Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s good fortune was his greatest irritant: John Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker’s exceptional parliamentary skills, his intense dislike of Pearson, and his deeply competitive nature contributed greatly to what Peter Newman rightly defined as the distemper of those times. The House was chaotic, the public disillusioned, and the media vituper- ative. Yet when Policy Options asked historians, political scientists, public service mandarins and journalists to choose the best prime minister of the last half of the twentieth century, Pearson easily took first place. Few would have believed the result possible when Pearson left the House without tributes and with few accolades in a media intoxicated with Pierre Trudeau.
In the commentary that has appeared since the June 28 federal election the Pearson minority governments of 1963 to 1968 have emerged as models that Prime Minister Martin might follow. From the perspective of the 21st century, the Pearson government’s legislative achievements are remark- able. Those seeking Pearson’s monuments need only look around them: the Maple Leaf flags, the visible minorities in our cities, the Canada Pension Plan, medicare, student loans, the unified armed forces and many other Pearson ini- tiatives that shaped the body and soul of modern Canada.
Yet it would be wrong to have blurred memories of the accomplishments and to obscure how difficult and vexing the Pearson years were. As a summer student working in the East Block, I recall running out when a bomb exploded in the Centre Block washroom just before it was to be tossed into the House chamber. In that peculiar Canadian institution of the times, the men’s beverage rooms, many inebri- ates lamented the bomber’s failure. Richard Gwyn’s Shape of Scandal detailed a political system that seemed rotten through its core. Most perceptive observers of the time, including Lester Pearson, believed that minority government made a major contribution to the rot.
Members sat through the steamy summer months as the government tried to push forward its agenda with- out the advantage of closure. Ministers scrambled to return to Ottawa to make votes. They didn’t always succeed, and Pearson had to chew out Paul Martin Sr. when his leadership ambitions took him out of Ottawa too often. Another leadership aspirant, Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp, saw his hopes dissolve when the Liberals lost a non- confidence motion in 1968. Had not Pearson convinced Bob Stanfield that Canada faced a financial crisis, Canada might never have known Pierre Trudeau as prime minister.
There are many similarities between the situations faced by Pearson in 1963 and Martin in 2004. They were the same age and both have exceptional records of achievement. Pearson was the greatest foreign minis- ter in Canadian history; Martin the finest finance minister. Those records counted more in the Liberal leadership race than in the general election where Canadians asked not what Pearson or Martin had done so much as demanded answers from them on what they would do for Canadians in the future. In their election campaigns, both lead- ers responded with abundant promis- es, too many most commentators said. Pearson promised ”œsixty days of deci- sion”; Martin has called a federal- provincial conference to fulfil his health care pledges. Both approaches raised expectations and made the lead- ers’ task more challenging.
Comparing the election results, one sees the surprising continuities in the Canadian political tradition. Despite the rise of multicultural cities, Quebec separatism, western alienation, and the creation of the welfare state, the fundamental divisions remain remarkably similar. The Gallup Poll of 1963 revealed that in cities over 100,000 the Liberals took 46 percent of the vote compared with only 25 per- cent for the Conservatives. In the Toronto-Hamilton urban complex, the Liberals took 52.5 percent of the vote. Among farmers, however, the Conservatives took 49 percent com- pared with only 33 percent for the Liberals. On the prairies, the Conservatives with their Western leader routed the Liberals, taking 51 of 56 seats. The Liberals did better in 2004 in Alberta (2 seats) and in Saskatchewan (1 seat) than they did in 1963 (1 and 0 seats respectively). Rural Quebec reject- ed the national parties by favouring Social Credit (later the Créditistes as the western branch of the party weakened). The NDP under new leader Tommy Douglas did not do as well as expected but did win 17 seats. And like the NDP in 2004, most of the seats came in Ontario and British Columbia. In the case of British Columbia, the NDP took 9 seats in 1963 with 30.5 percent of the vote but only 5 with a respectable 26.6 percent of the vote in 2004.
The Liberal heartland remains urban Canada, especially those cities where immigrants settle. The Conservative appeal remains strongest in rural areas with the significant exception of francophone rural areas whether in Quebec, New Brunswick or Ontario. Leaders of both major parties found it difficult in 1963 and 2004 to reach beyond their core constituencies, and the uncommitted voters gener- ally regarded the Conservative and Liberal leaders with some disdain.
Despite these continu- ities, Canadian political analysts tend to stress the discontinuities of Canadian political life. Frank Underhill, who founded the CCF but died a devout Liberal, argued that the most inconsistent voter in Canada is the one who voted for the same party all of his or her life. The journalist John Willison, who moved from Liberal to Conservative, once said that with each election Canada was remade again. Certainly the anti-Americanism of John Diefenbaker’s 1963 campaign contrasts strikingly with the continen- talist approach of Stephen Harper and the conservative National Post. Moreover, Lester Pearson’s willingness to embrace nuclear weapons for Canadian missiles seems very different from the reluctance of the Paul Martin Liberals to accept Canadian participa- tion in ballistic missile defence. And then there is free trade, the traditional Liberal nostrum for all ills that, as a Tory elixir, rejuvenated a creaky party to win the 1988 election.
Too much can be made of these differences. We now know from American documents that, in the 1962 election, American Ambassador Livingston Merchant favoured John Diefenbaker over Pearson, whom he thought was waffling dishonestly on missile defence. Diefenbaker was not anti-American; he simply detested John Kennedy. In the late sixties and early seventies he was the strongest voice in the House of Commons in support of Richard Nixon’s foreign pol- icy. Liberals, moreover, treat free trade as they did conscription: ”œfree trade if necessary but not necessarily free trade.” The continuities usually trump the inconsistencies.
Given the similarity of the results of the 1963 and 2004 elections, Paul Martin’s Liberals would do well do consider how Pearson responded to the challenges and the ”œdistemper” of his times. Like Pearson, Martin’s first problem is his promises; Pearson’s first task was to lower expectations created by the pledge of ”œsixty days of deci- sion.” The expectations fell drastically when on June 13, 1963, the fifty-third day of decision, Walter Gordon pre- sented a badly flawed budget that, even worse, had been largely prepared by outside Toronto consultants. On June 20, the sixtieth day of decision, Gordon offered his resignation to Pearson who, with considerable reluctance, refused it. Martin was wise to postpone the return of the House and to slow the political pace.
Pearson recovered from the budget controversy by concentrating on several specific policy initiatives that he knew would attract widespread support and trouble the Opposition. To accomplish these goals he linked the best bureaucrats directly with his office and set out an ambi- tious set of initiatives upon which they would focus. As Jim Coutts recently pointed out in an article in Policy Options, the goals were few but the attention given to them was intense. In Pearson’s time, the goals included medicare, a pension plan, and a remaking of the Canadian federal sys- tem. There were other initiatives but they remained the concern of one or two departments where strong minis- ters were given freedom to push for- ward their reforms. One example would be armed forces unification where Paul Hellyer took the lead and, inevitably, the blame. The irritation with Pearson’s ability to deflect blame to others overflows in the memoirs of Judy LaMarsh and, to a lesser extent, Paul Hellyer. It was, however, an exam- ple of the clever politics that Paul Martin needs to practise. He would do well to allow a few ministers their free- dom to make mistakes or achieve sig- nificant goals. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) should keep its distance. For the major policy goals, the prime minister and his office must be at the centre.
In the case of the pension plan and medicare, the Pearson PMO was deeply involved because Pearson knew these issues would determine his party’s political future. In a recent arti- cle, Pearson’s brilliant adviser Tom Kent has suggested that the early 21st century is very much like the Pearson’s first years in that ”œthe principal protes- tors were not on the streets but from the board rooms.” In what Kent calls ”œthe great storm of 1963-64,” the bat- tle for the pension plan, the board- rooms took the fight to the editorial pages and the constituency offices. They lost and Pearson gained, especial- ly against the NDP and in Quebec.
Martin needs to make similar gains and to become personally identified with the principal issues while remaining distant from second- ary issues. In this respect, health care is clearly the issue upon which he must concentrate, partly because of the expectations he has raised and partly because it is an issue that most trou- bles his opponents and that offers the prospect of political gains. In the elec- tion campaign, Stephen Harper dis- missed a pile of Fraser Institute studies as well as his own earlier comments and seemed to embrace a national one- tier medicare system. To be sure, there were ambiguities, but in the debates and on the hustings, the Conservatives clung so closely to the Liberals’ medicare platform that differences between the two major parties faded.
The Diefenbaker Conservatives had similar difficulties staking out dif- ferent approaches to the pension and medicare legislation. The Opposition came from provincial Conservatives who were apoplectic about medicare. Ontario Premier John Roberts called it the most Machiavellian scheme ever foisted upon his province by a cun- ning and devious federal government. Diefenbaker and his parliamentary col- leagues fussed about the details but never denounced the broader purpos- es. Medicare and the Canada Pension Plan threw the Conservatives off bal- ance. For its part, the NDP, which probably despised the Liberals more than the Tories, was forced to back the Liberals enthusiastically and to attack the Tories daily in the House as the battle raged in 1963 and 1964. The result was a House of Commons where the Opposition was as much a target as the government was.
Current issues and political align- ments offer Martin a similar opportuni- ty. He will need the NDP to support him in the House, and on medicare and children’s issues there is little funda- mental difference between the parties. Among provincial premiers, Gary Doer and Lorne Calvert can be more useful to the federal Liberals than Dalton McGuinty and, most obviously, Jean Charest. As was the case with Pearson, Martin’s Liberals must always look toward the Left to make certain that the NDP is not gaining. The Liberal victory of 2004 did not come so much from moderate Conservatives disconsolate about a conservative approach to social issues but rather from potential NDP supporters deciding that Stephen Harper’s Tories threatened the values they cherished. Thus Olivia Chow fell before Tony Ianno, and Jack Layton barely won. The Martin government must respond to the five to six percent of Canadians who told pollsters in mid- election that they would support the NDP but who, on election day, hesitantly cast a Liberal ballot. Child care, improved access to doctors, and infra- structure funds for cities are precisely the kinds of issues that matter to such voters in Toronto, Vancouver, and even Edmonton.
As Joe Clark taught us in 1979, a minority government must always remember that defeat is always near. To protect itself against the fall, a minority government must protect its base, and the Liberal base in 2004 as in 1963 was urban and central Canada. If govern- ment policies cause disaffection in its area of base support, the government could fall and face defeat in the follow- ing general election. In the 1960s, the NDP seemed the party of the future. As Lyndon Johnson became as unpopular in Canada as George Bush is today, the NDP became a threat to Canadian liber- alism as Labour had been to British lib- eralism a half century earlier. The historian W.L. Morton boldly predicted that Canadian liberalism would fall before the NDP assault.
It did not because the Pearson gov- ernment responded by finding the NDP weaknesses and by responding to the concerns of potential NDP voters. The social legislation was helpful, but equal- ly important was Pearson’s response to the challenge posed by French Canadian nationalism. The NDP then, as now, sim- ply could not get Quebec right. Jack Layton’s quick dismissal of the Clarity Act gained him nothing among fran- cophones, made him irrelevant among Quebec anglophones, and did him no good in the rest of Canada. Two Montreal Liberals, one a former Liberal Cabinet minister and the other a promi- nent businessperson, both told me they were prepared to vote NDP but returned to the Liberal fold when Layton made his unnecessary statement.
A Liberal majority in a future elec- tion can only come if the Liberal Party recovers in Quebec. The West, it seems, is infertile ground for Canadian liber- alism, and it will certainly remain so if national debates revolve around the traditional central Canadian issues. Martin made a determined attempt to court Western Canadians, and his major deputies are Anne McClellan and Ralph Goodale, who represent provinces where the Liberals have a total of three seats. Martin actually did better than Pearson did in 1963 and 1965, a fact that underlines how enduring anti-Liberal sentiment in the West is.
Ontario too offers little hope for gains. Polls indicated that the Liberals faced a disaster in Ontario three weeks before election day. As in 1963 when the Gallup was wrong by five percent on the Liberal vote, the Liberals seem to have benefited from last minute decisions by Ontario voters to support them.
The Liberal hold on Ontario is precarious: 44.7 percent of the vote brought 70.8 percent of the seats. A small rise in the Conservative vote (31.5 percent) could cause Liberal seats to tumble. Similarly, an NDP return to mid-election levels (23 percent) rather than their 18.1 percent could cause the loss of many urban Liberal seats. In Ontario, the Liberals must batten down the hatches and protect their own.
As in the 1960s, only Quebec offers the Liberals the chance for the cher- ished majority. The Liberal government, therefore, is likely to focus on those issues that will expand Liberal support beyond the centre of Montreal and a small cluster of constituencies around the national capital. A Conservative resurgence in Quebec is unlikely: Stephen Harper is no Brian Mulroney. The Bloc, however, has broader appeal than Social Credit but it too lacks the legitimacy of a national party.
When Pearson took office in 1963, he had weak cabinet representation from Quebec and no widely accepted Quebec lieutenant. Factions jostled for position, and the result was embarrass- ing leaks from cabinet and a series of scandals that weakened the govern- ment. Nevertheless, the Liberal seats in Quebec rose from 35 in 1962 to 47 in 1963 to 56 in 1965. Like Pearson, Martin has leadership problems in Quebec, and a provincial Liberal government that has its own agenda. The sponsorship scandal will continue to pour oil on the troubled waters of Quebec liberalism as the various inquiries unfold.
Despite scandals and bitter divi- sions in the party, Pearson managed to make Quebec voters believe that his government addressed their con- cerns more effectively than did Caouette’s Créditistes, Douglas’ NDP, or Diefenbaker’s Conservatives. His recruitment of a ”œnew wave” of Quebec politicians that began to sweep over the discredited ministers of the first Pearson government sig- nalled that the Pearson government was responding to the challenges so clearly stated in the 1965 preliminary report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The commission’s warning that ”œCanada, without being fully conscious of the fact, is passing through the greatest crisis in its history” was an indication that the Pearson-appointed commis- sion took Quebec seriously. It brought political advantage to Pearson and his party.
Martin has many advantages in Quebec. While Pearson spoke little French, Martin is fluent and has lived and worked in Quebec for most of his life. At one point, polls indicated that Martin would sweep Quebec and destroy the Bloc. The analysts of the 2004 election have not produced a con- vincing analysis of why the Liberal sup- port dissolved so quickly in Quebec. The party divisions, the sponsorship scan- dal, the unpopularity of Jean Lapierre in both the French and English press, the warming of relations with the Bush administration, and the perceived tilt toward the West were factors that combined to strengthen the Bloc and weaken the Liberals.
Canadians are tired of Quebec crises and of constitu- tional conferences. Yet the Martin agenda on health, cities and children treads on provin- cial turf and requires constitu- tional innovation. Similarly, the call for the end of the democrat- ic deficit as well as the ”œelection” of senators in Alberta and, potentially, New Brunswick means that we will have to ponder constitutional issues. André Pratte, editorial page editor of La Presse has recently warned that the political constellations are moving in a direction that point to another referen- dum in Quebec. For the federal Liberals, the stars are beginning to form a pattern that presents potential opportunity but also many real dangers. New voices, bet- ter ideas, and broad public debate are critical if the Liberals are to avoid the shoals. Back to the sixties anyone?