Herb Gray: Boring, long-serving and briefly a maverick

His time on the Hill ranked only behind Wilfrid Laurier and John Haggart

Paul recalls Herb Gray’s famous aptitude for clouding over opposition questions—it’s perhaps somewhat remarkable to see those who were on the other side of the House recalling his ability in this regard with some awe, while Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai says he learned the “art” of sticking to one’s message from Gray—while a quick search of OpenParliament’s database demonstrates how regularly the late Liberal MP found the premises of those queries to be lacking. (It is at least entertaining to see how many different ways someone could stand and say the same thing.) You can read the tributes that Paul wrote about here. Above is a tribute the Liberals conducted for Gray last year.

For sheer longevity, Gray’s 39 years, six months, 29 days as an MP ranks third all-time, behind only Wilfrid Laurier and John Haggart. And since both those 19th Century men resigned at various points to run in by-elections as cabinet ministers (as was the custom at the time when was appointed to cabinet), Gray ends up with the record for continuous service.

In that time, he served as leader of the opposition and government and opposition House leader and held eight ministerial titles. But he also got dumped from cabinet, by Pierre Trudeau in 1974. The Windsor Star’s extensive obituary explains how Gray handled that demotion.

Gray was stunned, as were other MPs and the national media. It was widely assumed that Trudeau’s advisers had convinced him that Gray didn’t have enough pizzazz. “It hurt him very deeply,” Gray’s wife Sharon recalled more than a decade after his firing from cabinet. “I don’t know whether it’s a hurt that he’ll ever really recover from.”

At the age of 43, his political career was considered over by many observers, who expected him to beat a hasty from Parliament Hill. Instead, Gray carved out a surprising new role for himself — as a political maverick and rebel. Concerned that the Liberals were drifting too far to the political right, he began speaking out against his own party.

He attacked the government’s anti-inflation policy for failing to stop big business from keeping prices high. An approving press began to write about “the new Herb Gray” as he criticized the Liberals for dropping a milk subsidy, for doing too little to help low-income Canadians and for failing to extend FIRA’s powers.

This seems to have produced at least one interesting profile in 1975, but the Google News archive only captures the first half of an article entitled “Horatio Alger in reverse.” This era of Gray’s career is covered though in The Jews of Windsor: 1790-1990.

Gray found a new role for himself by becoming his own government’s outspoken and most incisive critic. He said he was doing so in a constructive way to encourage the government to stick to its Liberal policies. Some Liberals in the House were not pleased to suffer his attacks, but he seemed to relish the opportunity to criticize the party’s policies and then see his comments favourably reported in the press…

Herb Gray attacked the government for delaying the passage of their consumer protection laws, for its lateness in delivering the second part of the foreign investment control legislation, for being too slow in establishing a new competition policy … and for being too secretive about its foreign investment laws…

When asked how he felt about being, so to speak, a thorn in the side of his own party’s hierarchy, he explained that he was acting “lost the way US senators act, identifying issues and problems, speaking out on them, making them national concerns.” He firmly believed that he was expressing the views “shared by a large number of people in the caucus”—”a point of view not only held within the party, but also by small-l liberals and people concerned with social justice.”

At that point, his political career wasn’t even half over and he would go on to be promoted to cabinet by two more prime ministers—John Turner and Jean Chretien. His last day in Parliament was spent dismissing opposition questions about something John Ralston Saul had said and a controversy about the municipal voting record of the international cooperation minister.