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Paul G. Thomas

Wednesdays Are Cabinet Days by Russell Doern, Queenston House, Winnipeg, 1981, 206 p.

Books written by practicing politicians provide difficult subjects for review. Several sorts of questions arise. Should we judge such books by the standards normally applied to more academic writing, or should we look perhaps for first-rate journalism? Can such books tell us things about the political process which we are unlikely to learn from other sources? Are most performers in politics poor observers of the process? Do they focus on the superficial and more sensational events, while ignoring the wider context and more routine dimensions of political life? The process of government does not take place in one location and at one point in time and a given individual cannot arrange to be present for all significant events. Should insider accounts be questioned for this reason? Is the political process overlaid with myths to which the participants themselves subscribe and are such myths reflected in their writings? Is there a tendency to over-personalize events and to exaggerate one's own contribution to the outcomes? One recalls the response of a backbench MP to his wife's question: What do you do all day in that place? "I legislate, that's what I do," he replied. The story reveals the gap which often arises between what people say they do and what is actually the case.

My own view is that books by politicians, it well done, can provide valuable insights into the political process. Certainly there is no reason to assume that social scientists who usually base their analyses upon interviews with a sample of legislators over a short period of time are necessarily better able to portray the legislative process accurately and comprehensively than individuals who have participated directly over a number of years. Still, there are problems of the sort alluded to above with relying upon the accounts of participants to obtain our understanding of the legislative process. Unfortunately, many of these problems are illustrated by the book under review here.

Mr. Russell Doern is currently serving his fifth term as a New Democratic Party Member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. For seven years (1971-1977) he was the Minister of Public Works in the government of then Premier, now Governor General, Edward Schreyer. Mr. Doern is a university graduate, with training in history and political science, a former teacher, and a freelance writer. From a person of his background and experience one might expect a book with some serious and worthwhile insights into the governing process in the province of Manitoba. On this level, the book is disappointing. In fairness to Mr. Doern, he states at the outset that this is "a personal account" of the Schreyer administration and is neither history nor political science.

Most of the book consists of portraits of the more colourful personalities who performed on the political stage during the Schreyer years. These descriptions are entertaining and often amusing. However, they deal almost entirely with surface features and do not add dimensions to public personalities beyond available media accounts. We are told about the cabinet's passion for Chinese food, about their individual taste in office furnishings, and their personal lifestyles. Apparently one of Mr. Doern's criteria for ranking cabinet members is the quality of their wardrobes and he regards himself as a trend-setter in this field. He quotes from a Chatelaine interview with Mrs. Lily Schreyer, who played a major role in selecting the Premier's wardrobe, that she watched to see what Doern was wearing for each new fashion season.

The portrait of the "Boy from Beausejour" who became Premier is a familiar one. Edward Schreyer is seen as a pragmatic, cautious, frugal, hardworking, unpretentious, accessible, and relatively humourless individual who was often ponderous and academic in his public speeches. Doern does not resolve what is for many Manitobans the enigma of Edward

Schreyer: how a man who could hardly be described as charismatic acquired such a strong popular following as to arouse charges of a cult of personality being created. Apart from the Premier's rural upbringing, his university education which impressed urban middleclass voters, his ethnic background and multilingual capacity, and his grasp of the underlying moderate conservatism of the Manitoba electorate, what was the mysterious "Schreyer factor" to which Doern refers? Unfortunately, he does not tell us why Schreyer was consistently ahead of his party in the polls, even in 1977 when the NDP government was out of steam and lost power.

The description of Schreyer as leader of the government appears somewhat contradictory. Doern begins by saying there Is nothing democratic about cabinet government" and that the Premier is like a medieval monarch or feudal king". Yet the implication of one-man rule is not supported by many of the examples presented in the book. For example, Doern criticizes Schreyer for not consulting caucus, except for a few senior members, on cabinet selections. However, such appointments are clearly the prerogative of the Premier and 1 know of no jurisdiction where a canvass of caucus opinion precedes such appointments. Doern correctly observes that Schreyer refused to dismiss ministers and senior officials who had stagnated in their jobs or become liabilities for other reasons. This tendency apparently reflected Schreyer's dislike of personal conflicts, but it hardly suggests decisive and domineering leadership.

Mr. Doern does communicate fairly successfully a feel for the interaction of personalities within a cabinet, caucus and a party. Descriptions of cabinet meetings suggest a freewheeling atmosphere, with the Premier providing direction and searching for a consensus. Rather simplistically, the cabinet members are divided into three groups: Schreyer loyalists, mavericks and loyalists in maverick disguises. Doern criticizes Schreyer for showing insufficient gratitude toward his steadfast supporters (Doern includes himself in this group), while mistakenly rewarding the mavericks. Doern's advice to the wise leader is to take the maverick for granted while recognizing faithful followers on the principle that the main machinery will get the grease, while the squeaky wheels wears itself out". Such simple aphorisms, and there are many in this book, ignore the complications and ambiguities of political leadership and public life.

Mr. Doern admits to boredom and frustration in the role of backbencher and describes his campaign to be included in the cabinet. Eventually he is rewarded with the Department of Public Works, one of the less glamorous portfolios. Despite having responsibility for few legislative initiatives, Doern managed to receive a great deal of media attention, most of it obtained because he was so politically accident prone. He relates his side of the more newsworthy episodes: the building of a comfort station on city land without permission (the battle of the biffy), the construction of a provincial government building which exceeded the legal height limit (the law was changed) and the calling of a press conference for the removal of the sign from the Liberal caucus door when they got too small to rate an office. There is very limited discussion of the legislative record of the Schreyer government and yet ten pages are devoted to the fiasco surrounding the proposed visit to Manitoba by former Beatle, John Lennon, and his wife Yoko Ono, an event in which Mr. Doern also figured prominently.

Despite his checkered record as a minister, Mr. Doern has not written a modest book. At times it is vain and self-serving. His cabinet colleagues regarded his arrival in their ranks "as a Godsend", his attacks on opponents are described as stinging, and "devastating", he is in "top-fighting" form in opposition, and his booth at the party leadership convention, held in November 1979 to replace Edward Schreyer, was the most professional". Despite his talents, Mr. Doern ran a poor third and the delegates chose Howard Pawley, who led the party to victory in the 1981 election. Doern's book was released after the NDP victory but before Premier Pawley named his cabinet. He includes himself in a list of "professional" cabinet ministers from which Pawley can select his new team, but when the announcement came, Mr. Doern was in fact not included. The book ends melodramatically with the suggestion that the Doern family motto should be "Perduramus – We endure".

The reader does not have to endure this book for, unlike some more academic tomes, it is a light and easy read. It provides an entertaining snapshot of Manitoba political figures, but it also represents a missed opportunity in terms of a more serious examination of the internal workings of a provincial government and such studies are badly needed.

Paul Thomas, St. John's College, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 5 no 3
1982






Last Updated: 2020-03-03