Prime Minister on all matters, especially the unity of Canada. In his austere second-floor office close to Brian Mulroney in Parliament Hill’s Langevin Block,

Norman Spector keeps only a few carefully chosen mementoes. On one wall, the chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) keeps a framed, autographed photograph of Mulroney and another of former British Columbia premier William Bennett, whom Spector served as deputy minister for five years. Another display nearby was an ironically intended gift from former colleagues. The individually framed photographs show three Manitoba politicians: Premier Gary Filmon, New Democratic Party Leader Gary Doer and Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs. In the often-bitter debate over the failed Meech Lake constitutional accord last year, the trio were harsh and frequent critics of federal strategy, much of it devised in Ottawa’s Federal-Provincial Relations Office—Spector’s last posting before he moved to Mulroney’s side last fall.

Spector had the display mounted just behind his desk because, said one friend, “Norman appreciates a good joke—as well as a reminder of where he has failed.”

For the 42-year-old Spector, that reminder is particularly revealing. A bearded, impeccably dressed figure with a passion for sports, sports cars and privacy, Spector seldom gives interviews and almost never discusses his personal life. Although he is unknown to most Canadians, he is widely respected within federal and provincial government circles for his intellect. Now, Spector is a key part of the tight inner circle of bilingual Montrealers who advise the Prime Minister on federal-provincial affairs. The others include Paul Tellier, who as head of the Privy Council Office (PCO) is the most senior public servant, and Gordon Smith, the secretary to the cabinet for federal-provincial relations and the current chief of the Federal-Provincial Relations Office. Still, in an interview shortly after his appointment late last year, Spector, in the tradition of civil servants, downplayed the importance of his role. Declared the chief of staff: “My background is policy. All I bring is policy perspective.”

But many people say that after more than 15

years as a provincial and federal public servant, Spector’s influence extends far beyond that. In Ottawa and in provincial capitals across the country, he is alternately revered and reviled for his adroit tactics and ruthless behind-the-

scenes manoeuvring. Said Senator Lowell Murray, the minister in charge of federalprovincial relations: “The best adviser you can get is a person who confronts you very starkly with the alternatives. He does that: he does not

gild the lily.” Political opponents are less charitable. Declared Carstairs, who said she was “not at all amused” when Spector’s former colleagues asked for her photograph: “After what he and his crowd did with Meech, I would not give him anything. They are ruining the country.”

In fact, by appointing Spector as chief of staff on Sept. 1, Mulroney showed his determination to place constitutional reform at the top of his governing agenda. That would be in keeping with Mulroney’s habit since coming to office in 1984 of selecting senior advisers whose skills have served his priorities of the moment.

Mulroney’s first chief of staff, Bernard Roy, was a close friend and skilled negotiator who played a key role in Mulroney’s earliest constitutional dealings with Quebec. Roy’s three successors— Derek Burney, Canada’s current ambassador to Washington; tax expert Stanley Hartt, another close Mulroney friend and now chief executive officer of Campeau Corp.; and Spector—have each brought specific talents to the PMO. Said Hartt in an interview with Maclean’s: “When the big issue was free trade, Derek was the man. When it was reduction of the deficit, it was me. Now, it is the Constitution, and it is Norman’s turn.”

Spector brings an array of remarkable—and remarkably diverse—talents to his task. A Montreal native, he is fluent in English, French and Hebrew, and passable in Russian, which he studied in university. He holds four degrees, including a doctorate in political science from New York’s Columbia University, and worked for governments in Ontario and British Columbia before going to Ottawa to work in the Federal-Provincial Relations Office in 1986. In each of those positions, he earned a reputation for his ability to quickly assess complex situations and plan longrange strategies. Said L. Ian o MacDonald, a former speech ^ writer for Mulroney who s worked closely with Spector: y “Norman is a tremendously 5 quick study. He can absorb things immediately and start reacting while others are still figuring out what it all means.”

As well, both supporters and critics describe Spector as a tough, tireless and sometimes ruthless opponent. While working in British Columbia for Bennett, Spector acquired the

nicknames “Dr. No” and “Dr. Doom” when he devised a rigorous program of spending restraint that included abolishing the province’s human rights commission. During frequently bitter contract negotiations with the government employees union, he once remained in a room for 36 hours with union representatives—leaving only when a settlement was reached. His determination was evident again during negotiations over the Meech Lake accord last year. Spector often pushed for talks to continue long after other, exhausted participants were urging a recess. At the same time, even his admirers say that when Spector emerged from those closed-door meetings, he often presented different interpretations of the sessions to participants from different provinces. Said one former adviser to then-Ontario Premier David Peterson, who supported the federal position: “If there was no Machiavelli, he would have been invented just for Norman.”

Before joining the federal government, Spector occasionally found himself supporting positions that Mulroney now opposes. As an adviser to Bennett during the 1981 round of constitutional talks, Spector was one of the principal authors of the “notwithstanding” clause in the Constitution, which allows provinces to opt out of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mulroney has since savagely criticized the clause for undermining the charter.

As well, Spector asserted while working for Bennett that any free trade arrangement with the United States should need ratification by the individual provinces. That was not done in the 1988 agreement between Canada and the United States. Spector now declines to discuss his views on either issue.

In his personal life, the unmarried Spector has varied tastes. Although he has lived in Ottawa since 1986, he still has close ties with the West Coast and returns there frequently for visits. He owns a house in Victoria, and retains season’s tickets for the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League. He also maintains close ties with Montreal, where he indulges his passions for the Montreal Expos and the city’s renowned smoked meat and bagels. He is a voracious reader whose tastes include French and Russian classics. He drives an aging, dark-blue Fiat Spyder sports car in the summer (switching to a government sedan in the winter), and takes visible delight in electronic gadgetry—including the pocketsized cellular phone that he was issued by the PMO and a combination telephone facsimile and answering machine that he keeps in his flat in Ottawa’s middle-class Sandy Hill district. Spector seldom entertains at home, but is described

by one friend as someone who “knows his way easily around a good wine list” and favors expensive restaurants.

The other central architects of Mulroney’s latest constitutional strategy—Tellier and Smith—are hardly better known to the average voter than Spector. Still, after the Quebec Liberal party endorsed the controversial Allaire report, which would transfer all but a handful of federal powers to the provinces, it was those three men who met for a lengthy dinner last week in a private room at the elegant Café Henry Burger in Hull, Que., to discuss the federal government’s response.

Both Tellier and Smith bring a wealth of experience to their jobs. Tellier, 51, has served as a public servant under four prime ministers. For his part, Smith, 49, a former Canadian ambassador to NATO, serves as a crucial link between the federal government and key pro-

vincial representatives. Other Mulroney advisers include Daniel Gagnier, 44, Tellier’s deputy in the PCO; Richard Dicerni, 42, a longtime civil servant who works directly for Smith in the Federal-Provincial Relations Office; and former Quebec journalist Michel Roy, 61, whom Mulroney appointed on Feb. 22 to serve as a special adviser on constitutional issues.

Those advisers all have participated extensively in the national unity debate. Tellier served from 1977 to 1979 as head of the Canadian Unity Information Office, which was set up after the Parti Québécois won the 1976 provincial election in Quebec. The unity office’s unofficial mandate was to prepare and coordinate federalist efforts prior to the May, 1980, Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association. During that time, Tellier became acquainted with Smith, who was then working in the PCO as deputy secretary for planning and director of government organization.

For his part, Dicerni played a key role in the final months prior to the 1980 referendum coordinating the pro-federalist “No” side’s advertising and publicity campaign. He also prepared kits of facts and figures for different regions of Quebec, outlining how many federal jobs and benefits each area received. Officials in the Federal-Provincial Relations Office say that Dicerni is likely to take on a similar role as the federal government seeks to intensify discussion within Quebec over the economic benefits of federalism. Gagnier, who served as executive director of the Unity Information Office from 1982 to 1984, is a shrewd and deceptively rumpled figure with a homespun manner and fluency in English, French, Chinese and Spanish. Roy, a former editor of Montreal’s Le Devoir and La Presse newspapers, was one of the province’s few journalists to support the “No” side in the 1980 referendum. A longtime acquaintance of Mulroney’s, he will work on a part-time basis, providing analyses of the political mood in Quebec.

One trait that Spector and those advisers conspicuously share is that they are all bilingual Montrealers. As well, Spector and Tellier both worked on the failed Meech accord. Gagnier, who was chief of staff for Peterson when he was Ontario’s premier, was a close federal ally in those negotiations. Those common backgrounds have led some critics to suggest that the men around Mulroney are overly preoccupied with Quebec’s constitutional concerns at the expense of those of the rest of the country. Said University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss, who opposed the Meech accord: “These pro-Meech people seem to control Canada. They do not realize that the great number of Canadians who opposed Meech still feel the same way.” ~ In response to such criticisms, de-

1 fenders of Mulroney and his advisers s insist that they have learned from the

2 failure of Meech. They say that Mulroney is now acutely aware that he

must satisfy all regions if there is to be

any hope of a new constitutional accord. But time is alarmingly short. With Premier Robert Bourassa’s Quebec government planning to hold a referendum on separation if no constitutional agreement is reached by the fall of next year, said one PMO official, “That is not a deadline we can just brush aside.”

For his part, close associates of Spector say that he is clearly aware of the size of the challenge that he faces as a key federal tactician. Said MacDonald: “Norman gets pumped up for the big events. He knows this is the biggest one yet.” Added another close associate: “Norman will wait things out, but at the end of the day he will fight very, very hard to win.” For Spector and other participants in Canada’s protracted constitutional crisis, patience and passion are essential virtues.