Mackasey: often bloodied, never bowed

ROBERT LEWIS October 20 1975

Mackasey: often bloodied, never bowed

ROBERT LEWIS October 20 1975

Mackasey: often bloodied, never bowed

ROBERT LEWIS

Bryce Mackasey, a former amateur boxer, has been a political scrapper ever since he joined the Liberal opposition benches after the 1962 election. “My ass was so far back,” he recalls of his Commons seat, “I was in the Rideau Canal.” To get recognized in debate, Mackasey sometimes used a rubber band to fire paper clips at thenSpeaker Marcel Lambert. In her acerbic retrospective, Judy LaMarsh dismissed Mackasey as a “nuisance” with an “absolute obsession for promotion to cabinet.” But the voluble and volatile Verdun MP often had the right instincts. A bilingual product of a reasonably secure Sillery, Quebec, family, Mackasey defied—and despises—the image of a “professional Irishman.” He was an eloquent exponent of bilingualism. His loyalty to Lester Pearson extended even to perception of a “mystical bond” uniting the PM and his troubled troops during their years of persistent government scandals. Above all, Mackasey cultivated a strong following in the Liberal caucus.

Before he stepped down Pearson named Mackasey acting Minister of Labor. Mackasey joined the Trudeau bandwagon during the subsequent leadership campaign, serving as a solid bridge to the backbench. At the convention itself, Mackasey forces helped erode support for Paul Hellyer and Robert Winters, in part by spreading rumors that the Trudeau rivals had dropped out of the race. When Trudeau stood in the warm glow of victory, Mackasey lay on a stretcher being wheeled out of the Civic Auditorium. He had been felled by a heart attack that almost took his life,

Mackasey bounced back as Trudeau’s peripatetic Minister of Labor. He earned a reputation as the master of what one associate terms “the cowboy and Indian school of mediation. Disputes were to be cut off at the impasse.” In the showdowns, Mackasey personally intervened at the table, knowing that bargainers would not walk out on a minister. He threatened back-towork legislation by parliament, a tactic that helped resolve a strike of Lakehead grain handlers in 1968. Jurisdictional boundaries proved no barrier either. Mackasey once dispatched former deputy minister Bernie Wilson to settle a strike at the Windsor Star. The dispute was an Ontario responsibility, but publisher Mark Farrell is an old Mackasey friend who had sought the minister’s help.

Mackasey’s star dimmed after his moves ; into the controversial portfolios dealing with unemployment insurance and immij gration. He was bitter after the near-defeat of the government in 1972 that cast him as i scapegoat. Rather than accept other, lesser portfolios offered by Trudeau, Mackasey ! went off to voluntary purgatory as an MP.

Mackasey’s return to cabinet just before the 1974 election was more than a personal political rebirth. It was part of Pierre Trudeau’s recognition that he needed tubthumpers in cabinet who could communi, cate with voters. Mackasey actually sought out the post office job, although it has been such an albatross that there have been 11 | other ministers in the past 20 years. Mackasey tempered his ambition and tailored his expectations. He realized that his best chance at a portfolio was the post office. The unstated understanding was that Mackasey would deliver settlements without strikes.

With an image as labor’s friend, Mackasey was the perfect man to mount a personalized attack against the CUPW leadership. This tactic was to erode the membership’s willingness to support any executive call to strike. Mackasey used threats, bluster and the occasional velvet glove routine. During a visit to the Vanj couver post office last month, Mackasey made a show of settling union grievances with management. Later, recounting his exploits with customary immodesty, Mackasey boasted: “We settled all the local issues. Management came around to my view that I want maximum consultation with the union.”

Roger Decarie, who retired as president of the Letter Carriers’ Union last summer, says that Mackasey is “the best Postmaster General” he has ever negotiated with. “He knows the problems and he’s been trying to solve them.” Walter Dinsdale, the official Tory spokesman on the post office, believes that Mackasey has done a good job even if “he’s not getting support from cabinet.” Mackasey may have earned those notices: he offered Decarie a job in the post office and went out of his way to congratulate Dinsdale for playing a positive role in the settlement of the dispute with the letter carriers.