The Macdonald-Laurier Institute hosted the first History Wars debate on September 27, 2011. The debate, first in a four-part series, brought together David Frum and Lawrence Martin to debate the resolution: Pierre Trudeau was Canada’s most disastrous Prime Minister. The Ottawa Citizen, sponsor of History Wars, published David Frum’s opening statement on September 28th and Lawrence Martin’s opening statement on September 29th. Both statements were #1 and #2 in the ottawacitizen.com’s best read list, which are provided below.
The next History Wars debate is on November 11, 2011 at 6:30pm at the Bronson Centre in Ottawa. The resolution: After Afganistan the Canadian forces should keep the peace rather than wage war. Debate will be between Michael Byers and Jack Granatstein with Michael Bliss moderating. Register now for your tickets!
It has taken nearly 30 years to recover after he nearly bankrupted and split up the country, writes David Frum.
By David Frum, The Ottawa Citizen, September 28, 2011
Canada today is a very successful country. It has suffered less from the global economic crisis than any other major economy. So Canadians may be tempted to be philosophical about disasters in their own past. Hasn’t it all come out right in the end?
But I want to stress: Canada’s achievement overcoming Pierre Trudeau’s legacy should not inure Canadians to how disastrous that legacy was.
Three subsequent important prime ministers — Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper — invested their energies cleaning up the wreckage left by Pierre Trudeau. The work has taken almost 30 years. Finally, and at long last, nobody speculates anymore about Canada defaulting on its debt, or splitting apart, or being isolated from all its major allies.
Yet through most of the adult lives of most people reading this, people in Canada and outside Canada did worry about those things. And as you enjoy the peace, stability and comparative prosperity of Canada in the 2010s, just consider — this is how Canadians felt in the middle 1960s. Now imagine a political leader coming along and out of ignorance and arrogance despoiling all this success. Not because the leader faced some overwhelming crisis where it was hard to see the right answer. But utterly unnecessarily. Out of a clear blue sky.
Pierre Trudeau took office at a moment when commodity prices were rising worldwide. Good policy-makers 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 the Second World War. 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 health care 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 Program, Canada was up-regulating as the U.S., 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.
Pierre Trudeau had little taste for the alliances and relationships he inherited in 1968. His spending spree did not include the military. He cut air and naval capabilities, pulled troops home from Europe, and embarked on morale-destroying reorganizations of the military services. In 1968, Canada was a serious second-tier non-nuclear military power, like Sweden or Israel. By 1984, Canada had lost its war-fighting capability: a loss made vivid when Canada had to opt out of ground combat operations in the first Gulf War of 1990-’91. Something more was going on here than a left-of-centre preference for butter over guns. Throughout his life — now better known than ever thanks to historian John English — Pierre Trudeau showed remarkable indifference to the struggle against totalitarianism that defined the geopolitics of the 20th century. Indifference may be too polite a word.
Yet it was upon the Canadian nation that Trudeau inflicted his greatest harm. When Pierre Trudeau was elected prime minister in 1968, Canada faced a small but militant separatist challenge in Quebec. In 1970, that challenge erupted in terrorist violence: two kidnappings and a murder of one of the kidnapped hostages, Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte.
Trudeau responded with overwhelming force, declaring martial law in Quebec, arresting dozens of people, almost none of whom had any remote connection to the terrorist outrages. The arrests radicalized them, transforming many from cultural nationalists into outright independentists. As he did throughout his career, Trudeau polarized the situation — multiplying enemies for himself and, unfortunately, also for Canada.
At the same time, Trudeau lavished economic benefits on Quebec at the expense of English-speaking Canada. Unsurprisingly, English-speaking Canada resented this favouritism — with the result that Trudeau polarized English-Canadian politics, too. In 1968, Trudeau’s Liberals won 27 seats west of Ontario. In 1980, they won two.
To win the 1980 referendum, Trudeau promised Quebec constitutional changes to satisfy Quebec nationalism. Instead, he delivered a package of constitutional changes that tilted in exactly the opposite direction. The government of Quebec refused to ratify the new constitutional arrangement, opening a renewed opportunity to separatists and bequeathing a nightmare political problem to Trudeau’s successors.
Defenders of Trudeau’s disastrous governance habitually rally around one great accomplishment: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Well, Herbert Hoover had some excellent wilderness conservation policies, but we don’t excuse the Great Depression on that account. Would it really have been so impossible to achieve a Charter of Rights without plunging Canada into two recessions, without wrecking the national finances, without triggering two referendums, without nationalizing the oil industry, without driving not only Quebec, but also Alberta to the verge of separation?
To me, one story will always sum up Pierre Trudeau:
1979. Trudeau had lost that year’s election. His career seemed finished. Reporters awaited in the driveway of 24 Sussex Drive as he stepped into his gull-winged vintage Mercedes to speed away into history.
One shouted: “Mr. Prime Minister — any regrets?” Pierre Trudeau pondered. He remembered something that Richard Nixon had said after losing the California governor’s race in 1962 and revised Nixon’s words to his own very different purpose. “Yes,” he said. “I regret I won’t have you to kick around anymore.”
It’s long past time that Canadians in turn resolved: no longer to be posthumously kicked by this bad man and disastrous prime minister.
David Frum is a widely syndicated columnist and prolific author, based in Washington, D.C.
He is beloved because he liberated Canada from old men, old thinking, narrow traditions and colonial caution, writes Lawrence Martin
By Lawrence Martin, The Ottawa Citizen, September 29, 2011
Conservatives tend to get very irate at the mention of Pierre Trudeau and his icy brilliance. What really gets them pulling their hair out is that Trudeau continues to be rated in poll after poll by Canadians as one of their most admired prime ministers. Historians and academics don’t see him as a disaster either, tending to rank him reasonably well. And almost every book written about Trudeau in power is laudatory.
Opponents tend to focus on his economic record — the big deficit, inflation, joblessness. I’m no fan of his economic record either. But like any PM’s economic record it must be weighed in the context of the time.
Should we blame Stephen Harper, for example, for the recession we’ve been through? Is he singularly responsible for it and for today’s large deficit? Hardly. To lay the blame on him without giving preponderant weight to global conditions is intellectually infantile. The same in the case of the Trudeau record. The stagflation of the period in which he governed pummeled not just Canada but almost every western democracy.
To understand Trudeau’s impact we need first recall the type of Canadian leaders who came before him.
They were leaders who had their share of achievements but who were tired, uninspiring men. There was that old fuddy-duddy Mackenzie King, successful in many ways, but with about as much magnetism as a sea urchin. How about Louis St. Laurent? He was so worn out that it was said of him that he got winded playing chess.
There was that howling blowhard from the prairies, John Diefenbaker. He wasn’t dull, just deluded. His main appeal was to rural folk, aged 60 and over. Lester Pearson has a very good image today but back then he was no star. On the campaign trail, he was a bumbler, spoke with a lisp, could empty a room faster than R.B. Bennett. His idea of a good time was watching baseball. He could never win a majority, despite five tries.
All these leaders thought along conventional lines. Then came this phenom with a roman cut, sandals and an air of Jesus Christ. Pierre Trudeau combined intellectual electricity, star-power charisma, and a contrarian’s independent mind. What this blend of characteristics, rare in any leader anywhere, gave rise to was a transformational impact on the culture and character of this country. Trudeau challenged and tore down stereotypes, he unfastened Canada from old men, from old thinking, from narrow traditions, from colonial caution.
Think of the ways in which he did this, the ways in he became the country’s liberator. With his repatriation of the Constitution, Trudeau liberated us at long last from Great Britain. With his Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he liberated us from the authority of the state. With his bilingualism and multicultural polices, he liberated us from unilingual, unicultural trappings; from anti-pluralist prejudice that had rarely seen a woman in top governing posts, that saw no Jews in the cabinet or on the Supreme Court.
With ice in his veins Trudeau liberated us from the blackmail of FLQ terrorism. With the same he took down the threat posed by René Lévesque in the 1980 referendum. With his never-back-down resilience, he provided a sense of freedom from American encroachment, this at a time when the giant next door was mired in war, racism, Watergate and economic nationalism.
Trudeau had many failings, but the backbone this prime minister demonstrated was unprecedented and I think it rubbed off. I think his show of strength had a lasting impact on this country’s psyche. I was a young undergraduate when he crashed through the stained glass windows. You had to be there to understand his force, to witness how he lifted the spirits of a generation.
Trudeaumania inevitably evaporated but the backbone remained. Could any other prime minister have stood up to separatism the way Trudeau did? Biographer John English and many others say he saved Canada in the 1980 referendum. I’m not sure I would go that far. But we must recall his strength in the province of Quebec. There, he held 74 of 75 seats. Joe Clark was a good man who tried to understand Quebec but his Tories were woefully unpopular there. Do many think he could have fought the fight in the 1980 referendum that Trudeau did?
On the subject of bilingualism, imagine this. This was a country with a 25-per-cent francophone population, yet for 100 years, Canada had a central government that functioned only in English. Trudeau’s bilingualism program ended that shame. Bilingualism was expensive, was resisted in parts of the country, but never shoved down anyone’s throat. Today millions of our citizens speak French who otherwise would not. This is a richer and more cultivated country as a result.
What other disastrous things did Trudeau do? There were his four election victories, three of them majorities. There was his monumental Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The highly popular Charter unifies Canada around a set of principles, around civil rights and political rights in the face overreaching government. It was the work of one man. The obstacles Trudeau overcame to get this done were enormous. History had rebuffed repatriation attempts and constitutional reform attempts time after time. Trudeau pulled it off and even though Lévesque never signed on — how could a separatist ever have signed on to a unity package? — it was, as the polls showed then, highly popular in Quebec. That is until Lucien Bouchard fled the Mulroney government and demagogically distorted the facts surrounding the repatriation deal’s conception.
Let’s not forget certain things. Standards of living grew appreciably in the Trudeau years, far more so than in the three decades following when they have flatlined. Under Trudeau, the percentage of Canadians living in poverty dropped from 23 per cent in 1968 to 13 per cent in 1984. Repeat, from 23 per cent to 13 per cent.
It need also be recalled that when Trudeau arrived in power, Lester Pearson had just put in place major components of the welfare state — the Canada Pension Plan, the Canada Assistance Plan, medicare supplements. It was the Trudeau government that had to pick up the tab. Pearson had established a super-expensive matching formula of 50-50 with the provinces on education and health care. It was left to Trudeau to pick up the tab. In the Trudeau period there were two globally triggered recessions. People who think any prime minister would not have run major deficits through this period are simply deluding themselves.
Perspective need also be applied to one of Trudeau’s other great failings — the National Energy Program.
Since the 1960s the provinces had been aggressively extending their reach in spending, in asserting their control over resources and, in Quebec, over language. Trudeau wanted to halt the drift toward a confederation of duchies. He felt no province should have special status.
He had widespread public support for the NEP, for the notion that one province’s resources wealth should be shared to a greater degree by all in the federation. Alberta’s Peter Lougheed saw it differently. He was an Alberta nationalist.
Trudeau’s mistake was the assumption made not just by him but by virtually every expert everywhere that oil prices would continue to rise. If they had, much of
the sting of the NEP would have been removed and the federal deficit would have fallen appreciably. Stunningly the contrary happened, the policy flopped and the West, which had been a wasteland for the Liberals before Trudeau arrived, became even more of a wasteland.
But compare his wrong call on the NEP to the aforementioned number of right calls that he made. The legacy of this prime minister is mixed as is that of any prime minister. But the reason he is held in higher regard than most others is that Canadians have enduring respect for what he symbolized and what he did. It was under his leadership that Canada broke from its calcified conventions and came bracingly of age.
Lawrence Martin is a best-selling author and a regular columnist on national politics for the Globe and Mail.