Keep True: A Life in Politics

By White, Graham | Canadian Public Administration, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Keep True: A Life in Politics


White, Graham, Canadian Public Administration


Keep True: A Life in Politics By HOWARD PAWLEY. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2011. Pp. x, 278.

Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple By MARY FRANCES COADY. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 283, bibliography, index.

The Fundamental Things Apply: A Memoir By ROY MACLAREN. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011. Pp. 285, index.

These three, very different books by and about former public servants (political and bureaucratic) nicely illustrate the various motives underpinning biographies and autobiographies. Some aim at securing or enhancing a place in history for a public figure; others emerge out of admiration for the subject (especially in autobiographies!); still others reflect a desire to inspire or educate; yet others are designed to contribute to or clarify the historical record. Some are primarily chronicles of one's accomplishments and recollections for family and friends. (Doubtless the profit motive lies behind some biographies, but books published by university presses about prominent Canadians are unlikely to be money makers.)

Memoirs by provincial premiers are thin on the ground, with former NDP premiers--Allan Blakeney, Mike Harcourt and Bob Rae--among the few who have written about their time in office. Fittingly for someone who became an academic after leaving politics, Howard Pawley, Manitoba premier from 1981 to 1988, has made a noteworthy contribution to this scarce literature in Keep True. It has much of value for those interested in Manitoba politics, in national politics, in NDP dynamics and in the internal workings of government, especially the political-bureaucratic interface. Pawley provides first-hand, unvarnished accounts of such key episodes as the introduction of public automobile insurance, the Manitoba French-language/bell-ringing crisis of 1984, the Meech Lake Accord, the fall of his government in 1988 at the hands of disgruntled NDP MLA Jim Walding and the CF-18 fiasco (which he recounts as nothing short of perfidious on Brian Mulroney's part). Little of this has received academic attention, so Pawley's narrative is both original and important, though it is curious that he does not refer to Ian Stewart's fine account of events surrounding the defeat of the Pawley government (Just One Vote: From Jim Walding's Nomination to Constitutional Defeat [Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009]).

Beyond its value as a personal chronicle of important political issues, Keep True has other merits. Few politicians are prepared to admit to as many mistakes in their memoirs as Pawley; they all make them, of course, but few are prepared to acknowledge them, even years later. At various key junctures, Pawley recalls, he and his colleagues misread political situations, followed the wrong strategy or adopted ineffective policies. Such inevitable miscalculations aside, Pawley is adamant that, as his title suggests, political leaders must remain committed to their basic principles:

Not everything we seek can be achieved in the short term. Compromises may sometimes be essential; otherwise, one plays into the hand of one's more rightwing opponents. This does not, however, mean betraying one's ultimate objective--a more equitable society. Making substantial progress to this goal is what propelled me to become actively involved in politics. In my opinion, Tony Blair, as prime minister of Great Britain, and Bob Rae, as the NDP premier in Ontario, were examples of social democratic first ministers who, decades later, strayed far from the objectives they had once set for themselves. I was determined not to do this. In other words, although I was forced to accept pragmatism, it would not be at any price. One must, after all, live with oneself (p. 102).

Principled public service of a very different sort is the subject of Mary Frances Coady's meticulously researched book. …

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