A reflection on the politics of the last quarter-century suggests that we misinterpret large parts of our history, and that misinterpretation contributes broad- ly to political parties and stratagems that disconnect from reality in ways that marginalize their relevance and impact. We have often since 1980 confused popularity with success, and humility with failure. If there is any message that emerges from the events of the last quarter-century in Canadian public policy and politics it is that there is a direct relationship between humility in both style and reach and real policy success on the ground.
For example, the early 1980s were ushered in by the Trudeau restoration, a restoration made possible by the hubris in office of the brief Clark administration. Over time, the boomer generation has lionized Pierre Trudeau, in large meas- ure as the personification of boomer values ”” even though he was not of that generation himself. He is credited with the repatriation of the Constitution, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, universal medicare, and getting the state out of the bedrooms of the nation. For much of this the credit is justified ”” but the hard reality is that had the Clark government been able to manage its House votes more competently, none of the above might have happened, although the medicare and pen- sion reforms were really achieved by Lester Pearson, who made humility and confederal partnership hallmarks of his successful administrations. It has been the lack of humility since Pearson that has typified our political actors in many cir- cumstances, a lack of humility that has produced some of the sharp edges in the frankly anti-political party and anti-politi- cian zeitgeist so prevalent in our popular and media culture.
A bit of humility on the part of Joe Clark in 1979 might have saved his government, and as a result, changed the course of history. Trudeau was known for many intellectual and emotional strengths, but humility in any of its guises was not one of them. Much of what became the core of western alienation was produced in part by his lack of humility. And, as we have seen, humility begets civility, but arrogance begets the obstinate opposite.
When Conservatives chose Robert Stanfield in 1967, they did so in response to Pearson and the quiet competence of a Liberal machine run by master mechanics like Jim Coutts and Keith Davey. The Tory plan would have been to have the reasonable, competent and self-effacing Stanfield lead an administration that would have been served by master mechanics like Dalton Camp and Norman Atkins. They came razor close to succeeding in 1972, against the then tarnished Trudeau Sun King phenomenon. When swept out to sea in 1974 by PC party fractiousness on a wage and price freeze, the era of humility was consigned to the sidelines. The Clark victory at the 1976 convention was an end to humility from the Conservative side, notwithstand- ing how much they might have had to be humble about.
In a sense the hard fought and carefully won 1980 Quebec referendum was another sign of the end of that humility. Both sovereignist forces (ably led by the master of humility and can- dor, René Lévesque) and the federalist forces headed by Claude Ryan (a humble man in many ways, and a nationalist intellec- tually and philosophically) were overrun by the Trudeau per- sonality ”” which, by the end of the campaign, became the critical pivotal point. It was the break from humility, when Quebec cabinet minister Lise Payette called those middle-aged work at home Québécois women (who were largely federalist) ”œYvettes,” attempting to paint them as house-trapped husband- oppressed washerwomen, that helped rally the federal vote across the province. The PQ broke with its own understated humility and it helped cost them the campaign. Interestingly, it was in the 1995 referendum, when a federal- ist businessman talked confidently in Quebec of ”œdestroying the sovereignists” (the French word used was ”œécraser”) that discarded humility was a factor in nearly costing the federal side the entire campaign.
There is a theme here in Canadian politics and public policy ”” desert the humility that is vital to exercising judgement and leadership in our confed- eral union, and the voters start to desert you. This is not only about the personal- ities and mannerisms of leaders and par- ties, but also about the policies they advance, and the over-reach built into them that either goes a bridge too far or unleashes unintended consequences at a rate that becomes unmanageable.
The Trudeau restoration in 1980 brought the National Energy Program, a symbol for time immemorial of the degree to which the lack of humility in imperial Finance (a burden for all gov- ernments, regardless of party) can be a malignant and destructive force. If the arrogance some attributed to Trudeau did not inflame the West all by itself, the NEP, as one of the most confiscato- ry tax measures ever introduced in peacetime, surely finished the job. This had more than just an effect on the politics of Western Canada and the federal parties in subsequent elections ”” it became a signpost for a tonality of anger and cynicism about the federal government, which has permeated an entire political culture for generations. One can always recover from overdo- ing the humility thing in a democratic society; it is often much harder to recover from overdoing the arrogance thing, as our history tells us.
The Mulroney sweep of 1984, while not associated with humility in the minds of many, was a tribute to his humility in the context of winning the party leadership. His was no Trudeau sweep within the party. He assiduously courted premiers, local party presidents, riding workers, and youth federation and campus Conservatives for many years. The absence of humility from Clark as leader was balanced within the party by a courtly, determined and sus- tained humility by a Mulroney who was determined to not let the next opportu- nity pass. It was no accident that he took an Ottawa taxi to the announcement of his candidacy for the party leadership at the National Press Theatre in 1983. At that, it was a near miss ”” he had to wave off a Blue Line Cadillac that was first in line at the Cheateau Laurier, before climbing into humbler transportation.
While there will always be a debate about the tactics used within the party by both sides, the hard truth is that Mulroney built a constituency through his own assiduous attention to the grass roots ”” a constituency he maintained through immense loyalty to and inter- est in his own caucus and their families after sweeping to power in 1984.
As prime minister, there were really two Mulroneys. In Cabinet, caucus and party councils, he was solicitous, ener- getic, courteous and always self-effacing. In public, in defence of his government and party he was always unburdened by any sense of either possibly being mistak- en or wrong. His view, no doubt bred in his Quebec days watching masters of Union Nationale political arts like Maurice Duplessis and Daniel Johnson, was that the anti-Conservative bias was so real and pervasive that a Conservative leader could never show weakness or uncertainty in public. That would be letting down the side, the cause and whatever pol- icy purposes the government was devoted to advancing. His second majority in 1988, which was historic for any Conservative leader since John A. Macdonald, was really because, in the end, he was seen to have been conciliatory in his efforts to bring Quebec back into the con- stitution, and supportive of greater market access in the US for Canadian exporters of resources, goods and services.
Canadians factored in his bursts of hyperbolic salesmanship for a cause or his party, but also sensed that premiers in all parts of the country had agreed with large parts of his core direction and activ- ity, and in the same way Trudeau was restored by Clark’s lack of judgment and humility, so too was Mulroney helped by the incoherent message of John Turner’s Liberal campaign. It was Trudeau’s arro- gance that helped Mulroney against Turner in 1984. It would be Turner’s inco- herence on free trade (not, to his credit, during the campaign, but during his career) that made a recovery from a post- television-debate slump possible for Mulroney in the 1988 campaign.
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Jean Chrétien’s victory over Kim Campbell and the historic collapse of the Conservatives was not unrelated to the ultimate unpopularity of Meech Lake, Charlottetown, the GST and free trade, and the grinding recession which accompanied the final years of his administration. But it was also a tribute to the core ”œlittle guy” persona cultivat- ed by Chrétien. Prime Minister Campbell, who at one point in her peri- od of office was the most popular prime minister in Canadian polling history, got overtaken by the arrogance bug ”” although in her view, I am sure she felt she was simply being honest with the public, both when she began her cam- paign by saying there would be no like- ly diminution in unemployment before the millennium and when, some weeks later, she suggested in Drummondville that elections were not the best of times to have detailed discus- sions about social policy.
While a coherent case can be made for both reflections, in a campaign context they reflected the absence of hope and a plan, or worse, the absence of respect for the voter’s intelligence and right to know. Liberals did what any opposition party should in the face of this kind of opportunity. What could have been a respectable loss became instead a crushing defeat, one that would leave the right without coherent voice for a decade in our nation’s federal politics. In comparison, Preston Manning and Lucien Bouchard, each commandeering large parts of the Tory coalition assembled a decade earlier by Mulroney, seemed honest and relative- ly humble proponents of legitimate regional grievance.
One can argue that the Chrétien government, by focusing on the deficit to the exclusion of all else, adopted an essentially modest approach to its capacities. Foreign policy became little more than trade promotion engage- ments, which were seen by Canadians as useful job-creating multi-govern- ment undertakings. Chrétien’s aversion to constitutional discussions of any kind was in some way a level of humility about what the confederal negotiat- ing context could actually produce. Canadians were tired of the endless hostage taking that federal-provincial discussions appeared to encourage on issues as diverse as language rights, abo- riginal self-government and health care. And Chrétien captured that fatigue and gave it life and active expression.
It is fascinating to reflect, just in terms of the kind of humility both Liberal partisans in Ottawa and provin- cial Conservative partisans in any province should embrace, how in 1995 many of the people who elected the clearly right- wing Harris Conservatives in Ontario were the same who voted for Chrétien Liberals in massive amounts, but two years earlier. This was true in western provinces where people who voted for the NDP provincially were glad to vote for the Reform or the Alliance federally without any sense of conflict. People who feel left outside the decision-making circle, who feel their views are being over-ridden by arro- gance at the centre, will vote, protest, and choose the best counterbalance they can find, with ideology being very much a secondary concern. While all practitioners of the political arts are best to embrace humility whenever reflect- ing on the electorate, the ideologically certain should be particularly sensitive to this need.
Ultimately, Chrétien’s modesty on the Constitution became another kind of arrogance on Chrétien’s part, the arro- gance of rigidity, and confederal avoid- ance. And that along with an arrogant ”œdon’t worry, be happy” federal strategy in the 1995 referendum, and a highly effective Bouchard campaign, almost lost the country. The deathbed repen- tance on Quebec’s distinctiveness within Canada, the post-referendum rush to Parliament with resolutions on the amending formula were all constructive as the signs of a humility that had been missing during the 1995 referendum campaign. Were it not for Jean Charest’s electric appeal to Quebecers and his attack on some of the more arro- gant assumptions of the Parizeau team, 1995 might have been the beginning of Canada’s end.
It is noteworthy that when Charest moved to Quebec, and, in his second election after a superb performance in the 2003 television debate, and the numbers beginning to roll his way, he was asked about whether this might be a rout for the PQ and end the sover- eignist role. His answer, to the effect that he was not out to destroy any political party, and that all had a role to play in the future of Quebec and the health and balance of the broader debate, was inspired and, I sus- pect, quite spontaneous. It was the anti-arrogant ”” noblesse oblige ”” humility that Quebeccers and voters throughout the country have come to expect.
Part of Paul Martin’s success as finance minister was his support for federal-provincial escapes from rigidity, such as the Social Union Framework Agreement, and the Calgary Declaration, which framed coming fed- eral re-investment in social policy in general and health in particular. The cutting of transfer payments by Ottawa by over a third had destabilized health care and social policy in Canada, and Ottawa was coming back to the table as the fiscal strategy began to bear fruit. Despite their rivalry, as minister of Finance, Martin supported Chrétien as these steps back to confederal consen- sus emerged in the second and third terms. To his credit, Chrétien had sup- ported his finance minister when the fiscal plan had to be very tough in the mid 1990s. Whatever battles may exist within the Liberal party today, whatev- er tensions are unresolved, they speak most likely to a lack of humility between the competing Chrétien and Martin entourages. By now, if humility existed at any level at all, there would only be one entourage.
The decade of Tory-Reform mutual enmity speaks to a lack of humility on both sides. In my partisan days in the early 1990s, I was part of the anti- humility forces on the Tory side, and I wrongly failed to understand that the Conservative party was only relevant when both wings, the progressive and the conservative, were in the same tent ”” a big tent. With Preston Manning’s defeat in the Alliance Leadership, and especially the emergence of a bright, young and fair-minded leader in Stephen Harper, many old Tories under- stood that some humility in defence of a truly competitive democracy would make sense. The existence today of a competitive political framework with a dominant opposition party was only possible because Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay could shelve the old arro- gance and embrace a more inclusive humility that made the future more important than the past. The Conservative failure to apologize quick- ly for over-the-top allegations about child pornography and the views of the prime minister, set underway a cycle that probably replaced an emergent Tory minority government with a result that, while genuine progress, was some- thing far less.
Our foreign policy in the last 25 years has not been all that humble, although our deployable military capacity became more humble and modest by the decade. Between the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, the acid rain agreements, Canadian engagement in the Gulf, the Ethiopian famine relief and engage- ment on apartheid under Mulroney, Chrétien’s ultimate embrace of NAFTA, the notion of hemispheric free trade, and the anti-land-mines treaty, are nevertheless solid and important achievements. Prime Minister Martin’s many foreign policy initiatives and deeper engagement when compared to Chrétien may be of immense value if the hubris does not overstate the deliverable reality. Certainly, Martin’s humility in admit- ting his role in slashing defence budg- ets in the mid-1990s and his commitment to rebuild defence capacity is an excellent start. The deci- sion on missile defence, itself a form of Canadian hubris, may be more troublesome.
For premiers and prime ministers, opposition leaders and senior public servants, it is fair to look at the last quarter-century as one of achieve- ment. There are many lessons to be learned on fiscal and federal provincial policy as well as on our actual capacity to get beyond sterile policy debates to effectively deliver and deploy services and presence. But what emerges about the role of the state and the effective- ness of public policy overall is that humility about one’s own role, one’s own government and party, one’s own policy capacity, is by and large an excellent place to start if real achieve- ment and positive change is what one genuinely seeks.