Doer is an inspired choice as U.S ambassador

The former Manitoba premier will do well as our man in Washington

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The appointment of Gary Doer as Canada's new ambassador to the United States is an inspired piece of statecraft and politics by Stephen Harper.

Reaching across the aisle, as he has in appointing Doer on the day after he announced his retirement as NDP premier of Manitoba, the prime minister demonstrated a talent for the bi-partisan gesture not normally attributed to him, but one of which the voters are certain to approve. "Prime ministerial" is one term that comes to mind.

The announcement came, by a rather remarkable coincidence, the day after Harper sent a bunch of loyal retainers to their reward in the Senate. Surprise, surprise. Conservative PM appoints Conservative senators. As Claude Rains famously said as he blew the whistle in Casablanca: "I'm shocked, shocked, to discover that gambling has been going on here!"

The appointment of an NDP premier as our man in Washington, on the morrow of packing the Senate with nine more Tories, takes most of the heat off Harper, not that anyone really cares who is named to the Senate on the last Thursday in August.

And it's a very good appointment in substantial terms. As Canada's longest serving provincial premier, Doer already has a commanding knowledge of bilateral issues on trade, the environment and the border. As the premier of Manitoba, no one in Canada has a better understanding of trans-boundary water issues. All you have to do is mention the Red River or Devil's Lake.

As a western premier, Doer already knows most of the governors of the western states, from the Dakotas to California, or however his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger pronounces it. When the California governor announced his western initiative on climate change, Doer signed Manitoba on to it, and was the only Canadian premier to attend. (It helps, in setting ambitious targets for emissions reductions, to have hydro power, as Doer's friend Jean Charest can attest.)

In terms of understanding the Canadian federation, and the complex range of bilateral issues, Doer's grasp of these files is outstanding. A new ambassador to the U.S., before arriving at his post, is expected to make a listening tour of the provinces, and Doer is a very good listener. He is also a man without enemies among his provincial colleagues.

At the 2004 health summit, it was Doer who made it very clear to the feds that they were stepping into provincial jurisdiction, that the premiers were the ones delivering the services, and that under no condition would he or they allow Ottawa to isolate Charest by requiring the provinces to report back on how they spent the money. The resulting $41-billion transfer of new money over the ensuing decade, with Quebec free of reporting requirements, marked the triumph of "asymmetrical federalism." While Charest got a lot of the credit, Doer did a lot of the heavy lifting.

But that is Gary Doer - he has always been the least doctrinaire of NDP premiers, which is why, over three elections, his majorities just kept growing. He's sensible, sound, balanced and grounded. As Harper has noted, around any first ministers' table, he is always part of the solution. And as Doer himself has noted since his appointment, the voters want their leaders to work together, irrespective of party affiliation.

There's another skill that Doer will bring to the ambassador's office and dining room at our magnificent chancery, overlooking the U.S. Capitol. (When he gets settled at the embassy, the first thing he should do is enjoy the view, and remember the first three rules of Washington: location, location, location.) Doer does a very good schmooze, and in Washington, half an ambassador's job is representational - just getting the attention of the White House, the cabinet departments, both Houses of Congress, the governors of 50 states, and the American media, in an intensely competitive environment.

When they do engage, the first thing the Americans ask is whether the Canadian ambassador has the ear of the prime minister. That's normally the case, and in this one, there's no doubt. The reaching across the aisle is something they understand Washington. Certainly Barack Obama does, having just appointed a Republican as ambassador to China.

The retiring ambassador, Michael Wilson, had a more subdued style, but was regarded as an effective envoy for Canadian interests. This Prime Minister's Office has a reputation for keeping ambassadors on a short leash, discouraging media visibility, and occasionally big-footing embassies - even Washington. That would be a mistake with Doer. As it used to be said about Bill Clinton, let the big dog run.

There's certainly a lot to discuss with both the Obama administration and Congress, from thickening of the border to Buy American protectionist impulses in government procurement to Afghanistan. Obama is doubling the American commitment there to 70,000 troops, just as Canada is preparing to leave the neighbourhood in 2011. It's Obama's war, but is it still Canada's? There's a question for a scrum after Doer presents his credentials to the president.

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