Thomas S. Ax­wor­thy Mas­ter of the House: Al­lan J. MacEachen

Policy - - In This Issue - Thomas S. Ax­wor­thy

A man more at home giv­ing a dis­qui­si­tion on the fate of Bon­nie Prince Char­lie over a sin­gle malt scotch than kiss­ing ba­bies, Al­lan MacEachen nev­er­the­less was a born po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal in the best pos­si­ble sense. A canny par­lia­men­tary strate­gist whose mas­tery of pro­ce­dure left the op­po­si­tion in be­wil­dered awe, he used his skills to fur­ther a pas­sion for so­cial jus­tice born and bred in Cape Bre­ton.

Apar­lia­men­tary gi­ant.

So­cial lib­er­al­ism, par­lia­men­tary mas­tery and at­tach­ment to com­mu­nity were the hall­marks of Al­lan J. MacEachen’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. His pass­ing on Septem­ber 12, at age 96, re­ceived ful­some me­dia cov­er­age, in­clud­ing an obit­u­ary in the New York Times, a rare event for a Canadian politi­cian, es­pe­cially one who had been re­tired for more than 20 years.

MacEachen de­served the 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 at the dawn of the jet age, when the House of Com­mons was a part-time gen­tle­man’s club, he re­mained a po­lit­i­cal force into the era of the in­ter­net, the 24-hour 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. Through­out th­ese 50 years, Al­lan J. was a leader of the lib­eral wing of the Lib­eral Party.

Pierre Trudeau cer­tainly ap­pre­ci­ated the tal­ent of Al­lan J. in form­ing his gov­ern­ments from 1968 to 1984. When I be­came prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary to the prime min­is­ter in 1981, one of my jobs was to brief key min­is­ters. MacEachen was 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

“the Celtic Sphinx.” But in­vari­ably, some­times 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. Al­lan J. could not be rushed; he liked to think things through him­self.

MacEachen loved Par­lia­ment and was an expert on the rules and pro­ce­dures of the in­sti­tu­tion. Col­leagues like Keith Davey called him “the great­est House leader I have ever seen in ac­tion.” Op­po­nents like Pat Car­ney called him “a mas­ter of par­lia­men­tary ob­struc­tion.” Ei­ther way, he was a dom­i­nant par­lia­men­tary pres­ence in the role. Many men and women have served in Par­lia­ment, but few be­come House of Com­mons gi­ants.

MacEachen was leader in the House three times. To suc­ceed in that job, one must com­bine an abun­dance of emo­tional in­tel­li­gence with tech­ni­cal mas­tery of rules and a keen strate­gist’s eye. 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 hun­dreds of 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.

Never was his mas­tery of the House more ap­par­ent than in the fall of 1979, when Trudeau had stepped down after his de­feat in the spring elec­tion that year, and MacEachen stepped in to serve as op­po­si­tion leader in a mi­nor­ity Par­lia­ment. MacEachen mas­ter­minded the de­feat of the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment on its bud­get, and per­suaded a re­luc­tant Trudeau to re­turn as Lib­eral leader in the sub­se­quent elec­tion of Fe­bru­ary 1980, in which the Lib­er­als were re­turned with a ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment. With­out MacEachen, Trudeau would never have re­turned for his fi­nal term in of­fice, and there would have no pa­tri­a­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion and no Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms in 1982.

Such gifts are rare. MacEachen’s bril­liance as House leader was so ev­i­dent, in fact, that it some­times throt­tled his other am­bi­tions. In 1974, he 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 the world. For Al­lan J., Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs was his dream job. 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. He did so loy­ally, but his anger was pal­pa­ble at the cabi­net’s swear­ing-in. 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.

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.

If Par­lia­ment was one love of MacEachen’s, so, too, was his home rid­ing in Cape Bre­ton. 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. MacEachen never for­got the peo­ple who sent him to Par­lia­ment. Once, as Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs min­is­ter, he was at­tend­ing a Mid­dle East peace con­fer­ence and needed the sched­ule changed to get home to Cape Bre­ton, a de­mand that dis­pleased some. He told the U.S. sec­re­tary of state, “the dif­fer­ence be­tween your sys­tem and mine is if I don’t get back for this week­end for my meet­ings at home, we don’t get to have this meet­ing next year.”

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.

In ad­di­tion to his be­ing a born par­lia­men­tar­ian and con­stituency politi­cian, MacEachen had a ca­reer de­fined by his long com­mit­ment to so­cial jus­tice. 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 him, 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 close-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 Lib­eral plat­form pledge by pi­lot­ing the Medi­care bill through Par­lia­ment. But it was a colos­sal bat­tle, as many min­is­ters and of­fi­cials fret­ted about its cost. 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 lib­eral wing of the cabi­net even­tu­ally pre­vailed by agree­ing to a so­cial de­vel­op­ment tax to over­come Fi­nance’s wor­ries about bud­get bal­ance.

MacEachen’s fail­ures are as in­struc­tive as his suc­cesses. “Vic­tory has a thou­sand fa­thers,” said Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy, “but de­feat is an or­phan.” Kennedy’s in­sight 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.

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 ti­tled, “Tax Ex­pen­di­ture Ac­count,” which de­tailed that Ottawa had given up more than $7 bil­lion in tax con­ces­sions to cor­po­ra­tions and an­other $25 bil­lion to in­di­vid­u­als. In pre­par­ing the 1980 Lib­eral elec­tion plat­form, tax ex­pen­di­ture re­form, or clos­ing loop­holes, was a cen­tral fund­ing as­sump­tion in the plan­ning that al­lowed prom­ises such as in­creas­ing the Guar­an­teed In­come Supplement for se­niors. Tax re­form was cer­tainly men­tioned in brief­ings, but the party never made it a spe­cific theme. The pub­lic was there­fore un­pre­pared for what fol­lowed.

Fur­ther­more, at the cabi­net re­treat in Keltic Lodge, on Cape Bre­ton, in Septem­ber 1981, it was agreed that an ad­di­tional $4 bil­lion would go into pro­gram spend­ing on the con­di­tion that this would be bal­anced by new tax rev­enues. As with the plat­form com­mit­tee in 1979-80, clos­ing tax loop­holes 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 per cent. 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 lower to mid­dle-in­come Cana­di­ans. It did not do so be­cause min­is­ters in other de­part­ments had al­ready com­mit­ted to spend­ing the in­creased rev­enues. MacEachen was forced to al­ter or with­draw sev­eral spe­cific pro­pos­als and with the sub­se­quent on­slaught of a re­ces­sion, the bud­get was seen as con­tribut­ing to eco­nomic malaise rather than solv­ing it.

There are many lessons to be learned from the 1981 bud­get de­ba­cle, es­pe­cially to­day, when Justin Trudeau’s gov­ern­ment is en­gaged in an­other tax re­form bat­tle. 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 coun­try. 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 Pierre Trudeau gov­ern­ment col­lec­tively made a mis­take in un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the po­lit­i­cal power of those who lose tax ad­van­tages. The Justin Trudeau gov­ern­ment may have just re­peated the er­ror.

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.

So­cial lib­er­al­ism, Par­lia­ment and Cape Bre­ton were the core of Al­lan J. MacEachen’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. So­cial lib­er­al­ism en­dures but to­day Par­lia­ment is less and less rel­e­vant and po­lit­i­cal ca­reers are rarely as long or as in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to a re­gion as MacEachen’s was to Cape Bre­ton. It is a cliché at a po­lit­i­cal gi­ant’s pass­ing to in­tone that “we will never see his like again” but in the case of Al­lan J., it is un­doubt­edly true.

Li­brary and Archives Canada photo

Al­lan J. MacEachen, fa­ther of Medi­care in 1966, a sig­na­ture Canadian achieve­ment.

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