ARTS

Culture’s new pilot

Perrin Beatty takes on the arts portfolio

GLEN ALLEN May 6 1991
ARTS

Culture’s new pilot

Perrin Beatty takes on the arts portfolio

GLEN ALLEN May 6 1991

Culture’s new pilot

Perrin Beatty takes on the arts portfolio

The message on Roy MacSkimming’s answering machine last week was a rare and welcome surprise. MacSkimming had just returned to Ottawa from Vancouver, where he had been appointed the new director of the Association of Canadian Publishers. And when he stepped into his office on Wednesday, the voice on his machine was that of Perrin Beatty, just named the country’s new minister of communications in an April 21 cabinet shuffle. Beatty’s desire to introduce himself, noted MacSkimming, marked a “major departure” from the style of his predecessor, Marcel Masse, now minister of defence.

“Masse was first-rate in many ways,” said MacSkimming, 47, whose group represents an increasingly troubled industry. “But he was not a great one for reaching out. He would never have left a message on your answering machine.” Added MacSkimming: “Sometimes, he didn’t even answer his letters.”

The communications portfolio gives Beatty responsibility for such organizations as the CBC, the National Film Board and the CRTC, as well as the country’s cultural sector in general. A variety of cultural executives fielded calls early last week from the personable, 40-year-old minister, long noted for his human—and political—skills.

legislation that Masse drafted but which had not won cabinet or Commons approval.

Many critics of the government’s recent measures pertaining to culture also want the minister to fight for the integrity of the CBC and to oppose greater power over culture and communications for the provinces in any new constitutional deal. They say that Beatty should reinforce the importance of his portfolio’s constituency during the current discussions on Confederation. In an interview with Maclean ’s last week, Beatty declared that the country’s arts and communications are tied to questions of “national survival. They are central to how we define ourselves.”

And like MacSkimming, they express the hope that the new style will be accompanied by greater success in winning allies in cabinet for a sector that has been increasingly beleaguered in recent years. They say that along with managing a pinched cultural budget, Beatty, who represents the southwestern Ontario riding of Wellington/Grey/Dufferin/Simcoe, must

also address an imposing backlog of

Beatty is no newcomer to the cultural sector. On first being elected in 1972, he asked to serve on the Commons broadcasting committee, and was a member of that body until 1979. Between 1980 and 1983, he was the Tories’ communications critic. Later, as minister of revenue—the second of six cabinet posts that he has occupied—he dealt with taxation issues

involving artists. According to Susan Annis, associate director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, at that time he displayed “understanding and sensitivity to the special needs of the artistic community.” Said Beatty: “My interest [in culture] goes back a long way. In a sense, I’m returning to my first love.” Another love is politics itself. The scion of a wealthy family that once manufactured appliances in Fergus, Ont., Beatty was first elected to the House of Commons when he was only 22 and a recent university graduate. Seven years later, he joined the cabinet—as minister of state for the Treasury Board in the short-lived government of Joe Clark. When the

Conservatives regained power in 1984, Beatty was appointed minister of national revenue and minister responsible for Canada Post Corp. Then, in 1985, he was named solicitor general.

Beatty gained a reputation among public servants for his even temperament and mastery of detail. But he was also dubbed a “scoreand-run minister” for his ability to attract media attention in various portfolios with bright new initiatives—and then to move on before any of those measures had to be implemented. He entered a new phase of his climb into the higher reaches of power with his appointment in 1986 to his first senior ministry, the department of national defence. With that, he also became a member of the cabinet’s inner circle—the priorities and planning committee. But it was in the defence portfolio that Beatty suffered his first major political setback. His controversial white paper on defence—which would have revamped the nation’s aging defence stock and provided for the acquisition of nuclearpowered submarines—was passed by cabinet but put on hold after the 1988 election. In 1989, Beatty was named minister of national health and welfare, a position that he held until last week. Colin Jackson, the producer of Winnipeg’s Prairie Theatre Exchange, said the fact that Beatty has “some heft in cabinet” makes his new appointment “good for those who care about the ministry.”

Married for 17 years to former stockbroker Julia Beatty (the sister of Liberal Senator Colin Kenny), with whom he has two children, the bilingual Beatty has a reputation for hard work—favoring working lunches of turkey sandwiches and milk. Among the major challenges facing him in his new job is the disposition of a wideranging body of draft legislation. Those measures include revisions to the Copyright Act, incentives and other policies to bolster cultural industries ranging from films to books, and a Status of the Artist bill that would give artists professional legal status and rights to social benefits and collec-

tive bargaining, which they now lack.

Beatty says that it is premature to discuss how he will deal with those and

other issues—many of which, critics

say, Masse had left in limbo for too

long. “I’m just plowing through the briefing books now,” Beatty said, “getting my feet wet.” But those in the cultural sector say that the delivery of the government’s throne speech in mid-May might provide some indication of Beatty’s ministerial mettle. Said Jacqueline Hushion, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Book Publishers’ Council: “We’ll be watching.” For all his reaching out to the cultural community, it is clear that Perrin Beatty will be judged neither on reassuring expressions of intent nor on past achievements—but on results.

GLEN ALLEN