CANADA/COVER

AN EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 31 1986
CANADA/COVER

AN EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 31 1986

AN EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY

CANADA/COVER

When Pierre Trudeau and Donald Johnston encountered each other two weeks ago in their downtown Montreal law firm of Heenan Blaikie, even the customarily inscrutable Trudeau could not contain his curiosity. Johnston, a former Trudeau cabinet minister, was about to publish Up the Hill, a 304-page combination of political memoirs and ideas. Said Trudeau: “Don, I hear this book is quite critical of me.” Replied Johnston, who has known Trudeau for close to 30 years: “No, I think you will find it is very balanced.” But Trudeau countered in mock horror: “You don’t understand, Don. I don’t want balance. I want raves.” Later, Johnston conceded that, despite the light-hearted nature of their exchange, “I am a bit nervous about his reaction. This book is going to displease quite a few people.”

With its publication this week, some of the most troubled readers are certain to be senior Liberals who helped Trudeau run the government. Although more than half of Up the Hill is given over to Johnston’s policy reflections, the political memoirs in the front bristle with acid assessments of plans and people, including a chapter on Trudeau excerpted on the following pages. In keeping with the mocking double-meaning title, the political recollections in Up the Hill provide a rare reflection of an active MP’s frustrations with life on Parliament Hill. Although littered with clumsy writing and dappled with self-serving accounts of past glories, the book marks one of the few occasions in which a former cabinet minister has knowingly supplied grist for Ottawa’s perpetually churning rumor mill. Johnston told Maclean's: “I feel gloomy, irrelevant and cynical about the way the House of Commons works. I imagine that shines through here on occasion.”

The 49-year-old Johnston has been an associate of Trudeau’s since 1957, and Johnston later worked as his personal attorney. He served in four different portfolios under Trudeau and John Turner after his 1978 byelection win in the Liberal stronghold of Saint-Henri-Westmount. Johnston is often unsparing in his criticism of party policies and such key figures as Trudeau’s former principal secretaries, James Coutts and Thomas Axworthy, both of whom responded angrily to his comments in interviews with Maclean’s last week. Despite Johnston’s overall admiration for Trudeau, whom he likens to another political hero, Wilfrid Laurier, he also cites examples of some of Trudeau’s personal foibles, including his occasional social ineptitude and propensity for forgetting names.

The most controversial elements of the book include Johnston’s gossipy recollections of government and his serious revelations on where the real decision-making power lies. In the first case, Johnston notes the suspicion of “many fellow ministers” that former communications minister James Fleming was dropped from cabinet in 1983 because the rumor had reached the Prime Minister’s Office that “when Jim Coutts was defeated in the Spadina byelection in 1981, Flem-

ming celebrated with champagne.” Responded Coutts last week: “I vehemently deny that. It is outright nonsense.”

More seriously, Johnston suggests that in the final years under Trudeau power became so centralized in his office that not even Finance Minister Marc Lalonde was told of the 1982 creation of the much-publicized Macdonald royal commission on the economy. And, Johnston says, although he was president of the Treasury Board at the time, he only learned of the government’s January, 1981, decision to spend $1.7 billion acquiring the Petrofina oil assets in Canada when he was called in Alberta by a senior federal bureaucrat—after the decision had been made. “I was dumbfounded,” he writes. “Good lord, I thought, are my views irrelevant? Does the cabiinet no longer count?”

Johnston frank in is reflecting equally the mixture of anger and admiration he felt for Trudeau. At one stage, he quotes from a note he made to himself after a particularly frustrating session with

Trudeau: “He is older than we recognize, and time has left its marks. He is an extremely self-centred, self-reliant man and cares little for the inconvenience of others if it in any way interferes with his own pursuits. At the same time, he is extremely loyal to friends and trusted advisers.”

A central theme of the book reflects Johnston’s frustration with what he saw as the gradual emasculation of the powers of cabinet ministers under Trudeau. He argues that the party’s political agenda in its successful 1980 general election— which he says Coutts and Axworthy controlled—was

“wrong” and “reinforced the same perceptions of arrogance and insensitivity that had led to our defeat in 1979.” One result, he concludes, was that, in the last mandate, the government “did not even pretend to chart a new course [or] seem to care what the electorate felt.” Told of those remarks last week, an angry Axworthy, who is now teaching at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., said, “Every single aspect of that is full of crap. We consulted [the party] and we accomplished.” Said Coutts, now a consultant in Toronto: “I am amazed that Don would have his facts so messed up. He does not seem to understand that because we did not necessarily do the things he wanted does not necessarily mean we did not do anything.”

From 1980 to 1984 Johnston held the varied portfolios of Treasury Board, economic and regional development, and science and technology. But despite those positions, some Liberals regarded his performance as disappointing, and his rela-

tionship with several members of Trudeau’s office, including cabinet secretary Michael Pitfield, was strained. He did succeed in shepherding the Six-and-Five restraint program through the Commons, an anti-inflationary measure that put a cap on increases to federal employees, and to prices and fees subject to federal regulation, over a two-year period. At the same time, his repeated efforts to initiate a complete overhaul of the tax system were rebuffed, leaving him feeling

powerless and impotent. Said Johnston last week: “I ask myself at times if in my years in Ottawa I have succeeded in making any impact upon the system at all. I cannot come up with a definite answer.”

Perhaps fittingly, the book’s greatest failing lies in the same problem Johnston has experienced as a politician: his inability to bring his private side out in public. Despite its wealth of anecdotes and occasionally insightful observations on Trudeau, Up the Hill often conceals as much as it reveals. There is little real insight into the key personalities or sense of Johnston’s feelings—beyond expressions of anger and frustration.

It is a curious absence because, much like Joe Clark, Johnston is revered by his friends for his self-deprecating wit. His eclectic interests run from a formidable tennis game to a passion for piano-playing and practical jokes. Said Brenda

Norris, the sister of John Turner and a close friend of Johnston and his family: “Don is the true Renaissance man. He is interested in everything and can do a little bit of anything.” Declared Peter Blaikie, a former national president of the Progressive Conservatives: “I cannot imagine Don having an enemy, political or personal. He is too good a guy for that.” But, as Johnston conceded: “There is a public perception that I am a boring guy interested only in numbers, with no charisma to speak of. It is a hard handle to shake off.”

Because of some of the comments in Up the Hill, that perception may now change in Ottawa. Clearly Johnston, much like another author-politician, Jean Chrétien, is now contemplating his political future, with a book offering a useful platform while he considers his options. Although few of his friends expect him to run in the next election, even fewer believe his retiresment from politics I will be permanent. 5 Johnston is not dis^ couraging speculation. “If it takes the notion that I might be leaving to make people listen to my ideas, then so be it,” he declared last week. “I am interested in making events happen in the future.” Regardless of where he goes from here politically, however, the most interesting part of Up the Hill is his recounting of where he has already been.

-ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Montreal with

MARY JANIGAN

MICHAEL ROSE