A Public Purpose, Tom Kent,
McGill-Queen's University Press, Kingston & Montreal, 1988, p.433.
After a distinguished career at the
Guardian and the Economist in Britain and editor of the Winnipeg Free-Press,
Tom Kent in early 1958 joined the office of the new leader of the Liberal
Party, Mike Pearson. This book is a refreshing and blunt account of Kent's
experiences at the centre of a vanquished party striving to regain power.
Neither history nor biography, A
Public Purpose shrewdly assesses the politics and personalities of the years
between 1954 and 1971. Kent surveys the main achievements of the Pearson era --
the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, Co-operative Federalism etc. His frank
comment make good reading for those who study or practice politics.
For example: Leadership)
"Abbott was the strong man among the younger ministers ... an excellent
Minister of Finance ... politically sensitive and sensible. If he had stayed he
would have been my choice to succeed to the leadership, ahead of Pearson. While
his sympathies were not quite as broad as Pearson's, he had an even clearer
mind, a better understanding of most issues and above all a greater capacity to
make firm decisions and a stronger grasp of how to execute them. Letting Abbott
and Claxton go was the first evidence, and in my view one of the most serious
consequences, of the recurrent bouts of passivity that marked Mr. St. Laurent's
behaviour from 1954 on."
((Policy Planning) "Modern
government is far too complex for a Prime Minister and ministers to do much
serious policy-planning after they are in office. They are always too busy with
the immediate. If they do not come to office with clear, comprehensive,
realistic objectives, they will not formulate them afterwards. In many areas of
policy, they will be the slaves of events, of lobbying groups, of officials who
know so much more than they do, of opinion polls, of short-term calculations.
(Preparing for Office) " Mike
Pearson was certainly neither the first nor the last political leader to
approach government with a style that has too little regard for its management
aspects. Indeed, while the reasons have varied in detail, the upshot has been
the same for all our federal governments since 1953: faced with the
complexities of public affairs in the modern state, none has succeeded in
organising its central processes in a way that fosters the sense of
reasonableness and foresight, of coherence and efficiency, which is at the
heart of good management in all collective activities...."
(Influence of Bureaucrats)
"The role that public servants play in policy-making is widely
misunderstood. The idea that they should merely implement policy decisions, for
which all the ideas have come from elected men, is nonsense. Government has
never been so simple that it could be run that way, and certainly it is not
today. We pay senior public servants to be the professionals in government and
they would not be doing their job if they did not have significant influences
What they should not have, and as far
as I have seen usually do not have, is decisive influence, as long as the
politicians are doing their job. But for that the politicians in office ...
have to be agreed on clear objectives."
(Press in Politics) "Most
politicians exaggerate, I think, the influence of the press on public opinion.
They are themselves the most avid readers of newspapers and nowadays watchers
of TV news and public affairs programs. The consequence is a mutually-regarding
relationship between the media and public personalities. The media feel
important because they constantly see how much their subjects care, while the
vanity of the subjects makes them take the media much more seriously than do
other readers, listeners and viewers.... In the large world one sees, time and
again, that much of the public has a healthy distrust of media comment and
makes its own common-sense judgement of people and measures."
En passant, Tom Kent torpedoes a
couple of quaint notions. He terms the idea that a minority government is
necessarily weak "a myth created by politicians out of
self-interest". In his view a minority government may be less comfortable
to be in, but "is not necessarily less able to govern".
In this age of SIN and computers
Kent sees no reason why Canada should not abandon its "clumsy process of
voter registration for each election, now the only excuse for the length of the
campaign". "Voter lists could easily be kept in a form in which they
can be readily updated" allowing Canada to have campaigns lasting about
three weeks, "common in more densely populated countries". The only
beneficiaries of our long campaigns are the political parties, each seeking to
"put up a better smokescreen than the others."
The book is valuable in its
analysis of the Pearson character and of the rivalry between Messrs Pearson and
In history Pearson will be seen as
a fairly successful Prime Minister and Diefenbaker as a highly ineffective one.
But it was Diefenbaker who was given widespread credit for good intentions. The
side of his personality that in 1964 was still best known was expressed in his
avuncular stance with his fellow Canadians: in the speaking style of sentences
without logical beginning or end, words without clear meaning, but words
replete with a good man's emotions. The cloud of obscurities often made it hard
to appreciate the sharpness of Diefenbaker's mind in debate. He was a matador
in a contest where Pearson often seemed to be his victim, hurt, slow and
blundering. Diefenbaker was entirely unscrupulous; he could set aside facts or
invent whatever alleged facts suited his purpose at the moment. And he was
cruel, a master of innuendo with an unerring instinct for what would most hurt
Debate with Diefenbaker was,
therefore, a game that Pearson was utterly incapable of playing. For
Diefenbaker, a politician was a platform orator and a parliamentary debater. He
therefore despised Pearson who was little good in either role. Nevertheless
Pearson had taken the prime ministership from him. That this was so inappropriate,
in Diefenbaker's terms, meant that the despising was mingled with hating.
Pearson on his part, hurt as he was by Diefenbaker's attacks, came to hate too.
And he despised, because of Diefenbaker's intellectual dishonesty and his
evasiveness and indecision when he was the leader of a government. But above
all, Pearson was afraid of Diefenbaker in the House of Commons. That mixture of
feelings seemed to numb the normally agile Pearson brain. In anything but a set
speech, his parliamentary performance was increasingly evasive and
The author's way with words ensures
that the serious content of this memoir does not weary the reader; humour
shines through from time to time. For example when Kent ran as a candidate in
Burnaby-Coquitlam against Tommy Douglas in 1963 he was aware that his
"Englishness" might well be a disadvantage . Hence delight when a
large gang of NDP hecklers "prepared for the occasion with plenty of
beer" drowned out his efforts to speak by chanting "Yankee Go
Tony Wright, Ottawa, Ontario