You know your career is well along when people you’ve worked with start retiring. This week Lowell Murray, retired from the senate at the mandated age of 75. “The Senator”, as those of us who once worked for him fondly called him, retired quietly on Sunday without all of the normal tributes that mark the conclusion of a long and illustrious career. It was a real shame because Lowell was an important player in both the Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney governments as a campaign manager and minister.
Lowell was known for his cautious wisdom and thoughtfulness. He understood that politics is as much about disappointment as victory. “You can only be right 50 per cent of the time”, he used to tell me (I thought those odds were pretty low – still do). But, when you consider the causes that Lowell fought for, you begin to understand his point of view.
He helped unseat Diefenbaker as leader, but failed to replace him with his old boss Davie Fulton. He helped Joe Clark become leader and prime minister, but suffered many a disappointment in his efforts to keep him there. Despite the bitter rivalry between Clark and Mulroney, Mulroney appointed Lowell as a minister. Unfortunately, he also gave him his toughest file – the passage of the Meech Lake agreement……and we all know how that turned out. Despite the outcome, Lowell always offered a perspective on government that was grounded in principle with a deep understanding of the electorate, largely a result of his Cape Breton heritage.
Perhaps Lowell’s biggest disappointment was the merger of the Alliance and the PC parties. I still remember him at the front of the room where PCs where gathered to hear the results of the merger vote. Sitting with an unlikely combination of Flora Mac Donald and Sinclair Stevens, Lowell saw the party vote in massive favour of ending the PC party. He never got over that.
Despite many attempts to bring him on board with the new Conservative party he stubbornly remained convinced that the merger was a mistake. His view has always been a mystery to me because Lowell was the ultimate in Real Politique. Dividing the conservative vote was never a smart way to attain power. The first election after Stephen Harper became leader was an overwhelming success by any measure. Lowell, had lots of fears that Harper would narrow the base of the party and appeal to the “meanies” as he used to call them. Instead, Prime Minister Harper, has grown the party to include significant numbers of new Canadians and consistently more seats in Quebec than Joe Clark ever enjoyed.
While it was disappointing that the senator isolated himself from the new party I will always remember him as a mentor of bright young political talent. He tutored a good many: Allan Greg, Nancy Jameson, and Michael Ferrabee, to name just a few. I used to chuckle every time he disapproved of one of my schemes. “No, no, no” was his favourite refrain. But he always encouraged independent thought and initiative even if he did not agree with the point of view.
Lowell’s departure from the senate closes an important chapter in the conservative movement in Canada, but he will have an enduring impact on the careers of many for years to come.