Senator Elaine McCoy, QC
When I first starting working with Michael Rae (the moderator of this website), he was naturally curious about my background. This is a record of our conversation.
MAR: You’ve been a lawyer, an Alberta Cabinet Minister, and, for the past ten years or so, president of a think-tank affiliated with the University of Calgary. How did all that come about?
Senator: It’s pretty simple, really. All my life people have asked me to do things, and I’ve often said yes. That’s how law school happened. I was working as a mother’s helper and the children’s father asked me if I’d thought about studying law. I hadn’t, until he mentioned it. My dad was a mechanic in the RCAF and we didn’t know any lawyers, so it had never occurred to me. The way Warren described it sounded pretty interesting and when I applied, I was accepted.
MAR: Did you enjoy it?
Senator: Law school? Yes, it was tremendously stimulating. What I really learned was a disciplined way of thinking, how to analyze a wide range of facts and come up with a plan of action based on principle and precedent. That’s been useful in everything I’ve done since.
MAR: Eventually you went into politics. Were you asked to do that, too?
Senator: Well, I was a volunteer in the constitutency where I live. Peter Lougheed was our MLA. When he decided to step down, he asked me to consider running for the nomination. I received great support from other members of the consituency association, too. It was a tight race, though. Exciting times!
MAR: And then you were asked to join the cabinet by Premier Don Getty.
Senator: Now, that came as a complete surprise. I had expected to spend time on the backbenches, the way most rookie MLAs do. In fact, when the Premier’s office called to ask me to meet with Mr. Getty, I didn’t understand what it was about. I had scheduled a school event for the time they wanted me to go up to Edmonton so my initial response was that I was busy. You can imagine what kind of reaction that got! Needless to say, they gently persuaded me to change my plans. So off I went to Edmonton and a whole new adventure began.
MAR: Did you have an agenda when you first started?
Senator: Not specifically, no. However the ‘group of six’ who were the core of our campaign team were all very policy oriented (and so am I). For us, the point of getting elected was to make the world (focusing on Alberta) a better place to live. We kept up an active policy dialogue with constituents the entire time I was elected, and that was the lens that I filtered everything through.
MAR: Can you give me some examples?
Senator: Sure. My first portfolio was Consumer and Corporate Affairs. When I looked at what the department was doing, I felt that it was spending most of its time helping people who had enough resources to look after themselves and neglecting others who couldn’t manage as well on their own. We ended up restructuring the whole department. We did things like partner with immigrant settlement societies to write consumer information packages in ESL format so that new Canadians could learn English at the same time as they learned about basic marketplace rules such as damage deposits. We convened a task force on consumer financial markets that published a report called Blueprint for Fairness. We put together the Insurance Council of Alberta that included consumer representatives. And so forth … we did quite a lot, when you look back on it, and kept going when I was given responsibility for labour, women’s issues and the Human Rights Commission.
At the same time, I took a long hard look at the departments’ fiscal balances. I ended up introducing a radically new (for government) way of budgeting based on private sector business plans. We managed to reduce operating costs by up to 50% by focusing on performance based criteria.
MAR: What did you like least about being a Cabinet Minister?
Senator: The politics --- in caucus and cabinet, I mean. I know that must sound strange, but the (sometimes intense) competition for power took me by surprise at first. Not that it was usually acrimonious, you understand; my colleagues were civil on the whole and most of them had a wonderful sense of humour. However, I had (naively) expected more of a competition for ideas and I never did learn to enjoy the power game like some of the others. It’s true what my friends say … I’m much better at policy than at politics.
MAR: After the provincial legislature, you got involved with the Macleod Institute. How did that happen?
Senator: Again I was asked … first to join an advisory committee and later, after we came up with the idea of an Institute, to be Vice-President. When the first president left, I negotiated a formal affiliation agreement with the University of Calgary and we’ve been going strong ever since.
MAR: What does the Institute do?
Senator: We provide independent, third-party evaluations of policies and programs and we also create long-range policy and program strategies for clients. Our work typically deals with sustainability in some form, putting appropriate environmental, social and economic principles into action. We’ve done some really interesting projects. The Bow Corridor Regional Mobility Strategy is one example. It integrated environmental and engineering principles to provide a 30 year plan to manage the movement of wildlife and people through ecologically sensitive areas. I was also the catalyst behind Alberta’s climate change initiatives which we started in 1998, and continue to serve as Vice-Chair of Climate Change Central, a public / private partnership that brings industries, NGOs and three levels of government together to help Albertans meet the challenges of global warming.
MAR: And now you’re a Canadian Senator. You’ve chosen to sit as a Progressive Conservative. What does that signify?
Senator: When I was asked to serve, I was given a choice of designation. I chose Progressive Conservative because it means, for me, a socially progressive and a fiscally conservative approach to policy. It’s consistent with the approach we took in Alberta politics when I was involved, and it best reflects my political philosophy. Technically, it means I sit as an independent because I’m not a member of either the Liberal or the Conservative parliamentary caucuses. In practice, it means that I don’t have to stick to the party line. Instead, I can be an independent voice which is what I believe the Senate was originally meant to be.