BESIDE ME IN the crowded lobby of the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax, the matronly lady in the flowered hat stirred with ill-concealed emotion, stirred and fidgeted and craned toward the doorway where Canada’s Prime Minister was being mobbed by younger and more agile admirers. She patted her hair, shifted her feet, pursed her lips and betrayed all the signs of a thoroughly turned - on lady. Finally, she could contain herself no longer and, turning to me, a perfect stranger, she gabbled, “I don’t care what you say, I think he’s marvellous!”
I don’t know what provoked this outburst — did I look more than usually disdainful, or was it all men, or all reporters, the flower-hatted lady was getting at? Certainly the Prime Minister didn’t do anything marvellous in Halifax; he fended off some hecklers who taxed him over Canada’s attitude toward Biafra, fielded a number of questions at a public meeting and delivered a clutch of political truisms to the Nova Scotia Liberal Association at a fund-raising dinner — but none of this was the lady’s point. Her point was that she finds the Prime Minister marvellous even if he doesn’t work marvels, and I and my scrivening tribe had better take note.
I do. That lady’s blurted words, uttered in Tory N ova Scotia, underline the most remarkable fact about Canada’s new Prime Minister: Trudeaumania, once thought to be a passing fancy, may become a permanent feature of our political life. Since last June’s election we have been told so often the notion is becoming embedded in our folklore that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, wafted to power on the elated expectation of the nation, has since turned that expectation to gall and bitter wormwood and, in the words of political columnist Douglas Fisher of the Toronto Telegram, “The praise, the hope, the excitement of May and June are disappearing.”
Fisher, the former NDP MP, sees the tide of adulation that swept the Liberals into office now receding, leaving nothing on the beach but a weather-worn pair of sandals. But by any objective assessment, the Prime Minister is stronger today than he was last June. Certainly he has critics, but they are mostly those who opposed him from the start.
In fact, more than any politician since Louis St. Laurent, Trudeau has lived up to his advance billing — the billing of both friends and enemies. Those who saw him as a quick, tough, rational man who could still somehow reach out to stir the nation, regard his record so far as proof of their predictions; those who dismissed him as an inflexible, autocratic reactionary, are equally certain that his every move since last April’s leadership convention proves their point.
Consider for a moment a cross section of comment from some of the onlookers whom Maclean’s asked to assess the Prime Minister’s performance so far:
□ Mrs. Grace Maclnnis, NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway: “He’s very able, very arrogant, very rational . . . Mackenzie King with flair.”
□ Gerald Regan, Nova Scotia Liberal leader: “I’ve just been tremendously impressed ... I didn’t support him for the leadership because I didn’t know him. That was unfortunate, perhaps. I thought he was too much of a swinger for Nova Scotia . . . [but] he’s businesslike, efficient, not dynamic, not radical.”
□ David Lewis, NDP Parliamentary Leader and MP for York South: “The man is extraordinarily cautious in all his policies, both international and domestic. He really has no patience with the unavoidably timeconsuming democratic processes . . . a smiling authoritarian.”
□ William Kilbourn, history professor at York University, Toronto, and one of the first academics to embrace Trudeau’s candidacy last year: “We’re delighted . . . The main thing is that here is one of the most intelligent and responsible people in the nation in a position to lead it.”
The striking aspect of these assessments is that they agree on Trudeau's political characteristics — caution, pragmatism, tough-mindedness — although the assessors naturally place different premiums on these traits, all of which were evident, though not emphasized, in the Trudeau of roses and charisma Canada elected last June.
There are, of course, two Trudeaus — the swinging idol of shrugs and kisses the public dotes on, and the cool, detached and orderly man the political pros see. When the Prime Minister rose to speak in the Throne Speech debate, three well-fleshed, miniskirted young women in the public gallery burst into squealing applause and drew the instant, alarmed attention of the House of Commons custodial staff. Twelve minutes later, as Trudeau waded through the dullest oration since Mackenzie King, the young women fled the chamber. I followed, to ask if they were disappointed in their idol.
Not a bit; they thought he was groovy.
But his speech, didn’t they find it dull?
"Oh, that. That was politics.”
It is because of this duality that Trudeau appears to be giving Canada what we have always wanted, a stylish leader admired and envied across the border (during the U.S. presidential race. New Republic carried a classified advertisement that read: “Nixon? Humphrey? Don't embarrass your bumper. ‘Trudeau’ bumper stickers — two for $1.00”) and a leader who, at the same time, reflects the basic conservatism of Canadians. Here is a political leader who can do the Frug or a full-gainer, a fairy-tale prince who slips out of his castle at 24 Sussex Drive and pops up unannounced at a theatre in Toronto, a ball in Montreal, a wedding in Ottawa. Here, too, is a fiscally sound, grindingly dull House of Commons orator who can lull a whole bench-full of economists into nodding acquiescence. At last, the two-in-one political vehicle, snappy as a motorcycle, safe as a sedan.
Of the two Trudeaus, the public, groovy one has dominated our image of the man to date; perhaps now is the time to look at the political pragmatist.
A measure of the Prime Minister’s pragmatism may be found in the way the Liberals obtained a program for the federal election. When Trudeau became party leader he had no discernible platform, and no time to fashion one before he plunged the nation into an election campaign, so the task was taken up in Ottawa by a committee of executive assistants, in which the dominant figure was Bill Lee, Transport Minister Paul Hellyer’s right-hand man. Lee’s committee simply rewrote the platform drafted for the Transport Minister during the leadership contest, and submitted the result to the cabinet. There, it was shunted to a program committee chaired by — you guessed it — Paul Hellyer. and was accepted. The end result was an 84-page Red Book of Hellyerisms which became the Liberal election platform. Lee was put aboard Trudeau’s campaign plane to check speeches against the official policy which he, naturally, knew better than the Prime Minister’s speech writers.
If pragmatism is Trudeau’s first political rule, discipline is his second. The most obvious difference between the Pearson and Trudeau administrations — with many of the same members — has been the imposition of order on the cheerful chaos of the Pearson years.
Trudeau restructured the cabinet, replacing a score of standing and temporary committees that wielded varying degrees of influence with eight full-time committees, each with clearly defined responsibilities. (Four of the committees are responsible for developing policy, four for co-ordinating programs.) Cabinet meetings, which in Pearson’s day wore the air of a fractious public-school class with the teacher absent, have come under a new order of discipline that extends from such minor matters as permanently assigned chairs for each minister, to such major ones as a fixed agenda resolutely pursued under the Prime Minister’s demanding chairmanship.
(Not that the Prime Minister is entirely impersonal. During one early cabinet meeting he remarked that a new minister was not saying much, and the newcomer replied that he didn’t want to speak out of turn until he knew more about cabinet. A few days later, Trudeau invited the man to dinner and assured him his views were wanted; he has since become one of the most vocal members of the administration.)
Pearson’s government was often split by open disagreements; it was also so awash with leaks that when Pearson complained at a morning cabinet meeting about confidential discussion getting to the press, his complaint made that evening’s editions of the Ottawa newspapers. Trudeau’s reaction was to announce that he would fire any minister who blabbed, or who publicly denounced government policy. The difficulty now is to reconcile these restrictions with the Prime Minister’s other stated aim of promoting wide debate of public issues.
Robert Andras, a Minister Without Portfolio attached to Indian Affairs, openly criticized Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien for not consulting the natives before he revamped his department. The disagreement was raised in the Commons and Trudeau noted mildly that the chain of command obviously flowed from Chrétien down to Andras, not the other way around. Privately, however, the Prime Minister brought Andras sharply to heel, and let the press know he had done so, in order that the point would not be lost on other ministers. Andras will not step out of line again, but it is hard to see how his silence will promote intelligent discussion of the vexing problems that face Canadian Indians.
For all its untidiness, the Pearson Trudeau government produced a tremendous flow of ideas; in bridling his administration, Trudeau has taken a deliberate decision to concentrate on implementing those ideas before thinking up any new ones. There is no Diefenbaker Vision or 60 Days of Decision to propel the 28th Parliament; instead, there is a fouryear plan to raise cash to pay for programs already under way before setting out new goals. If this four-year plan works, incidentally, Trudeau’s government will be in a position to offer new, vote - catching legislation just in time for another election.
And Trudeau has moved to revitalize the party, largely through personal contact. Nova Scotia Liberal leader Gerald Regan was astonished when, a few days after the leadership convention, Trudeau phoned to ask for Regan’s views on party problems in Nova Scotia. “In three years, Pearson never once initiated a phone call to me,” said Regan. “Trudeau invited me to dinner.” He went.
“You always get a big sag in the party after an election,” Liberal National Director Allan O’Brien told me, “but it didn’t happen this time. We’ve got so many people screaming, ‘Send me in, coach,’ that we don’t know what the hell to do with them all.”
A series of regional bureaus is being organized to deal with local problems and pass questions and complaints along to Ottawa. “The idea,” said O’Brien, “is to shake the hell out of us.”
When corn prices tumbled across western Ontario last fall, the complaint was taken up not only by the Opposition Tory MPs, but by a committee of cabinet, caucus and federalparty officers. In the end, the government moved to stop U.S. producers dumping their corn in Canada at below-cost prices.
This new sense of participation has not yet reached the average Liberal backbencher, who may be asked for his opinion more often under the Trudeau regime than formerly, but has no greater feeling that it is likely to prevail.
“I give the man full marks for trying,” said James G. Lind, Liberal MP for Middlesex, Ont., “but as far as the government is concerned, the main role of the backbencher is still just to be a voting entity.” Lind tried all summer to get an appointment with Trudeau.
Certainly it is not in his relations with MPs that Trudeau shines. His performance in the Commons has been uneven, his manner in the green chamber is generally detached and even disdainful. Tory House Leader Gerald Baldwin complained, “He has the same attitude as De Gaulle — his idea is that he was elected and he’s going to govern. Parliament is something he has to put up with, but he’s going to do as much as he can to make the burden tolerable by ignoring the Opposition.”
Baldwin cites Trudeau’s decision to limit the appearance of most cabinet ministers for Question Period to three days a week. The change was made at a time when all aspects of parliamentary reform were under discussion by an all-party committee, and infuriated Baldwin. “There was no discussion,” he fumed, “the thing was simply done.”
“If there was no discussion,” replied Marc Lalonde, Trudeau’s chief of staff and top policy adviser, “that was because Baldwin had already said he would never agree. What is the purpose of discussion when they say, ‘Never in my life’? The question was, were we going to do the thing or not?”
Lalonde can speak with authority because of another change imposed by Trudeau — the enlargement and upgrading of the Prime Minister’s personal staff. Where Lester Pearson had four harried assistants of varying degrees of skill and training, Trudeau has a staff of 20, seven of them lawyers, who share 31 university degrees. Most Opposition MPs applaud the strengthening of the prime ministerial staff to free the government leader of burdensome detail, but most add the rider that there is a danger in vesting too much power in the hands of administrative aides. One cabinet minister has already complained of being telephoned by an aide armed with the awesome fiat, “The Prime Minister requests ...” If the Prime Minister wanted something from him, the minister suggested, he should make the request himself.
I put this complaint to Lalonde, who replied, “I may have phoned someone myself to say. ‘The Prime Minister would like this or that,’ or, T have been asked to tell you such and such.’ If people can’t work under that sort of system, it’s too bad, because there are 28 ministers and only one Prime Minister.”
Nevertheless, Lalonde says, “I have emphasized to all the staff that we are not here to replace MPs and certainly not to replace ministers.”
It is significant that Lalonde, a brilliant Montreal lawyer, should be Trudeau’s chief policy adviser. Lalonde began his Ottawa career as special assistant to Conservative Justice Minister Davy Fulton, and Trudeau’s policies so far have certainly been conservative. (In fact, one former Tory cabinet member told a colleague admiringly not long ago, “This man can’t make a wrong move.”)
The spending cuts, the emphasis on fiscal integrity and the first budget all emphasize what Ottawa economist John M. Hartwick wrote of the Prime Minister: “In all ways, he is less radical than Mr. Pearson and appears less so than either Mr. Stanfield or Mr. Douglas.”
Still, it was almost as startling to see onetime socialist Trudeau cheered by the Chamber of Commerce in Calgary for a no-nonsense, cut-the-spending speech as it was to see him booed in Regina by university students. Trudeau, the apostle of open confrontation, went so far as to rebuke the Regina students, who wanted more money for loans, because they failed to forward their complaint through the proper channels. This brought the tart rebuke from the Toronto Globe and Mail that “men who accept the ovations of the bullring must sometimes be prepared to fight the bull.”
The students, and a great many Left-wing academics, have professed disappointment because they thought this government would be more progressive in social and economic affairs, but, Professor William Kilbourn of York University argues, “It’s pretty naïve to read your own social views onto Trudeau and then fault him for not carrying them out.”
The degree to which this transference has occurred among Canada’s Left - wingers was brought home to NDP candidate John Harney in Toronto during a City Hall square election rally. Trudeau made a short, noncommittal speech on urban problems, and Harney asked a young nun in the audience what the Prime Minister had said. She replied with a lucid catalogue of Canada’s housing ills and a series of proposed solutions.
“Did you really hear him say that?” the dazed Harney asked.
“No,” the nun replied firmly, “but he would have, given enough time.”
That nun is bound to be disappointed by Trudeau’s performance in his first nine months, but she does not represent any of the real sources of his political strength. That comes from three groups — romantics like my flower - hatted lady in Halifax, who support Trudeau for his style, onenation advocates of every political hue who applaud his firm stand on French-English relations, and the solid core of Canadians who respond to his pragmatic, cautious political stance because it matches their own.
On the record so far, none of these groups has serious cause for complaint. □