Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on the political life of Catherine Callbeck and her retirement, this week, from the Senate. This installment follows Callbeck’s years as an MLA, cabinet minister, MP and premier. In Thursday’s installment, Callbeck talks about her time in the Senate, the scandal, its future and the importance of the Red Chamber.
CENTRAL BEDEQUE — Catherine Callbeck comes to the door impeccably dressed.
A well-fitted light pink suit topped off with a short strand of simple pearls and matching earrings is how the Senator opens the door on this sunny summer day.
Inside the picturesque Central Bedeque home where three generations of Callbecks have resided, the walls and shelves are covered with photos, art and various reminders of Callbeck’s life in politics and work with countless charitable organizations, public service groups, her community and the church.
Hers is a resumé long and varied, rivaled by few, if any.
On Thursday, that career of public service ends as she turns 75, marking the end of her time in the Canadian Senate and, said the statuesque former premier, her time in politics.
“It’s been an honour,” said Callbeck, perched on the floral couch in the home’s more casual living room.
Looking back, growing up in Central Bedeque she was an admittedly shy girl.
“I guess a lot of what I do and how I think comes from my upbringing. I was brought up in a family that participated in church and community affairs. It seemed the natural thing to do,” said Callbeck. “I certainly never set out to be a politician or to be in public office. It is just something that happened.”
Her parents, Ralph and Ruth, instilled in her and brother, Bill, a strong work ethic and the importance of giving back to their community.
But it wasn’t until after university, which led to a stint teaching off Island, that Callbeck would return home to work in the family business, eventually getting involved in the political scene.
Surprisingly, both the Conservatives and Liberals came knocking, asking Callbeck to consider running in the Fourth District of Prince in the 1974 provincial election.
A family history with the Liberal Party swayed Callbeck.
“I had a grandfather and uncle that were very much involved in the Liberal Party and every Sunday they would be here for dinner and I used to listen to their discussions,” she noted. “When I went to Mount Allison I was asked to become part of the Liberal organization, which I did. That really whetted my appetite.”
Callbeck’s foray into provincial politics paid off.
“The Alec Campbell government was in power. I liked what they were doing. I thought that he had very strong leadership and I wanted to be part of that team. I had a great respect for Angus MacLean, too.”
Within days of being elected, Callbeck was thrown into a cabinet position, appointed Minister of Health and Social Services, one of the cabinet largest portfolios.
In her four years as minister, and with money available, Callbeck helped introduce new social programs and reform others and overhaul the addiction foundation. It was during that time that the groundwork for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital was laid.
“It was certainly a demanding job. It was challenging but it was extremely rewarding.”
But after four years Callbeck decided to return to the family business.
It would a decade before she would return to public life.
“Every time an election would come up I would have people approach me to run. I always said no and then I decided I am getting older, if I am ever going back into politics now is the time,” she added. “Politics, once you are in it, I don’t think it ever leaves your blood. It’s there.”
Callbeck ran in the riding of Malpeque in the 1988 federal election and won.
Ottawa was much different. This time, she was in Opposition.
“I said at the time I really preferred being in government because in government you could go ahead and do something,” she added. “In the opposition, you are mainly looking at what they are bringing in and looking for flaws. That was not my nature.
“I am a doer, not a criticizer.”
It was yet another challenging role with a steep learning curve.
“Everything I did I looked at from a P.E.I. perspective. And there were lots of issues going on at that time. We had the GST, the closure of the base in Summerside. It was one thing after the other,” added Callbeck.
In January 1993, Callbeck ran for the leadership of the provincial Liberal Party.
“I never planned to do that,” she said. “I planned to run again, provincially, and I had my team lined up and had meetings with them. All of a sudden Joe Ghiz resigned and my phone started to ring. At first I said no. Eventually, I decided that maybe I could do more for the province being premier than being in Ottawa.”
She would make history, winning the leadership to become the first female leader of the party and, days later, the province’s first female premier.
The Liberals, under Callbeck’s leadership, went on to win the provincial election later that year, cementing her place in history.
“We ran the election on strong leadership,” recalled Callbeck. “There were basically three things. One was to get the deficit under control, which we did. We had two balanced budgets. The second was to improve health and education, which we did in a number of ways. The third was economic development. That we accomplished, too. There were more people working in Prince Edward Island during my term than any other time in its history.”
There was the debate about the fixed link. The economy was in trouble. Government spending was out of control. Federal transfers and equalization payments were cut.
Tough decisions had to be made.
One was the now infamous 7.5 per cent public service rollback, one many believe was the downfall of the Liberal government of the day.
It’s a decision Callbeck still defends today.
“We knew to really make a dent we had to do something about the salaries. They were at about 60 per cent of the operating expenses,” she said. “We could have laid off hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people or we could rollback everybody a bit.”
It was a decision not made lightly, added Callbeck. Hours were spent around the cabinet table debating the issue and coming to the decision.
Islanders protested, calling for her resignation. She and the party took a beating.
“Politically, it was not well received.”
Callbeck would resign after three and a half years serving as premier, a decision, she added, that had nothing to do with the public backlash over the rollback.
“When I left office we were 10 points ahead,” said Callbeck. “We did a lot of things while I premier. Amalgamation was another. The link. Getting that link, the amendment to the constitution was probably one of the biggest challenges I ever faced. There were a number of things that we did. The rollback was one of them.”
But it was the one that the voters remembered.
The public outcry and Islanders’ disdain over the rollback lost Liberals the 1997 election and, according to some political pundits, the two that followed.
“We should have communicated more and probably done less,” said Callbeck looking back now. “We did what we felt was in the best interest of all Islanders.”
Three and a half years into her term, Callbeck resigned.
“I was exhausted. And I thought that through the summer my energy level would start to come back. When it didn’t I really got concerned,” she explained. “I thought it would be better for someone else to lead the party into the next election and step down.”
With a life in politics behind her, she once again focused on business.
That was until rumblings about a Senate seat and a call in September 1997 from then Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
For part 2 in the series, pick up the Friday edition of the Journal Pioneer