Parliamentarian of the year, 2006: Ralph Goodale

One thing is for sure: he can take a punch

by John Geddes

(Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Ralph Goodale is not the sort of politician who generates a lot of chatter. He lacks the hint of mystery of, say, Michael Ignatieff, or Stephen Harper’s ideological edge, or Jack Layton’s partisan intensity. By contrast, Goodale has those stolid, dependable qualities we often claim to crave from our politicians, just before turning our gaze back toward more complex and divisive figures.

VIDEO: RALPH GOODALE IN CONVERSATION WITH PAUL WELLS

But Ralph Goodale is the best MP in Canada according to his colleagues, who voted him the honour in an Ipsos-Reid survey conducted for Maclean’s, L’actualité and the Dominion Institute. And his story is gripping in its own way—a classic Canadian survival saga. He’s a farm-bred Saskatchewan Liberal, a rare Prairie species that often looks as vulnerable as the swift fox. He suffered humbling setbacks that almost ended his political career in the 1980s, but rode the victories that followed to very near the pinnacle of federal power. Then, after doggedly building and rebuilding a career based on personal credibility, he saw that precious reputation for incorruptibility and competence put to a painful test in last January’s election.

He’s the enduring type. Goodale has the frame of a man who’d be handy to have around when you need to move a sofa bed up a flight of stairs. He hits the gym as much as he can, has bench-pressed 180 lb., and reputedly once lifted the end of the Miata he was about to ride in a Regina parade. (He neither confirms nor denies the legend.) Asked about the essence of his appeal, friends often use Goodale’s stocky five-foot-seven-and-a-half build as a metaphor for his character. Stable. Not to be knocked off course. “Some people, you seem to be able to tell their values just to look at them,” says David Herle, another Liberal from Saskatchewan and one-time top adviser to Paul Martin. “Ralph’s one of those people.”

It’s hopeless to ask Goodale to sum up what’s made him an MP’s MP in a few words. Or even quite a few. He tends to go on, and to equivocate. But he can spin a telling yarn from the campaign trail, one that shows how hard it can be to run as a centrist Liberal in a province where populists of the left and right so often dominate. There was the time back in 1979, when Goodale was waging what proved to be a losing battle to hold the riding he’d won as a 24-year-old rookie in 1974. Jean Chrétien, a popular minister in Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet, hit the hustings with him in Saskatchewan, but even Chrétien couldn’t draw a crowd in Willow Bunch: its Legion was flat empty when he and Goodale showed up there one evening for a planned rally. But the bar across the street was packed for a Stanley Cup playoff game. “So we went over, shook hands between periods, and Chrétien got up on a table and gave a speech,” Goodale says. “And we won every Willow Bunch poll in that election.”

Goodale lost his seat anyway, as the Liberals tumbled from power. Worse, he failed to win it back in the 1980 campaign that returned Trudeau to office. It was the first real test of Goodale’s ability to take a punch; up to then, he’d been something of a golden boy. Born in 1949, he grew up a smart kid on a grain farm between Wilcox and Rouleau, a dot on the map so quintessentially Saskatchewan that it’s now the town where Corner Gas is shot. His parents didn’t cleave to any particular party, but Goodale liked the Liberals from an early age. They seemed to him closest to what was in the air, somehow related to the allure of the Kennedys, and the mood that would ignite Trudeaumania.

Goodale led a contingent of young Saskatchewan Liberals to the 1968 Liberal leadership convention in Ottawa. Ever the farm boy, he backed Joe Greene, Lester B. Pearson’s agriculture minister and the only contender who emphasized rural issues, on the first ballot, before switching to Trudeau’s camp on the second. Four years later, he graduated top of his class from University of Saskatchewan law school and seemed to have a lucrative career ahead of him. But politics beckoned. He’d caught the eye of the dominant Saskatchewan Grit of the day, Otto Lang, Trudeau’s cagey justice minister. He went to Ottawa to work on Lang’s staff in 1973, then came home to run, and win, the next year. Lang was a mentor, and Allan MacEachen, the Trudeau minister and Nova Scotia chieftain who combined shrewdness on the Hill with attentiveness to his regional base, was an inspiration. “Nobody can match the astute, agile, clever mind of Allan MacEachen,” he says. “In terms of House management, he had amazing ability to think five moves ahead.”

It was the dawning of a new political era. In Watergate’s wake, scandal-driven politics and gotcha journalism took hold. In 1977, when television cameras were allowed in the House, everything changed. “QP turned into a contest to see who can provide that seven-second clip that some network decides to use on the news that evening,” gripes Goodale, who doesn’t play that game terribly well. His rhetoric carries the cadences of a less-rushed time. Listened to in full — which, of course, nobody but fellow MPs on House duty ever does — his speeches are well-crafted. (His voice is sonorous enough that as a student he landed summer work in Regina as a CBC Radio announcer.) “He’s extremely eloquent,” says Herle. “But his speeches are too long. He takes his credibility and reputation seriously, so there’s a need for precision — he never wants to be caught out. All the qualifiers are in there.”

Through the 1980s, it seemed all Goodale’s efforts to learn what it takes to be an MP wouldn’t amount to much. After losing in 1979 and 1980, he tried to revive Saskatchewan’s broken-down provincial Liberal party. But he was basically a one-man show, serving a term as the lone Liberal MLA in the legislature. A bid to get back to Ottawa in 1988 failed, and Goodale tried working in insurance, even moving to Calgary to pursue his new career. When a Saskatchewan Liberal fundraiser tried to lure him back in 1993, Goodale initially resisted. “I said, no, no, no,” he recalls. “Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.”

But he relented, winning Regina’s Wascana riding in the 1993 vote and every one since. By then he was a different sort of political figure—tempered by defeats, seasoned by his quixotic stint in provincial politics. Even though he’d backed Martin in the 1990 leadership race, ChrZtien named him agriculture minister. It looked like a thankless task, as the Liberals moved to dismantle the historic rail subsidies for Prairie farmers. But Goodale wrangled a plump compensation package for them, even in an era of deficit-fighting restraint. He was, and in a sense remains, steadfastly parochial. Herle insists that decades in Regina and Ottawa haven’t made him less a farm guy. Evidence? “Just look at those egregious sweaters he wears.”

Goodale went on to serve as natural resources minister and House leader under Chrétien, but as a Martin guy, never cracked cabinet’s top tier. Still, after the sponsorship affair exploded,Chrétien tapped him to clean up Public Works—not only was Goodale viewed as beyond reproach, his old-school House demeanour deflected many opposition salvos. When Martin succeeded Chrétien as PM, Goodale became finance minister. He was finally, truly in the big time. How big? Well, a high point for him was an intimate gathering of G8 finance ministers in London, when he got the chance to hear Nelson Mandela tell the story of his release from prison.

If being finance minister landed him in lofty company, it also put him squarely in the line of fire. In the weeks before the fall of Martin’s minority last December, rumours swirled about whether the government would crack down on income trusts. Goodale revealed in late November that the trusts would not, in fact, be subjected to new taxes, but some speculators had turned quick profits by investing in trusts in the hours leading up to his announcement. He was pilloried for refusing to call an independent investigation into the possibility of a high-level leak.

But far worse was yet to come. Midway through the December-January election campaign, the RCMP revealed they were investigating the possibility of an intentional leak. It was a body blow — the lowest moment in his career. The NDP began a “Ralph Watch” on their website, predicting his resignation. But Martin stuck by him, and Stephen Harper pointedly avoided questioning Goodale’s personal culpability, casting the blame more broadly on Liberals. “Challenging Ralph Goodale’s credibility was a losing strategy,” says MP Bill Graham, now interim leader. As for Goodale, he will not discuss the episode in detail, since the RCMP have never told him the investigation is closed. The most he’ll say: “A lot of friends rallied to get me through it.” Winning his riding again by a large margin helped.

Personal vindication, perhaps, but the Liberals lost the election. Colleagues watched in amazement as Goodale sprang back. He went from a finance minister’s car and driver to riding the bus to Parliament Hill from his apartment. “He took no time for regret,” observes Liberal MP John Godfrey. “His ability to revitalize himself is amazing.” Goodale attributes his resilience in part to the support of his highly political wife, Pamela, now retired after a long career as a teacher and principal in Regina schools. Unlike his clan, hers has roots in Saskatchewan Liberalism going back to the storied Jimmy Gardiner machine of the 1920s and ’30s. They were married in 1986, have no children, and live in a Regina home where Goodale occupies himself with gardening and landscaping in the summer.

He is just 57, young for elder statesman status. But he is hardly ready to step back from the fray. On the Harper government, he talks pretty tough: “The new Conservatives bring a hard ideological edge that diminishes the tone in the House.” He plans to run again in the next election. And on the Liberal party’s future, though he has remained neutral in the leadership race up to now, he told Maclean’s that he will announce his preference before the Nov. 28-Dec. 2 convention in Montreal. “Not a week goes by,” he says, “that I don’t talk to most of the candidates.” No wonder: he would be a big catch. Now that he’s been chosen by his parliamentary peers as the finest of them in 2006, even bigger.




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