Young New Defence Minister

The frightening thing is that he has actually mellowed. Anyone who thinks Doug Young still takes no prisoners needs to have seen him in New Brunswick in the early 1980s - long before he became national defence minister - when he was leader of the provincial Liberal party.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 21, 1996

The frightening thing is that he has actually mellowed. Anyone who thinks Doug Young still takes no prisoners needs to have seen him in New Brunswick in the early 1980s - long before he became national defence minister - when he was leader of the provincial Liberal party.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 21, 1996

Young New Defence Minister

The frightening thing is that he has actually mellowed. Anyone who thinks Doug Young still takes no prisoners needs to have seen him in New Brunswick in the early 1980s - long before he became national defence minister - when he was leader of the provincial Liberal party. Then, his acid tongue knew no bounds, his ego was unrestrained and his trademark toughness went unchecked. This is a man who kicked off his first and only provincial election campaign by threatening to rip up a brand-new teachers' contract - in the process angering even his own party's candidates. He yelled at reporters. He taunted premier Richard HATFIELD as "Tricky Dicky" and compared him to a goose that he would cook for Thanksgiving. By the end of the vicious campaign the national press had labeled Young "a piranha." Yet he still boasted that his party - way ahead in the polls at the beginning of the race - would win 34 of 54 seats. In the end, the Grits took just 18. And within weeks Young resigned as leader, humiliated by losing an election that was his to win.

And now, the transformed 1996 model: Ottawa's star of the moment, the Prime Minister's chief troubleshooter - but still the baddest guy on the block. There Young stood under the television lights last week, immaculately dressed, chin thrust disdainfully forward, a survivor whose truculent style earned him his latest cabinet promotion from Human Resources to Defence. Only a few nights earlier he had brought down the house at an alumni gathering at the University of Moncton by joking, "The Prime Minister told me I have so many enemies I need an army to protect myself." Back in Ottawa, with no detectable sign of a smirk, Young, 56, said it was just coincidence that, one day after his meeting with Gen. Jean Boyle, the beleaguered chief of defence staff finally resigned. Then he warned anyone who wants to apply for Boyle's old job to think twice. "It will be a very tough decision for those who think they should be considered," he told reporters, "because everyone is under a magnifying glass."

Just like Young. Defence, at the best of times, is a troubled portfolio - and this is hardly the best of times. With the rank-and-file demoralized and the leadership rocked by the resignations of Boyle and Young's predecessor David Collenette, Canada's Armed Forces are in full-scale retreat. Last week, his first as minister, Young not only had to handle Boyle's surrender and the search for a successor, he was also confronted by more gripping testimony at the Somalia inquiry and unsavory pictures that surfaced showing soldiers with the corpse of an Iraqi civilian blown up by a mine during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. By any standards it was a rough introduction. Yet such is Young's peculiar power at the moment that even political opponents believe he is the government's best hope for whipping the military into shape. "His arrival will be good for the department," conceded Reform defence critic Jim Hart. "He's a no-nonsense guy, he's quick on his feet."

Being Doug Young has not always been so desirable. He grew up poor in the impoverished Acadian village of Tracadie on New Brunswick's North Shore. The Jesuit-educated son of a garage owner, he was a tough guy even then, earning a reputation on the baseball diamond as a pitcher who threw the high hard one against hitters who dug in too close to the plate. Young's drive, which along with his combativeness and stubborn sense of loyalty are his defining characteristics, already shone through. Bob DeGrace, a businessman and mayor of Bathurst, N.B., who first met Young when the future politician was a teenage local radio broadcaster, remembers him as "mature in a funny way, far beyond his years." All he lacked, according to many who knew him in those days, was a focus.

Then came the Liberal party and Louis Robichaud, the province's first Acadian premier, who embarked on a sweeping social-reform agenda designed to bring New Brunswick into the 20th century. Young succumbed to politics, becoming an enthusiastic volunteer and heading up the government's information office throughout the late 1960s. He went on to become the premier's top aide and even acted as Robichaud's driver during election campaigns. Robichaud, now a senator, deadpans: "He is a man of infinite patience. I made two or three speeches a day and he never left the room."

In truth, Young may have glimpsed his future. Robert Pichette, Robichaud's executive assistant during that period, recalls how during the 1970 election campaign Young leaned over to him once and said, "I will be premier of New Brunswick some day." When the Liberals lost the election to Hatfield's Tories, Young headed for the University of New Brunswick's law school in Fredericton at the age of 30. He put himself through by slinging beer at a hotel tavern, reading the news at a local radio station and acting as a brewery marketing representative for Moosehead. After graduating in 1975, he set up a law practice, all the time awaiting his political opportunity.

Young was a man in a hurry, anxious to make up for lost time. In 1978, he made a surprisingly strong run for the Liberal leadership, finishing third behind John Bryden and Joe Daigle, the eventual winner. A year later, he engineered the overthrow of longtime Liberal MLA Adjuctor Ferguson to gain the nomination in the solidly Liberal riding of Tracadie. He won the seat, and once inside the legislature acted as the Liberal pit bull, dominating the debate in French and English - he has been fluently bilingual since childhood - and at one point haranguing the Tories for 11 straight hours.

Young's reputation as a political brawler was strengthened by his role - still contested by some - in a 1981 caucus revolt against Daigle that drove the Liberal leader out of politics. "His involvement," says Don Hoyt, a Fredericton journalist who was then Young's political aide, "was greatly exaggerated." Maybe so, but when Young was appointed as interim leader a day later, Bryden quit the party over what he called the "caucus coup d'état" and Young's role in it. In the end, Young won a four-way race for the leadership.

But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Hoyt, who ran the disastrous 1982 provincial election campaign that followed, said that the humiliation of losing to Hatfield "helped Young round off the sharp corners." More humiliation was to come: when new Liberal Leader Frank McKenna became premier in 1987, he offered Young the lowly Fisheries portfolio - a pointed message that there was going to be only one boss in the government. A year later, Young jumped to the federal arena, winning the Acadie-Bathurst seat and joining the Opposition benches where he served as finance critic.

When the Liberals swept to power in 1993, Young was as blunt, candid and impatient as ever - but with a new sense of self-awareness. Even before Prime Minister Jean Chrétien offered him the transport portfolio, he called Fred Drummie, a smooth and cerebral bureaucrat from New Brunswick who had retired just before the election, asking if he would be "prepared to come to Ottawa and keep him out of trouble." Adds Drummie, now Young's executive assistant in the department of defence: "That, as anyone who knows Doug at all well realizes, is a rather tall order."

Young's first federal portfolio offered one clear advantage over other posts: the Liberal Red Book contained not a single promise related to transportation. That left him free to set his own agenda while applying the government's fiscal conservatism. In three years, Young slashed his department's budget and workforce, privatized the country's air navigation system and, perhaps most startlingly, sold off CN Rail. There were setbacks - most noticeably the Senate defeat of Liberal legislation to limit damages stemming from the cancelation of the contract to privatize Toronto's Pearson International Airport. On balance, though, the reviews were good. "He is one of the most impressive and effective ministers that I have ever seen in action," marvelled CN president Paul Tellier, who was Clerk of the Privy Council under the Mulroney government.

Maybe he did the job too well. When Chrétien shuffled his cabinet last January, he needed someone to fill the void left by former human resources minister Lloyd Axworthy, who moved to External Affairs. Young made no secret of the fact that he did not want the job. But it was forced on him anyway - and he attacked it with his usual gusto, pushing through his predecessor's employment insurance reforms and laying the groundwork for a deal with the provincial governments to transfer $2 billion in federal manpower retraining funds. During his eight months as human resources minister, Young's reputation as a truculent, unfeeling right-winger blossomed. He faced down UI protesters in his home riding, refused to meet with advocacy groups representing disadvantaged children and the poor, and told people with disabilities that they are not the government's responsibility.

His supporters, however, say that there is another side to Doug Young. "He's a compassionate guy," insists Paul Zed, a New Brunswick Liberal MP who has known him for 20 years, "a Liberal from the Robichaud-Mike Pearson mode." In truth, Young is full of surprises and contradictions. Married, with three children, he wears a fur coat in winter and drives a Lexus and a Jeep. At the same time, Young is a passionate Catholic who always finds time for Sunday mass. And friends say he is far from truculent in private, a man who likes to drive his jet boat near his summer cottage in Bathurst, N.B., who is a walking encyclopedia of sports trivia and is a fan of The Rolling Stones.

As a host, fellow Liberals say, Young is without parallel among government members: his large - 6,000 square feet by one estimate - Ottawa house served as a home-away-from-home for new Liberal MPs during the party's early days in power. At dinner parties the guest list is eclectic and the menu usually includes steak, lobster and $40 bottles of wine, followed by his infamous "Café Papas": a high-octane combination of coffee and liqueurs that the minister of national defence mixes himself. "Doug is a very sociable guy," notes Liberal caucus chairman Joe Fontana. "He loves nothing better than sitting down with a group of people in his den or around the kitchen table."

Despite his hard-knuckle ways, Young has fans in strange places. Brian Mulroney, upon retiring, declared Young one of the two Opposition MPs he genuinely liked. Underlings call him impatient and demanding, but also "inspiring," a hard worker and quick study with a businesslike approach to his job. They note with satisfaction that his unwillingness to suffer fools extends to caucus and cabinet ministers. Actually, Young says little during caucus meetings, privately referring to them as "duty penance." Yet even his enemies in caucus respect his intellect and ability to get the job done.

Having the support of the most powerful Liberals helps keep any angry murmurs down. Finance Minister Paul Martin had enough confidence in Young's grasp of fiscal policies to dispatch him to New York City to brief institutional investors as the 1995 federal budget was being presented. Chrétien, meanwhile, loves his aggressive partisanship - especially Young's pummelling of Tory senators for refusing to pass the Pearson legislation, as well as the fact, according to one Chrétien aide, that "he hates separatists." No overstatement there. According to friends, Young was badly shaken when he accompanied Louis ROBICHAUD to the funeral of Pierre LAPORTE, the Quebec labor minister murdered by the FLQ during the 1970 OCTOBER CRISIS.

Now, Young's challenge will be filling the void in military headquarters left by Boyle's resignation. Early bets on a possible successor were on the army's commander, Lt.-Gen. Maurice Baril, 53, primarily because he is not connected to the Somalia mission and the wave of scandal that continues to follow it. Baril has received favorable reviews: he was quick to call for an investigation into the alleged misbehavior of Canadian troops in Bosnia in 1992, and appointed an inspector general to assess the army's problems. Vice-Admiral Lynn Mason - given much of the credit for whipping the navy into shape - is also touted as a possible choice. Lt.-Gen. Richard Evraire, 58, who returned to Canada in August after spending the past eight years at two NATO postings in Europe, is also on the government's shortlist. Highly regarded among Canada's allies, Evraire has a reputation of being both smart and tough. Most importantly for the government, his years in Europe mean that, as far as Somalia goes, he has nothing to hide.

Young must also preside over the reinvigoration of the military. Last week, he sounded a wake-up call in his typically straightforward fashion. In the House of Commons, he endorsed the Canadian Forces' bid for new military equipment, including maritime helicopters - a proposal that haunted the Mulroney government throughout its years in power. "The armed forces want decisions made on major equipment acquisition," he said, "and I think they have a right to that. I'm going to to try to move it as quickly as I can." He also demanded that the Somalia commission of inquiry complete its work by its March 31, 1997, deadline so the Armed Forces can get on with reforms and begin to work in a "sane environment." Then, he strode out of the Commons, got into his car and left for department of national defence headquarters. It was still too early for the bureaucrats and military brass to take the measure of their new boss. He is talking the tough-guy talk they can understand. Now, all he has to do is show he can walk the perilous walk.

Maclean's October 21, 1996