Master of the House: Allan J. MacEachen

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.

A parliamentary giant.

Social liberalism, parliamentary mas-tery 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 well-thought-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.”

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.

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.

Thomas S. Axworthy, principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau from 1981-84, is chair of public policy at Massey College, University of Toronto.