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Barbara McDougall (Lara Teoli)

Barbara McDougall

(Lara Teoli)


Dear Prime Minister: About that shuffle ... Add to ...

My dear Prime Minister:

This is the week, rumour has it, of the cabinet shuffle. You haven’t yet called to ask for my recommendations, but I’m sure that’s just an oversight.

By the way, I’m fine – thank you for asking – but, for you, 2013 has turned out to be a tough year, and the summer doesn’t look much better. I’m guessing that you are not at the cottage lying in a hammock, which may be where you wanted to be but you can’t, even though you feel let down by everyone within your line of sight. There are real issues to deal with, like floods in your home province, devastation and heartbreak in the Eastern Townships and unprecedented weather damage in Toronto. Dealing with these will put the silly games in Ottawa into some perspective. (It might also suggest your government should take a fresh view of climate change – the first piece of advice I’ve ever given you, but no need to thank me.)

As to the shuffle I won’t speculate, but I happen to know of a few people still in town who wouldn’t normally be there. I’ll keep that information to myself. (Leak-proof, I am.)

During my first ministry, I remember being in a car heading to the Ottawa airport to attend an international conference in Europe when a call came through from the Prime Minister’s Office saying “you’re not leaving town and don’t tell anyone.” My driver said, “I knew you weren’t going.” “Really,” I said. “I know a place you can hide out and I’ll pick you up there Monday to go to Rideau Hall,” he said. “What for?” I said.) On the Monday I was sworn into a new portfolio.

If you want to know what’s going on in Ottawa, talk to the car pool. But then, Prime Minister, you don’t have to ask because you are the one who actually does know what’s going on. Well, except sometimes. There was that thing about the cheque….You should have called the car pool.

But that’s all water under the bridge; time to turn the page, introduce the new team, bring on a fresh, forward-looking agenda. All good.

One caveat: Let’s make sure Jim Flaherty continues to steer the economic ship. There is no doubt someone else up there who can spell “finance” but dancing with the lady what brung you is not a bad idea on the undulating dance floor you find yourself upon. Reducing the deficit, satisfying the demands for “more” whether it’s aboriginal rights, infrastructure spending, or provincial needs on health care and education, plus the rest of the list, is a tough and disciplined business, a place where right-now experience counts.

Don’t forget, your record on the economy still remains your ace. No one in Opposition can deal with the economy the way you and your Irish finance hound can. Did I tell you I was going to give you lots of advice? (You’re welcome.)

Third, it is being put about that the Conservative “base” is cross. The word is you haven’t brought back restrictions on abortion or capital punishment or recall of MP’s or some of those other hoary old things that you and Preston Manning had put forward, and in your wildest dreams knew would never happen. Well, here’s the thing: I’m a Conservative – albeit of the progressive persuasion – and the last time I looked you needed us, too. And as far as I’m concerned, you should look over your shoulder to keep an eye out that you can still see us. We’re still behind you, but sometimes you don’t make it easy.

For example you’re over the cliff on prisons and punishment. I spent 10 years as a volunteer in women’s prisons, and not one of the women I saw in that time would be helped by the changes you’ve made – nor would their so-called victims. So enough already. The “base” may want more of the same, but it’s more than time to stop.

Next, I would recommend you do something bold that would be wildly popular with your “base” and beyond. And, of course, I have a suggestion. (Are you still listening?) So here’s a wild thought – why NOT go the distance on Senate reform? God knows it’s not only the “base” that would like to see something done; you’ll never have more public consensus than you have now. Can’t open the Constitution? Who says? I have a suspicion that your back pocket holds a plan of exactly what you would like to do regarding the Senate. Pull it out. Keep it narrow and specific. Call the Premiers. Tell them it’s now or never. Force their hands. It’s a long shot, but you have nothing to lose if it doesn’t work, and everything to gain if it does. If you don’t seize the moment, you risk losing your whole agenda because of a scuffle over senate expenses by a person who shouldn’t even be on your radar. It’s not a pretty scandal, but as international corruption goes, it’s penny-ante stuff.

Finally, and substantively most important, push hard on the international economic agenda. That means getting aggressive to close those trade deals; to press the Keystone pipeline to a successful conclusion. These major initiatives should be your legacy and the stakes are very high, for Canada’s economic future and for the future of your government. Hopefully your new chief of staff understands the real international world and can attract talent from outside the political box on these and other matters so critical to the country. Hopefully too he can bring back some respect for your office. And hopefully he’ll remind you occasionally that there are loyal Conservatives out there, outside the Ottawa bubble. And if he doesn’t remind you, I will.

No need to thank me. See you at the Throne Speech.

Barbara McDougall held several cabinet positions in the Mulroney government between 1984 and 1993.

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