Binkley with fond memories of MPs

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...

The Binkley Report

Melancholy moments

In fond memories of Eugene Whelan and John Wise

'When Parliament was a much better place than it is now'

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
Among the first MPs I got to cover when I came to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1975 were John Wise and Eugene Whelan. Their recent deaths have me thinking back to the 1970s and 80s when Parliament was a much better place than it is now.
Political differences were accepted then, if not always appreciated, and the strident nastiness of the current Commons was unheard of.
Wise was always a true gentleman in the Commons. Whelan of the green Stetson and inability to speak either of Canada’s official languages may have been one of the last true characters in politics.
Whelan was appointed agriculture minister in 1972 and except for Wise’s nine months on the job in 1979-80, held the post to 1984 when John Turner became Liberal leader and appointed a new minister.
Wise was also agriculture minister for the first four years of the Mulroney government. In government, as in opposition, he was open and friendly and treated MPs with the respect they deserved.
For all his wise cracking, Whelan did as well.
Both men were ministers when few people in Ottawa appreciated the economic importance of the agri-food sector. In those days, agriculture policies were mainly about keeping them happy down on the farm and voting for the government. Wise was blamed by many Tories when farm groups weren’t appreciative enough of a $1 billion aid package announced by Mulroney.
Whelan was a lot politically shrewder than he ever appeared or got credit for, and his interest in politics went a lot deeper than just agriculture. Although he never articulated the agri-food community concept that we now hear all the time, he spoke of it indirectly often enough, trying to link the health of the Canadian food industry to the well being of the country’s farmers.
'A blind economist on a galloping horse'
It would take almost two decades after Whelan and Wise left politics before the agri-food industry idea finally sunk in. The 2008 recession drove the point home. As Whelan would have said, “Even a blind economist on a galloping horse could have seen that.”
Whelan stories would easily fill the page of a newspaper. A favourite comes from another Trudeau era cabinet minister Romeo LeBlanc. When the prime minister asked him after the 1974 election to be fisheries minister, LeBlanc replied that he wanted to be the minister of fishermen like Whelan was the minister of farmers. The phone line went silent for minute before Trudeau cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I can stand two of you.”
That would have been a big compliment from Trudeau.
Another was watching Whelan literally chasing Trudeau advisor Jerry Grafstein around the Hall of Honour in the Centre Black of Parliament at the Press Gallery dinner in the early 1980s trying to convince him the government was mishandling rural issues.
Some readers will remember listening to Whelan deliver a speech. A former speechwriter says the trick was to load up the text with numbers and examples. Ideas would come to Whelan at the podium and he would soar off on a tangent until the thought lost momentum. He would glance down at his speech searching for his next idea.
When the Prairies was gripped in a severe drought, Whelan opined it was time for him to do a western tour because it always rained when he was out west. While he didn’t break the drought when he got there, he did get wet.
During the meeting of federal and provincial agriculture ministers in Yorkton, Sask., Whelan and his officials were eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant when a middle aged farmer approached the minister with a grievance involving the federal government, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) and something else I no longer remember. Whelan sympathetically listened to the man, described how he would fix the problem in question except for the major hurdle that the issue was in Otto Lang’s domain as he was the minister responsible for the CWB.
Dividing up the agriculture and wheat board portfolios only showed Ottawa’s ignorance about the farm industry to Whelan.  So he made a good friend of the farmer and passed the blame to Lang. There were smiles all over the restaurant.
Whelan once told me that he’d asked legendary agriculture minister Jimmy Gardiner if he’d ever aspired to another cabinet post. “No one ever asked me,” Gardiner replied. Whelan’s tone in relating the story indicated he too regretted never having been given the opportunity.
Whelan always remembered what you’d written and never hesitated to get in the last word. Once I put in the lead of a story that Whelan had turned a deaf ear to protests about something. Whelan did have hearing problems and I was criticized for being insensitive. However, Whelan thought it was hilarious.
Wise surprised everyone when he announced that after 16 years in federal politics, he would not run again in the 1988 election. He’d had enough after 16 years in the hurly burly of federal politics and there were other things he wanted to do.  He went on to be chairman of the Canadian Livestock Exporters Association and Canadian Embryo Exports Association and founding honorary president of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada.
Of many memories of him, I recall a short interview in the midst of the agriculture crisis of the day. “I have to get up earlier to do this job than I ever did milking cows,” Wise said in exasperated tone.
Wise had neither Whelan’s bombast nor his circuitous approach to public speaking. Nor did he have the huge ego. He trusted his staff to do their jobs.
He came to and left Ottawa a humble, amiable man who many liked to count as a friend.
A lovely vignette from former reporter and ag aficionado Bernadette Cox on how Wise took his brass agriculture minister nameplate home with him and used it as a kick plate on his front door.
It was typical of him that his obituary asked that donations in his memory be made to Food Banks Canada or another charity.
You meet many people during a career in journalism. Some leave good memories.