He smiles as he enters his sundrenched, Ottawa office. But it is a subdued grin, not the high-wattage politician’s mask that always hides more than it reveals. Time was when the compact, middle-aged man in the designer tie and shirtsleeves always seemed to be in a rush. Now his body language says calm— even serene. Instead of partisan Liberal politics, so often his preoccupation in the past, Canada’s minister of health would prefer to talk about AIDS, drug addiction, tobacco advertising and medicare. “This portfolio is very different,” he says, staring at the ceiling. ‘You are dealing much more intimately with peoples’ lives, and the issues are very substantive.” All of that is undoubtedly true. But can this really be David Dingwall talking?
One of Canada’s consummate political provocateurs is in the midst of a whopping makeover. It is not the first time for the scrappy, partisan wheeler-dealer from Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. In his 16 years in federal politics he has gone from government backbencher to Opposition attack dog to influential member of Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s political clique. In the process, he has also become the Liberals’ Atlantic Godfather, the natural heir to longtime cabinet minister and recently retired senator, Allan J. MacEachen, who enjoys virtual sainthood in Cape Breton for his years of looking after his downtrodden island. Yet the latest chapter in Dingwall’s life is the most interesting. A year ago, stumbling from crisis to crisis as minister of public works, his name synonymous with old-style patronage politics, Dingwall was in a career freefall. Now, behold Ottawa’s comeback kid—his national reputation again on the rise, his political currency restored to the point where he was a featured speaker before the Liberal women’s caucus at last week’s national policy convention. Even cautious members of the Prime Minister’s Office now trumpet him as “the perfect guy in the perfect place” to carry one of the government’s central banners in the next federal election.
Not everyone is gushing. So far, Dingwall has failed to deliver on promises for new anti-tobacco legislation—or to explain how he will maintain the health-care system while federal funding shrinks. “He has yet to demonstrate an overall health-care vision,” says Dr. Judith Kazimirski, president of the Canadian Medical Association. What Dingwall has said is what he will not do— allow the provinces or anyone else to tamper with medicare, the one social program treasured by all Canadians. And from the government’s point of view his combination of brass-knuckle toughness and political smarts is ideal for the job. “David,” says an admiring Mary Clancy, a Liberal MP from Nova Scotia, “is a very formidable opponent for anyone.”
True, Dingwall no longer seems the type of politician who once dismissed Tory MP Paul Dick in the House of Commons as “living up to his name,” traded obscenities with New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna during a private meeting, or roughed up Conservative opponents during “friendly” hockey games. But glimmers of the old Maritime politician shine through. This is still a straighttalking cabinet minister who tells reporters he is “pissed off’ over a large tobacco ad near a schoolyard, and warns doctors that a two-tiered health-care system—with a higher standard of care for those who can afford to pay—is simply “not on.” More than anything, he seems to enjoy going head-to-head with the federal Reform party, “the Ralph Kleins of this world” or anyone else who challenges the traditional underpinnings of the healthcare system that he still feels is the world’s best. “I come from humble beginnings,” Dingwall declares. “It grips me in the gut when I talk about health care.”
He has travelled far from his roots. Dingwall may golf with the Prime Minister, talk about his love for big-city musical productions, and even brag about his recipe for English trifle. But make no mistake— underneath it all he is still “the Dinger,” a janitor’s son who grew up in a school basement in South Bar, a sad little hamlet in industrial Cape Breton. He was a tenacious, somewhat plodding hockey player but a natural at politics, Cape Breton’s second-favorite sport. His father, George, was a staunch enough Grit that when he died in 1994, members of Parliament, MLAs and even representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office attended his
funeral. “My father drove into me that there were two important callings in life,” says Dingwall, whose eyes sometimes well with tears at the mention of his father’s name. “The priesthood—and politics.”
His political apprenticeship began in 1974 when Dingwall, who holds a law degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax, took a job as a special assistant to Allan Sullivan, a cagey, pudgy Liberal MLA from Cape Breton. When Joe Clark’s shortlived Tory government fell in 1980, Dingwall won the federal Liberal nomination in Cape Breton/East Richmond. He took the seat by fewer than 300 votes. But his reputation for playing a particularly tough game of political hardball began with that race. Stories, vehemently denied by Dingwall, still abound that his operatives spread false rumors that the NDP incumbent, a Roman Catholic priest, was in a detoxification centre drying out during the campaign.
The legend grew. In Ottawa, after the Liberals fell to Brian Mulroney’s Tories in 1984, Dingwall nagged and berated the government from the Opposition benches. His persistent dealmaking while serving as Liberal House leader from 1991 to 1993 created enemies within his own party—some of them persisting to this day. Dingwall’s appointment to the cabinet as public works minister after the Liberals roared back to power in 1993 may have owed as much to his strong friendship with Chrétien—whose failed 1984 leadership bid he supported—as anything else. Yet even his foes admired his workaholism, speaking style, superb organizational abilities and his uncanny ability to determine which way the political winds were blowing.
As minister of public works, controlling $9 billion a year in government procurement and contracts as well as the $375-million budget of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Dingwall needed all of those skills. “He was a great minister—a strong manager who got things done but never tried to skew the process by doing things we advised against for political reasons,” recalls Art Silverman, an assistant deputy minister in charge of procurement under Dingwall and now an Ottawa lobbyist.
But the public, for the most part, saw an old-style pork-barreler. When allegations surfaced in the summer of 1995 that Dingwall intervened to have Canada Post break a lease with a prominent Sydney Tory and move a post office site to a building owned by a well-known Grit, it just seemed to confirm that growing perception. Then came the real damage—a scheme to divert $26 million from a planned four-lane bypass of a dangerous Nova Scotia stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway, known locally as Death Valley, to create a road running through Dingwall’s own riding. “I think our decision was right and in the best interest of Nova Scotians,” Dingwall now says in his defence. “But Nova Scotians didn’t think that way for a variety of different reasons. They thought that there was something sinister in what we had done—so we acted.”
That decision—to not shift the road funding—was the first step in Dingwall’s political rehabilitation. The next came last January, when he swapped places with Health Minister Diane Marleau. “Dingwall is a quick study and he listens,” declares Mary Ellen Jeans, executive-director of the Canadian Nurses Association. “But he faces tremendous challenges.” As if to illustrate the crisis in the health-care system, medical and health research groups appearing last week before the Commons finance committee warned that the Chrétien government’s spending cuts are tearing medicare apart— and pleaded for more, not less, funding. Everywhere he turns, Dingwall hears critics, but his commitment remains firm. “The health portfolio crosses political lines,” Dingwall declares. “If people think I’m partisan for defending medicare and the Canada Health Act and providing good quality health care, I guess I can’t stop them.” His voice rises as he says that. Like someone who is just getting warmed up.
A work in progress
There is being on a roll, and then there is being on a roll. The smugly congratulatory mood at last week’s national Liberal policy convention in Ottawa was perfectly understandable. Three years into their mandate—and less than a year away from an election—the Grits still sit high atop the public opinion polls. But who would have thought that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien could stand on the convention stage and trumpet that his party has kept 78 per cent of the 197 promises contained in the 1993 Liberal Red Book and win praise for being, of all things, modest?
Love-ins are like that. Grassroots Liberals got to debate party policy on everything from cutting the deficit to native land claims—while enjoying the privilege of strolling around Parliament Hill with Health Minister David Dingwall and socializing with Industry Minister John Manley. But last week was also about pragmatic politics. True, the Prime Minister did issue a glowing Liberal report card. “We are laying out what we have done,” he declared. “We have laid it all out honestly. This is a document a lot like our government—no bells, no whistles, no bull.” But Chrétien also acknowledged that his government still has a way to go in meeting all of its Red Book promises—a clear attempt to head off opposition criticism. And instead of admitting that their controversial 1993 campaign promise to replace the Goods and Services Tax is all but impossible to fulfil—as even department of finance officials concede—the Liberals preferred to describe the GST question as “a work in progress.”
Even the entertainment had a political undercurrent: the policy convention featured a $10-a-head concert held to raise money to defend those charged with breaking Quebec electoral law during the giant Montreal unity rally held towards the end of last October’s referendum campaign. Underlying it all was the Liberals’ mantra for governing. As one senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office said, “It is better to get ahead of trouble than to be behind the eight ball.” Prudent advice that should not go unheeded. In a closed-door session last week, Liberal pollster Michael Marzolini warned the party’s grassroots against complacency. Marzolini also hinted that trouble may be brewing for overconfident Grit candidates—particularly in the crucial electoral battleground of Ontario. The message was clear: placating the party faithful is one thing, but the Liberal government will soon face the harshest critic—the public.
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