The democratic system has a special logic that makes it more visible than comprehensible. Pierre Elliott Trudeau has suited Canadian democracy admirably because it has always been easier to point to his success (remember charisma?) than to explain it.
In the early days, the Prime Minister's success appalled and enraged his opponents. They railed and blustered. They were cogent, perceptive and sometimes devastating. They accomplished nothing. Trudeau was a colossus; the more they attacked him, the more they bruised themselves with their efforts. A few began to talk despairingly of another Mackenzie King. The man was unbeatable.
Then, quite suddenly, something happened. The end of the willing suspension of disbelief. The morning-after sourness from the national ecstasy of the War Measures Act. Or, more prosaically, the final straw.
If a single moment marked the turning point, it occurred shortly after 2 p.m. on February 16, 1971. John Lundrigan. the brash young Conservative from Newfoundland, had been harrying the Prime Minister again about unemployment. Although Trudeau had been trying to deny that his anti-inflation policy had been designed to put people out of work, its effectiveness in doing just that was becoming an embarrassment. The Prime Minister does not much like those daily sessions in the House of Commons, and Lundrigan was being especially boring and rude, so Trudeau told him to fuck off.
Actually, that is not quite true. As the Prime Minister was quick to point out, he had not said anything, he had mouthed it. And within an hour, with his own especially endearing regard for public dialogue, he was suggesting that what he had mouthed was “fuddleduddle.” Historians would do well to consider the blossoming of fuddle-duddle buttons and fuddle-duddle T-shirts as the last shudder of Trudeaumania.
It was a long time from the election euphoria of 1968 to the unemployment winter of 1971. There was a time when Ottawa reporters would have regarded fuddle-duddle as the very pinnacle of political witticism. But in the winter of 1971, it was not very funny. The thread had snapped, and it would snap more loudly and viciously in future months.
Poor Trudeau. In fairness, he might ask whether the change in public opinion is not just a caprice on the part of the smirking, smug and arrogant Toronto intellectual establishment which tried so hard to make of him a national hero in 1968. They made him a French Canadian in the image of English Canada; he was a Quebecker, a Liberal and a liberal with whom they could deal. He had tried to row to Cuba, he had helped the strikers at Asbestos, he had thrown snowballs at Lenin’s statue in Moscow. Compared with Lester Pearson, Robert Stanfield and Tommy Douglas, it was all so
beautifully hip and, in the parlance of the day, relevant.
Trudeau is the perfect political leader: you can make of him what you want. For those who chose to believe, he is progressive, steady, a good French Canadian, anti-nationalist, witty, cool. Those who now choose to disbelieve find the same characteristics radical, reactionary, pro-French, totalitarian, smart-aleck, arrogant. Which end of the telescope do you want? The House of Commons is a chore and John Lundrigan was a bore, and unemployment was a grim but necessary tool. Or Pierre Trudeau is an arrogant prig and an insensitive elitist who wants nothing but the maximization and preservation of the status quo.
In fact, although it is accepted among smart circles that Trudeau’s government is a disaster, he has delivered pretty well what he promised in 1968. He promised very little, and those who expected more were projecting their own fantasies.
The glamour of Trudeau the elegant intellectual ego tripper is singularly absent from most legislation which has made its way through parliament at a quite creditable rate. But when the parliamentary term is finished, the machinery of state will be running more efficiently than in 1968. There will have been no terrible changes. As a result of legislation on taxation, labor relations, industrial development and social policy, the rich will remain rich and some of the poor will be a little less poor, though there will be a few more of them without jobs. A good many Canadians will have been upset at some stage or another by the rhetoric of the Prime Minister and his colleagues, but the sanctified order of Canadian life will not have been outraged, and no liberal would want to
quarrel with Senator Grattan O’Leary’s observation that Trudeau is more conservative than Richard Nixon.
(The exception to this pattern of conservatism is the development of foreign policy, beginning with our partial withdrawal from NATO and continuing through the erratic campaign to diversify our trade to the Pacific and eastern Europe. The government’s agonized review of our foreign policy appeared at first to be a bland recipe of success for commercial travelers; in retrospect, it appears to be the cautious but deliberate creation of an escape route from the perils of association with the American empire.)
For all the jargon of the election campaign, Trudeau has been reluctant to listen to the Canadian public or to indicate where he would like the Canadian public to follow him. Participatory democracy has become a political head game, a series of syllogisms to be tossed out to those with short and dull memories. Anything beyond the limited range of the Prime Minister’s public commitment is reduced to the absurd.
None of this is to say that Trudeau will necessarily be defeated at the next election — although, in contrast to the situation a year ago, it is now a possibility. Even some of his closest supporters today admit Trudeau’s vulnerability. Some of them have been so shaken by the events of the past year that they regard him as a liability. The irony is that those who voted for Trudeau in 1968 but decide they cannot vote for him again are probably blaming him for not being what they wanted him to be. He allowed them, encouraged them, to believe what they wanted. If they believe no longer, it is a case of mistaken identity coming full circle. ■
John Gray is a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery
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