By Laura Stone, iPolitics
The federal Liberals may have an unlikely ally in former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Roy McMurtry.
Last week, the former attorney-general of Ontario, who worked across party lines to help patriate the Canadian Constitution and create the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, endorsed provincial leadership candidate Eric Hoskins. And in an interview with iPolitics, McMurtry admits he would “probably” vote Liberal in the next federal election, too.
McMurtry, who went on to become chief justice of Ontario, said the Liberals have an opportunity to attract Red Tories — the fiscally conservative but socially liberal refugees from the Harper-era Conservative party.
“Those that I know are not very happy with the way things are going in Ottawa,” said McMurtry.
“This (Conservative) government is not a progressive government. This government, I don’t think really cares very much about the less fortunate in society.”
When asked if he would vote Liberal in the next federal election, McMurtry said: “Well, probably. That’s my confession …. You’ll get a lot of my Conservative friends mad at me.”
McMurtry, along with former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, who was justice minister at the time of the patriation, and former NDP Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, will be honoured Monday as the 2012 Modern Makers of Canada by the independent Institute on Governance.
The three men worked together to reach a deal on patriating the Constitution in 1981. Known as the “Kitchen Accord,” the late-night deal helped then prime minister Pierre Trudeau patriate the Constitution and create the landmark Charter of Rights in 1982 — though not without lasting scars, especially in Quebec.
“Friendship can often be (a) very useful bond,” said McMurtry. “We represented three different political parties, and three different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. But that of course had absolutely no influence on our co-operation.”
Those backgrounds were French-speaking and Liberal (Chrétien), Ukrainian and NDP (Romanow) and Irish and conservative (McMurtry).
“I don’t think it would be possible today given what appears to be a rather nasty political climate in recent years in our wonderful nation’s capital.”
And what does he mean by that?
“The lack of respect, the lack of cordiality — at least looking at it from a distance — and the fact that the personal attacks are made routinely, particularly by the government in power.”
The 80-year-old lawyer, still working full-time at Gowlings law firm in Toronto, takes particular issue with the Conservative tough-on-crime agenda.
“In Canada at a time when crime rates are declining, we’re talking about building more prisons and putting more people in jail. I think it’s a very reactionary, wrong-headed approach. And when present government is asked about statistics they simply say they don’t believe in them,” he said.
He’s not surprised, either, at the lack of fanfare offered by the Conservatives on the Charter’s 30th anniversary in April.
The government gave the document cursory recognition, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested the lack of enthusiasm is due to sensitivity over the lingering ‘divisions’ caused by patriation.
“I thought it was very disdainful, but not unexpected. What I’m told is that the present government has nothing but disdain if not worse for the Charter,” said McMurtry.
“The fact that the federal government (is) determined to put more people in jail is of course a pretty good example of their dislike of the Charter because the Charter is fundamentally a document that protects minorities, minority rights.
“A lot of the rights that are entrenched in the Charter are to ensure that people accused of crime are given a fair trial. And this doesn’t seem to be a priority for the present government.”
McMurtry said he shared “very good” relationships with former prime ministers Trudeau, Chrétien, and Brian Mulroney.
“I should say something a little more positive about the Harper government and that is that I think they’ve been quite … conscientious about judicial appointments,” said the former chief justice, who spent 11 years on the bench.
“I have no quarrel with their appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada or to the Federal courts in Ontario, the trial courts. So I mean I’d like to give them credit for that.”
McMurtry hasn’t been a member of a political party for more than 20 years. He endorsed Hoskins, a friend for 25 years who he met during his stint as Canada’s high commissioner in the United Kingdom, because Hoskins asked him to.
“I hope as a former Progressive Conservative, with an emphasis on the word ‘progressive,’ that it won’t hurt him with his colleagues,” said McMurtry.
He wouldn’t speculate on who should lead the federal Liberals, and said he doesn’t know enough about Justin Trudeau to compare him to his father. But he is interested in the race.
“I’d like to see a party that shows more compassion,” he said.
And although the grandfather of 12 retired as a judge five years ago, he doesn’t want to stop working.
“My wife reminds me from time to time our wedding vows did not include lunch.”