BC Politics

Principles and Profanity: Rafe Mair as a Government Minister

Demanding and dedicated, Mair fought for consumer protections and business responsibility.

By Perry Anglin and Tex Enemark 27 Oct 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Tex Enemark was Rafe Mair’s first deputy minister. Perry Anglin was his assistant deputy minister for consumer affairs.

Early this month, front page headlines across Canada announcing the death of Rafe Mair at 85 called him a giant of broadcasting.

He was known nationally for influencing the referendum defeat of the Charlottetown Accord’s constitutional proposals. On his radio show and since then he vociferously stood up for B.C. and our environment and won national awards for journalism.

He is less well remembered for his conspicuous achievements in Bill Bennett’s Social Credit government from 1975 to 1981.

Rafe’s enormous intellect, his decency, and even his sudden outbursts, made it a joy for us and other staff to work with him in consumer and corporate affairs, the first of his cabinet posts.

His second cabinet post was as the minister for the environment, and he advocated prolifically for the same values the rest of his life. His last cabinet post was minister for health, the job he quit for broadcasting. A fine lawyer, he was also responsible throughout for constitutional matters.

Our department for consumer and corporate affairs looked after many things: consumer protection, tenants’ rights, the stock exchange — the list went on and on. It even included liquor matters, movie censorship and cemetery rules. We joked that given our role selling liquor, classifying dirty movies and regulating graveyards, we could serve many a consumer from erection to resurrection.

Starting out with 27 laws, Rafe introduced 22 bills in just two sessions of the Legislature, almost certainly a ministerial record.

Rafe was a demanding boss but fun to work with. His charm was infectious and his humour pungent. He was amazingly well read, articulated firm principles, and spoke with enormous force and clarity. Profanity was his second language. He often spoke both languages at once.

Rafe was a dedicated minister, usually in the office by six in the morning. He quickly read everything we sent him and never dithered in a decision.

He also played hard, and well, at golf, fishing and even intensive backgammon after playing squash for hours to lose weight.

Once he teamed up with one of us on his home golf course in Kamloops. The other team lost because Rafe, a superb golfer, won most of the holes. But he wasn’t happy. “Hell,” he said, “I wouldn’t have come out today if I had known I was only going to shoot par.”

A politician of fairness and great integrity, he administered rules by the book and never met alone with someone wanting a concession. He was brusque with anyone wanting a break without appealing through proper procedures. That didn’t make him popular with colleagues who just wanted good news for a constituent and to hell with procedures. The former Premier, W.A.C. Bennett, had once told Rafe to trust no one in the liquor business. He took this as good advice, was on guard with all supplicants, but he fought for them when he saw injustice.

On the sale and licensing of alcohol, he called beer parlours that separated men and women “a social abomination.” He curtailed them — but also worked to permit neighbourhood pubs. He vastly increased wine imports — but he also revolutionized winery rules.

Faced later by stiff free trade competition, the B.C. wine industry, stimulated by Rafe’s new policies, went from five wineries making undistinguished table wine to more than 220 estate wineries, many of them world class.

Rafe fearlessly persuaded the seven car dealers in government caucus that strict new regulations would improve their image by cracking down on the shady practices of disreputable competitors. He had us consult the car dealers’ association. But he was deaf to its objections that dealers shouldn’t have to disclose an accident if a new car had been repaired after damage, such as a broken windshield, while coming from the factory.

Chartered banks refused Rafe’s demand that they comply with the B.C. consumer credit laws that applied to other lenders. After endless talks went nowhere, he gave a reporter his 40-page briefing. The banks surrendered immediately.

If a reporter’s question stumped Rafe, he would refer the questioner to the appropriate public servant. Early on, a columnist gave him poor grades in an annual “cabinet report card.” Being a straight shooter, a quick learner, and also fun, he was soon ranked at the top of the class. He was the most quotable of ministers. In a pinch, he got the benefit of the doubt from reporters.

When someone said something nice about one of his civil servants, Rafe would send him a handwritten note of appreciation.

Rafe disliked meetings with other ministers. It was rumoured that he didn’t always play well with others. He made excuses to be away when they were slated to discuss one of his proposals. He sent senior staff to make the case, which former Premier Bill Bennett kindly allowed.

Ever grateful for the support he got from Bennett, Rafe was quoted long afterwards as saying he would walk on his knees through broken glass for him.

The Premier chaired the cabinet’s Treasury Board committee. One of us was sent there one day to defend the department’s proposed spending level. Officials had agreed to a certain level in advance. The Premier asked if our department would like anything more for consumers. Well yes, and we were granted it, as Treasury staff ground their teeth.

Another time one of us was almost at a loss at a cabinet committee meeting when a very senior minister asked about new cemetery regulations we proposed. Could new rules stop undertakers from stealing gold teeth? Long pause to think and to keep a straight face. At last a response. That would be covered by the Criminal Code.

Had he been there, Rafe would have laughed hard at the thought that our trade practices investigators should swoop down on embalming sessions.

The three of us remained very good friends in the years since those days. We can still hear Rafe’s laugh. Full-throated and hearty. Like the man.

There are 16 days left to reach a $50,000 goal for the Rafe Mair Memorial Fund for Environmental Reporting. To see where we stand, and learn more, click here.

There are 16 days left to reach a $50,000 goal for the Rafe Mair Memorial Fund for Environmental Reporting. To see where we stand, and learn more, click here.  [Tyee]

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