Not any more

Tony Clement and a Tory blue plate special

In Canada on November 20, 2010 at 08:38

The man who just scuttled a $40-billion takeover has a dab of strawberry milkshake on his nose. And I’m not sure whether to tell Tony Clement, a politician possessed with such thirst for life and for milkshakes (“Good and good for you,” he says) who has just eschewed his white plastic straw to gulp from the glass.

Also, it would be a shame to interrupt him, as we chat in a quaint family restaurant in Huntsville, Ont., because he’s really going now – seized of a fervent belief that Canada’s private sector companies are failing to use new technologies that could make the country more productive and competitive.

“Governments are doing their part. Universities are doing their part. Where’s business?” he asks with palpable frustration.

“When is business going to do its part? And what are the impediments to them doing their part – other than government doing more and academia doing more. Come on! We are doing more. Let’s not go there.”

Awkwardly, tapping my nose, I say: “You have a little …”

“Oh, do I?” he says, laughing.

He wipes it off and – poof – it’s as if nothing had happened. After all, Mr. Clement, Canada’s genial and ideologically flexible Industry Minister, is a true master of plowing through awkward, terrible or downright embarrassing situations to great aplomb – or if not aplomb, then at least to a state of affairs in which Canadians aren’t brandishing pitchforks on Parliament Hill.

Where other ministers might get mired in the muck, Mr. Clement has strolled through a large number of recent Conservative controversies, all the while taking to Twitter with irreverent asides. In the past year alone, he killed the apparently beloved mandatory long-form census; causing the head of Statistics Canada to resign; navigated the furor over sole-sourcing a $16-billion contract for gleaming new fighter jets; and, most recently, pulled the plug on BHP Billiton Ltd.’s proposed takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc., one of the largest proposed deals in Canadian history.

These decisions were controversial, in part, because in the eyes of critics they ran against the Western Canadian grain of the government’s supposedly free market ideology. Replacing the mandatory census with a voluntary one, for instance, is said to be more expensive, and outraged business leaders that rely on the data. Quashing BHP’s bid, meanwhile, raised the red flags of protectionism and nationalism. But Mr. Clement, who has the truest of right-wing credentials as an alumnus of former Ontario premier Mike Harris’s slash-and-burn cabinet, says his conservative ideology has simply matured.

“I certainly can sleep at night and certainly do feel that I haven’t betrayed any value or principle that has grown with me,” he says. “Some people have asked me, ‘Has it been tough’ – this decision or that decision? I’ll tell you what tough is. Tough is being the health minister during SARS.”

To unwind some of this stress, Mr. Clement – quite incongruously – has been learning how to play punk rock songs on his son’s knock-off Fender guitar. “I’m starting with the Ramones,” he says, beginning to laugh. “Anybody who knows anything about punk rock music knows that the Ramones have the simplest, easiest chords. You can’t master the two or three chords in a Ramones’ song – you’re pretty pathetic.”


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