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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)


Did Carney forget about Caesar’s wife? Add to ...

Ottawa is a small town with big ears. Throughout 2012, those ears were flapping with rumours that Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney was being wooed to become a candidate for the Liberal Party leadership.

That Mr. Carney would have been stupid enough to leave the bank to try to lead a third party with an uncertain future seemed so completely counterintuitive that the rumours were left as just that, rumours. That he had been talked to was known; that he would jump into politics was a non-starter.

Why, after all, would a man with such influence throw it away for the uncertain delights of leading the federal Liberals? The “Carney for leader” rumours spoke to the weakness of the party, not its strength. Not that Mr. Carney was weak, but if the party had had a bench full of plausible leaders, very few Liberals would have thought of him.

Those who dreamed of a Carney candidacy had never seen their boy in the muck and mire of politics, let alone along the endless circuit of rubber chicken dinners making small talk with people he would never see again and probably had not wished to see in the first place.

Policy wonks thought Mr. Carney terrific, but most ordinary people don’t trust bankers. They don’t understand how bankers talk or think, except to lord it over mere mortals. “Monetary aggregates” and “deleveraging” are very important concepts for economists, but they don’t translate into ordinary talk.

The rumours were strange because those who fomented them had apparently not thought through Mr. Carney’s likely political weaknesses but had concentrated extravagantly on his putative strengths. They reminded those who’d been around for a while of the starry-eyed wonder with which those who convinced Michael Ignatieff to give up Harvard to become the Liberals’ messiah – a wonder based on the premise that someone of high intellectual calibre with no previous experience in politics can immediately thrive in the game.

That others should have gone to Mr. Carney was not surprising, given his obvious intellectual talents and the Liberals’ obvious leadership needs; that he did not send them packing was even more surprising.

Either he was genuinely interested in exploring a political career at this moment in his life – in which case, he was seriously mistaken – or he chose to humour those who came to him – in which case, he was playing with fire.

Like Caesar’s wife, the governor of a central bank has to be above partisanship of any kind, because the whole purpose of a central bank is to keep monetary policy removed from political hands or influence. If it became known, not as rumour but as fact, that Mr. Carney had at the very least entertained discussions about a partisan future, then his capacity to work with the government of the day risked being compromised.

As they have now been, at least potentially, since he has confirmed the contacts with Liberals. These had to have been more than dalliances, or he would have, and could have, and should have, stopped them cold. The rumours, after all, had been around for a long time in the small town with big ears, and he could have squashed them easily and definitively.

Mr. Carney recently told The Globe and Mail: “I never made an outgoing phone call. I never encouraged anybody to do anything.” This might be literally true. It seems also correct that he did not discourage people whom he had to know were pawing the ground for him, because there were too many rumours, circulating too widely, caused by too many people talking.

As things now stand, Mr. Carney will depart for Britain to head the central bank, and the British are lucky to have him. A central banker he’ll remain. If he wishes to return to Canada some day and enter politics, he’ll have learned how not to do it and, having learned that lesson, he might be a more formidable politician.

But, then, if a week is a long time in politics, and Mr. Carney is to be British-bound this summer for five years, how long are 51/2 years in politics?

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