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Les Leyne: Engaging wrap on The Mighty Hughes

A new book launching this month accuses reporters of being gushy on the topic of Ted Hughes, to the point where coverage of his various adventures in B.C. politics resembled what you’d find in fan magazines.
Ted and Helen Hughes

Les Leyne mugshot genericA new book launching this month accuses reporters of being gushy on the topic of Ted Hughes, to the point where coverage of his various adventures in B.C. politics resembled what you’d find in fan magazines.

I was going to object to this outrageous slur, but after a quick review of the record, I plead guilty on all counts.

The Mighty Hughes, by former reporter Craig McInnes (disclosure: A friend), hits the shelves shortly. It’s going to land with particular impact in Victoria, because this is where Hughes made a national name for himself, after starting an entirely new career.

That career was essentially speaking truth to power, usually when it was the last thing power wanted to hear. Through a period when politicians were lobbing an unusual number of hot potatoes around, many of them landed on Hughes’s desk.

Governments have all kinds of systems in place to regulate conduct, but it always comes down to the type of people running the systems. Hughes was and is exactly the right person to deliver a judicious bit of advice, or a common-sense way out of a mess.

The more he did it, the more he was called upon to do some more, to the point where he was carrying the day just by sheer force of reputation.

Space prohibits going into much detail, but McInnes does, and it’s a remarkable compilation of ethical emergencies at a time when Bill Vander Zalm’s Social Credit government was creating enormous amounts of work in crisis management. There were a few times in the late 1980s and early 1990s when things truly looked to be spinning out of control. It was Hughes who held it together, by making tough calls based on common sense and the rule of law.

His best-known call was on the conflict of interest of Vander Zalm, a ruling based on the fabled Fantasy Gardens deal. It was Vander Zalm himself who called in Hughes (“the worst mistake I ever made”). The job was a precursor to the new conflict legislation that was in the works.

There were no precedents; it all depended on Hughes. He delivered the goods. It was the most compelling conflict ruling ever delivered. It featured the premier and his wife in all-night meetings with a mysterious billionaire, a brown envelope full of cash and an eccentric real-estate agent who went through all the waste baskets and saved the evidence.

Hughes found assorted conflicts all down the line, and Vander Zalm was gone days later. But that was easy work compared to other calls he had to make. Handling another tangled mess, Hughes once had to advise his own boss — the attorney general — that he had to resign. Elsewhere, he had to tell furious cops he wasn’t going to prosecute another politician they were sure they had dead to rights.

There’s a startling chapter illustrating why his career path wasn’t the straight-line ascent that you’d think. Even though his legal smarts and outstanding character were recognized early on, he got caught in some passive-aggressive Liberal-Conservative tribal warfare in the Saskatchewan world of law.

His career as a judge stalled, and the work environment became toxic to him.

The Saskatchewan judiciary got exactly what it deserved for that episode. They lost him. He quit, and with his equally legendary wife, Helen, a Saskatoon city councillor and future Victoria councillor, bolted for the coast. He took a lower-echelon job in the attorney general’s ministry and essentially started over in 1980 at 53.

The Saskatoon boy did a few shifts in a hospital laundry during a public-service strike while re-inventing himself here.

McInnes tracks him adeptly through all the phases of his life, although Hughes probably qualified as a hostile witness at the start. The book is a project of a group of friends and admirers, and Hughes had to be dragged into co-operating.

It was worth the effort. He is a marvel of accumulated wisdom. He has retired about five times, but his phone still rings with assignments.

The lasting impression of the book is how badly we need people like him. Particularly in Washington, where they’re crying out for a person of rectitude to apply the rule of law.

But there I go again, with the gushing.