Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/5/2010 (3556 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
We face the most challenging economic crisis since the Great Depression. Like in the troubled times so long ago, all that was once certain is up for grabs. Like then, we are playing a new game with rules not yet written. Something else is similar. The prime minister leading us through today's Great Recession is startlingly like the man who led Canada through the worst of the 1930s. Stephen Harper is this generation's R.B. Bennett — and that's OK.
Both Conservatives, Harper and Bennett are Canada's only prime ministers from Calgary. Like Bennett, Harper is respected for his intelligence, consistent ideological principles and skills as a political strategist and tactician. Like Bennett, Harper constantly negotiates within his party to keep it from drifting too far right.
Their leadership styles are eerily similar. Bennett was often accused of disrespecting cabinet, caucus and Parliament in drawing power to the PMO and running a one-man government. A popular cartoon showed a cabinet meeting where every man present was Bennett.
Harper has laboured under the same criticism. Justice Gomery echoed many journalists and historians in observing, "If you look back historically at prime ministers in the past, I don't think they had the same hold over their party and Parliament that the present prime minister has."
Some may interpret Harper's banning ministerial staff from testifying before parliamentary committees as Bennett-like in its cause and effect.
Bennett could be warm and charming with friends and colleagues and earned tremendous loyalty. A young Lester Pearson, who worked with Bennett, for instance, later had nothing but good things to say about him. But Bennett's public persona was that of a cold, aloof autocrat, emotionally out of touch with Canadians.
Harper's advisers have for years recognized the Bennett paradox on their hands. Despite photographing their man with rock stars, his playing a Beatles song in public and wearing those sweaters in TV ads, the Bennett-like chill that inhabits Harper's public image remains.
Most importantly, Bennett and Harper found themselves addressing enormous economic and financial challenges that were not their fault but became their responsibility. Both created infrastructure programs that shovelled cash out the door to stimulate growth and create jobs. Both attended international conferences to try to coordinate actions and increase trade while addressing fissures in the world's financial system that, despite the stability of Canada's banks, was wreaking havoc at home.
Both cut fat from government departments and trimmed public service payrolls. Both swallowed hard and, against their previously held positions, allowed deficits to rise.
Unlike Harper, so far at least, Bennett undertook a number of bold initiatives that fundamentally restructured the economy and Canadians' relationship with their government. He increased the minimum wage and developed new unemployment insurance and pension programs. To protect Canada's nationhood and enhance its cultural industries, he invented the CBC. To protect the public from unfair practices and businesses from themselves, he legislated strict corporate and financial regulations. To wrestle control of monetary policy from the banks, he created the Bank of Canada. To save thousands of family farms, stabilize food prices, and help Canada's position in world agricultural markets, he established the Canadian Wheat Board.
He negotiated the treaty that led eventually to the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and trade deals that increased business in Commonwealth countries and the United States. Meanwhile, he challenged beliefs regarding the constitutional power of the federal government and addressed the imbalance between provincial desires to protect their responsibilities and their fiscal ability to meet them.
History will deem neither to be perfect men — none of us are. It will judge neither to be perfect prime ministers — mistakes are inevitable. But Mr. Harper's government has just announced the Canadian Securities Act that seeks to establish a national securities regulator to replace the current and cumbersome provincial-based system. The act is the most Bennett-like action Harper has taken to date. It supposes there is a positive economic role for an activist government to play. Further, that the federal government sometimes must challenge the Constitution in order to exert the power necessary to bring benefit to Canadians.
Bennett's legacy has been written, Harper's is still under construction. The securities act, however, is the clearest signal yet that now not only in style but also in substance, Canadians have their own Prime Minister Bennett. Mr. Bennett has been whispering to us through time and urging bold action. Maybe Mr. Harper has decided to listen.
John Boyko is the dean of history at Lakefield College School and the author of several books including the first biography of Canada's 11th prime minister entitled Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation.