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The Serious Buffoon
by John Pepall

John Crosbie is the Mulroney cabinet minister held in the highest regard by the general public and by journalists. He is the only one, except for Kim Campbell and Erik Nielsen (who resigned as early as 1986), to have published memoirs.
This book presents 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 thirty-six, Joey Smallwood simply appointed him to his cabinet; his election to the Newfoundland House of Assembly was practically an appointment by the premier as well. Not for him the years of going to mind-numbing meetings, working in campaigns, and trying to make connections-years that leave most politicians too intellectually stunted to make any contribution to government. To him, politics was governing; as a young lawyer in St. John's who was one of the Crosbies, he could enter government in Newfoundland at the top.
He plays down the wealth of the Crosbies. Though they certainly had their financial reverses, they were Newfoundland's most prominent business family. They had been active in politics since the days of his grandfather, who had been minister of finance for Newfoundland from 1924 to 1928.
John 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 then gave it up after Christmas because "they weren't really teaching me anything new or different." If at LSE he had returned to his undergraduate interest in politics and economics, he might have learned to think more deeply and critically about those subjects, to the benefit of his politics, and of this book.
His father had warned him against getting involved with Joey Smallwood. His 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's 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's Tories, serving four years in his government before his election to the House of Commons in a 1976 by-election.
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. But in his first taste of power in Ottawa, as Joe Clark's minister of finance, politics frustrated him yet again. The budget that he presented in December 1979, 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 party politics since 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 in one inept political judgement: they both thought that the Conservatives 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 years in Mulroney's government is superficial. He gives little sense of how he worked or of 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 in initiating negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement; 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 Organization history will tell, but it was a worthwhile Canadian initiative.
As minister of justice, Crosbie presided over the kind of reforms that seem to be brought in whatever the party in power may be, because of some sort of consensus that they are progressive. He takes pride in these measures, and presents 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. All existing legislation was reviewed to see if it conflicted with the Charter-that is, with what it was imagined the Supreme Court of Canada would make of Section 15, the equality section. This was basically a technical job, though 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 the legislation itself appeared bad, quite apart from any speculation about what the courts might do. Crosbie was gung-ho for expanding the powers of the Canadian Human Rights Commission to cover cases of alleged discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; he also favoured women taking on combat roles in the armed forces. On the other hand, he introduced precise anti-pornography legislation that the courts would have turned into mincemeat, if it had not died on the order paper after a predictable outcry.
He 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 the province beyond its dependence on money from Ottawa: equalization payments for the Newfoundland government, Employment Insurance for its people, and big projects of the kind 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 to 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.
Crosbie's manuscript was cut to a fraction of its original length with the help of the distinguished political journalist Geoffrey Stevens. It is still too long, though it makes easy and agreeable reading. Even so, Crosbie does not get into enough detail to come to grips with many of the issues he faced. Incidents and arguments are repeated; trivia, like a trade mission to Boston, are recounted. There are few revelations. The best chapters are the early ones on his family background and his struggles with Smallwood. Crosbie's reflections make up a large part of this book; though they are thoughtful, they are too casual to be persuasive.
Many of his digressions concern the difficulty of intelligently addressing public issues in the face of political correctness-in the face, also, of a public that is suspicious of politicians and is encouraged to be so 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 dealt with. It does no good to dismiss them with humorous abuse, calling journalism a "grubby little craft". Crosbie has no answer to these problems. The only answer is to show leadership-as Crosbie did, so far as 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 in the end proclaimed "a great Newfoundland patriot". He is far too generous to Joe Clark, and he 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. 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. He 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 had 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, it does not convey a serious contempt earned from a lifetime's experience, coming as it does from someone who was a Liberal until he was forty-one and sought the leadership of a provincial Liberal party. 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. Though he should regard these two as particularly vicious and responsible for great damage to the country, his exchanges with them seem in his eyes to have been not 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 he 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 his intelligence, talent, and disinterestedness makes his way into politics but not to the top, there can be disappointingly little to show for it.

 John Pepall is a Toronto lawyer who has written for the Ottawa Citizen, The Literary Review of Canada, Gravitas, and The Idler (not to mention Books in Canada).


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