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Sunday, March 1, 1998

THE SERIOUS BUFFOON - John Crosbie's No Holds Barred

Books in Canada

My Life in Politics
by John C. Crosbie
with Geoffrey Stevens
McClelland and Stewart,
ISBN 0-7710-2427-4

John Crosbie is the Mulroney cabinet minister held in the highest regard by both the general public and journalists. He is the only one, with the exceptions of the egregious Kim Campbell, and Erik Nielsen, who resigned in 1986, to have published memoirs. His book makes agreeable reading, but it contains few revelations and will be a minor contribution to Canadian political history. Its main interest is the story of an unusual political career.

Crosbie's entry into politics was effortless. He was easily elected Deputy Mayor of St. John's in the fall of 1965 but only seven months later, when he was 36, Joey Smallwood simply appointed him to his cabinet and practically appointed him to the Newfoundland House of Assembly. Not for him the years of going to mind numbing meetings and working in campaigns and trying to make connections from which most politicians emerge and which leave them too intellectually stunted to make any contribution to government. Politics was government to Crosbie and as a young lawyer in St. John's and a Crosbie he could enter government in Newfoundland at the top. He plays down the wealth of the Crosbies, who certainly had their financial reverses, but they were Newfoundland's most prominent business family and had been active in politics since the days of his grandfather, who had been Newfoundland's Minister of Finance from 1924 to 1928.

Crosbie was an outstanding student at Queen's University and Dalhousie University Law School and won a Viscount Bennett Fellowship to study at the London School of Economics. Unfortunately he was to study law at LSE and gave it up after Christmas because "They weren't really teaching me anything new or different...". If he had returned to his undergraduate interest in politics and economics at LSE he might have learned to think more deeply and critically about those subjects to the benefit of his politics and his book.

Crosbie's father had warned him against getting involved with Joey Smallwood. Crosbie's two years under the madcap, corrupt, petty tyrant he depicts were frustrating but they launched him on his political career and enabled to him to make important contributions to the reform of Newfoundland government. Resigning with Clyde Wells over Smallwood's eagerness to pour government money into John Shaheen's doomed Come by Chance oil refinery, he sought the Liberal leadership but was frustrated again by Smallwood's trickery and corrupt domination of the party. He sat as an Independent Liberal  until June of 1971 when he joined Frank Moores' Tories, serving four years in his government before his election to the House of Commons in a by-election in 1976.

In helping to clear up the mess left by Smallwood and bring in long overdue reforms Crosbie was able to do the good work in government that he entered politics to do. In his first taste of power in Ottawa, as Joe Clark's Minister of Finance, Crosbie was frustrated by politics. The budget that he presented in December 1979, and which led to the government's defeat, was a worthy effort to address Canada's growing financial problems so far as Clark's stupid raft of election promises permitted. In contrast to Crosbie, Clark, who had beavered away at politics from his early teens, had no idea what government was about. Policy was for Clark just another kind of political equipment like buttons and posters and a campaign bus. Crosbie is scathing about Clark's promises but admits to sharing his inept political judgment that they should govern as if they had a majority and that the Liberals would not risk an election. Thus he must share a small part of the blame for Trudeau's disastrous last government.

Crosbie's account of his nine year in Mulroney's government is superficial. He gives little sense of how he worked and what difference he was able to make. He recounts his difficulties with Mulroney's underlings. He had none with Mulroney himself. He complains that twenty-five to thirty hours of cabinet or committee meetings every week left little time "to think or act intelligently on issues...".  His account of his activity in his four successive portfolios seems to confirm this.

His most important work was as Minister of International Trade in piloting free trade legislation through Parliament and speaking up for it and initiating negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement, but his account of this is simply a series of anecdotes. Whether he can take as much credit as he claims for the establishment of the World Trade Organisation history will tell, but it was a worthwhile Canadian initiative.

As Minister of Justice Crosbie presided over the kind of supposed progressive reforms that seem to happen regardless of politics and he takes pride in them and the number of bills that he got passed as proof that on "social and human issues" he is an "intelligent liberal". But his account of his work shows no great thought or awareness of the contradictions in his positions. The review of all existing legislation lest it might conflict with what it was imagined the Supreme Court of Canada would make of Section 15, the equality section, of the Charter was basically a technical job. It amounted to making parliament subject to academic theories of equality that are always abstract and dogmatic but not always coherent. It would have been better simply to wait for legislation to be challenged and defend it before the courts, unless, without speculating as to what the courts might do, it was simply thought to be bad legislation. Crosbie was gung ho for expanding the powers of the Canadian Human Rights Commission to cover alleged cases of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and for women in combat roles in the armed forces and most other correct causes. On the other hand he introduced precise anti-pornography legislation that would have been made mincemeat of by the courts if it had not died on the order paper after the usual outcry from arts groups, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and others.

Crosbie finally says that he is a Newfoundlander first and he unashamedly fought for Newfoundland's interests in Ottawa. But he does not seem to see any future for Newfoundland beyond
its dependency on money from Ottawa: equalisation payments for the Newfoundland government and Employment Insurance scamming for its people, and the kind of big projects that obsessed Smallwood. He calls the development of the Hibernia oil field off Newfoundland his proudest accomplishment in politics. He devotes a chapter to it and his two successful efforts to save it. He is contemptuous of his critics but he does not explain what exactly Ottawa's role was or why it should have had any role in financing the project.

Though Crosbie's manuscript was cut to a fraction of its original length with the help of the distinguished political journalist Geoffrey Stevens and the book is easy reading, it is still too long without managing to get into enough detail to come to grips with many of the issues Crosbie faced. Incidents and arguments are repeated and trivia, like a trade mission to Boston are recounted. The early chapters of the book setting out his family background and his struggles with Smallwood are the best. The book is as much reflections as memoirs but these, while thoughtful, are too casual to be persuasive.

Many of his digressions concern the difficulty of intelligently addressing public issues in the face of political correctness and public suspicion of politicians encouraged by the media. From time to time he launches a tirade against media bias and the wilful gullibility of the public. His observations are not altogether unfair, but these are problems that must be faced up to. It does no good to dismiss them with humourous abuse, calling journalism a "grubby little craft". Crosbie has no answer to these problems. The only answer is to show leadership, as Crosbie did to the extent his positions permitted. He earned respect for it. Many politicians have contributed to public suspicion by their unprincipled conduct. Crosbie could say something about this, but he is too genial to draw sharp and insightful portraits. Even Smallwood is finally proclaimed " a great Newfoundland patriot". He is far too generous to Joe Clark and claims to like and admire Trudeau, whom he voted for in the 1968 Liberal leadership convention.

Crosbie is most fondly remembered for his humorous sallies in the Commons and on the hustings. He retails many of these, but however successful they were when launched and however well they filled the need for media sound bites and served Crosbie and his party they mostly seem pretty lame in cold print. Crosbie complains that he was a victim of political correctness when his jokes were denounced as sexist and that the media stereotyped him as a buffoon. But he consciously developed his public speaking style to overcome a native shyness. It worked very well for him and he obviously enjoyed it. The uproar from feminists never did him much harm and if he was not always taken completely seriously, he had no one but himself to blame.

Twice in the book Crosbie calls the Liberals "brothel keepers". Colourful as the phrase is, coming from someone who was a Liberal until he was 41 and sought the leadership of a provincial Liberal party, it does not convey a serious contempt earned from a lifetime's experience. Crosbie calls Trudeau a "worthy adversary'' and Sheila Copps a "worthy antagonist". Whether they conceived as high a regard for him, future memoirs will show, but for Crosbie his exchanges with two people he should regard as particularly vicious and responsible for great damage to the country seem not to have been much more than a jolly game.

Crosbie would have won the 1983 Tory leadership convention if he had been able to speak French and most likely would have become Prime Minister. At the end of the book he reflects on "the importance of being number one". A Crosbie government would undoubtedly have made a difference. Good political leadership is so scarce in Canada that the frustration of Crosbie's ambition must count as a serious loss. As this book shows, when someone of Crosbie's intelligence, talent and disinterestedness makes his way into politics but not to the top, there can be disappointingly little to show for it.