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'Four wise men' would show coalition the way

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — There are two former premiers, a former prime minister and a former finance minister, all with strong records of public service and economic credentials.

Known informally as the “four wise men,” Roy Romanow, Frank McKenna, Paul Martin and John Manley have agreed to form a body of economic advisers in the event of the formation of a Liberal-NDP coalition government.

If everything goes according to script, the quartet will draw comparisons to the team assembled south of the border by U.S. president-elect Barack Obama, who has called on experienced hands to help him deal with the financial crisis.

Steve Patten, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, said the four retired Canadian politicians are key to the credibility of a coalition government, which will face widespread attacks from the Conservatives. Already, Conservative officials are criticizing the NDP's past economic policies in an attempt to undermine the coalition's standing with voters.

“Strategically, it's a wise move,” Prof. Patten said. “The four are well known and they have strong reputations in progressive as well as in fairly conservative circles, so it adds legitimacy to the coalition.”

Prof. Patten said that the four advisers have strong CVs, including Mr. Manley, who last year navigated through the complex task of drafting the Harper government's policy on Afghanistan.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Manley wrote a total of 10 budgets between 1994 and 2003 as ministers of finance, and will bring much-needed experience if the coalition needs to put together an economic agenda quickly. In addition, Mr. Martin was prime minister in a minority government from 2004 to 2006, and has an impressive network on the world stage.

Mr. McKenna, the former premier of New Brunswick, offers Bay Street bona fides as deputy chair of TD Bank Financial Group. As a former Canadian ambassador to Washington, he also has high-level contacts in the United States.

Mr. Romanow, who was NDP premier of Saskatchewan between 1991 and 2001, is known for centrist views and was long courted by the Liberals for the federal stage. Mr. Romanow, who chaired a commission into the future of health care at the request of prime minister Jean Chrétien in 2001 and 2002, will be able to act as a bridge between the NDP and the Liberals.

With three Liberals and one New Democrat, the composition of the advisory group reflects the fact that the coalition cabinet would include a quarter of its ministers from NDP ranks.

A Conservative official pointed out, however, that the group does not have a representative for the Bloc Québécois, which also promises to support the coalition.

“[Former Quebec premier and separatist leader] Jacques Parizeau is probably the silent partner,” said Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

A Liberal strategist said the appointment of the advisers will be used to highlight the fact that Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin tamed the federal deficit in the 1990s and continued to balance the books.

“It's an important message to the business community that we are serious and fiscally responsible. We will not spend like crazy,” the strategist said, adding that the new coalition would nonetheless introduce an economic stimulus package.

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