Scott Brison. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

“Being the President of the Treasury Board is a bit like peeing in a dark suit,” chuckles Scott Brison.“It gives you a warm feeling, but nobody notices.”

Brison, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Kings-Hants, resigned his Cabinet post a couple of weeks ago and, after 22 years in public life, announced he would not be standing for re-election. Wednesday, he gave the keynote address at the Atlantic Conference on Public Administration. “Scott Brison Unplugged” was an irreverent and inspiring pep talk to an audience of mostly masters students and civil servants.

The former Cabinet minister from Chevarie, Nova Scotia (population 200) told the crowd he has “a passion for public service” because he has seen and experienced the difference government policies can make in people’s lives — including his own.

“In an age of great cynicism, my family is living proof that government matters,” he told the crowd. Brison was the country’s first openly gay federal cabinet minister and is the married father of two four-year-old girls. “I’ve never been an activist like Svend Robinson,” he says, “but the progress of human rights takes different people at different times. When I came out in 2002, I said I didn’t want to be referred to as a gay politician but as a politician who happened to be gay.”

Brison was a banker before winning his first federal election as a Progressive Conservative at age 29. He recalled how in his lifetime, he has been “amazed” to see policy and legislative changes which have included decriminalizing homosexuality, extending benefits to the same-sex partners of federal civil servants, and allowing same-sex marriage in a civil context. It has sometimes been difficult — including the time his VOTE BRISON sign on his father’s lawn was defaced by homophobic graffiti. With a public speaker’s sense of a good anecdote, Brison concluded with, “My father said he just hoped the RCMP found the bastards before he did.”

Then there was the time the MP was campaigning in Rosie’s Pub, Kentville, and a female constituent refused to shake his hand, declaring he offended her family values. “You won’t be getting my vote because of your position on same-sex marriage,” she said.  “I replied, ‘And you won’t be getting an invitation to my wedding because of yours!’”

A wicked sense of humour has always been part of the Brison arsenal. In the few weeks since announcing his impending retirement (“a bit like leaving a cult”), he says he’s been able to reflect on some of the most fulfilling aspects of his long political career (“not unlike sitting in the back row of your own funeral”).

Brison says one of his greatest satisfactions has been making a difference in the lives of his constituents (a function whose priority was impressed upon the freshman Tory MP by legendary Grit parliamentarian Allan J. MacEachen).

He told a story about working on behalf of an elderly woman in Gormanville to obtain the Low Income Supplement, for which she had been eligible, but had never applied. The thousands of dollars at stake were enough to put in a bathroom and allow the woman to stay in her home a few years longer. But getting the retroactive amount required Brison to “pester” the minister then in charge of that department who happened to sit next to him around the cabinet table — Ken Dryden. Brison claims the upshot of such battles eventually informed the government’s decision to automatically enrol people who meet the program’s criteria to receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

“I’m passionate about this because government matters,” Brison told his audience. Citing an example of someone from the private sector who feels the same way, he offered up a conversation he heard a few years ago during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Brison was seated in the same room with Microsoft zillionaire Bill Gates and a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford University. The graduate student asked Gates for his advice on what he should do with his life. According to Brison, Gates told the student, “I used to say, ‘Go into science.’ Now I tell people, ‘go into government.’ We need smart people in government because dumb, crooked people can really screw things up.” Nervous laughter met that remark, perhaps because of  the person occupying the White House today.

Brison challenged the grad students in the audience from Dalhousie’s School of Public Administration to consider running for office or working for the federal government. “Canada has a world-class public service,” said the former head of the Treasury Board, who still gets up at 5am and runs five kilometers before breakfast. “I feel lucky to live here.” The problem, in his view, is the rigid hierarchy within the civil service, which he characterized as “systemically risk-averse and (which) needs to change.”

Last but not least, another source of fulfilment from public life was being part of the Trudeau cabinet that introduced the Canada Child Benefit. Brison claims that single action is providing help to 300,000 children living in poverty — 9,000 families in Kings and Hants counties alone. Brison says the cheques to families in his riding average $6,600 a year. Government statistics show low-income Nova Scotia families with school-age children are now receiving Child Benefit cheques worth $600 million a year, a significant sum of money.

So what’s next for Scott Brison? He offered no hints. The former banker could probably have his pick of directorships on corporate boards, but for now, he says he’s getting used to driving his own car (federal cabinet posts come with chauffeurs) and enjoying the husband and kids which he says have “transformed” his life over the past five years.

Stay tuned. It’s unlikely that Scott Brison will disappear into the life of a soccer dad.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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