A guide to Ottawa's new inner-circle of power

WALTER STEWART October 1 1969


A guide to Ottawa's new inner-circle of power

WALTER STEWART October 1 1969



A guide to Ottawa's new inner-circle of power


THIS SPRING, THE federal government decided to cut back Canada's commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — despite the fact that virtually all the brass hats and bureaucrats in Ottawa favored the status quo. The debate had been long, loud and, within government circles, heavily one-sided against change. An interdepartmental task force recommended that Canada maintain her current commit ment; a parliamentary committee came to the same conclusion; a public-opinion survey commissioned by the Liberal Federation pointed the same way; the two cabinet ministers most involved, External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp and Defense Minister Leo Cadieux, had made strong pro-NATO speeches, and the cabinet was split on the issue. But there was one group of people who did want a change; their views coincided with the Prime Minister's gut feeling on the subject, and their advice was accepted. That group was the Prime Minister's personal power bloc, the informal, loosely organized ring of advisers - some of them on his staff, some in the public service, some elected, some conspicuous holders of high office, some minor officials most of

`If I had a policy to push, I would rather have the ear of half a dozen of the Prime Minister's inner-circle aides than the mouths of half his cabinet'

the nation never heard of whose word counts, not because of age or experience or title, but because they have the ear and respect of the man who makes the final decisions, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Whatever else may be said of the NATO decision, it reflects a fundamental change in the way this nation is being run, a tendency to transfer more and more power away from the formal structures of parliament and the civil service and into the office of the Prime Min ister (always, but always, called the PMO by the In set), where it is

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Power in numbers: PM’s Office has 34 members; cabinet, 28

vested in a circle of fewer than three dozen people who comprise Trudeau’s own talent pool. The men in that pool

— a chart defining their roles appears on pages 36-39 — will object to my use of the word “power,” contending that they are only advisers. But the right to tender advice to the Prime Minister is power if that advice receives a sympathetic hearing. If I had a policy to push, I would rather have the ear of half a dozen of the Prime Minister’s aides — men who see him every day, and speak on his wavelength, and call him “tu” instead of “vous” in French — than the mouths of half his cabinet.

The men who surround the Prime Minister have always been important

— witness Tom Kent in the early Pearson years, or Alvin Hamilton during Diefenbaker’s reign — but they have never been as powerful as they are today. Pearson tended to accept advice from all comers, which is why so many of his policies were confused and contradictory; Diefenbaker accepted only reinforcement of his own views. Trudeau tends to look for advice from a single group of likeminded men, and he will accept views that run contrary to his own if they are well argued and put forward by people he trusts.

Two other factors reinforce the power of his advisers: his own work habits, and his willingness to delegate responsibility.

The Prime Minister is not a patient, steady worker; he operates in bursts of furious intellectual energy. He needs a lot of sleep and a lot of privacy, a regular bloc of time to be himself and not the prime minister. Therefore, the way advice comes to him is important; a concise, well-organized report stands a better chance of being heeded than a loose, disjointed one, even if the latter contains more information. His aides are, without exception, expert communicators and excellent condensers. His Program Secretary, Jim Davey, is forever constructing charts and graphs to capsulize information; he gets a lot of kidding about the charts, but he makes a lot of points with them.

Trudeau believes in delegating authority to those who have proved they can handle it, with results that may be illustrated by one small incident some time ago. The Prime Minister was out

of Ottawa on a trip, and had gone to bed for an afternoon nap, when a cabinet minister called, demanding to speak to him on the telephone. An aide said that was not possible. The minister explained that a security matter had come up; a decision had to be made at once. The aide asked for details and gave a decision. The cabinet minister was furious, but the decision stuck. Since that time, both cabinet members and the Prime Minister’s staff have become more sensitive of their respective powers. That incident could not happen again today; the decision now would be funneled through the proper channels, but it would still, in all likelihood, be determined by the aide most knowledgeable in the case.

The cliché that Canada is moving toward an American style of government is not strictly accurate. There is no sign the Trudeau government is likely to forsake the advantages of a responsible cabinet, whose members are elected and can be punished by the public; no sign that the Prime Minister wants to split his office from parliament, as the presidency is separated from Congress, or abandon the responsibility of guiding his own programs through the House of Commons. But there is a move — you could call it the Modified American Plan — to strengthen both the PMO and the Privy Council into something very like the White House corps of unelected experts, and to use those staffs, like the White House staff, as troubleshooters, public-relations experts and information sources. When Canada was trying to get permission to send relief flights into Biafra last fall, it was no diplomat, but Ivan Head, the Prime Minister’s Legislative Assistant, who flew to Lagos to negotiate with the Nigerian government. When Ottawa located the new Montreal Airport at Ste. Scholastique, over the objections of Quebec, it was no cabinet minister, but Pierre Levasseur, Regional Adviser in the PMO, who flew down to break the news to Premier Bertrand. When Trudeau couldn’t make up his mind about accepting an honorary degree at Moncton University, where there had been a good deal of student unrest this spring, it was no party official, but Jean-Eudes Haché, another regional desk officer, who went down to scout

the scene. Every one of these moves made sense, but every one emphasized the increasing importance of the Prime Minister’s advisers, not merely as sources of information, but as his personal representatives.

This change, a response to the increasing complexity of government, has been in process for some time. Trudeau didn’t invent it, but he has rationalized and refined it to the point where the PMO has become a little bureaucracy of its own, complete with an organization chart and regular meetings of department heads to discuss administrative problems.

There are more people today in the PMO than there are in the cabinet. In November 1961, Prime Minister Diefenbaker had a staff of 15 people, many of them clerks who answered the mail, and an annual payroll of $97,920; four years later. Prime Minister Pearson had 21 aides, seven of whom were engaged in correspondence, and a payroll of $197,492; today, Prime Minister Trudeau has 34 aides, 13 of them on the letter-writing detail, and a payroll of $406,085. There are 28 cabinet ministers.

There has been a change in kind as well as in size with the establishment of regional desks in the PMO. These desks — there is one for Quebec, one for the Maritimes, and one for the west — serve the double role of feeding information and complaints from the regions to the Prime Minister and helping him to get his views out to the country. (The Quebec Desk officer, Jean Prieur, is also responsible for serving the constituents in the Prime Minister’s riding of Mount Royal, just as Executive Assistant Mary Macdonald looked after Algoma East for Pearson.) Whenever the Prime Minister leaves Ottawa on official business, he takes along a little black book, prepared by the regional desk for the area he is to visit, which outlines local problems and concerns. He may not always heed the little black book — he didn't when he refused to discuss oil policy in Calgary earlier this year — but he ignores it at his peril.

The MPs resent the regional desks as an invasion of their own responsibility, and they were able to keep an Ontario desk from being created. Pierre Levasseur, who is in charge of the desks, says this is because the MPs don’t realize that the operation is

Rule for Inner Circle men: ‘Maintain a low profile of visibility’

designed to complement, not replace, them, but he also says, “Although we get involved with the local MP, our primary purpose is to serve the PM and not the MP.”

With the growth in the PMO has come an increase in size and strength of the Privy Council, the cabinet secretariat with special responsibility for federal-provincial relations housed with the PMO behind the padded doors of parliament’s East Block. Like the PMO, the Privy Council has escaped every budget freeze. It grew in staff this year from 211 to 288 people. Technically, the Privy Council is merely a branch of the civil service, but in fact senior Privy Council officers carry a wide responsibility.

Take Michael Pitfield, whose official title is Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet (Plans). Pitfield, a young, bright, Montreal lawyer (most of the Prime Minister’s close advisers seem to be young, bright Montreal lawyers), is theoretically responsible for tendering advice on long-range economic planning, but his influence obviously extends further than that. A senior official in the External Affairs Department told me bitterly, “If you want to know why we aren’t being listened to by this government, you need go no farther than the office of Michael Pitfield.”

A former government aide contends that Pitfield was responsible for a change in the Liberal Party program during the last election. According to this story, the committee responsible for drafting the program inserted a paragraph opposing universal welfare schemes. The paragraph passed the party hierarchy and the cabinet, but Pitfield argued that Liberal governments had introduced such universal schemes as the baby bonus and old-age pensions, and Canada was on the verge of implementing medicare; this was no time to repudiate universality. Pitfield won his point and the paragraph was redrafted, according to Maclean’s source.

Pitfield says he is “flattered but flabbergasted” by the power attributed to him, and denies flatly that he had anything to do with the Liberal program. I cannot resolve this contradiction; I was not involved, although the man who told me the story was, but I can say that it is clear to anyone who deals with the Trudeau govern-

ment that Pitfield is no mere civil servant.

Everything I have written argues that the men around the Prime Minister are powerful and that Canadians should know more about them. This is not easy. The advisers, as Program Adviser Jim Davey said in refusing me an interview, “are expected to maintain a low profile of visibility,” a policy that makes good sense from the Prime Minister’s point of view. Lester Pearson’s principal adviser, Tom Kent, was a highly visible lightning rod, who drew criticism for almost everything the government did, whether he had suggested it or not. Marc Lalonde, Trudeau’s Principal Secretary, wields at least as much influence as ever Kent did, but he is much smoother, much quieter, and much less prone to raise the hackles of the Opposition.

Despite their low visibility, it is possible to build a picture of the hierarchy around the Prime Minister. There is no place on my chart, on pages 36-39, for the cabinet as a whole, yet it does play an important role in decision-making. It is, after all, a debating society composed of articulate, willful men used to argument and chaired by a Prime Minister used to extracting the best from every argument. So, while the cabinet as such does not appear on my chart, in your mind it should fit somewhere between the Inner Circle and The Operators.

In the Inner Circle, I have placed only four men, two of them cabinet ministers, Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier, and three of them personal and longtime friends of Trudeau: Marchand, Pelletier and Marc Lalonde. Lalonde was one of a handful of Quebec intellectuals, along with Trudeau, who signed a 1964 political manifesto rejecting ideology and embracing pragmatism, a manifesto Trudeau obviously took very much to heart. Lalonde is a good deal like Trudeau — cool, quick, humorous, highly intelligent and complex. Like Trudeau, he is a Quebecker, a lawyer, an intellectual, a strong federalist and an intensely pragmatic politician. He once worked as executive assistant to a Conservative cabinet minister. Davie Lulton, later as constitutional adviser to Prime Minister Pearson, from which perch he campaigned quietly but effectively for Trudeau’s elevation

to power. Next to the Prime Minister, he is probably the single most important man in government.

Marchand and Pelletier are perhaps the most visible of all Trudeau’s advisers. Their association goes back a long way. Pelletier and Trudeau met as students, and Marchand was drawn into their circle during the strike at Asbestos, Quebec, in 1949, where Marchand worked as a union organizer, Pelletier as a reporter and Trudeau as a kind of free-lance agitator who made stirring speeches to the strikers. Pelletier and Trudeau were associated in founding the intellectual magazine Cité Libre, and all three were caught up in the political ferment of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. They came into politics together in 1965 as the Three Wise Men, when the federal Liberals wanted Marchand, but found they couldn’t get him without accepting the other two as well. Now Trudeau is the leader of the trio, but they are still a trio. They don’t agree about everything; but when they do, as on the Official Languages Act or NATO, they make a formidable combination.

The fourth member of the Inner Circle is Gordon Robertson, a tall, slim, handsome man with steel-grey hair and an unobtrusive manner, who can be seen at every constitutional conference sitting just behind the Prime Minister’s right shoulder, ready for instant consultation. Robertson has a number of titles — Clerk of the Privy Council, Chairman of the Continuing Committee on the Constitution, Secretary to the Cabinet — and a massive influence not only on the Prime Minister but also on the civil service, which regards him as a kind of Lay Pope of the memo set. He has been a civil servant since 1941 and is everything a Mandarin should be: discreet, intelligent and inflexibly honest. He is one of four men — the others are Marc Lalonde, Press Secretary Roméo LeBlanc and Deputy Cabinet Secretary Marshall Crowe — who meet with the Prime Minister for half an hour every morning. If politics is the art of the possible. Robertson is the man who tells the politicians what is possible and what is not.

This Inner Circle is rimmed by two other rings, which I have called The Operators — the men who gather information and help to carry out poli-

cies — and the Task Force — the specialists who are called in for specific advice on their own areas of competence.

The Operators are, for the most part, on the PM’s own staff.

They are the young professionals, such as Pierre Levasseur, a thickset, genial but tough-minded graduate in business administration from Laval and the University of Western Ontario. Levasseur worked for the Quebec Department of Education, then for the Liberal Party in Quebec, and was one of the early organizers of the Trudeau-for-Leader campaign, though he hardly knew Trudeau at the time.

They are the loyalists, such as Tim Porteous, the blond, slender, handsome young Montrealer who looks as if he had just stepped out of a collar ad, and whose qualifications as the Prime Minister’s chief speech-writer include co-authorship of the McGill musical comedy. My Fur Lady. Porteous and Trudeau met in Africa, where both were on tour, and traveled to Tahiti together for a holiday just before Trudeau announced his candidacy for the leadership. Their relationship is a close, personal one.

Porteous is getting help with the speech-writing from another old friend, Roger Rolland, who bounced around Europe with Trudeau, roomed with him in Paris, where Rolland was picking up his PhD in literature, and joined him in student pranks. Rolland is a quick, amiable, all-round man, whose careers include teaching at the University of British Columbia, broadcasting, administration and politics.

The Task Force people are not so much friends and confidants as experts, whose opinions the Prime Minister values. They include such disparate men as Carl Goldenberg, the short, quietly brilliant Montreal lawyer who has been giving dispassionate advice to governments for more than two decades, Eric Kierans, the Postmaster General, who has thrust himself into the circle of advisers by the sheer noise and force of his views and personality, and Albert Johnson, a pleasant-spoken former adviser to the CCF government in Saskatchewan, whose expertise in the area of public finance gives him a powerful say whenever constitutional talks get down to dividing up the dollars.

Taking all the circles at once, a number of facts become apparent. There are no women, for one thing (there are, of course, women on the Prime Minister’s staff, but their role in the formation of policy is minimal), and the men share a number of common characteristics. Many are from Quebec — 19 out of the 31 I have listed — many were connected

with the Prime Minister’s campaign for the Liberal leadership, most of them are young, and all of them are highly educated. Fifteen out of 31 of them are lawyers, and most of the rest are businessmen or academics. There are no farmers, doctors, plumbers or preachers. These men are political technicians, cool, tough - minded, pragmatic and competent.

Knowing something about them helps to explain something of the government’s moves, or lack of moves, to date. There is not much social fire in the government’s record, nor would you expect revolutionary zeal from the well-paid, well-housed bourgeois technocrats represented here. Although housing is à major problem in Canada, the Trudeau administration’s only move in this area came not as policy, but as reaction, when Transport Minister Paul Hellyer quit in a huff, and that is what you would expect with 15 lawyers to point out the painful problems of jurisdictional conflict with the provinces. Ottawa has paid a good deal of attention to Quebec, very little to the west or to the Maritimes. Well, count the Quebeckers again, and see where they fit in the power structure. I am not making something sinister of this; it is natural for the Prime Minister to surround himself with Quebeckers and long past the time when French Canada received special attention, but this overloading of advisers from one region does induce a certain myopia toward the rest of Canada.

The growing power of the advisers has aroused envy and unrest in Ottawa, both in the Liberal caucus, whose members fear they are being bypassed, and in the Opposition parties, which object because there is no way to call these shadowy figures to public account. But it is easier to point to the dangers than to suggest any remedy. Today’s world moves too fast to call a caucus or a cabinet meeting, much less a session of parliament, every time a decision has to be made. And no one man can possibly have all the knowledge on which to act; there must be, by the very nature of modern government, a body of experts the Prime Minister can turn to, and the most natural place to house them is in his own office.

Unless there is some radical, unforeseen change in the Canadian political structure, the men around the Prime Minister are likely to be even more important five years from now than they are today. About all that can be hoped is that they will be exposed from time to time to public scrutiny, so that Canadians may know more than they do now about the pedigree of government decisions. □