I have the kind of personality, essen- tial in a writer of newspaper columns, that when confronted with a questionnaire of the type devised by Policy Options and IRPP immediately quarrels with its implicit premises. What exactly is a ”œtransformational,” ”œtransactional” or ”œtransitional” leader? Why is a transformational leader best? It comes first in the list of options, so it must be best. But is it really? If a leader transforms society in the wrong way ”” think of Stalin ”” that can’t be good. If things are just about right in policy terms, better a leader who is transfixed (by the status quo) than transformative.
And what about the individual achievement tests? We’re asked to rank the prime ministers on their perform- ance regarding ”œCanadian unity and managing the federation.” Well, national unity and managing the fed- eration aren’t exactly the same thing. John Diefenbaker started out by being pretty good for national unity ”” The Northern Vision and all that, which brought him a record majority in the 1958 election ”” and he stayed good: by the end much of the country was united in believing he was nuts. But if he managed the federation well, that was the only thing he managed well.
Likewise Lester Pearson. The flag debate, foreigners are always amused to hear, was one of the most divisive episodes in this country’s history, and yet nowadays most Canadians have real fondness for the Maple Leaf (Americans, too, especially those who stitch it to their backpacks while hitchhiking through Old Europe). The flag debate was very bad for national unity in the short run but in the long run it’s given us a beloved national symbol. The same for medicare, another Pearsonian inno- vation, though in its case the timing is reversed. It united us through the 1970s and 1980s, when for lots of Canadians it provided a compelling answer to the eternal question of what makes us dif- ferent from the Americans. More recent- ly it’s been a cause of division and even ill health as Canadians have had to wait longer and longer for basic services.
Same complaint for the other ques- tions: ”œthe economy” and ”œthe fiscal framework” aren’t the same thing. Nor are ”œforeign affairs,” ”œdefence” and ”œinternational trade.” I didn’t much like Pierre Trudeau’s cozying up to the groovi- er dictators, but between 1968 and 1984 the average Canadian tariff did fall quite a bit. By sheer force of intellect and vigour of expression Trudeau probably did have us punching above our weight, as the saying goes, in the world arena. Trouble is, too often we were punching at the wrong people: our Americans friends rather than the Soviets and their puppets.
Then there is the always nettle- some question of how to score achieve- ment. The convention seems to be to credit leaders with whatever happens ”œon their watch.” Honour does require that if the ship founders, the captain go down with it. But there should be both extra points for capable seamanship in the teeth of a typhoon and appropriate discounting for the luck of sailing in placid waters. Louis St-Laurent always gets high marks for economic manage- ment. I doubt Karl Marx himself could have screwed up economic growth in Canada’s heady first postwar decade.
Of course, the ambiguities and impossibilities of questions such as these posed are what make trying to answer them such fun. We all know more or less what the purpose is: Who was the best of the lot? Who made the best of the hand he was dealt?
Historic achievement should be granted its due. Trudeau did, after 114 years, repatriate the constitution. He also largely fulfilled Pearson’s vision of turning the federal government into a bilingual institution. Mulroney gave us free trade with the US, a political trick thought impossible since 1911. Apart from the flag, Pearson put up most of the policy architecture of modern-day Canada.
But Pearson and Trudeau, taking their lead from Diefenbaker, greatly extended government’s reach and in the long run that has hurt Canadian society ”” economically, politically and spiritually. I therefore give high marks to politicians who have restrained gov- ernments, preferably because they understood in their gut the virtues of restraint, but, failing that, because restraint was forced on them and they had the good sense not to resist.
So I give higher marks than some might to Brian Mulroney, who ended the century-old protection rack- et of the National Policy and began to bring order to the federal govern- ment’s finances following the disaster of the Trudeau years ”” really, he did, if you look at percentages of GDP. And to Jean Chrétien, who despite his instinct to spend generously and be loved widely, did what had to be done and, though I suspect no one is more sur- prised by this than he, may well have launched the country onto a virtuous circle of declining debt, low interest rates and rising economic output ”” a key feedstock of national and individ- ual contentment and achievement.
To my mind, that’s what a good prime minister does.