Canadian Parliament's One-Man Team Player
Phil Edmonston shook up big business, now he's shaken up politics
OTTAWA — INSIDE a rigid party system that cherishes quiet consensus, Louis Phillip Edmonston is a noisy political outsider who makes his party leadership nervous because they never know what he will say.
Sporting a yellow jacket instead of the typical dark suit for an interview, Mr. Edmonston enjoys playing the odd man out - which he already is, as one of three current Members of Parliament born in the United States, out of 288 current MPs (there are seven vacancies). Twenty-five former Americans have been elected to Canada's Parliament in the past 50 years, according to the Library of Parliament.
In 1969, Edmonston surprised his new French-speaking wife from Quebec and shocked his mother by renouncing his US citizenship. But being out of step with expectations isn't something Edmonston has ever minded. Just the opposite, in fact. His life has revolved around challenging the status quo.
``I'm not very diplomatic,'' says Edmonston, lolling back in his chair in his Spartan Parliament Hill office. ``And I'm not necessarily a team player. In fact, I refuse to be a team player unless the rules are the same for everybody, as they were in the Army. I was a team player in the Army.''
As proud as he is of his three-years of US Army service in Panama in the early 1960s, Edmonston is equally pleased to have been a part of the US civil rights movement - the only white student to graduate in 1968 from all-black Bowie State College in Bowie, Md.
As the school's ``token white,'' he says he served on the student newspaper and helped organize a student boycott to protest campus inequities - a protest made famous when Maryland's then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew ordered state police to arrest the protesters. Later, Edmonston marched with Veterans Against the War, to protest US involvement in Vietnam.
Disillusionment over the Vietnam War led him to renounce his US citizenship, Edmonston says. But instead of harboring disdain for America, he says he cherishes the seeds of individualism sown when he was growing up in Washington, D.C. The turbulent '60s in the US primed him to emerge in the 1970s as Canada's leading consumer advocate.
Known as ``Canada's Ralph Nader'' for his battles with automakers on behalf of Canadians whose cars were prematurely falling apart, Edmonston's reputation was cemented long before his 1990 election to Parliament.
Lowell Dodge, now assistant to the general counsel of the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress, was at that time one of ``Nader's Raiders,'' the group of young lawyers who helped the consumer advocate in his campaigns. Mr. Dodge encouraged Edmonston in his fight for better automobile warranties in Canada. A Nader-like quality
``He's got this boundless energy and enthusiasm and this ability to communicate,'' Dodge says. ``He has a Nader-like quality of being able to spot a good issue and develop it - the capacity to identify outrageous situations like cars rusting away before their time.''
The 1970s fight with Ford over rusting cars was one of many high-profile confrontations that won Edmonston a following - even at Ford.
``He was tireless,'' says Anthony Fredo, vice president of public affairs for Ford Motor Company of Canada. ``He was always ready to debate us.... Out of it all, surprisingly, we gained some respect for one another.''
In 1975, Edmonston distilled his knowledge of automotive defects into the ``Lemon-Aid'' consumer guide for prospective car buyers. A surprise best-seller, the book and its subsequent editions gave Edmonston financial independence and name recognition unknown to most freshman MPs from minority parties.
As if to demonstrate that his election to Parliament hasn't separated him from his beloved consumers, Edmonston waves a letter across his bare desk from an unhappy car owner forwarded by Ottawa postal authorities. It is addressed simply: ``The Lemon Aid Man, House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario.''
``There it is,'' Edmonston says with a laugh, pointing to the address on the letter. ``They don't care about my name or my party affiliation at all.''
But though he revels in his outsider status, and he likes a good fight on the issues, Edmonston may now have found a political challenge he can't beat: Canada's party system.
His roots as an outspoken activist, iconoclast, and nonconformist have left him deeply at odds with Canada's slow-moving party system - a highly structured affair in which individual party members (to an even greater degree than in the US House of Representatives or Senate) toe the line, know their place, or risk rebuke or even ejection from the party.
``I get in trouble because I ask the questions you're not supposed to ask,'' he says. ``Because of my background [as a former American and a consumer advocate], and because I'm not concerned about being on the Christmas-card lists of all my colleagues, I'm able to see things and speak of things in a freer way than others.''
As the first MP for the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) in Quebec in recent memory, Edmonston was quickly appointed party consumer affairs critic (their specialist, in other words) by surprised party officials. Almost immediately, Edmonston began doing what he does best: cajoling, pushing, wheedling, ticking people off, and getting attention for issues he cared about.
Last year and this spring, he emerged at the core of a flurry of NDP battles in favor of legislation to regulate personal bankruptcies to prevent foreclosures on homes during Canada's deep recession. He has also fought for laws to restrict lobbyists' activities. Pushing his own party
``The NDP always wanted someone from Quebec for 50 years,'' Edmonston says. ``Now they have it, and I sit in their caucus. The good Lord sometimes punishes you by giving you what you've always wanted.''
What Edmonston is referring to is the fact that he is pushing his own party as hard as he is the governing Progressive Conservative Party to adopt policies that make government more broadly accountable. But doing so has alienated him from many in government, even those within his own party, close observers say.
``Phil is perceived as a loner or a one-man show, and I think that's a misreading of his approach and why he came to party politics,'' says John Rodriguez, NDP specialist for corporate affairs and financial institutions. ``He wanted to change [the system] yesterday and there are a lot who want to change it only in a hundred years.''
Edmonston was one of three party members appointed to a constitutional commission that last year traveled the nation assessing Canadians' desires on constitutional reform. He ended up arguing strenuously against his party's position, which embraced the Charlottetown Constitutional Accords agreement of last fall. The accords, which would have given more federal powers to provinces and natives, were defeated in a national referendum last October, despite their having been endorsed by the three major political parties.
Edmonston recently announced he would not be running in the federal election four weeks from now. He denies, however, that his party asked him not to run or that he is being driven out of politics. He says only that he wants to take a breather and work on his Lemon-Aid books, hinting that he might dive back into politics sometime soon.
``There will probably be a reassessment of [NDP] leadership after this election,'' he says. ``I might be interested.''
His departure, however, leads him to reflect on leaving America, something he says he has no regrets about doing:
``I've had two major benefits of leaving my native country,'' Edmonston says. ``One is that I've discovered a country that I do believe is kinder and gentler and that prefers compromise over confrontation....
``I've also found a country that doesn't take for granted what it is. It's constantly defining and redefining its disparate elements...contesting everything from the top down.''