CANADA

Shadows on the Hill

Three former prime ministers are no shows

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 2 1993
CANADA

Shadows on the Hill

Three former prime ministers are no shows

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 2 1993

Shadows on the Hill

CANADA

Three former prime ministers are no shows

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Imagine that by dint of hard work, ability and luck, you have become the head of a major international corporation. One day, for a variety of reasons, you decide to quit. But while you leave your position as chief executive officer, you do not leave the company. Instead, for a reduced but still-healthy salary, you keep a desk and secretary at the firm and stay on. In return for less money, you do virtually no work and almost never visit the office. Instead, you spend your time vacationing, travelling and working at another job.

Right now, Canada has three former prime ministers—John Turner, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney—in roughly the same position. Of the three, Turner’s case is clearly the most remarkable. Since relinquishing the Liberal leadership to Jean Chrétien more than three years ago, he has been seldom seen in either his Vancouver Quadra constituency or the House of Commons. On the odd occasion that he has slipped, wraithlike, into Parliament, it has been to haunt Chrétien—such as when Turner broke with the party to speak in favor of a Conservative resolution on the Gulf War. But he devotes almost all his working hours to his Toronto law firm and other business ventures.

As for Clark, who is 13 years removed from his brief tenure as prime minister, the situation is less striking. But he, too, has been virtually invisible since his position as constitutional affairs minister became irrelevant after last year’s Oct. 26 referendum. He then went travelling and job-hunting. By the time an election campaign is in full swing, Clark—though still being paid by Canadian taxpayers as an MP—will be out of the country, teaching political science at the University of California in Berkeley.

And then there is Mulroney. On Aug. 2, the former prime minister returns to his old Montreal law firm. Nonetheless, he, too, retains his seat until the election, although it is unlikely that the Commons will be recalled before then.

In the cases of all three men, callers to their constituency offices—particularly if they are from the media—are discouraged from trying to reach them. The presumption is that each has retired from public life, and is no longer publicly accountable for his behavior. In fact, all three remain public figures until the moment that they cease to be MPs, either by resignation or the expiration of their mandate.

Turner, Clark and Mulroney demean the parliamentary process by their actions—and inaction. The issue is not money: each man will earn far more than an MP’s $64,000 annual salary, from his parliamentary pension, which is boosted by his time in cabinet and as prime minister. But former prime ministers, more than anyone, should understand the moral responsibility that comes with the position. The people whose ridings they represent, and MPs from the parties they once led, expect more—not less. Says one Liberal MP of Turner: “For a guy who used to talk so much about how he loved Parliament, he sure does a pretty good job of thumbing his nose at it.” All three men, in fact, give the impression of regarding their Commons’ seats as parking spots on their respective roads back to private life.

A far better solution would have been for them to resign once they decided to leave politics—or to devote real effort in the remaining days of their mandates to meeting their responsibilities as MPs. Either step would indicate an understanding that a former prime minister should not expect to be an exception to the rules and standards of democracy. In the litany of problems confronting Canada, the collective behavior of three ex-leaders is a very small thing. But as a highly-respected former clerk of the privy council, Gordon Osbaldeston, once said: “People believe that if you show common sense in small matters, you will probably act sensibly when it comes to big issues.” □