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From head of the class to military head
John McCallumıs unlikely journey to the top job in the Canadian Armed Forces

by Angelo Persichilli  (Versione italiana)

His appointment 365 days ago raised many eyebrows. How do you turn a successful economist into a federal Minister of Defence? Sure an economist knows how much a tank costs but I'm sure that if we put a tank and a fridge together they recognize the tank by default.

John McCallum is the economist who was parachuted three years ago from downtown bank in Toronto into the 905-area riding in Markam, Ont. The question of competence, on the surface, may seem relevant, but it shouldnıt be. In fact, why doesnıt anybody ever ask what a lawyer like Anne McLellan is doing heading up the federal Department of Health?

Last week, I met Mr. McCallum (Markham, Ont.) during a social event in Toronto and I asked for him an opinion on the stunning rise of the Canadian dollar. "I vaguely heard about it, but I do not know the details. I have a job to do and I am focusing on that one. You can only do one job at the time very well."

And Mr. McCallum is taking his new job seriously, not only as a minister, but also as an MP and seems to be developing a broad relationship with his constituents.

Hereıs a look at some of the McCallum numbers. The Markham riding association membership is ninth in the province in terms of numbers. Three weeks ago he had 1,150. By June 20, the riding association numbers would increase to 1,500, putting them in the top five in the province. Moreover, the riding association, despite a vow by the John Manley (Ottawa South, Ont.) camp that they would take over the minister's riding, the Mr. McCallum's slate won by a ratio of 60 to one, and at the recent Martin event which Mr. McCallum hosted last week in Markham, it was announced that the organization had 2,330 memberships and membership request forms for the Martin team.

These memberships cover 43 ridings and a geographic area that includes most of the GTA, the 905-area, and extends as far as Barrie, London Centre and Oshawa. "This," one Mr. McCallum organizer said, "was accomplished in four and a half weeks."

How was all of this was accomplished? How can an chief bank economist be turned into a successful politician? I asked these questions to Mr. McCallum, a former university professor and former chief economist of the Royal Bank in an indepth interview, a full year after his appointment as Defence Minister. And I asked him about his programs, his aspirations and how he feels in this new life as a federal politician.

Mr. McCallum, first of all, why did you leave your successful career in the private sector to join politics?
Definitely it was not for the money. Sometimes my wife believes [itıs] because I was crazy. For sure, I do not regret it.

Iım sure you had to make some compromise.
Only one: less time with the family. It is a job that almost makes all other jobs look boring.

How did the change came about?
I was approached one month before the election by the Prime Minister and his people and I gave it some serious thought. At the time, I had never been in politics, but I had certain views of Canada and the things the Canadian Alliance I perceived were standing for [that] I did not agree with at all.

Like what?
Flat tax proposal: I did not like that. Giving away power to the provinces: I did not agree with that. Never-ending referendum on social issues: I did not like that. Those three things made me more enthusiastic in joining the Liberal team.

It was a radical change.
Well, then it comes in my taste to have a variety in life. From university, to the banks, now in politics. There are people saying that I have trouble in holding a job. The fact is that I like variety. So, putting together the approach from the Liberal Party, Allianceıs policies and liking variety in life, made me decide to accept.

Did you expect to land in Defence?
I had no commitment to be in Cabinet at all at the beginning. Of course, I had no idea that I would ever be in Defence.

Were you surprised when asked?
Totally surprised, but also pleased because it is a significant ministry. Which is the most difficult part you had to overcome? The first one challenge was to understand everything. It is a department with $13-billion now, 100,000 people with the reservists and civil servants. The second [one is] to understand the politics and the culture of the sector.

Do you think you have accomplished that?
You will never understand everything, but I believe I understand enough about the priorities and the areas I want to tackle.

Can you elaborate?
There are five areas we have tackled and we will be tackling further. The first one is the human dimension. Art Eggleton did a tremendous amount of work in improving the well-being of the soldiers. Salaries, I do not believe, are the biggest issue now. Another important item that comes to my attention was the dismemberment issue. If you lose a leg and you are below the rank of colonel, you will get nothing. I am about to introduce a retroactive bill, hopefully before the end of the session, on this matter. The second issue is the budget. It clearly became known that we did not have the money to carry the mandate and we had a billion-dollar gap. My first priority was to close that gap. In the budget we had an $800-million increase in base funding more and we are going to find the extra $200-million through internal savings. Then we have the Canada-U.S. relationship since 1940, we have co-defended the continent, from the Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union or, now, from the terrorism. We have to continue to do that, but it has to be done in a way that is appropriate for the post-September events.

Is this including the decision on Ballistic Missile Defence?
Thatıs phase two and we will be decided soon.

How soon?
Before the end of the session we will decide if we have to enter into negotiations with the U.S. on this subject.

Letıs go back to number four.
Itıs Afghanistan. We want to make sure that our commitment of 18 soldiers in partnership with the Germans is a success.

And the last area?
The helicopters. We want to make one contract, instead of two, which will get helicopters to us faster and at less risk. I asked you about the Canadian dollar and you basically said that you did not have information.

Donıt you miss that activity?
I havenıt forgotten my economics and, when I said I donıt know about the dollar, I donıt think that any economist, ever, is good in forecasting the dollar. If an economist really knew what the future dollar would be, the economist would be billionaire. When an economist works for a bank, they pay you to have a view to present to the customers. In reality, nobody believes that the economist really knows. Those saying that the dollar might be at 75 cents U.S. at the end of the year, are likely the same saying a few months ago that the dollar would be falling below 60. I donıt miss that.

You have to admit, however, that being an economist in a downtown Toronto tower and shaking hands with people that you donıt even know, is quite different. In some ways it is different, in others it is not.
When I was teaching I was with students all the time, debating them, with the banks I did a lot of media, speaking engagements, taking questions and so on. In politics, however, it is more adversarial even with the media.

So what is the secret to do good in politics?
It is very simple: you have to become a real politician, in the positive sense of the term.

Are you?
I believe Iım making progress and there are two dimensions to that. Can you explain? One is at the grassroots level, the second is the caucus relation.

Did you succeed?
I had people trying to take over my riding association and we were able to create a good team with people very loyal to me. We have a very strong membership and I will be able to deliver [for] Paul Martin, the candidate I support, over 2,000 new memberships. That has nothing to do with academic policies. This is now politics. The other side of it is the caucus. I always tell my staff that any request from a caucus member is a top priority.

Any regrets?
No. I canıt say I love every second, but almost every second Iım having a great time. The only negative, and it is a significant one, is the less time I spend with my family.

As you said, you like changes. Whatıs the next project?
I never do long-run planning. Six months before I joined the Royal Bank I thought I would never work for a bank and would always be in the academic world. Six months before I entered politics, I never thought Iıd ever be in politics. I like what I am doing and I will do my best.

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