A tale of two Davids (and the future of Canada)

Last spring’s federal election saw the ascent of former Canfor CEO to the national cabinet, and the descent of long-time Minister of Environment David Anderson to the backbench. Both were signals of the direction Paul Martin plans to take his government. No one expects the federal Liberal party to adopt the same agenda as its BC counterpart, but we may yet be surprised at how far the government will go in promoting the interests of corporations over those of individuals. The two Davids will be useful to watch, as indicators of the government’s shift.

With the arrival of September, Industry Minister David Emerson has started to appear in the business pages of newspapers. His messages are predictable, but surprisingly bold. His first announcement was, somewhat out of the blue, an endorsement of the mergers that Canada’s banks have been pursuing over the last few years.

Since then Emerson has appeared in the news periodically, each time endorsing corporate freewill in some new industry. He has been relatively quiet about the logging industry, so far, but we can expect him to try to influence the softwood lumber dispute in favour of corporate interests, rather than the public good.

Over the past four years, Mr Emerson, who was a Deputy Minister in the BC government before taking the reins at Canfor, seems to have been the most politically influential individual outside cabinet. Indeed, his influence was much greater than that of most cabinet ministers: the current government is run by a small group of insiders (some elected, some not), and most MLAs and Ministers have been kept securely in line.

The big question, as we watch Mr Emerson’s performance in Ottawa, is going to be: will he be able to shape national public policy in the same way he has influenced BC’s policies? As readers of Murray Dobbin’s Paul Martin: CEO for Canada? will know, Mr Martin is already sympathetic to the corporate mindset and corporate interests that Mr Emerson advocates. The flip side of the big question is whether the Prime Minister’s liberalism is deep enough to keep Mr Emerson and the other pro-business members of cabinet from gutting public policy.

David Anderson, on the other hand, is a lame duck in Ottawa, and he knows it. It seems certain that he will be ousted from his riding before the next election, the way Sheila Copps and others who displeased Mr Martin lost their place in the party.

Mr Anderson’s demotion from cabinet was probably more due to a clash of personalities with Mr Martin, a refusal by Anderson to toe the line, than to a deep ideological divide. Still, Martin’s willingness to be so obviously vindictive, in his treatment of Anderson and the others he coldly deposed, is alarming. It signals a likely increase in the constrain.

So it is refreshing to see Anderson speaking out so candidly about the goings on in caucus and cabinet. In a recent news story, Mr Anderson lashed out at “departments of government … notorious for being the spokespersons for industrial sectors”.

Mr Anderson was not speaking specifically of Mr Emerson. Chillingly, he was referring to entire bureaucratic departments. He was describing a bureaucracy that resists the implementation of new policies and agreements like the Kyoto Accord. But he no doubt had people like Mr Emerson in mind, along with the more obvious targets of his rant such as Natural Resources Minister John Efford, when he complained that Canada’s “climate change program is being thwarted by cabinet ministers who act like lobbyists for industry”.

Bitter words, of course, and stronger than anything we would have heard from him were he still in cabinet. Even as a cabinet minister, of course, Mr Anderson was becoming outspoken. That’s part of what led Mr Martin to depose him. In the year or two before the federal election, Mr Anderson was starting to speak with increasing candour. His goals may have been self-serving: he knew, probably, that his career was winding down, and felt he had little left to lose, perhaps that it was time to build himself a legacy. Nevertheless, then and now, on subjects such as the Kyoto Accord and offshore oil and gas, Mr Anderson speaks from personal conviction.

It is rare to hear politicians speak from their heart on any topic of public controversy. And, now that Mr Anderson’s federal career has been cut down, we can expect to get more of what we heard last week. His insider’s view of the machinations in Ottawa could be quite revealing.

So we’ll be watching the two Davids as they face off against each other, one reduced to the size of well, the Biblical David, and the other aspiring to the role of a Goliath, the champion of untrammelled industry. And through them, we should get a sense of where Mr Martin wants to take the country.

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