Though Gordon Robertson joined the Public Service of Canada in 1941 in the Department of External Affairs he spent most of his career as adviser to four Prime Ministers of Canda: Mackenzie King, Louis St-Laurent, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. At various times he was Deputy Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources, Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, and Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet. From 1980 to 1994, Mr. Robertson was President of the IRPP and he was a fellow-in-residence at the Institute from 1984 to 1990. On the occasion of IRPP’s 30th anniversary, he is being made a Honourary Lifetime Fellow of the Institute. Policy Options editor William Watson talked with Mr. Robertson on March 21, 2002.
William Watson: How did you get involved in the IRPP?
Gordon Robertson: I didn’t really get significantly involved until the end of 1979, beginning of 1980. Joe Clark got a minority government in the election of May 1979. At that time, I was Secretary to the Cabinet for Federal-Provincial relations. And I reported to Clark as Prime Minister, until he appointed a minister of federal-provincial relations. After the election, I visited Mr. Clark, because I wanted to make clear to him that I knew that his party had been advocating changes in federal-provincial policy. I could take full retirement and leave right then and there, if that would be his wish. He said no, he would prefer it if I would stay. So I agreed, on the understanding that each of us could take the following year as being a period in which we’d consider whether we’d like to stay with that relationship or whether either of us would want to terminate it. And Clark agreed.
That was in May or June of 1979. And over the summer it became clear that the new government felt it was important to have new policy on federal-provincial relations. I got the impression it was awkward for them with me, as deputy minister in charge of that " because I’d been involved in it for so long " so in September I again arranged to meet Mr. Clark. I told him my view, and I said I had come to the conclusion it would be better if I retired. And he agreed. He obviously was relieved. So it was agreed that I would retire at the end of December.
William Watson: Exactly the time that he was forced to reconsider his own career plans.
Gordon Robertson: Yes. So this was all agreed, and I had to then turn around and wonder what I would do after I retired. I had thoughts of writ- ing something about the problems of federal-provincial relations in the country. At that time, Michael Kirby was President of the IRPP. I got in touch with him, and it was agreed that I’d become a fellow-in-residence at the IRPP, with no remuneration, but an office and office services, and I’d spend two years working on something, a book or whatever it might be. That was in the fall of 1979.
William Watson: And you would have been working in Ottawa.
Gordon Robertson: That’s right. IRPP headquarters was here. Well, the next thing of course was that Clark managed to get defeated in the House, on a budget vote. That was December 13, 1979, just a couple of weeks before I was scheduled to retire. The general election that his defeat precipitated was held on February 18, 1980, and Mr. Trudeau, to everybody’s surprise, got a majority.
It was clear Mr. Trudeau was going to have Michael Pitfield come back as Secretary to the Cabinet, a job in which he had succeeded me. Pitfield visited me one day soon after he was appointed to ask whether I would like to come back to my previous job as Secretary to the Cabinet for federal-provincial relations. And I told him the answer was no. Apart from the fact it would be too political to leave under Clark and come back under Trudeau, I figured that if Mr. Trudeau wanted me to come back, he knew me well enough that he’d have had me come to see him and he would have asked me to come back. And he hadn’t. So I remained retired.
And then when Michael Kirby was appointed to my old job as Secretary to the Cabinet for federal-provincial relations there was a vacancy in his job as president of IRPP. John Aird got in touch with me to ask whether I would take on Michael Kirby’s job. So that’s the way it happened.
William Watson: A shuffle.
Gordon Robertson: It was a double shuffle, and just mutual convenience at very short notice.
William Watson: What kind of a place was it that you found?
Gordon Robertson: Very small. Very hard-up. With no real recognition of any consequence, outside of itself.
William Watson: What problems did you face?
Gordon Robertson: Two main problems. One, money. And, two, a kind of a self-denying ordinance that had been taken on as a matter of policy, that in its research and publications, the Institute would not have a position of its own. This was based, as I understood it, on the perception that it was very important for the Institute not to appear to be in support of any political position, or any government. Because, as you know, there was at that time an attempt to get all governments involved in providing money for the Institute. In the event, very few of them did. The federal government did. I think Quebec did. But while John Aird had managed to get contributions for an endowment fund and most of the provinces, if not all, contributed to that, they weren’t prepared to make any annual or continuing contribution. So we had to regard the trust fund as being capital, and try to live on the interest.
William Watson: These days the IRPP is regarded as unusual among think-tanks in that it has an endowment, and quite a handsome one. But it’s still the original endowment.
Gordon Robertson: It’s the original endowment, and it’s there because, at that time, we considered that we should not be reducing the capital.
William Watson: Which didn’t provide enough funds to make life easy at that time?
Gordon Robertson: Oh, no, not by any means. The circumstances were straitened indeed. It was a tiny organization and, as I say, there was a double limitation: a financial one and that kind of self-denying ordinance.
William Watson: Most think-tanks I know do distinguish between research they sponsor that takes a position and positions they themselves take formally. But the press makes no such distinction. It will report the conclusions of any study by saying ”œIRPP” or ”œC.D. Howe” recommends this or that. The nature of the IRPP’s self-denying ordinance, I gather, was that the Institute would not formally take positions. But was there a difficulty with bringing in people who would write reports that themselves would take a position?
Gordon Robertson: No, there was no difficulty except the one that you mentioned. That the tendency would be for the press to say or appear to say that the Institute for the Research of Public Policy had taken such a position, when it hadn’t. Every publication that we put out carried a clear statement that this was the view of the author, not necessarily the Institute. But it didn’t cut an awful lot of ice in public understanding. Even some of the provincial governments were inclined to confuse it.
William Watson: Did the self-denying ordinance spill over into a tendency not to assign research to people who might provide controversial recommendations?
Gordon Robertson: Yes. There was certainly a concern about that.
William Watson: So these were the two challenges you faced. What strate- gies did you take in facing up to these challenges?
Gordon Robertson: Part of the problem was that while John Aird had a been first-class seeker-after-money " he knew how to do it, he knew the people who had it and he knew how to get it " after he left, I had no skills in that direction and no experience. And when Bob Stanfield became chairman he had great qualities and he was very interested. But he was like me, he had little skill in the task. I guess when he had been Premier of Nova Scotia, or leader of the Conservative party down there, he had had people who did that task. But he himself didn’t. So the money problem remained a plague as long as I was president. And since I was not well suited to that part of it, and it was pretty important, it made me less than comfortable in the job.
William Watson: On the research side, what sort of things did you think were important at that stage?
Gordon Robertson: Well you really have to start with the problem that we had very little money. So we couldn’t sponsor much research. Some of the main problems of the day were things that were shaping up as national unity problems. And it was very, very difficult, we thought, to get involved in that, unless we wanted to tangle with the Parti Québécois in Quebec. It had formed the govern- ment in 1976, as you remember. So we were handicapped in some of the main areas. And one consequence of that " and I think it was the best solution " was to assume that the federal government would do a lot of research, which it did, and the Parti Québécois would, and the other gov- ernments would, and that we didn’t need to.
William Watson: There certainly was a flood of research at that time on these issues, much of it recycled since.
Gordon Robertson: One thing I should mention is that while I felt we were very limited by the things I’ve been talking about, we were regarded " at least by the OECD " as being a kind of model that some of the less- developed countries might want to know about and try to emulate. They organized a conference in Paris in the early 1980s and asked me if I would come, which I did. It turned out in large part to be designed get our experience, to see what we had done, what were our problems and that kind of thing. There were few think-tanks outside the United States, and the United States was on a scale far too large to be relevant for developing countries. So whatever our own sense of limitation was, we didn’t look too bad to interested people in the OECD.
William Watson: When you had been in government, what was your view of think-tanks? And what was the role of think-tanks at that time?
Gordon Robertson: Well, number one, there were very few think-tanks. The Howe Institute was the main one that leaps to my mind. The field has been developed a great deal in the 30 years since, and I think they have served a very useful purpose, in a lot of policy areas. But governments weren’t very enthusiastic about them initially.
William Watson: Was it a question of doing your own in-house research?
Gordon Robertson: Yes, very much so. I recall clearly, in my early years in the public service, and even later when I was Secretary to the Cabinet, that we just assumed that any digging and delving and most of the thinking would be done in the public service. One didn’t think of outside think-tanks or academics as being realistic enough or getting down to the right problems, or the right answers. I think we were pretty inward-turned.
William Watson: Do you think that’s still the view of think-tanks?
Gordon Robertson: Well, I think that most people outside of government are likely to deal with some of the problems policy-makers face, but not all the problems. And they will deal with them in a less than politically sensitive way. Politicians are not very likely to listen closely to proposals or ideas that don’t take political prob- lems adequately into account. So I think this is going to be a permanent limitation. I suppose it’s a limitation on the kind of contribution newspapers make, too.
William Watson: Some people might argue that think-tanks avoid day-to-day policy-making on purpose, and point to a farther horizon and try to slowly move the society in a different direction.
Gordon Robertson: And also we’ve got that great Canadian institution, the royal commission, though that has now turned into Don Mazankowski- or Roy Romanow-type task forces.
William Watson: The present government hasn’t used commissions much. The Romanow Commission is an exception. What’s your view on this reduced use of commissions?
Gordon Robertson: Well, I’d say in the first place that this government is not a very intellectual government. I think it’s pretty much limited to the here and now, the practical. Every now and then it gets pushed out into something else, like Medicare, but I think those episodes are the exception rather than the rule. As for the distrust of outside sources like think-tanks, I think that is probably inevitable.
William Watson: But is there any- thing within government that generates the long view, or gives an idea of what the full range of alternatives might be?
Gordon Robertson: I don’t know how good the Department of Finance is at this kind of thing now. But when I came into the public service during the war there was a lot of long-term thinking by people like Bob Bryce and others in the Bank of Canada. The Bank wasn’t operating at a distance from government then, it was very close to government. The Governor was a member of the interdepartmental Committee on External Trade Policy and on other committees. They were places where this kind of long-term thinking was done. Finance, particularly, and the Bank. And " a bit of a legacy from the war " the departments had got used to having people from outside come in, do jobs and go out. And that kind of thing was done a fair bit. More than it is now, I think.
William Watson: And the research capacity of the government is substantially greater now than it was then.
Gordon Robertson: Oh, yes.
William Watson: I wonder if you have any thoughts either about or for the IRPP on the occasion of its 30th birthday?
Gordon Robertson: Just that I would think that the future for the Institute is good, and that the Institute is important: It has had a beneficial influence despite the problems.
William Watson: In closing, let me congratulate on the award you’ll be receiving at the 30th anniversary dinner, not just for your contribution to IRPP but for a lifetime of service in Canadian policy-making.