At his political prime as Canada’s federal agriculture minister, John Wise was a political survivor, a farmers’ friend and in some ways a victim of east-west internal Tory tensions.
The southwestern Ontario dairy farmer and promoter of livestock genetic exports served as agriculture minister under Joe Clark (1979-80) and Brian Mulroney (1984-88), defending policies he often privately opposed and killing programs he often privately supported.
He fought for Ontario tobacco farmers in the face of strong resistance.
As an Ontario supply management supporter, he often found himself at odds with the strong western wing of the Progressive Conservative caucus, marginalized on many issues and under the thumb of more powerful ministers and a finance department that imposed policies and cuts on the agriculture department.
In opposition, he lost his agriculture critic’s role to westerner Charlie Mayer, only to re-emerge as agriculture minister when the Conservatives regained power.
When Wise retired before the 1988 free trade election (many suspected because he feared the impact of Canada-U.S. free trade on farmers, although he denied it), powerful Alberta minister Don Mazankowski predicted that he would be seen as one of the great agriculture ministers.
Mazankowski was named his replacement.
However, Wise’s parliamentary secretary offered a different insider perspective on his role as a good Tory soldier often outgunned in cabinet.
“This was just making official what has already been true,” Brandon Conservative MP Lee Clark said.
“I can’t think of a major agricultural policy in the past four years Mazankowski has not had a hand in anyway.”
So through his years, this genial Ontario farmer and veteran municipal politician found himself boxed in by the suspicions of westerners who thought his support for marketing boards and government agencies made him suspect, and Quebec Tories who thought they should have more say after the better part of two decades of Ontario-based agriculture ministers.
Through it all, Wise was a gentleman who believed politics was not a blood sport but a way to find compromise to do the best possible for farmers.
He had friends on all sides of the House.
Wise, Canada’s 24th federal agriculture minister, died last week at age 77.
The last time we met, he organized a lunch with dairy farmers in his St. Thomas, Ont., area to talk about the threat to dairy supply management from the free trade agenda being promoted by the new Conservative government. Wise did not take a position other than letting “his farmers” have their say.
However, the fondest memory comes from the day I arrived at his fifth generation family dairy farm to do a profile and he immediately insisted on a ride in a half-ton through his neighbourhood.
He drove a 10 sq. kilometre route that took us past the farms of a former Ontario premier, two previous MPs, at least one provincial minister and several provincial politicians — all products of the local municipal political system.
The message was that he was nothing special, just the latest of many successful politicians who emerged from the local training school.
John Wise was a gentlemen politician whose value cannot be captured by a simple recitation of his accomplishments.