Tag Archives: Pierre Trudeau

The Road to Patriation

The Road to Patriation by Robert Duncan

This feature documentary retraces the century of haggling by successive federal and provincial governments to agree on a formula to bring home the Canadian Constitution from England. This film concentrates on the politicking and lobbying that finally led to its patriation in 1982. Five prime ministers had failed before Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau took up the challenge in the early 1970s. Principal players in this documentary are federal Minister of Justice Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister Trudeau, 10 provincial premiers and a host of journalists, politicians, lawyers, and diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic.

This was an incredible documentary to watch.  One of the best things I have seen in the last couple of years.

When Cabinet Had the Power

So why don’t we see Prime Minister’s shuffled out any longer?

Ministers are there to front for policy originating in the PMO, and to take the fall when it fails or changes. In a real crisis, a prime minister may choose among several dozen scapegoats.

As in Britain, to some degree, the finance minister (chancellor of the exchequer, in their more elegant style) enjoys some slight independence and prestige. He, alone, cannot be sacked casually.

But that is a function of the national debt, not of any constitutional tradition or other nicety. The country’s credit rating and even consumer confidence require the appearance of a steady hand on the fiscal tiller. A prime minister who exchanged his finance minister every few months for someone a little more plausible and charming would pay for his whimsicality. So would we.

Yet the overall budgetary policy is set from the start, and political adjustments to it (such as stimulus runs) are dictated, from the PMO. It was Jean Chrétien, and not Paul Martin, who decided that something must be done about the deficits, even if it might involve some pain; that in the larger political scheme of things, it would pay off. It was Stephen Harper, and not Jim Flaherty, who decided to resume the “middle course.”

It was Chrétien who cleverly used Martin as his straight man: implicitly allowing him to take the blame for any cuts. That’s how things are done in a PMO-centric universe.

Party discipline in the Commons in turn assures that the prime minister’s decisions stick. A government with a majority and a half-competent chief whip is not going to entertain deviant proposals from its own backbenches, any more than from the opposition’s. That government — i.e. the prime minister and his office staff — will certainly listen, behind closed doors, to political advice from these little people who come from the boondocks. It needs eyes and ears. But they are not there to be negotiated with.

For each of them, in turn, needs the prime minister’s signature on his nomination papers, if he wants to be the party’s candidate again, before an electorate trained to vote party labels. This innovation, designed at minimum to protect the party from the embarrassment of shipping nutjobs aboard, effectively stifled the power of constituency associations. Likewise, party membership meetings can extract from their leader only what he wants to give. Their manifestos mean little during an election campaign, and nothing after.

It is against this background that we view the claims of a member of Parliament to democratic significance. As Pierre Trudeau once said, arrogantly but accurately, “When they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill they are not honourable members, they are just nobodies.” (That’s 45 metres.)

This is not how Parliament was supposed to work, or did work in the ancient past. As recently as 1968, cabinet ministers were often heavy regional warlords. They were selected by prime ministers who had no choice, and could be removed or transferred only with their own co-operation. And before the days of party leadership conventions, a prime minister had to face a cabinet which, if it took a sudden dislike, could turn him out on the street by morning.

We should pine for those days. Read Bagehot to understand what went wrong.

David Frum: Trudeau was a disaster for Canada

Frum goes to town on the legacy of Pierre Trudeau.

Pierre Trudeau took office at a moment when commodity prices were rising worldwide. Good policymakers recognize that commodity prices fall as well as rise. Yet between 1969 and 1979 – through two majority governments and one minority – Trudeau tripled federal spending.

In 1981-82, Canada plunged into recession, the worst since World War II. Trudeau’s already big deficits exploded to a point that Canada’s lenders worried about default.

Trudeau’s Conservative successor Brian Mulroney balanced Canada’s operating budget after 1984. But to squeeze out Trudeau-era inflation, the Bank of Canada had raised real interest rates very high. Mulroney could not keep up with the debt payments. The debt compounded, the deficits grew, the Bank hiked rates again – and Canada toppled into an even worse recession in 1992. Trudeau’s next successors, Liberals this time, squeezed even tighter, raising taxes, and leaving Canadians through the 1990s working harder and harder with no real increase in their standard of living.

Do Canadians understand how many of their difficulties of the 1990s originated in the 1970s? They should.

To repay Trudeau’s debt, federal governments reduced transfers to provinces. Provinces restrained spending. And these restraints had real consequences for real people: more months in pain for heart patients, more months of immobility for patients awaiting hip replacements.

If Canada’s health system delivers better results today than 15 years ago, it’s not because it operates more efficiently. Canada’s health system delivers better results because the reduction of Trudeau’s debt burden has freed more funds for healthcare spending.

Pierre Trudeau was a spending fool. He believed in a state-led economy, and the longer he lasted in office, the more statist he became. The Foreign Investment Review Agency was succeeded by Petro-Canada. Petro-Canada was succeeded by wage and price controls. Wage and price controls were succeeded by the single worst economic decision of Canada’s 20th century: the National Energy Program.

The NEP tried to fix two different prices of oil, one inside Canada, one outside.  The NEP expropriated foreign oil interests without compensation. The NEP sought to shoulder aside the historic role of the provinces as the owner and manager of natural resources.

Most other Western countries redirected themselves toward more fiscal restraint after 1979. Counting on abundant revenues from oil, the Trudeau government kept spending. Other Western governments began to worry more about attracting international investment. Canada repelled investors with arbitrary confiscations. Other Western governments recovered from the stagflation of the 1970s by turning toward freer markets. Under the National Energy Policy, Canada was up-regulating as the US, Britain, and West Germany deregulated. All of these mistakes together contributed to the extreme severity of the 1982 recession. Every one of them was Pierre Trudeau’s fault.

While I disagree with Frum that Trudeau was one of the worst prime ministers of our time, I will agree that his economic legacy has impacted the country for over a decade.  Frum’s is an interesting take.

Justin Trudeau’s political sacrifice

Angelo Persichilli’s Toronto Star column is a scathing attack on the leadership of Michael Ignatieff (and a shot at the political instincts of Justin Trudeau).

What’s more, Pierre Trudeau was surrounded by skilled and intelligent individuals, like Mitchell Sharp, Marc Lalonde, Keith Davey, Jim Coutts, Dennis Mills, Patrick Gossage and others who had a lot of respect for the process and for people. The present leader is surrounded only by leftovers of the past whose incompetence is rivalled only by their arrogance.

They have betrayed loyalties with their MPs and everyone who has laboured for the party over the years. But when they’re in trouble, which has been just about always in the last seven years, they believe they can snap their fingers and order the old crew back to work sailing a ship that has no captain and no destination.

I agree with Angelo’s point but it is an overstatement.  Paul Martin wanted to do too much (and in the end did little), Stephane Dion steered a clear course but not many believed in his green shift (pdf), and as for Michael Ignatieff, I still don’t know what he believes in as leader of the Liberal Party.

As for Justin Trudeau, Persichilli has some advice

First, you don’t risk your life if you know that the person you want to save is “seriously dead.”

Second, stick to creating a career for yourself based not on your last name but on personal merit.

Unfortunately, in its desperation, the present Liberal leadership is asking Trudeau to do for them what he has refused to do for himself. It is getting him to exploit and squander his father’s political capital to fill the vacuum of a brain-dead Liberal leadership that, since the forced retirement of Jean Chrétien, is sailing the Canadian political sea without a compass or map.