Kent went out on public policy limb

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Sun Media, Friday, November 18, 2011

Tom Kent, who died earlier this week at age 89, was a giant of Canadian politics and public policy.

He was the man behind the Kingston Conference of 1960, the famed thinkers' conference that revived the flagging fortunes of the federal Liberal Party, then lost in the wilderness of opposition.

And in the Pearson government of the mid-1960s, he was the architect of the Canada and Quebec pension plans and Medicare, two keystones of the modern Canadian state.

We have Tom Kent to thank for both.

As modest as he was, Kent would have been the first to say that his friend Mike Pearson deserved all the credit for the innovative ideas of federalism that led to the creation of the CPP-QPP and health care.

But it was Kent who came up with the idea that broke a constitutional impasse between Ottawa and Quebec on pensions.

It was called opting out.

Quebec got its own pension plan, while Ottawa got the principles of universality and portability.

On health care, the provinces delivered the service, but Ottawa stepped up to help fund it, again with the provinces agreeing to the universal principle of medicare.

It was simple, but it allowed for national programs while respecting the constitutional jurisdiction of the provinces.

Kent had been a code breaker for British intelligence at Bletchley Park in the Second World War, later becoming a journalist with the Guardian and editor of The Economist before moving to Canada as editor of the Winnipeg Free Press in 1954.

Pearson brought him into the Opposition Leader's Office after John Diefenbaker's1958 Tory landslide, a time when the Liberals were out of office and out of ideas.

Kent played an important role in the Liberals returning to government in 1963, driving the policy agenda that was developed out of the Kingston Conference.

The list of great advisers to prime ministers is a short one, and Tom Kent's name is right at the top.

Later, he served as chairman of the Royal Commission on Newspapers and in 1980 became the founding editor of Policy Options, the magazine I edit at the Institute for Research of Public Policy.

On the magazine's 25th anniversary in 2005, I offered to put his name at the top of the masthead as Editor Emeritus, which he declined on the grounds he was still contributing to it.

So we finally settled upon a title he would accept Founding Editor.

Until the end of his life, he continued to push the policy envelope by writing provocative pieces for the magazine he founded.

In 2004, he dismissed Paul Martin's 10-year, $41 billion Health Accord as "sugar daddy federalism."

Considering the source, it caused quite a commotion, and the prime minister himself called Kent at home in Kingston one night to discuss it.

In his final piece for the magazine last December, he wrote the headline himself: "A modest proposal: Kill corporate taxes."

That certainly landed with a thud on the doorstep of Michael Ignatieff, who'd made raising corporate taxes the centrepiece of his campaign platform.

Tom was a laconic man, but he understood the importance of words and the power of ideas. He was a companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honour our country can bestow.

For the rest, he would happily settle for pensions and health care as his living testament.

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