Mark Carney: He who is without sin…

Paul Wells considers the politics behind the headlines

So last night several dozen members of the Media Party joined a smaller cohort from the Conservative Party for a Christmas party at 24 Sussex Drive. Laureen Harper made little chocolate mice for the dessert tray. The event was strictly off the record, a new formal stipulation in place since Jane Taber surprised us all by writing up chapter and verse of the prime minister’s cocktail-party chat for the Globe a year ago, so I will tell you not a word that Stephen Harper shared with us. I can, however, report that Andrew MacDougall said not a word.

And it wasn’t for lack of effort on my part. “Answer the Mark Carney question of your choice,” I said to him, attempting to be sly.

“No comment,” he said, smiling and staring resolutely into the middle distance.

“Was there anger?” I asked.

The prime minister’s spokesman mimed pulling a capsule from his Bat Utility Belt and throwing it to the floor. “Smoke bomb,” he said, his other hand pointing toward the nearest door, “and I am out of here.”

So put the PMO down as unhelpful on whether Mark Carney’s vacation arrangements displease them, or, more to the point, whether they displease Harper.

We have already presented Stephen Gordon’s eloquent case for the prosecution on this website, and Colleague Geddes’ more nuanced parsing of the rulebook. (John pointed out, repeatedly, the possibility of a Carney Liberal candidacy before he announced for the Bank of England, and received a lot of ribbing from colleagues for it at the time.) Let me try to address the politics of the whole thing.

This summer, for my sins, I was at an innovation policy conference, which I endured using the time-honoured technique of loitering outside in the hallway for most of it. At one point I struck up a conversation with a Liberal, a (formerly and still by avocation Progressive) Conservative, and an international mandarin type of indeterminate party affiliation. The international mandarin type started quizzing me on whether a prestigious outsider could shake up the Liberal leadership race.

I said, as gently as I could, that it had been tried, catastrophically, and not only once: that both Michael Ignatieff and Ken Dryden had been marketed by their admirers as an answer to the deathless Liberal wish for kings.

The problem with the notion is twofold. First, “I had a great career outside politics” is not heard, by most voters, as “I will have a great career in politics.” This big caveat is often ignored by people who spend their lives in politics and are desperate for fresh air. Remember that on one of the occasions when Michael Jordan retired from basketball, serious people suggested he’d make a great U.S. Senator. The voters, a stolid bunch, normally assume that the best person to do politics is one who’s already been doing some.

Second, the Liberal Party of Canada will go through a series of wrenching crises on its way back to power if it is not simply going to fade away and die. (It’s a coin toss which of those futures awaits it.) Any new leader will have to ask for effort and sacrifice from Liberals, and they will not give it if they do not think they can trust the leader. And Liberals may not believe in much, but they are pretty sure they know who smells like a Liberal. That’s the only reason Stéphane Dion was able to defeat Bob Rae (as far as most Liberals were then concerned, a New Democrat) and Michael Ignatieff (not much of anything) in 2006. That instinct was put in remittance by Dion’s odd behaviour during the 2008 coalition crisis, but two years of Michael Ignatieff reconfirmed it. The Liberals will not back a fancy outsider for leader. It’s telling, in the Globe’s excellent weekend report, that the only people who seemed to think so included Tim Murphy, who’s been less active in the party since 2006; Frank McKenna, the party’s eternal fancy outsider; and, perhaps, Scott Brison, who had his own trouble getting accepted as a potential leader in each of the two parties he has so far called his own.

Anyway, our ecumencial little cluster of hallway refugees from the innovation conference kicked around notions of leadership for a while — at one point my partner, a Conservative, wandered by, listened long enough to grow bored, and left — and it became clear that International Mandarin Type carried a torch for Mark Carney, or as he called him, “Mark.” “Mark really is the Lester Pearson of our time,” he said. But this isn’t Pearson’s time, I said. Pearson inherited the party from St. Laurent, who inherited it from King, whereas the next leader will inherit it from the dustbin. Bring in a banker from Oxford and you’d lose a hell of a lot of Liberals even if you could get him to lead the Liberal Party, and your only hope then would be to attract a bunch of Conservatives, and that’s the kind of radical shift a party performs best from a position of strength, not weakness. All of this remains my best guess at whether Mark Carney would ever have made a good Liberal leader. (Reader’s Digest version: No, he wouldn’t have. Not now.)

But this summer it was hypothetical, and on Saturday morning it became — well, still hypothetical, but at least a hypothetical dressed up as a Globe story. My first reaction to the story was that people really should stop staying at Scott Brison’s house. And I say that advisedly, because in the summer of 2003, when Brison was a washed-up former candidate for the Progressive Conservative leadership, I spent a weekend at his house. The lobster was yummy, but then Don Martin put me in his column and no lobster is worth that.

My second reaction is that, to the extent Carney had politicized the office, his political judge, jury and executioner would be Stephen Harper. Sure, Carney is leaving in July. But his condition for accepting the BoE appointment was that the term be cut from eight to five years, precisely so he could return to Canada when he’s done before his daughters get too used to calling elevators “lifts.” So if he’s a problem, he’ll still be a problem in five years, and Stephen Harper still expects a Conservative to be prime minister in five years. An ounce of prevention might be wise. I figured if the prime minister wanted to ruin Carney’s political career, he’d fire him before sundown.

That didn’t happen. There are a few possible explanations. One is that it’s harder to fire a bank governor than it is for me to play Saturday-morning quarterback. Before James Coyne resigned, the Diefenbaker government was on the way to doing it with a bill declaring his position vacant. If Harper were feeling bloody-minded, he might enjoy trying the same, particularly because it sure would smoke out the Liberals. But it would take weeks and would not exactly add to public confidence in the Bank of Canada while it was happening.

The second possibility is that Harper is hopping mad, but pragmatic. Carney will be somebody else’s problem after July, and a fuss now would not solve that, and as for five years in the future, well, you go mad if you try to control that.

The third possibility is that the only difference between Liberals and Conservatives is that Liberals have Jane Taber on speed-dial. Any majority government party must worry about turnover, including, after seven years in power, at the top. I once wrote that the Harper Conservatives had tried to recruit Raymond Chrétien, a former ambassador who is the nephew of Jean Chrétien, to run for them. That would not have been in any way improper, but it demonstrates that they take a broad view of their candidate-recruitment mandate. Attempting to politicize non-partisans is what partisans do: when Dwight Eisenhower came home from the deadliest U.S. war since the Civil War and became Army Chief of Staff in the first days of the Cold War, Harry Truman promptly tried to recruit him for the Democrats. (Truman’s plan was that Ike would run for President and he, Truman, would be content with VP. Eisenhower said no, finally giving in to his other suitors, the Republicans, in 1952, while he should theoretically have been busy staring down Stalin as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.)

I don’t know whether Carney had only one set of gentleman callers. And now, because the PMO is staying mum, neither will you.



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