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Anthony Wright

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 on policy.

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 Diefenbaker.

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 his opponent.

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 indecisive."

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 Home".

Tony Wright, Ottawa, Ontario

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 11 no 3

Last Updated: 2020-03-03