April 18th, 2011
The tributes that have been paid Allan Blakeney have focused on his achievements as minister of health when the Douglas Government introduced comprehensive public health insurance and as premier of Saskatchewan from 1971 to 1982. Blakeney, however, had three careers, first as a public servant; then as a politician, serving as minister, MLA, Opposition Leader, Premier, and again as Opposition leader; and for the last two decades of his life as teacher and writer. The third career received the least attention in the Canadian Press obituary, only a short concluding paragraph. Since my relationship with Allan Blakeney was entirely within that third period, I will focus on it.
Blakeney and I met when he came to Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, and wanted to teach a public administration course. I was already doing that at the Faculty of Administrative Studies (now Schulich School of Business), and we decided to combine our efforts. From our first conversations, it was clear to me that he had thought deeply about statecraft, the practice of government, at both the political and public service levels. In our preparations for each class, I would provide a set of questions and he would take them away, and come back with well-thought-out answers, written in clear, flowing hand writing – a marker of his generation – on a yellow legal pad.
I thought it was essential to preserve his ideas, and he came to agree, and so we had the classes taped and transcribed. This was the origin of our book Political Management in Canada. In it, Blakeney did something unique at the time, recounting how he managed his government and why he did it that way. Thus he took us inside the cabinet room, not to recount particular decisions, but to explain how his cabinet made decisions. In the years since our book, Jean Chretien, in My Years as Prime Minister (2008), and Eddie Goldenberg, in The Way it Works: Inside Ottawa (2006) have, to an extent, applied Blakeney’s approach to the Chretien Government. Students of government will benefit if other ministers and first ministers follow Blakeney’s lead.
I recently donated the audio tapes of our classes to the Saskatchewan Archives. The better to preserve Blakeney’s voice, I hope the Saskatchewan Archieves will digitize them.
The middle of a federal election campaign is an appropriate time to revisit Blakeney’s views on politics and policy. He titled his political memoirs An Honourable Calling because he believed politics IS an honourable calling. In this view, politicians regard one another as people of principle and integrity who differ over policy and base their campaigns on these differences in policy.
Discussing his electoral defeats in Political Management in Canada (p. 237), he wrote “Ideally an election defeat would be regarded as a rejection of one group of policies in favour of another, and there should be little sense of personal rejection. But if this was ever true, it isn’t now in today’s climate of personalized politics. … [the media] regard politics as a contest of salesmanship rather than a comparison of products. [Elections] are increasingly becoming contests of personalities rather than policies. Canadian politics is poorer for this.”
Blakeney was a strong advocate of public enterprise and critic of the privatization of the potash and uranium industries in Saskatchewan. He saw Crown corporations as making a social as well as economic contribution to the province. Thus, he supported SaskPower keeping its rates down for local curling rinks during the winter because “they were almost always the heart of village life in January” (Political Management in Canada, p. 138). This was a classic example of reducing the cost of living in rural areas.
Blakeney warned that if Crown corporations were privatized, the head office would de facto move outside Saskatchewan and senior management would be paid as private sector executives rather than as public servants.
And his view of public enterprise was part of a broader commitment to equality, a belief that society as a whole would be better off if the state helped those most in need and reallocated some of the wealth the economy produced.
At the end of An Honourable Calling (p. 250), he wrote: “Our challenge in the future will not be primarily to produce more goods, but rather to distribute the goods more fairly. … When governments have intervened to distribute education, health, and many other services at low or reduced cost, society has been better for it. .. A look around the world tells me that where able and active governments (and there are many) intervene on behalf of people with special needs or lower incomes, society works best.”
Blakeney’s views on political campaign, Crown corporations, and the distribution of income are certainly contested, and likely he was in the minority in all three areas. But Blakeney did not despair, and maintained to the very end both an optimism and willingness to advocate for his vision of Canada. Thus his advocacy after leaving office is just as much part of his legacy as the decisions he made while in power.