“This is a struggle for power it’s not tiddlywinks,” Dr. John C. Crosbie told a rapt audience of political science students and interested guests when he spoke to Dr. Alex Marland’s Canadian Politics II course on March 22. Memorial University’s Chancellor, Dr. Crosbie was in class to share his opinions about Canada’s prime ministers, many of whom he knew and worked alongside during his long political career.
In the course of his remarks, the Chancellor also offered insight into the mechanisms that make and break governments and careers in what he characterized as “a brutal struggle” for power.
Dr. Crosbie provided brief remarks on the strengths and weaknesses of each prime minister since Mackenzie King. Louis St. Laurent, for example, was commended for developing social policies while keeping the Liberals to the centre of the road something Dr. Crosbie noted was crucial for success in Canada. He said that John Diefenbaker was “a man of great political talents, a great campaigner ... but paranoid.”
Dr. Crosbie bestowed his highest praise on Brian Mulroney, calling him “the best prime minister we have had since Mackenzie King.”
One significant reason he gave was that Mulroney consulted his caucus, and listened to their opinions a rare quality in an era where the Prime Minister has become “el supremo,” Dr. Crosbie said.
He talked about his strong preference for collective responsibility shared among elected officials, and discussed that while in the 19th century the prime minister was considered “first among equals” in his cabinet, this changed dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century. That change, he believes, has much to do with the influence of television and other communications media.
“It’s the leader of the party that all the news media ... concentrate on,” he explained. “If the abilities of the leader of the party are all-important when it comes to getting in power or not, naturally the power follows.”
Despite all the talk of power, Dr. Crosbie admitted it was the years spent out of power, in opposition, that he recalls with the greatest fondness. In particular, he enjoyed 1980-1984, after Joe Clark’s government fell. That swift defeat, he said, rejuvenated the Progressive Conservative party of which Dr. Crosbie was a member, and led to enthusiastic, effective attacks on the government.
“The more pressure you put on governments, the better it is for them,” he noted. “Good, strong opposition leads, usually, to good government.”