Crosbie's Canada

October 20 1997

Crosbie's Canada

October 20 1997

Crosbie's Canada


During his 17 years on the federal political scene, John Crosbie made a name as a witty, blunt-spoken and frequently controversial voice of the Conservative party. Holder of a succession of portfolios in the Clark and Muironey governments, Crosbie retired from politics before the 1993 election that devastated the Tories. In his new memoir, No Holds Barred: My Life in Politics, written with Maclean’s Managing Editor Geoffrey Stevens, the Newfoundland lawyer displays his trademark disdain for political correctness. Also clear is his commitment to a united Canada, which Crosbie examines in the following excerpt:

Separation is not an issue for Quebecers alone to decide. All Canadians have a direct and immediate interest in what happens in Quebec. We all have a right to try to influence the debate and the outcome of any future referendum. This right of intervention applies particularly to the people of Atlantic Canada, whose four provinces depend so heavily on the government of Canada for fiscal transfers to their governments and for direct support to individuals through the Employment Insurance system, Canada Assistance Plan, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement and many other federal programs. Of the four Atlantic provinces, Newfoundland is the most dependent. In 1990, Ottawa collected $1.3 billion in federal revenue from Newfoundland and Labrador, and it spent $4.09 billion by way of transfers to the provincial government and the people of the province.

To look at it another way, the federal government raises one per cent of its revenue from the 10th province, yet does three per cent of its spending there. Every resident of Atlantic Canada has a direct, immediate and vital interest in what happens in Quebec, because I don’t believe that Canadian federalism will survive if Quebec leaves.

And if federalism collapses, Atlantic Canadians will be the first victims.

In Newfoundland and, it appears, the rest of the Atlantic region, most people are living in a fool’s paradise. They believe that, if Quebec leaves Confederation, nothing much will change, except that they will no longer have to bother with bilingualism or worry about the French minority in Canada. They embrace the lazy assumption that the nine remaining provinces will carry on without Quebec. They assume that all social programs, all transfer programs from the central government to the provinces, such as equalization, the cost of postsecondary education, and the health system, will continue in place.

It’s time for a reality check. It’s time for everyone living in the Atlantic provinces to address the threat posed by the possible separation of Quebec. It’s time that we Atlantic Canadians started to consider seriously the five options that face us:

• to continue as part of the present Canada;

• to become part of Canada without Quebec;

• to become part of a new Atlantic country composed of the four Atlantic provinces;

Reprinted with permission from No Holds Barred: My Life In Politics, copyright John Crosbie with Geoffrey Stevens, published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto.

• to become independent countries again, as Newfoundland was until 1949;

• or to become states of the United States of America.

If we cannot continue as part of a united Canada, the options are cataclysmic for the ordinary person in Atlantic Canada. Despite this self-evident fact, the issue is not even discussed. Our heads are buried in the sand.

Two provinces are essential to the continuation of Canada as a nation—the two original provinces of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. If either leaves, Canada ceases to exist as a nation. It is most unlikely that Canada would survive a “successful” independence referendum in Quebec because it would not be in the financial interests of those living in Ontario, British Columbia or Alberta to carry on as though nothing had happened. Even if we could cobble together a country out of the nine remaining units, the financial arrangements of this new federation would be completely different. The very generous transfers from the central government that provide the glue that holds Canada together would almost certainly not be replicated in a new, reduced nation.

Atlantic Canadians forget at their peril that Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia would each be economically viable as an independent country and would each have the option of going it alone. We have no reason to expect that they would join a new federation that would continue to dispense charity to Atlantic Canada. If transfer and other support programs did continue, they would assuredly not be as generous as they are today. The best Atlantic Canada could expect would be less. The worst would be nothing at all.

It is unlikely, I believe, that the four Atlantic provinces would ever come together to form a new nation. Such a combination would not produce an economically viable entity, or a standard of living that would be remotely comparable to what our people have today. It’s also a fact that Newfoundlanders have never shown much empathy with the Maritime provinces or wanted to have much to do with them. Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces could become independent countries or the three Maritime provinces might form one nation, with Newfoundland becoming independent again. If this occurs, life will certainly be much more difficult and arduous for our citizens.

The final option would be for Atlantic Canada as a region, or the four provinces individually, to join the United States, if that country were agreeable—which is by no means a sure thing. It is not a tempting prospect for Atlantic Canadians. Individual states don’t get the kind of financial assistance from their central government

Most people assume the nine provinces would carry on without Quebec. It's time for a reality check.

'One of the big problems in Canada is excessive regionalism'

that the poor provinces of Canada receive. There are no huge transfer programs from Washington to the states. There is no equalization. And U.S. programs for unemployment insurance, health care and social assistance do not approach Canadian programs in their breadth or their generosity.

Clearly, the continuation of the present Canada is infinitely preferable to any of the alternatives for all the people of Atlantic Canada— even if it means making significant constitutional concessions to Quebec to ensure that the federation survives. This must be the guiding principle for our elected representatives in the Atlantic region. The Constitution of Canada must serve the needs of the whole country, each of its provinces and territories, and all of its citizens. The Constitution is not the servant of any politician’s particular view of constitutional principle or practice. The object of the Constitution is to keep the whole country together and to make it possible for lawmakers to satisfy the needs of all our people.

The people of Canada outside Quebec have a perfect right to insist that our political leaders make several things clear to Quebecers before another referendum is held:

• There must be a clear question that is comprehensible to the ordinary voter.

• We are not going to permit repeated votes on this question over an indefinite period.

• If there is to be a referendum, the timing will be determined by all of us, not just by the government of Quebec.

• We have to agree on the percentage of the vote the Yes side must obtain for the vote to be decisive.

• Quebec cannot assume that the boundaries of an independent Quebec would be the same as they are today, because the present boundaries were substantially increased in the early 1900s.

• It must be clearly spelled out what arrangements the rest of Canada will contemplate with respect to currency, passports and citizenship; the use of our central bank; and other such issues.

• Above all, we must disabuse everyone of the quaint notion that Quebec can leave Canada with little disruption, with Quebecers and Canadians exchanging pleasantries and treating one another in a gentlemanly and friendly manner. This will not happen. Any breakup will inevitably produce tensions, conflict and strife—the survival of the fittest, not of the nicest. Canadians have as much at stake in Quebec’s decision as Quebecers do, and we will act accordingly.

My experience in the provincial and federal spheres has convinced me that the federal system of government, where legislative jurisdiction and authority are divided between a national government and the governments and legislatures of provinces or states, is by far the best system for very large countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States. Federalism has the beauty of flexibility. In every federal state, the pendulum of power seems to

swing from the federal government to the provinces, and back again, as conditions change or as society becomes more complicated. In Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, authority seemed to swing to the federal government, while in the 1970s and 1980s the provinces acquired more power.

One of the big problems in Canada today is excessive regionalism. Federal leaders are forever attempting to avoid decisions that can be branded in one part of the country as favoring some other part of the country. This phenomenon is peculiar to Canada. In my extensive travels in the United States, I have never heard a person in one region, say, New England, criticize any action the government in Washington might have taken to support an activity in the South or in California or in some other part of the country. Regional rivalries in the United States are muted compared with the constant shouting in Canada over Ottawa’s perceived favoritism towards one region at the expense of others. This alleged discrimination becomes fodder for synthetic editorial indignation, openline hysteria and official outrage in the grumbling region.

For a dramatic illustration of the dangers of excessive regionalism, I look to the decision of the Mulroney cabinet to award a $1.3-billion maintenance contract for the CF-18 fighter aircraft to Montreal’s Canadair, owned by Bombardier, rather than to Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg. What particularly outraged the West was the fact that the civil servants who evaluated the bids had rated the one from Bristol Aerospace as being significantly cheaper and technically superior to Canadair’s. The political cost to the federal Tories was huge as outrage over the CF-18 contract fuelled the formation of the Reform party and contributed to the defection of many hitherto Conservative supporters in the West. It made no difference when a $200-million maintenance contract for the CF-5 fighter aircraft and a $93-million disease-control laboratory were awarded to Winnipeg. These dollops of patronage were seen as being poor compensation for the loss of the much larger CF-18 contract. The Mulroney government stood indicted and convicted of favoritism to Quebec. The episode reminded me of an observation that Samuel Johnson made about the Irish. The Irish, he said, “are a fair people; they never speak well of one another.” Or as George Bernard Shaw said: “Put an Irishman on the spit and you can always get another Irishman to turn him.” They could have been describing Canadians.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract to the political profession men and women of ability and ideals who have an interest in public policy and public life. There are many reasons for this, one being the jaundiced view that the public takes of

their political leaders, holding them to blame for all of the fiscal and other difficulties that governments face today. The practice of politics has grown more difficult and unpleasant over the past 30 years as the political system has grown more complicated and demanding, and as the media, especially television, have become more intrusive.

Anyone who seeks a seat in Parliament does so at considerable risk—the greatest being the risk of actually getting elected. Those aspiring to political life must leave their profession or business during their best and most productive years to become full-time politicians, a career that is fraught with uncertainty. They may be defeated whenever an election is called, or even be challenged for renomination within their own party.

Once elected to the Commons, fledgling politicians receive reasonable remuneration, but they soon discover that their living expenses have increased because they need to maintain residences in their riding and in Ottawa. An MP’s life requires constant travel, between Ottawa and home, and to political events in other parts of the country. There will be many frustrations for him or her; much of the work in Ottawa is not meaningful, and an ordinary MP is often unable to exercise any real influence.

After six years in the Commons, MPs are eligible for a modest pension. But only if they manage to get re-elected often enough to put in 16 or 18 years of service can they expect a reasonable, but not extravagant, pension. By then, of course, they will have no career to return to in the outside world, having been too long

away from their business or profession. They will also find that the fact they were a politician will weigh against them, because, in today’s atmosphere, people are looked down upon for having been in politics.

Most of today’s politicians could make more money, enjoy better living conditions, and have better prospects for the future if they had never gone into public life. Anyone entering politics should either be very poor or very rich. Only people with the arse out of their pants or who are independently wealthy can sensibly risk becoming politicians. After a life in politics, I deeply regret that I cannot encourage my own children to leave their careers to take up the challenges of elected office. They would be risking their own future and the security of their spouses and children.

In politics, never underestimate the importance of being number 1. Towards the end of 1995,1 had a chat with Brian Tobin, then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s minister of fisheries and oceans, as he contemplated returning to Newfoundland to run for the Liberal leadership to succeed Clyde Wells as leader and premier. I encouraged him to do it, telling him he would be far better off, far more satisfied and in a far better position personally if he were number 1 in the smaller puddle of Newfoundland than he would be even if he were number 2 or 3 in the Chrétien administration in Ottawa.

It is inevitably frustrating to work as a member of a government led by someone else. No matter how much power and authority lead-

ers delegate to you or how well they treat you, they are still number 1, and when they choose to exercise their authority, they naturally have their way. If my leader became trapped by some political circumstance and blurted out a policy pronouncement in my area of responsibility—even if he didn’t know much about the subject—I had to live with it. Even if he was completely wrong, I couldn’t correct what he had done. But if a person is the leader, he can make the final decision. Given a choice between being number 1 in Newfoundland or number 2 in Ottawa, all other circumstances being equal, number 1 in Newfoundland is the better ticket.

I am proud of Canada as a nation and of the fact that I am a Canadian. I love Canada, but Newfoundland is my homeland. I’m a Newfoundlander first, and I believe that most persons born in Newfoundland feel the same way. This may be because I was a Newfoundlander for 18 years before I became a Canadian. It’s also because of the unique history of our small island.

The odds were always heavily against Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders, but Newfoundland battled on, no matter the odds. Newfoundland had to contend with the indifference of Great Britain; the bullying of friends and neighbors such as Canada, France and the United States; and the privations that resulted from a small population scattered in 1,100 or 1,200 communities around the shores of a large island and a huge mainland area in Labrador with just the sea and the fishery to sustain us.

When others know our history and see what was accomplished by a people who had to wrestle a living from fishing and sealing, they have to admire Newfoundlanders for being a breed of tough, resilient and enduring people. As a Newfoundlander, I always felt unique. It’s still true today, in my view, that most Newfoundlanders feel themselves to be unique, and as a result, have a profound attachment to the land where they were born. Although many tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders have left to seek a better living in just about every community across Canada, as well as in the United States and in other parts of the world, they never forget Newfoundland. Someone once asked how you can tell which ones are Newfoundlanders when you visit heaven. The answer is, you can always tell the Newfoundlanders because they’re the ones who want to go home. □