CANADA’S NATIONAL MAGAZINE

Pierre Elliott Trudeau Is The President Of Canada

WALTER STEWART June 1 1970
CANADA’S NATIONAL MAGAZINE

Pierre Elliott Trudeau Is The President Of Canada

WALTER STEWART June 1 1970

His opponents say so, anyway. And even his friends admit he’s accumulated awesome power. That’s one of the things that are making people nervous about him. Below, Maclean’s writer Walter Stewart reveals how that power has grown. On page 38, we present a unique analysis of how Canadians today see Trudeau and his chief opponent. Finally: one way — perhaps the only way — the Tories could unseat him ANYONE WHO DOUBTS that the man we call Prime Minister Trudeau has come, in the two years since his election victory of June 1968, to exercise what is virtually the power of a president, should consider these six incidents:

A senior bureaucrat appears before a committee of the federal cabinet to argue for a policy hammered out by the experts in his department. The policy is rejected. “I was heard, but not listened to,” the bureaucrat complains later. “Supergroup had been there before me.” Supergroup is the clutch of perhaps 30 advisers in and around the Prime Minister’s Office whose influence is decisive.

The House of Commons Committee on Indian Affairs and Northern Development, with a Liberal majority, decides that the time has come for our government to assert sovereignty over shipping in the Canadian Arctic. Trudeau does not agree, so the embarrassing report is withheld from parliament. After a frustrated month of waiting, the vice-chairman of the committee, a Conservative, moves in the House of Commons for concurrence in the report. The government House Leader tries to block the motion, but is overruled by the Speaker, and now the Liberals are on the spot: should they vote for the report, and thus against the Prime Minister, or should they reject it and repudiate the unanimous finding of a committee dominated by their own party (and repudiate it, incidentally, in the face of a spate of propaganda about the new power of such committees)? They do neither; the motion is simply talked out, no vote is ever taken, and the report disappears into limbo. The Prime Minister goes on to set his own Arctic policy without any apparent regard to what the committee suggested.

A member of parliament wants a favor. He is Philip Givens, former mayor of Toronto, now Liberal MP for York West, and the favor he wants is a small one. A girl in his riding, a 17-year-old who worked hard on his campaign, is dying of leukemia. She is an ardent admirer of Trudeau, and Givens wants him to send her a personal card. A secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office says it can’t be done; it would establish a precedent. Givens is outraged; he berates the secretary and threatens to make a major issue of the matter with Trudeau. A few days later, a higher official in the PMO calls and wants to know what message should go to the girl. Givens thinks he has won. “But then do you know what they do?” he says. “They send her a telegram. Christ, I could have faked a telegram myself. I wanted the Prime Minister involved, just to the extent of writing his name on a piece of paper.” (It should be noted that there is a good chance the Prime Minister didn’t even hear about this request until the issue was settled; in that sense, he was not responsible, but he is responsible for the growth in his office of serried ranks of protective officialdom.)

Resources Minister J. J. Greene assures the House of Commons that no Canadian water will be sold to the U.S. without government approval, and the government has no intention of giving such approval. That evening, Prime Minister Trudeau tells Carleton University students there is a danger that Canada is becoming “too possessive” about resources, including water. “If I think we are not going to use it, I don't see why we shouldn’t sell it for good, hard cash.” So much for Resources Minister Greene.

The Prime Minister goes to Montreal to make a speech. His subject will be the Company of Young Canadians, and he will attack it. Secretary of State Gérard Pelletier reports to parliament for the CYC, but he is not shown the speech and doesn’t know that Trudeau will also attack the CBC — another agency for which he reports — and threaten to close down Radio Canada for its alleged separatist bias. The evidence of bias on which the attack is based does not come from Pelletier’s officials — in fact, they reject it — but is gathered by Trudeau’s own staff. Pelletier is upset by the speech, and a vice-president of the CBC threatens to resign, but what can they do?

In the House of Commons, Stanley Knowles, the long, lean NDP member from Winnipeg North Centre, unlimbers a long, lean question at the Prime Minister. The federal budget that has just come down does not, despite hopeful predictions, provide any increase in payments to old-age pensioners. Knowles wants to know if the government will consider some emergency measure to aid these pensioners before, he says, “many thousands of them are starved out of existence.” Trudeau meets the question in what has become an increasingly common manner; he stares straight ahead, and says nothing. Hansard records only: “Some hon. members: Oh, oh!”

Six incidents, none of them sinister, none of them earth-shaking, but all of them pointing to a new pattern in Canadian politics, the emergence of the Prime Minister, who has always been a powerful figure, as the single, dominant force in government — aloof, unreachable, surrounded by an almost palpable aura of power, and barricaded behind his own bureaucracy, the Supergroup.

Much has been written recently about whether Trudeau is moving Canada toward a presidential system. It is this worry, in fact, that explains much of the nervousness, combined with admiration, that emerges in the attitudes explored by the Goldfarb Report on the following pages. Trudeau’s opponents say he is a president already. They point to the increase in his own staff, which, in the PMO and Privy Council Office, now numbers more than 230. They cite his apparent contempt for parliament (in an unguarded moment last July, Trudeau said of opposition members, “When they get home, when they get out of parliament, when they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill, they are no longer hon. members, they are just nobodies.”) They emphasize the establishment of such new institutions as Information Canada, and Regional Desks in the PMO, institutions that tend to centralize control of both incoming and outgoing government information. They underline proposals to make Crown corporations out of the Post Office and sectors of the Department of Transport, and thus remove a significant sector of government operation from the scrutiny of MPs.

Trudeau’s supporters say he has no presidential ambitions, for the very good reason, according to Ivan Head, his legislative assistant, that “a prime minister has more power than a president now.” In one sense, that is true; because he controls the legislature, a prime minister can get his program enacted, while a president may be frustrated by a hostile Congress:’ On the other hand, the U.S. president has executive powers that put a prime minister to shame. He can declare any nation in the world to be an “enemy,” and suspend trading with its citizens; he can sign executive agreements that have all the force of international treaties; he can fight a war — as both Presidents Johnson and Nixon have done — as long as he doesn’t call it a war. And all without the sanction of Congress. It is this kind of muscle that Trudeau’s opponents claim he is scheming to acquire. “Scheming” may, in fact, be too strong an interpretation but there is certainly no arguing with the fact that Trudeau is assuming many of the trappings of a president, including a large personal staff, his own policy-formation group, and an increasing isolation from the hurly-burly of party and parliamentary politics. “He is not a prime minister,” says David Lewis, Deputy Leader of the NDP, “he is a general manager.”

Consider for a moment the difference in theory between the Canadian and U.S. forms of leadership. The American system is built on “checks and balances,” which play off the executive, legislative and judicial branches against each other to keep any one of them from acquiring too much power. The Canadian system is built on the theory of* responsible government, with the ultimate power in the hands of the House of Commons, where the prime minister must maintain a majority to survive. In theory, if enough MPs decide a government’s course of action is objectionable, they can throw the rascals out. In fact, nothing of the sort happens. MPs are controlled by strong, well-disciplined parties, and the man foolhardy enough to break ranks on the flimsy excuse that he doesn’t agree with what is being done soon finds himself out of grace — and office. To take a current example, many' Liberal MPs are opposed to the government’s White Paper on taxation, and say so in caucus, but they will nonetheless vote for it when the bell rings, as the lesser of two evils (the greater evil, of course, would be to let the Tories in). Strong parties have evolved of necessity — under present rules if members voted freely on every issue no government could stay in office long enough to get anything done — but because they have evolved, responsible government, in the parliamentary sense, is a thing of the past.

Instead, a series of informal checks and balances — Trudeau prefers to call them “countervailing forces” — has grown up around the Prime Minister. His party, his cabinet, the federal bureaucracy and the House of Commons all, in different ways and to different degrees, influence his decisions.

Political parties have ceased to matter in terms of significant policy formation. At election time, how the Prime Minister looks and sounds on television is far more important than any number of resolutions passed by his party in solemn conclave. In fact, television tends to isolate and enhance the leader’s public personality so much that the party becomes a mere administrative convenience and fund-raising machine. A Liberal worker told me, “The Prime Minister is glad to hear from the party at any time; any time, that is, when there’s an election.”

One sign of the party’s fading role — despite the hopeful election-time talk of party reform and participatory democracy — can be seen in the office of the Liberal Federation’s National Director, Torrance Wylie. Who, you may ask, is Torrance Wylie? And that’s the point. He is a bright, engaging, bilingual young man who was once executive assistant to the Liberal leader in the Senate, but he is not, and never will be, the power that Senator Keith Davey was when he flashed lightning and pealed thunder as the Liberal Party’s Rainmaker.

The cabinet retains a powerful hold on the Prime Minister, but he handpicks its members, sets its agenda, organizes its committees; he is its central spokesman and, whenever a disagreement arises, he constitutes a majority of one. This has always been the case, but no prime minister has ever made more of his muscle than Trudeau.

The federal bureaucracy, a major force in policy formation since the 1940s, has also suffered a setback. Staff freezes, austerity firings and the Prime Minister’s public scorn for the bureaucrats have undermined both their power and self-esteem. “What we have today,” one senior civil servant contends, “is government by terror. The De Gaulle fist in the Kennedy glove . . . Trudeau has this little group of lieutenants, who are really hatchet men, each an expert in one field, and they go out and lean on people to get things done . . . No longer do civil servants feel relaxed enough to give their best advice. Now that advice is tempered by the question, ‘How’s some sonofabitch in the PMO going to react to this?’ ” Some interdepartmental committees, which used to meet to coordinate policy recommendations, no longer do so; they feel they will only be overruled by Supergroup.

Parliament, too, has declined. The House of Commons no longer has the power to blockade government funds (under the new rules, all committees must complete their investigation of estimates by May 31 each year); there are fewer opportunities for debate (the opposition parties are alloted 25 days per year; before the parliamentary reforms, between 50 and 60 days were spent annually on supply motions); and the Question Period, which should be full of salutary terror for the government, has become a daily ritual of uninformed charges and unresponsive shrugs.

Some of parliament’s decline is accidental; television, by shifting the focus of debate out of the House, makes what happens there merely a warm-up for the real argument in front of the cameras. Some of it can be laid to the poor performance of the official opposition. Government House Leader Donald Macdonald noted, “Whatever his other qualities, Robert Stanfield has not been able to mount an effective attack against us. Now, if they had a dozen David Lewises over there, things might be different.”

Nor do members make the most of the time available for debate. In the first half of the current session, 75 of 96 hours allotted for government business were spent on nine routine bills. “If the PM sometimes seems contemptuous of the House,” says Ivan Head, “some MPs sometimes seem to deserve his contempt.”

As each of the countervailing forces has begun to fade, the slack has been taken up in the ever-expanding PMO. “All the tracks,” as one mandarin says, “lead to a single den.” Policy formation has become almost exclusively the Prime Minister’s prerogative. This was evident in the process that led to the withdrawal of some Canadian troops from NATO. Before that decision was taken, pronouncements were handed down by each of the major elements of power. The Liberal Party conducted a survey among its members, a, parliamentary committee mulled the problem, the two key cabinet ministers involved — Defense Minister Cadieux and External Affairs Minister Sharp — had their say, and the bureaucracy produced a study paper. The advice was unanimous: don’t change NATO policy. Then the matter was debated in cabinet, but not settled. “I see we are about evenly divided,” the Prime Minister noted. Then he announced the decision: NATO policy would be changed. And so it was.

In short, the Prime Minister is acquiring some of the power of an American president without any of his restraining checks and balances. This process is reinforced by Trudeau’s own view of his mandate, which is that he was elected for five years, to rule as best he can. At the end of that time, the Canadian people may judge him at the polls, but in the meantime he must get on with the job.

This is certainly a defensible way to run a government, but it is much closer to the American system than to anything Canada has seen to date. Gerald Baldwin, Conservative House Leader, told me, “There has to be some place where you can say to a Diefenbaker or a Trudeau, ‘All right, you so-and-so, you’ve gone far enough. Now back up.’ ” For Baldwin, the House of Commons is that place, but not for Trudeau. “They can criticize us all they like,” Ivan Head explains, “but we must be allowed to get our legislation through.”

There are advantages to the Trudeau approach. It is more efficient (and, as the Goldfarb Report makes clear, Canadians expect and appreciate efficiency in their prime minister; that is why they rate Trudeau as more capable of solving most of the problems facing the nation than Robert Stanfield); it permits the government to strike out in new directions; it allows people to participate — or at least to feel as if they are participating — more directly in government.

The hazard implied in the new power structure — and the Goldfarb respondents seemed well aware of this, too — is that there is really no check on the Prime Minister beyond the threat of retaliation at the polls on some future date — a date to be set, incidentally, by himself, for his own best advantage. The Prime Minister’s program will go through; we may defeat him later, but we will be voting against a fait accompli.

The way around this impasse, according to a number of political scientists, is to modify our traditional parliamentary structure to the new realities. Parliamentary government is wonderfully flexible; it can be made to work without deserting the principle of vesting responsibility in the House of Commons, and the experts — led by Professor Denis Smith of Trent University — have suggested a number of ways this might be done.

Parliamentary committees could be granted the right to choose their own chairmen, hire their own staffs and make their own legislative proposals. MPs could be given much more administrative assistance (“Today’s MP,” says Philip Givens, “is as useless as an udder on a bull”). Television cameras could be admitted to committee hearings and the House of Commons, a move that would at a single step restore the focus of debate to its proper sphere, parliament, and end the growing practice of shrugging off or smiling away difficult questions, secure in the knowledge that the lapse will not be noted. Elections could be set at fixed dates. Finally, the 19thcentury practice of recognizing that a government may carry on despite defeat of its measures in the House could be revived. This would allow members to bolt the party on some issues; it would force the prime minister to explain and justify proposed actions, and it would restore parliament, so the critics claim, from its present low ebb to an effective instrument for expressing public will.