Thoughts on Azzi’s Biography of Walter Gordon

Frankly, no one reads enough Canadian history… so I’m trying to do my part. I just hope Rudyard takes note.

For those who’ve never heard of Walter Gordon, he was Lester Pearson‘s first Finance Minister. Of course, he was also much, much more. For Liberals, Gordon was the man who organized the party back into fighting form while it served in opposition to Diefenbaker and, in doing so, won the Liberals the 1963 election. Perhaps more importantly however, Gordon was one Canada’s first nationalists who, among other things, founded the Committee for an Independent Canada the predecessor (or inspiration of least) for the Council of Canadians.

Azzi%20-%20Walter%20GordonWhat makes Gordon such an interesting study are not only his accomplishments, but the numerous, and often contradictory threads that made up his life. Here is a man who founded several firms, including one of the most successful private sector consulting firms in the history of Canada. As a consultant, he was thus able to keep one foot in the world of public policy and government – advising ministers and deputy ministers – while keeping other foot in the private sector, advising presidents and CEO’s. As head of these firms that he also helped broker the sale of large Canadian firms to American buyers. And yet, here is a man who was a strong Canadian nationalist, who sought to introduce structural limitations on foreign ownership in Canadian industry. He was also, on the one hand, a man with incredible organizational skills and yet, when given strategic control, had a modus operendi that was often problematic. According to Azzi he seemed to always identify problems, solve them hastily, and then apologize for the shortcomings — however dramatic — of his already implemented plan.

Azzi’s biography of Gordon was also illuminating in how it reminds one of the old adage “plus ca change…”

For example, Gordon’s first major postwar appointment was as chair of the Royal Commission on Administrative Classifications in the Public Service. In other words, Public Service Sector Reform. Needless to say this issue is once again a hot topic (one I happen to take great interest in and write on occasionally). Interestingly, this report had negligible impact – a fact Azzi attributes to poor research and analysis – but nonetheless hinting at the fact that public service sector reform may have been as difficult in 1947 as it is in 2007.

Ironically, Gordon inability to effectively draft and garner support for his Royal Commission Report may have contributed to some of the frustration he later experienced as Finance Minister. His frustration with the public service seems straight out of an episode “Yes Minister” or possibly the diary of our current Prime Minister. This passage sums it up beautifully:

When Gordon’s private secretary, Nancy Burpee, ordered a red typewriter, a high official in the treasury Board sent a long memorandum explaining why government issue typewriters had to be grey. Douglas Land summarized Gordon’s attitude: “If you can’t get a damn typewriter, how can you draft a municipal loan fund in a month?” Incidents like this led Gordon to doubt whether the bureaucracy could draft a bold budget… Despite these problems, he still wished to move swiftly to carry out his plans. After a few days in Ottawa, Gordon described the situation to Douglas Land: “I thought I was back at the Royal Commission with everybody explaining why no idea could work and why everything would take ten years to do. I have ordered some dynamite and hope to stir things up.”

The real focus of the book however – mirroring Walter Gordon’s life – is the rise of Canadian nationalism or, more specifically, Canadian economic nationalism. In many ways Gordon is the grandfather of the various forces that in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s would first oppose free trade and then, globalization. It was this topic that both ended Gordon’s political career – after his disastrous 1963 budget – but that also made him a folk hero among particularly left-wing nationalists. Interestingly, based on Azzi’s assessment, it is hard not to feel that Gordon was less of a nationalist then simply anti-American. Today we can see how these roots of Canadian nationalism have shape the tree’s growth. Even 30 and 40 years later many ardent nationalists on both the left and right cannot separate out anti-Americanism from their Canadian nationalism.

Azzi never passes judgment on Walter Gordon the man. However, he is clearly deeply uncomfortable with his essentially protectionist and nationalistic economic policies. And for good reason. Gordon’s construction of the problem was, at best, less than scientific. As he himself stated, his views “cannot be analyzed scientifically or proved absolutely. But the fact that judgment or belief is arrived at in part intuitively or through personal experience does not necessarily make it any less true.” It’s a somewhat shocking statement, analogous to saying “he felt it in his gut,” exactly the type of thing the Left would justly mock President Bush about today.

Azzi spends some time talking about some of Gordon’s true accomplishments, specifically helping transform the Liberal Party into a progressive, thinking institution. Sadly, he spends very little time talking about Gordon’s contribution in the ultimate implemention of this agenda, largely set out in the Kingston conference of 1960. The policies implemented by, or initiated by Pearson and Gordon, such as the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, Canada Assistance Plan, regional-development programs, unemployment insurance and a government student loan program, along with the foundation Gordon later created, are probably his real accomplishment. Indeed, many these institutions embody, in part, what it means to be Canadian. This alone should prompt one to overlook the book’s dry style and encourage you to get acquainted with a major influencer of Canadian history.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Azzi’s Biography of Walter Gordon

  1. Pample the Moose

    If you’re interested in more about the implementation of the Kingston Conference policies, you might want to look at Penny Bryden’s book _Planners and Politicians: Liberal Politics and Social Policy, 1957-1968_, which was published two years before Azzi’s biography of Gordon. There aren’t a lot of political historians active in Canadian universities these days, and so there unfortunately aren’t a lot of overlapping books on the same subject.

    Reply
  2. Pample the Moose

    If you’re interested in more about the implementation of the Kingston Conference policies, you might want to look at Penny Bryden’s book _Planners and Politicians: Liberal Politics and Social Policy, 1957-1968_, which was published two years before Azzi’s biography of Gordon. There aren’t a lot of political historians active in Canadian universities these days, and so there unfortunately aren’t a lot of overlapping books on the same subject.

    Reply

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