Forget, for a moment, his reputation as a throwback to the old-style, intensely partisan Ottawa wheeler-dealers. At a little past 8 a.m. on a steel-grey morning, David Dingwall is trying to lighten up. It does not come easily. One leg hooked over the side of a chair in his Halifax hotel room, the federal minister of public works and government services launches a dead-on imitation of a disgruntled constituent from his riding of Cape Breton/East Richmond, then mimics the softly modulated tones of Alasdair Graham, the canny senator from Sydney, N.S., who helped introduce him to politics. Then comes Dingwall's showstopper - the incantory, drawn-out delivery of Allan J. MacEachen, the longtime federal Liberal minister from Cape Breton who now sits in the Senate. "Close your eyes," says one acquaintance of both men, "and you'll swear Allan J. is right there in the room."
In a way, maybe he is. Today, at least, Dingwall plays coy when compared to the political legend - the man who, despite 41 years in Ottawa and a succession of senior cabinet posts under Pierre Trudeau, always looked after his beloved, downtrodden island off the eastern tip of Nova Scotia. "There is only one Allan J.," Dingwall explains with a knowing chuckle. Privately, though, he is said to enjoy - even to invite - the comparison. Dingwall, after all, controls $9 billion a year in government procurement and contracts. He rides herd as federal government boss in the Atlantic provinces where he, Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin of Newfoundland and Transport Minister Douglas Young of New Brunswick give the region a level of cabinet clout unrivalled since the Trudeau days. He also holds the purse strings for the $375-million annual budget of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), and as one of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's oldest and strongest supporters has a power base that seems unassailable. For now, at least, Cape Breton has a new political godfather - a poor boy who has made good at the tender age of 42 and seems determined to continue Allan J.'s legacy.
At a glance, there is nothing down-home about the bald, sturdily built lawyer with the quick politician's smile and a fondness for expensive suits and tasselled loafers. In Ottawa, where he was nicknamed "Little Napoleon" while Liberal House leader from 1991 to 1993, Dingwall is known to have the stamina of a triathlete, the killer instinct of a pit bull, and the political acumen of, well, an Allan MacEachen - even if his critics say he sorely lacks the older man's subtlety. "The kind of old politics he practises," notes a senior Ottawa bureaucrat, "is so out of step with what other ministers are trying to do."
Go to Cape Breton, though, and Dingwall's name is gold. Students at the University College of Cape Breton, where he studied business, recently christened a new stone wall built on campus with part of a $2-million federal grant "the Ding Wall." Last summer, the travelling variety show The Cape Breton Summertime Review could always count on a few laughs with its tribute to Dingwall - sung to the melody of Davy Crockett - and its chorus of "Davy, Davy Dingwall, King of the Maritimes."
The "king" himself is wont to say that his near-legendary drive and ambition is for all the right reasons. "One of my biggest roles as an MP and minister is to try to create the environment for the private sector to create jobs in the Atlantic region," he explained in an interview. "If you have a job a lot of things fall into place: you have dignity, you can provide for your kids, and you can improve your own quality of life."
On that promise he has clearly delivered - even if some of his own Atlantic caucus members sometimes feel that Cape Breton, with its 25-per-cent unemployment rate, is too often the beneficiary of his efforts. Within a month of being sworn in as minister on Nov. 4, 1993, Dingwall stepped off the plane in his riding with an $83-million federal package for Micronav Ltd., including $64 million for Cape Breton. Millions more in grants followed, although of the 2,320 projects funded by ACOA in the 16 months since Dingwall took over the controversial body, only 200 were in Cape Breton.
In future, the island will be lucky to do that well. Last December Dingwall announced that, from now on, ACOA would limit itself to providing repayable loans to small and midsize businesses. Yet his cabinet clout is such that despite strong pressure to do away with the agency, ACOA emerged from February's federal budget with its budget trimmed from $252-million to $179-million, just a fraction of the cuts suffered by comparable regional development agencies in the West and Quebec.
No one needs to remind him how vulnerable the Atlantic economy is. His father, George, was a school janitor. In fact, the future cabinet minister grew up in a school basement in South Bar, a hamlet seven kilometres north of Sydney that was so poor that the Dingwall family's living arrangements were actually envied. Politics offered an escape. Until he died last summer, George Dingwall was the staunchest of Liberals. His son inherited his father's unswerving loyalty to the party. His earliest political memory: as an 11-year-old sitting happily by his dad's side, watching the results of the 1963 federal election as Lester Pearson's Grits swept to victory. "My father drove into me that there were two important callings in life," he says. "The priesthood and public service."
Succeeding in the rough-and-tumble world of Cape Breton politics, however, takes low cunning as well as high purpose. Dingwall's real political education began in 1974 when he became a special assistant to Allan Sullivan, a pudgy, street-smart Liberal MLA from Cape Breton who held a number of key portfolios in Gerald Regan's provincial government. After two years under Sullivan's tutelage, he returned to law school at Halifax's Dalhousie University and finished his degree.
When Joe Clark's short-lived government fell in 1980, Dingwall won the Liberal nomination in Cape Breton/East Richmond. The race that followed was tough, and the 27-year-old political neophyte squeaked in by fewer than 300 votes. Even now, rumors endure that Dingwall's campaign team spread the word that the New Democratic incumbent, a Roman Catholic priest named Andy Hogan, was at a detox centre drying out during the campaign - a charge the minister vehemently denies.
In the cabinet, his penchant for political intrigue has even alienated some allies. When, for example, the federal industry department asked for government funds to analyze the findings of a student science quiz held across the country, Dingwall's department stalled and stalled on the request - and then brazenly used it as a bargaining chip to obtain approval for a project involving the Cape Breton Development Corp. when it came before the cabinet. Sniffed a senior Industry official: "He comes from the old school of wheeling and dealing."
For all of that, his impressive organizational skills have been invaluable to the Grits. As House leader, Dingwall left nothing to chance, even timing Opposition questions with a stopwatch before Question Period to ensure that none ran longer than 30 seconds. From the moment he arrived in Ottawa, he doted on his own riding with equal care - putting together a computer mailing list of 40,000 constituents long before any other MPs caught on to the idea.
Chrétien certainly noticed. Dingwall supported his failed 1984 leadership bid. Throughout the late 1980s, the pair were regulars at Mamma Teresa's Italian restaurant, a Liberal hangout in Ottawa, for long, politically charged dinners with supporters. Then, in 1990, Dingwall was one of the chief strategists when Chrétien finally won the Liberal leadership. Today, his relationship with the Prime Minister is one of trust and undisputed loyalty - a fact noted by those skeptical of how a young politician from one of the country's poorest regions has managed to gather so much power. Even they cannot deny that Dingwall's endless 16-hour days have won admiration - although some fear that the pace is simply too demanding. Says one caucus colleague: "David just has to learn to lighten up."
Not likely. Outside of early-morning health-club visits, the occasional winter skate down the Rideau Canal and a few rounds of golf when the weather warms, he has no real diversions. Already, he has paid an immense price for his ambition. One aide from the late 1980s remembers watching Dingwall in his Ottawa office reading a bedtime story over the telephone to his three children - a boy now 15 and two girls aged 14 and 12 - back home in Cape Breton. Since then, his marriage to Nancy has failed, for which he says he blames only himself.
But for Dingwall these are the glory days. When in Opposition back in the 1980s, he sometimes lapsed into fanciful reveries of what life would be like in government. What does he think after 16 months in power? "Politics is tough, demanding, exhausting," he muses. "But if you believe you can make a contribution, no matter how small, then it is all worthwhile." Just the sort of bromide one might expect from a politician who has risen to the top by guile and hard work - and is determined not to screw up now that he is there. In fact, just the sort of thing that Allan J. might have said.
Maclean's April 3, 1995