By Andrew Macdonald
As Ben Cowan-Dewar goes about his quest for taxpayers dollars from the Trudeau and McNeil governments, the decision on granting $18 million for a Cabot Links airport could rest with the Glace Bay politico triumvirate of Glace Bay MP Rodger Cuzner, Nova Scotia Business Minister Geoff MacLellan — and even former federal power Gerald Butts.
Butts has previously praised Cabot Links Golf Course in Inverness, doing so after a round of golf there in 2017.
While no longer principal assistant to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s PMO, toppled by the SNC-Lavalin affair, suffice to say Butts still occupies a top level of support with Trudeau. After all, Butts and Trudeau have been best friends since meeting in the 1980s at McGill University.
Illustrating that tight friendship is that Butts was the first person to advise Trudeau on running for the Liberal leadership.
So, suffice to say Butts still has influence with his best friend, the prime minister of Canada.
After a round of golf at Cabot Links in 2017, Butts took to his twitter page, and said: “Reminder that Cape Breton is awesome, and Cabot Links keeps getting better every year.’
Rodger Cuzner is another Glace Bay politico who has been making public pronouncements that government money is necessary to take Cabot Links to the next level. He has been vocal with his support ever since The Notebook broke the Inverness airport project on June 1.
Cuzner’s office on Tuesday contacted The Notebook after I canvassed Nova Scotia Liberal MPs, and federal candidates on the Inverness file, asking those MPs if money from Ottawa should go to an airport for the two golf courses, Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs. (Stay tuned for the answers from our NS MPs).
Cuzner’s office suggested a follow up question for the those MPs: “Will you also ask a follow-up question about what the MPs see as the lost opportunities of not securing this exceptional investment in rural economic development that is being supported by three former and the current premier of the province?”
The former premiers supporting the airport project are Rodney MacDonald, Darrell Dexter and Frank McKenna.
Even as a soon-to-retire MP, Cuzner has an elevated spot in Trudeau’s sphere since he was the first MP in the Liberal caucus to endorse Trudeau’s leadership bid. That may carry significant weight as the Trudeau government considers giving money to Cabot Links for an airport project.
Cuzner, a 20-year politician, did not make it into cabinet, mostly because of gender issues, so Trudeau might reward Cuzner with his political swan song by giving government money to the airport project in Cuzner’s riding.
The other Glace Bay politico who is in a significant role to see Nova Scotia government money go towards the airport project is Business Minister Geoff MacLellan, who told a Legislature press scrum the Inverness airport has “merit.”
“The federal government has a decision to make, seeing what’s happening in that county. This is bigger than Cabot, just what’s happening in the county and of course on what I believe is the pinnacle of tourism for the province, based of course, on the Cabot Trail,” said MacLellan.
“I think that there’s certainly merit in it,” the Glace Bay politico added.
I should note, that when political pundits talk to The Notebook about a possible successor to Premier Stephen McNeil, Maclellan’s name is always on top of that list.
Back to Gerald Butts.
To understand his close friendship with Justin Trudeau, here is part of a February news article from the National Post detailing their tight three decade friendship:
Founded in friendship
Butts and Trudeau are not just colleagues, they are very close friends. They met at McGill University in the early 1990s and their friendship was so close that Butts helped craft Trudeau’s memorable eulogy for his father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 2000.
That was the public speech that produced a push for Trudeau, then a teacher in British Columbia, to follow his father into politics. In his book, ‘Common Ground’, Trudeau wrote that when he began to think about running for the Liberal leadership in 2012, Butts was the first person he approached for advice.
Butts was a critical part of both Trudeau’s leadership campaign and the Liberals’ 2015 election campaign. Trudeau has described Butts and Katie Telford, his chief of staff, as “the core of my inner circle.”
Butts and Trudeau were both born in 1971 but grew up in very different circles. Trudeau was the son of a prime minister whose childhood included a security detail and handshakes with world leaders. Butts was the youngest son of a Glace Bay coal miner and a nurse, who nonetheless grew up to have at least one link to Liberal politics.
His aunt, Peggy Butts, a nun and social activist who is said to have been one of the biggest influences on how he views the world, was appointed to the Senate by Jean Chretien in 1997.
Deja-vu all over again
The 2015 campaign was not the first in which Butts helped steer a Liberal leader into government. Butts’s first foray into politics came with the Ontario Liberals, where he was a policy adviser to then-leader Dalton McGuinty. He was one of the architects of the 2003 Liberal platform that propelled McGuinty into the premier’s office and Butts would be his principal secretary for five years.
McGuinty’s agenda has many similarities to Trudeau’s, such as phasing out coal power, expanding renewable energy, and increasing social spending.
Prime Minister Butts
Butts has been unusually visible for a senior political staffer. He did not shy away from talking to journalists — in fact he seemed to relish doing so — but always “on background”. His presence on social media, however, was public and constant, as he used Twitter to spin government policy, challenge government critics and even get into sparring matches with the leaders of provincial parties and governments.
This visibility began in his McGuinty days, with the Ontario Tories in 2003 putting out an entire press release attacking him as an “anonymous, un-elected, backroom spin doctor” who was the “real leader of the Liberal Party of Ontario.”
This visibility, and his influence and power within Trudeau’s office, were not always met happily by Liberal MPs, some of whom secretly referred to him as “PM Butts.”
It’s the environment, stupid
Butts’s influence is felt in every area of government policy and Trudeau would not make any big policy decisions without the input of both Butts and Telford.
But the area Butts holds dearest is the environment. Environment policies were a central theme in McGuinty’s government during the Butts era, and again with the Trudeau Liberals.
In between the two governments, Butts was the CEO of the World Wildlife Fund in Canada, a position he held until the Trudeau Liberal leadership campaign came calling.
In his resignation statement Butts even made a pitch for action to halt climate change: “Our kids and grandkids will judge us on one issue above all others,” he said. “That issue is climate change. I hope the response to it becomes the collective, non-partisan, urgent effort that science clearly says is required. I hope that happens soon.”