Catherine McKenna, the infrastructure minister in the Liberal cabinet and champion of the party’s green wing, offered her friend Mark Carney, the former central banker – governor of both the Bank of Canada and Bank of England – the brass ring when she announced she will not be seeking re-election.
If he grabs it, Carney will be virtually assured of a place at or near the head of the queue of candidates for the Liberal leadership, post Justin Trudeau.
The brass ring is McKenna’s riding of Ottawa Centre.
Ottawa Centre is like no other riding. It lies in the heart of the capital. It begins at the Ottawa River in the north, takes in Parliament Hill, follows the Rideau River south, passes through the Glebe, a neighbourhood populated by heavyweight mandarins, and stretches west to take in Little Italy and Carleton University.
Its 114,000 residents are among the best educated in Canada; according to Statistics Canada 12.7 per cent of them hold master’s degrees or above – the top penetration rate of higher learning in any of the 338 federal constituencies. And they are diligent when it comes to voting. Their 82 per cent turnout in the 2015 election, the one that brought Trudeau to power, was the highest in the country.
Ottawa Centre is a Liberal fief. But it is more than that. It is a disaster zone, a scrapyard of shattered hopes, a field of chronic humiliation for Conservatives. Since the riding was created in 1968, there have been 16 general elections and one by-election; the Liberals took the seat, without breaking a sweat, in 11 of the general elections. In four, from 2004 to 2011, the riding turned to the NDP as being a better bet than the Liberals to fend off Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
The only time the Tories got a sniff at Ottawa Centre was a 1978 by-election when, with the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau at their nadir, Robert de Cotret, a star recruit by Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives, won the seat, only to give it back to the Liberals seven months later, in the 1979 general election. (The Tories won that election, with a minority government. Clark appointed de Cotret to the Senate so that he could put him in his cabinet.)
Much of the history of Ottawa Centre is tied to one man, George McIlraith, the colourless lawyer who represented the riding and its predecessor riding, Ottawa West, for an unbroken 32 years (1940-1972), from the days of Mackenzie King to the first Trudeau. He served in six cabinet posts, making a mark in none of them, went on to the Senate, and ultimately racked up an incredible 43 years and four months as a parliamentarian.
What McIlraith lacked in public profile he made up in backstage influence. I came to know him a bit when I was in the Parliamentary Press Gallery between 1965 and 1981 and he, in whatever portfolio, was the master of patronage on the Hill.
If you wanted to sell paperclips to MPs or to get a job as a security guard, a secretary, a groundskeeper, or as an operator of the automatic elevators in the Centre Block – decent pay for unnecessary work – you went to George McIlraith. In those days, no government contracts were dispensed in eastern Ontario, in the National Capital Region or in anywhere in the vicinity of Parliament Hill unless they bore McIlraith’s invisible imprimatur. He may not have talked about dispensing political pork, but everyone who understood the system knew George McIlraith was The Man.
Times have changed. Patronage may no longer be a glue that binds Ottawa Centre to the Liberals. But hostility to the Conservatives – the party forever preaching the need to shrink the size of government, to reduce programs and services, to chop jobs – lives on.
If Carney does not grab the brass ring that McKenna has extended, he may never get another, so golden, opportunity to go for political leadership. The risk is minimal. Still, if he does grab the ring, takes nomination, and, however improbably, fails to win what is just about the safest of all safe Liberal seats, he could be written off as just another flashy, ambitious outsider whose reach exceeded his grasp. He would become a footnote, never prime minister.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens is an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail. His new book, Flora! A Woman in a Man’s World, co-authored with the late Flora MacDonald, is being published this fall by McGill-Queen’s University Press. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].