At the Liberal Party convention in Ottawa in January, there were some shoots of optimism amid the weeds of despair that have taken root in the party since its catastrophic defeat in May 2011. The delegates were somber " rightly so given that the once great Liberal Party has fallen to third place " but cautiously optimistic because the NDP leadership contest had failed to attract much interest.
The Liberals tried valiantly to project a forward-looking image: one-third of the 3,300 delegates were under 30 and the party passed a Young Liberal motion to legalize and regulate marijuana use. Don Tapscott, a technology guru with no history in the party, was given a prized keynote guest slot. The incantation of being relevant to the needs of the 21st century was repeated mantra-like by almost every speaker as if to dispel painful memories of the recent past.
But despite the shiny 21st century Liberal Party on display at the new Ottawa Convention Centre, many of the delegates still cheered for the All-Star teams of the past. Nowhere was this most evident than on the Thursday evening event that preceded the formal opening of the convention. There, on January 12, Liberals met to honour one of the great figures of their past " 90-year-old Allan J. MacEachen. Former prime ministers John Turner and Paul Martin were in attendance, as were former premiers like Frank McKenna, former leaders like Stéphane Dion and the current leader, Bob Rae. In abundance were cabinet ministers of the Pearson, Trudeau and Chrétien eras. MacEachen was lauded by Jim Coutts, former principal secretary of Pierre Trudeau, and Monique Begin, his former cabinet colleague.
Having the great and good of the Liberal Party turn out for MacEachen on the eve of the convention was a bit like Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium. The Liberal equivalents of the Reggie Jacksons, Whitey Fords and Yogi Berras reminded the current crowd of past glories and perhaps had a trick or two to show today’s Liberal caucus on how it was once done.
Allan J. MacEachen was a worthy subject of such accolades because he was the most significant cabinet minister of the postwar era. Beginning his political involvement with the Liberal Party in 1949, MacEachen first went to Ottawa as a member of Parliament in 1953, at the height of the Liberal ascendancy. Starting out in the era of train travel, when the House of Commons was a part-time gentleman’s club, he remained a political force into the era of the Internet, 24hour news cycle and the permanent campaign. During this half century in politics, he was a party volunteer; MP; a senior adviser to Opposition Leader Lester Pearson; minister of labour, national health and welfare, manpower and immigration, external affairs, finance; President of the Privy Council; Deputy Prime Minister; leadership candidate (1968); and Senator.
As leader of the Liberal Opposition in the Senate from 1984 to 1991, he led epic parliamentary battles against the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and the Goods and Service Tax. For 50 years, Allan MacEachen was a leader of the liberal wing of the Liberal Party.
Like many Nova Scotians of the 1920s and 1930s, MacEachen loves baseball and would spend hours talking about the game with his aide, the late Jerry Yanover. One of the truisms of the game is that the prospects of a team can be gauged by its strengths up the middle " pitcher, catcher, second baseman and centre fielder. So, too, with governments: cabinets start with a core of four or five senior ministers and then, hopefully, expand their talent base outward.
Pierre Trudeau certainly appreciated the talent of Allan J. In forming his governments from 1968 to 1984, Allan J. was always among that core, along with Jean Chrétien and Marc Lalonde. Trudeau always began with these three, and then built on that base. When I became principal secretary to the Prime Minister in 1981, one of my jobs was to brief these three ministers on the latest public opinion surveys so that they could help Trudeau chart the political water. Their responses to these briefings were instructive; Chrétien would listen for a minute, and then jump in with his own analysis, coast to coast. Invariably his intuition was as sure as our costly survey techniques: I never met a better intuitive politician in assessing public opinion. Lalonde would listen, then immediately begin to plan a policy/political response to the problems. Lalonde was action-oriented and executive-centred. MacEachen was different from his two colleagues; always polite, he would take it all in, sometimes ask a question, but just as often would look away and contemplate. His silences were as eloquent as most politicians’ ramblings.
This was unnerving at first, but I soon learned that MacEachen was going through his own political and policy calculations. John Crosbie, in his memoirs, called MacEachen ”œthe Celtic Sphinx.” But invariably, sometime weeks later, in cabinet or the House, the Sphinx would reflect volubly, and there would be a wellthought-out way forward, based in part on the data received. MacEachen could not be rushed; he liked to think things through himself. His mastery of the House is well known and discussed below. But his greatest political skill, in my estimation, was his genius for timing " MacEachen knew when to delay (as when he tried to prevent a vote on third reading of Mitchell Sharp’s 1968 budget) and he knew when to move (as when he urged the Liberal caucus to defeat John Crosbie’s 1979 budget). On the great issues of the 1968 to 1984 era, Prime Minister Trudeau and cabinet would wait patiently until Allan J. was finally ready to give his advice. ”œMacEachen was certainly a character I liked,” wrote Trudeau. ”œIn part because he was unpredictable.”
Allan J. MacEachen loved Parliament and was an expert on the rules and procedures of the institution. This expertise came to full fruition during the Trudeau era. Colleagues like Keith Davey called him ”œthe greatest House leader I have ever seen in action.” Opponents like Pat Carney called him ”œa master of parliamentary obstruction.” Either way, he was a dominating parliamentary presence.
Many men and women have served in Parliament, but few become House of Commons devotees. For some like Allan J., Stanley Knowles, John Diefenbaker, John Turner and Joe Clark, there is majesty to Parliament, an institution that goes back to 1265, when Simon de Montfort initiated the first British Parliament by persuading Henry III to add representatives from the boroughs and shires to the Great Council, or at least to 1758, when Nova Scotia had the first election in Canada for a legislative assembly.
For others, Parliament is a curious inefficient relic with archaic rules and traditions " more a theatre than a bulwark of our liberties. MacEachen was Leader of the House three times (May 1967 to April 1968, September 1970 to May 1974 and September 1976 to March 1979). To succeed in that job, one must combine an abundance of emotional intelligence with technical mastery of rules. The mood of the House of Commons can change within minutes: a placid House contentedly dispensing business can, with a single quip or question, occasion a reply that creates a squall, which turns into a storm. Managing an assembly with 300 egos, competing interests and continual jockeying for media attention requires patience, empathy and an ability to laugh at the human parade. MacEachen had all these virtues. He was like a great political bloodhound, sniffing the parliamentary air, detecting the changing currents and nimbly setting off in a new direction with the parliamentary pack baying at his heels.
Such gifts are rare. With his great intelligence, Trudeau could have been a success in a number of ministries, but never as House Leader. He lacked empathy and thus was never a House of Commons man. MacEachen, on the other hand, could prolong a minority parliament, wringing from it significant legislation; in 1972 to 1974, for example, the Liberal minority government had only two more members than the Conservatives " making our recent minority parliaments look like a picnic in comparison. Skillfully, MacEachen prolonged Parliament and gained time for Trudeau to rekindle his popularity with the voters. MacEachen also knew how to defeat his own government when the time was right. In 1974, it was MacEachen, Trudeau and John Turner at a meeting at Le Cercle Universitaire in Ottawa who devised a budget compelling enough to win an election but artful enough to ensure a defeat at the hands of the NDP, so that the Liberal government could not be blamed for going to the people precipitously. Then in 1979, MacEachen’s job was not to defend or defeat his own government, but instead to bring down the Conservative minority government, and he was the leading actor of the parliamentary drama of 1979-80 that saw the defeat of Joe Clark and the return of Trudeau.
MacEachen’s brilliance as House Leader was so evident, in fact, that it sometimes throttled his other ambitions. In 1974, to the surprise of many, MacEachen was appointed minister of external affairs after four long years as House Leader. At St. Francis Xavier University, MacEachen was influenced by his long association with Father Moses Coady and the Antigonish Movement, whose development mission spread education throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America.
It should come as no surprise that Allan J., as external affairs minister, attempted to negotiate a more just division of wealth between the north and the south in the 1970s. MacEachen was chosen to be the co-chair of the Conference on Economic International Co-operation, along with the foreign minister of Venezuela. This negotiating forum was the centrepiece of the north-south dialogue. But by 1976, the political fortunes of the Trudeau government were waning. The PM was gearing up for a major constitutional initiative and needed his parliamentary master beside him. MacEachen was asked to return to his old specialty of House Leader and give up the external affairs portfolio he loved. Loyally, he did so but his anger was palpable at the cabinet’s swearing-in.
To continue with the baseball metaphor, MacEachen was a great relief pitcher who saved the parliamentary game for Pierre Trudeau on numerous occasions. Yet MacEachen wanted to be a starter too, to direct the great ministries of state rather than merely mop up the parliamentary business of other ministers. Although Trudeau understood and supported this natural desire, the prime minister had several potential starters and only one relief specialist. When troubles began to multiply in 1976, the manager asked his star starter to return to the bull pen, and as a Liberal team player, MacEachen reluctantly did so. To a Liberal Party that has torn itself apart by personal vendettas in recent years, MacEachen’s loyalty to the team should be a salutary lesson.
MacEachen’s commitment to Parliament, however, went beyond partisan advantage. He had a tremendous devotion to the institution. This was demonstrated in a particularly striking way in the constitutional debate of 1980-81. The government’s constitutional bill went to Parliament in the fall of 1980 and optimists were hoping that both the Canadian and British Parliament would pass the bill in time to have the British North American Act repatriated by July 1, 1981.
But as debate in Parliament dragged on, an option that began to gain traction among Trudeau’s advisers was to use time allocation or closure to force a parliamentary vote on the measure. In December 1980, at the Planning and Priorities Committee of cabinet, MacEachen opposed a plan to impose time constraints on parliamentary debate and said he felt so strongly about this that he would resign if the issue were pressed. Trudeau dropped the option of time allocation, then and there.
Without the threat of parliamentary closure, the Conservatives debated the bill at will, and their filibustering eventually led to agreement that the bill would not come to a vote until after the Supreme Court decided on the legality of the issue (which they did in the fall of 1981). Any July 1 schedule went out the window. MacEachen felt that the repatriation of the Constitution was one of the most important decisions to be made by Parliament in our history and, therefore, the institution had to be accorded all its usual privileges in debate. Mark MacGuigan, a strong advocate of the constitutional package, was a member of the Planning and Priorities Committee at the time and records in his memoirs that initially, he was dismayed by MacEachen’s stand. Yet in retrospect, he wrote, ”œI have to acknowledge now that MacEachen’s democratic instincts were perhaps right in the long run.”
The Conservatives’ filibuster gave time for the Supreme Court to make a ruling. That ruling, in turn, forced a final federal-provincial conference in November 1981, and the eventual compromise between the PM on the issue resulted in the easy final passage of the Bill in the Canadian and British parliaments. As MacGuigan concludes, ”œNo doubt, MacEachen saw a Commons reconciled to the resolution, or at least to the process by which it was arrived at, as a happy harbinger of consensus across the country. Ultimately, he proved to be a good prophet.”
If Parliament was one love of MacEachen’s, so too was the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party of his era in Inverness-Richmond was a self-confident, independent volunteer party, where delegates of his 1949 nomination contest (which he lost) and in 1953 (which he won) were chosen by district meetings of Liberals throughout the constituency. Campaigns were financed locally and it was unthinkable for any party leader to designate a candidate or for those outside the constituency to determine the outcome.
Years later, when MacEachen was the senior minister from Nova Scotia in the Trudeau government, it was similarly unthinkable that the Prime Minister’s Office would make decisions concerning Atlantic Canada without first consulting Allan J. Like the decline of Parliament, the decline of the party has accelerated since MacEachen’s retirement: the 2012 convention, for example, further diluted the role of the party member.
MacEachen’s respect for the traditions of the Liberal Party were important when he succeeded in persuading the Liberal caucus and national executive to request Pierre Trudeau to lead the party into the 1980 election. Pierre Trudeau’s amazing return was due to two men " Allan J. MacEachen and Jim Coutts. To the cynical-minded, Trudeau’s decision to return as party leader after the defeat of the Conservatives on December 13, 1979, may look like a wellorganized plot. But I can attest that Trudeau’s eventual decision to contest the 1980 election was far from assured. The night of his decision, Jim Coutts asked me to prepare two speeches " one if Trudeau declined the honour, and a longer one if he decided to lead the party in the next campaign. Only as Trudeau began to read the longer speech the next morning at the televised press conference did I know what decision he had made.
I have mentioned MacEachen’s political virtues of intelligence, timing and empathy. When aroused, he is also eloquent. He does not gossip or chatter incessantly. He takes things in, rather than emoting. But as Barney Danson, his cabinet colleague, wrote, ”œWhen he let loose, either in caucus or in the commons, it was a formidable performance that often saved the government and won the day.” Three such speeches were central in extending Pierre Trudeau’s political life in 1979.
The first was a speech to caucus before the vote on the budget on December 13, 1979, when MacEachen made a case for a vote against the Crosbie budget and ended his pep talk with ”œYou better all be there.”
Second, as the Liberal caucus met after the vote, with Joe Clark having gone to the governor general to gain dissolution, and an election staring caucus in the face, MacEachen made the case for why Trudeau was the best leader to win the 1980 election. Third, the following Saturday, as the national executive of the party met to consider what the caucus had done in asking Trudeau to stay, MacEachen spoke again to persuade the party executive to join the growing consensus. MacEachen was the perfect emissary for the task. His roots in the party went back to Louis St-Laurent. He had participated in the 1960 Kingston Conference that started the rebirth of the Pearson-led party. He was a major independent figure on his own, not a hired gun from the leader’s office, and as a Liberal icon, he was very persuasive in gaining the support of the national executive.
The national executive, however, demanded that the party platform committee play a major role in deciding the 1980 platform and here, too, MacEachen was masterful. He represented the caucus as one of the cochairs of the platform committee, with Lorna Marsden and Celine Hervieux Payette being nominated by the party to join him. Party members and caucus colleagues jointly worked through the various planks of the platform, guided skillfully by the co-chairs. To ensure the fiscal discipline of the exercise, MacEachen presented the outline of an alternative budget: by closing many of the tax loopholes then in our tax system, resources could be gained to promote some, but not all, of the social concerns of the policy committee. Two major ideas made the final round " regular increases of the Guaranteed Income Supplement to raise Canada’s seniors from poverty or a new rent supplement program to help low-income renters.
The platform committee decided seniors should have the priority and this became the major social plank of the Liberal 1980 platform. MacEachen took both the party executive and platform committee into his confidence and treated them as equals, and both times produced a consensus. MacEachen believed in a strong volunteer party with local autonomy and responsibility. When the chips were down, he gave the platform committee real autonomy and they in turn used this power responsibly.
In addition to his being a parliamentarian and party loyalist, Allan J. MacEachen’s career can be defined by his long commitment to social justice. Allan MacEachen grew up in a town where coal mining determined all, and where miners worked for $3.25 a day. MacEachen’s mother was in poor health and his parents lost their three first-born children. MacEachen also fell gravely ill in 1937, with an illness that lingered and nearly prevented him from attending St. Francis Xavier University. For Allan MacEachen, social policy was never an abstraction.
More than any other single individual, he is responsible for the passage and implementation of legislation creating national assistance for medicare, a program that has improved the daily lives of Canadians more than any other in our history. The history of medicare in Canada shows what a near-run-thing the passage and implementation of this landmark social advance was. MacEachen was the minister responsible for the medicare legislation and throughout that process, he had to fight off the Department of Finance and their business allies, who wanted to delay and/or kill the initiative. Medicare had been a central idea of the 1960 Kingston Conference, where MacEachen was a delegate, and the 1961 Liberal Rally made medicare the number one item in the Pearson agenda. As minister of health and welfare, MacEachen fulfilled the Pearson platform pledge by piloting the medicare bill through Parliament and working on the details of the federal financial contribution to provincial plans following the transitional period from 1967 to 1972.
Medicare was introduced and given first reading in July 1966, with the goal of a commencement date of July 1, 1967. Then the Department of Finance struck by requesting, in the fall of 1966, that medicare be delayed for an unspecified period of time. MacEachen and other ministers fought back. The October 1966 Liberal Policy Conference reluctantly supported a one-year delay in medicare’s implementation, but made it clear that no further stalling by Finance would be tolerated. I attended the public workshop on social change where MacEachen and Mitchell Sharp, the minister of finance, debated medicare. I attended, too, private meetings organized by Walter Gordon, where ministers like Jean Marchand openly declared that they would resign if Finance was allowed to kill medicare. Ministers like Edgar Benson even declared publicly at the convention that ”œwe will have medicare by July 1, 1968, and if we don’t, I will be one of the ministers that is not a member of the cabinet.”
Finance was not finished, however. Throughout 1967, it made several more attempts to delay medicare by arguing fiscal restraint and federal-provincial difficulties. MacEachen, backed by Walter Gordon, Jean Marchand and Paul Martin, eventually prevailed and in 1968, Trudeau’s new minister of finance, Edgar Benson, made good on the pledge he had given to the Young Liberals in 1966 by proposing a social development tax to pay for medicare. MacEachen won the battle over medicare. Today, it is the single most popular policy the Liberal Party of Canada has ever inaugurated, but it was opposed every step of the way by a very powerful bureaucracy, a significant wing of the Liberal cabinet and their business allies. MacEachen’s medicare fight reminds us of how hard it is to achieve social change and why progressives can never let down their guard.
”œVictory has 1,000 fathers,” said President John F. Kennedy. ”œDefeat is an orphan.” Kennedy’s insight about ”œorphan” applies well to another famous event in MacEachen’s career " the 1981 tax-reforming budget, which was certainly a political defeat and one which many of his colleagues were happy to lay at the feet of the minister of finance. In fact, MacEachen had long discussed his intentions to move on tax reform with the party, his cabinet colleagues and the PM. Trudeau reflected ruefully on the 1981 budget in his memoirs that ”œby and large, MacEachen’s plan had the approval of the Cabinet … I had spent as much time on that budget as I had spent on any other throughout my term in office. But, like MacEachen and others, I hadn’t gauged the impact of it correctly.”
The origins of the 1981 budget began in 1979, with MacEachen’s leadership of the Liberal platform process. In 1979, the Department of Finance had produced a study entitled ”œTax Expenditure Account,” which detailed that Ottawa had given up more than $7 billion in tax concessions to corporations and another $25 billion to individuals. Tax expenditure was as responsible for contributing to Canada’s growing deficit as the social expenditure on medicare that the business community continually harped on. In preparing the 1980 platform and fiscal framework that shaped the options, tax expenditure reform or closing the loopholes was a central piece in the planning that allowed increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement. Enriching the supplement between 1980 and 1984 brought more than a million seniors out of poverty. In 1980, the Tax Expenditure Account document was frequently mentioned in our media briefings about the platform. But to my regret, the party never made tax reform a central election theme in 1980, unlike energy policy or the increase in pensions for seniors. Had we done so, the public would have been better prepared for the scope of the 1981 budget.
Furthermore, at the cabinet retreat in Keltic Lodge, Cape Breton, in September 1981, cabinet colleagues urged new spending in the billions of dollars. MacEachen resisted many of these demands, but it was agreed that an additional $4 billion would go into spending on the condition that new tax revenues or reductions in the form of fiscal flows to the provinces would offset this increase. As with the platform committee in 1979-80, reducing tax expenditure was a favourite theme of the ministers who urged more spending on MacEachen.
The party and cabinet consensus that it was time to move on tax reform found a ready audience within the Department of Finance, which had been worried about high-income executives arranging to be paid through interest-free loans and other perks in order to avoid taxation. In documents accompanying the 1981 budget, Finance estimated that if all special tax breaks were eliminated, tax rates for all could fall by 45 percent. But when the details of the budget, such as the elimination of income averaging annuity contracts, were announced on November 12, 1981, all hell broke loose. The budget proposed a fairer tax regime and it increased resources for many worthwhile programs. But while the losers in tax reform knew exactly who they were and how much they had lost, there were no clear winners, as the budget did not contain specific tax cuts for lowor middle-income Canadians. It did not do so because ministers in other departments had already pocketed any increased revenues in the pre-budget planning meetings in September. MacEachen was forced to alter or withdraw several specific proposals and with the onslaught of a recession propelled by sky-high interest rates originating in the policies of the United States Federal Reserve, MacEachen’s budget was seen as contributing to economic malaise rather than solving it.
There are many lessons to be learned from MacEachen’s 1981 budget. Fairness has lessened in our society since then, as executives pay themselves compensations hundreds of times greater than the average wages of their workers. The defeat of MacEachen’s budget shows, too, the necessity of adequate political communication and organization. The 1981 budget was entirely consistent with the thrust of liberal activist policy, but tax reform had not been highlighted, as had the Constitution and energy. Thus, no body of public opinion had been organized behind such a major initiative. Finally, the 1981 budget points to the truth that no one is infallible: MacEachen’s sense of political timing was legendary, but it failed him in 1981.
With a recession gaining force and no public constituency well prepared for the tax reform initiative, the fall of 1981 was not the time to engage in tax reform, unless that reform could have been clearly seen as a way to combat the economic ravages that were sweeping the nation. The spending plans of ministers should have been scaled back in favour of low-income tax credits or reductions in rates so that the budget would have had as many direct winners as losers. This is all hindsight. But the Trudeau government collectively made a mistake in underestimating the political power of the well-to-do when they are aroused. If today’s Liberal Party is serious about the national agenda it is promoting in 2012, it will have to confront the tax issue that defeated MacEachen.
Social liberalism, parliamentary mastery and vigorous partisanship were the hallmarks of Allan MacEachen’s political career. What lessons do these virtues hold for the Liberal Party of today? Like MacEachen in his heyday, the Liberals of 2012 still believe in the force of government. The party approved policy resolutions on a national housing strategy, a national water policy, home care, child care, post-secondary education, seniors’ pensions, rail transportation and a host of other initiatives. But with the exception of one resolution in fiscal responsibility, the party was quiet on how all of this was to be paid for. MacEachen knew that revenue enhancement had to be the twin of social advances. Few will take the Liberal Party platform at face value until they have a real debate about tax policy. Yet, rather than beginning a fundamental rethink of Liberal policy, the party instead returned to its old fetish of leadership by tinkering with the method of leadership selection.
MacEachen was the product of an age when it meant something to be a member of the Liberal Party. He was initially denied a nomination because he could not persuade the local party militants that he was the man for the job. From that day in 1949 until he retired from public life, MacEachen never lost touch with his local party.
But the most dramatic development of the 2012 convention moved in exactly the opposite direction from the MacEachen tradition. The party approved a constitutional amendment to create a new ”œsupporter” category of adherents that can vote in leadership selections without bothering to take out a membership. In effect, the Liberal Party has adopted the US primary system to choose its future leaders.
There are both practical and conceptual objections to the primary idea. For a primary system to work, Liberal supporters will have to be identified. But who will do the identification? With the Liberal Party so weak organizationally in so many ridings, who will knock on the door to identify the new category of ”œsupporters?” The party has taken its weakest foundation " the lack of a large committed membership " and then given it a mammoth new job. This may turn out to be a bridge too far.
More fundamentally, giving occasional supporters the right to choose a leader dilutes the role of the committed partisan, the exact role at which Allan J. MacEachen excelled. Edmund Burke classically defined a political party as ”œa body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”
Burke’s definition still applies " ”œjoint endeavours” highlights that parties are voluntary associations and ”œsome particular principle” means that party volunteers share a common vision or at least similar views about key public policy issues.
Like all voluntary organizations, then, the basic question that the Liberal Party must answer: Why should anyone join? Parties used to provide jobs through patronage, a straightforward answer to why anyone should sign up, but that function was largely eliminated a century ago by the public service commission. The Liberal Party in 1919, then, came up with another answer " it gave party delegates one of the most critical responsibilities in politics, choosing the party leader. The role of the extraparliamentary party then expanded.
The innovation of the primary, however, would take away from Liberal volunteers the power that was given to them in 1919. If one could vote for party leader just by being an occasional supporter, what then is the incentive to join the party to become a committed member? The Liberal Party needs to enhance the role of the local volunteer, not dilute it. The current disease of the Liberal Party is that its volunteers have no meaningful role " the proposed solution of a primary system will only make that illness more pronounced.
For the Liberal Party, the road to recovery will be long and hard. Liberals like Allan MacEachen have trod such a road in the past, helping the party recover from the defeats of 1958, 1979 and 1984. But by adopting the gimmick of a primary system, today’s Liberals are taking a detour before they have even started.