Feb. 10, 2006
A lifetime in the public eye
Retiring senator shares high points; his hopes for Canada.
His 75th birthday is fast approaching and the arrival of a Conservative
government in Ottawa has stripped him of his role as Senate house
leader. Jack Austin's days in the Upper House may be numbered, but
his accomplishments are myriad. With just 13 months left in his
term, Austin sat down with the Jewish Independent to reflect
on some of the highlights of his illustrious and varied career.
Although he has never held elected office, Austin has been a senator
for more than 30 years and he has held the positions of senior bureaucrat
and cabinet minister. He played a key role in the Columbia River
Treaty negotiations, the establishment of Petro Canada, building
trade relations with China and in the creation of Expo '86.
Austin holds a law degree from the University of British Columbia
and a master's in law from Harvard. He continued to practise law
until 2002. His key interest and primary focus has always been in
the area of natural resources and their financing.
In 1958, Austin was a law partner of Nathan Nemetz, who became Chief
Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia. Austin was not
affiliated with any political party at the time, but said that Nemetz
was an active Liberal supporter. In his words, it was his association
with Nemetz and "essentially knowing that I was neither a socialist
nor a conservative" that ultimately turned him into a Liberal.
His political career began in the early 1960s, when he was offered
the position of executive assistant to Arthur Laing, who was then
minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources. During this
tenure, Austin was asked by Paul Martin Sr. to sit on the legal
team for the negotiation of the Columbia River Treaty. This early
association with the senior Martin ultimately led Austin to his
longtime support of Paul Martin Jr.
In 1965, Austin ran for office for the first and only time. He was
a Liberal candidate in the riding of Vancouver-Kingsway, at the
time an NDP stronghold. Austin came second in the race but
it was a challenge he felt he had to take on after a personal phone
call from then-prime minister Lester B. Pearson. "Mr. Pearson
said to me, 'I'm so delighted to hear that you're going to be our
candidate in Vancouver-Kingsway,' " Austin recalled.
In 1970, Austin was made deputy minister of Energy, Mines and Resources
at a time when Canada became a pioneer in opening China to the world.
He was part of the Canadian advisory team that ultimately led Canada
and China to exchange diplomatic recognition for the first time
and was one of six deputy ministers to attend Canada's first modern
commercial trade mission to China. During this 30-day visit, Austin
helped open bilateral relations between the Chinese mining, forestry
and energy sectors and their Canadian counterparts.
Since that visit, Austin has continuously championed trade relations
When asked how he rationalizes trade with China, given its human
rights record, Austin answered, "We do not dissemble with respect
to our human rights values and our belief in the rule of law and
democracy as essential to a complex, mature society. At the same
time, we want to talk to China in a respectful way, as arguing from
a place of moral superiority does not get us anywhere."
Austin took on his most political role in 1974, when he was made
chief of staff to Pierre Trudeau. It didn't matter to Trudeau that
Austin had backed Paul Martin Sr. in the leadership race against
him. "Trudeau never asked me about backing Martin," said
Austin, "he wasn't that kind of man. He was more interested
in what I wanted to do for the country."
To that end, Trudeau assigned Austin to produce a wholesale study
of the Canadian energy industry, because the government was in the
dark about its energy resources, needs and requirements. In fact,
at that time 90 per cent of Canada's oil resources were foreign-owned.
The result of Austin's research was the creation of Petro Canada
Canada's first and only state energy corporation. "I'm
very proud of my whole role in that period in terms of the whole
energy sector," he said, "it is one of my happy, happy
Previously, the energy industry in Canada was controlled by foreign
firms with foreign employees and even foreign equipment. Petro Canada
allowed the country to take charge of its energy resources, which
was important to Austin, who believes strongly that "our resources
should be the basis for the employment and prosperity of our own
Austin was appointed to the Senate in 1970, where he has worked
tirelessly. He has sat on numerous senate committees and has served
as cabinet minister twice.
As senior political minister for British Columbia from 1981 to 1984,
Austin represented the province in federal negotiations for Expo
'86 and the development of Canada Place.
It is no secret that under Jean Chretien, Austin, a loyal and vocal
Paul Martin Jr. supporter, was sidelined from the corridors of power.
But when Martin became prime minister in 2003, Austin was vaulted
to his most politically high-profile roles to date. He was appointed
leader of the government in the Senate and became the most senior
minister in Martin's cabinet, responsible for representing British
Columbia on all federal matters.
Despite what some would characterize as a disappointing term as
prime minister, Austin's support of Martin has not wavered. "No
prime minister has ever paid more attention to B.C. than Paul Martin,"
he asserted. "We were able to accomplish more for B.C. than
ever B.C. is now recognized nationally as a key player in
the Canadian economy and a major asset in Canada."
Although with the new government he has lost his cabinet position,
Austin will stay on in the Senate until his retirement, "because
I want to continue to play a role in public policy issues affecting
B.C. and the Liberal party."
What does the future hold for Austin? He's not entirely sure, but
said he will continue to promote the country, this province, aboriginal
rights and Canada's role in the global economy through trade and
Austin says that throughout his career he has been very open and
proud of his Jewish heritage and that he has "never run into
any specific racism directed at me because of my Judaism."
He added that, "Whatever values I have about society and the
role of law in a tolerant and progressive society and in developing
our economy, must have come, at least in part, from my Jewish schooling."