Tom Kent: A life of purpose

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Nov 17 2011.   Thomas S. Axworthy

Tom Kent, who passed away in Kingston on Tuesday at age 89, was Canada’s foremost activist-intellectual. To some, the combination of the words is an oxymoron: intellectuals think conceptually, debate vociferously the arcane implications of theory, and are happiest in the library. Activists, on the other hand, while motivated by ideas, battle for their values in the public policy arena, by mobilizing supporters, outmanoeuvring opponents, creating organizations and winning elections.

Tom Kent dedicated his life to both strands of activity; he thought superbly and acted vigorously. The result is programs like medicare and the Canada Pension Plan, which help millions of Canadians every day.

Born in 1922, the son of a mining machine mechanist in the English Midlands, Kent went to Oxford on a scholarship. He was part of the famous team at Bletchley Park that broke the “ultra secret” of the German Enigma code during World War II. This led to his recruitment to the editorial board of the famous Manchester Guardian and it was as a journalist that Kent first made his mark.

In 1954, he immigrated to Canada to become editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, at the time one of the leading papers supporting the Liberal party. Kent modernized the Free Press and its pedigree gave him access to leading Liberal figures like Lester Pearson. Kent was a progressive liberal, well acquainted with John Maynard Keynes. At the Free Press he was relentless in calling on the Liberal party to endorse the welfare state and move beyond the business-liberalism dominance of C.D. Howe. Kent never lost his interest in journalism — many years later he chaired the 1981 Royal Commission on Newspapers.

He wrote in his memoirs: “I had not contemplated, before 1957, that I would ever be involved in an active political role.” But in 1958 when Pearson became leader of the Liberal party only to suffer a devastating election defeat, Kent was drawn into the small circle of advisers and activists led by Walter Gordon who were dedicated to making Pearson prime minister. The man of ideas was gradually wooed away from the private sector to become a one-man intellectual blood bank for the Liberal party.

In 1960, Kent wrote Towards a Philosophy of Social Policy for the Kingston thinkers’ conference. It outlined concrete policies that would bring to life his thesis that freedom is not just the absence of constraint, but the equal opportunity to act. For Kent, the state has to promote policies that protect people from hardships that are not of their own making, and provide support to create equality of opportunity. The policy ideas in his paper (medicare, employment training, regional development, student scholarships, social assistance) became part of Pearson’s election platform.

Largely due to the new ideas and candidates resulting from the Kingston conference, Pearson’s Liberals won the 1963 election. As Pearson’s policy secretary, Kent fought to persuade Parliament to pass and government to implement the policy priorities he advanced as party adviser. Allied with ministers like Walter Gordon and Allan MacEachen, Kent drove policies like the Canada Pension Plan and medicare. “It was my job,” Kent writes, “as I saw it to keep plugging away at firming and expounding our policies.” Kent considered “medicare the most important of all the social reforms introduced by the Pearson government.”

Kent left the federal government in 1971 after a decade of intense political service. He became the president of the Cape Breton Development Corp. (having practically invented regional development), of Sydney Steel and was editor of Policy Options. He taught at Dalhousie University and Queen’s.

I was lucky to have known Tom Kent for more than 40 years. As a former Manitoban, he took me in when I began working in Ottawa in the 1960s. Always generous with his time and advice, he was unfailingly polite, but logically rigorous. I never sent him an idea that he didn’t improve.

He never gave up his passion for equity, fairness and reform. In his late 80s he was still writing policy papers on medicare, employment insurance and federalism. His intellectual capital never depleted and his activist side never wavered.

Seeing the Liberal party as weakened today as it was in 1958, he wanted a new reform agenda. Just recently he sent me a note arguing that the Liberal party would be strengthened if local ridings had real power and that real power meant they should keep the money they raise, rather than sending most of it to party headquarters. He never gave up fighting for a fairer Canada or a more democratic Liberal party.

His was a life of public purpose.

Thomas S. Axworthy is Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

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