The perfect, progressive parliamentarian.
It’s unlikely that there will be a moment of silence at this weekend’s NDP gathering in Hamilton to mark the passing of the legendary Liberal cabinet minister Allan J. MacEachen.
But perhaps there should be. MacEachen, arguably more than any other politician in the 20th century, put a socially progressive stamp on Canada — from medicare to old age security to improved labour standards, including a better minimum wage for working Canadians.
MacEachen was the kind of Liberal who made New Democrats afraid to have good ideas — or at least to make them public — for fear they would be stolen by the Grits.
And though MacEachen died this week, at the venerable age of 96, that practice lives on with Liberals in the 21st century.
Justin Trudeau came to power in 2015 on the promise to outspend New Democrats, we’ll recall, and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is very busy this year introducing pharmacare, guaranteed income and, yes, in proud, MacEachen tradition, bolder labour standards for Ontario and an increase in the minimum wage.
“They like to take our ideas and then mess around with them,” Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said of Wynne’s Liberals in an interview earlier this year.
It would be a mistake, however, to see MacEachen’s legacy as a borrowed one. This politician’s belief in government as a force for good came from his Cape Breton roots, growing up in rural Nova Scotia as the son of a coal miner during the Depression.
An institute at Dalhousie University now bears his name, and its website contains a quote from MacEachen that shows how he wanted to be remembered. He recalled how a constituent, one “who made his living on the land and in the forest,” praised MacEachen for keeping bread on the tables of people in his riding.
“As a summation of one’s political career from a citizen who made a living the hard way, it was heartwarming,” MacEachen wrote. “His appraisal of the end of my service in the House of Commons took me back to its beginnings and why keeping bread on the table, in the widest interpretation of that expression, was the principal reason I left the university teaching post to enter politics.”
MacEachen had left elected politics a few years before I landed in Ottawa in the late 1980s and was presiding as the leader of the opposition in the Senate. In those days, it was the Conservatives he was driving to distraction, most notably in 1990 when Brian Mulroney’s government was trying to get the goods and services tax passed in the red chamber.
It was a momentous parliamentary battle, which MacEachen was enjoying immensely, convening political reporters frequently to explain how he was using the rules to do (perfectly legitimate) end runs around the Conservatives.
Finally, Mulroney had to employ a rarely used power to appoint a stack of extra senators to beat MacEachen’s Liberals with raw, brute numbers. The GST became law by 1991, but none of us who watched MacEachen through that battle would call it a loss — he just had too much fun while it lasted.
After MacEachen reached retirement age in the Senate in 1996, many of us hoped he’d write his memoirs. I’ve often said that if he had been an American politician, with that breadth of country-changing experience under his belt, his books would be bestsellers and he would have been a celebrity statesman on the public-speaking circuit.
I did, in fact, meet with MacEachen a few times over the years to see if there was any encouragement or help I could offer with getting his memoirs out. As I understand it, a couple of volumes do exist, but they remain unpublished. Perhaps his death will prompt someone to fix that situation — to fill that very large gap in the political history books of Canada.
During one of my meetings with MacEachen, he brought me a book, which still has a prized place on my shelves. In Pursuit of the Public Good: Essays in Honour of Allan J. MacEachen, is the title. It’s a 1997 collection of essays in favour of activist government.
Gerald Butts, the principal secretary to the current Prime Minister, also a Cape Bretoner, spent a whole year helping pull together research for MacEachen’s memoirs back in the 1990s. He said on Twitter this week that the exercise was “the best education in Canadian political history you can possibly imagine.”
So maybe it’s not such a surprise that the current federal government has an activist bent; campaigning and governing from the left. Despite what their NDP rivals allege, it could be that the federal and Ontario Liberals aren’t borrowing from the New Democrats, but from the legacy of Allan MacEachen. And now that the legend known as Allan J. is gone, perhaps he’ll assume the large place he earned in Canadian history. email@example.com
Legendary politician devoted his life to progressive causes