Canada

Did Mackasey jump? Or was he pushed? Or a little of both?

ROBERT LEWIS October 4 1976
Canada

Did Mackasey jump? Or was he pushed? Or a little of both?

ROBERT LEWIS October 4 1976

Did Mackasey jump? Or was he pushed? Or a little of both?

Canada

Shortly after 10 a.m. on the day of Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle, Bryce Mackasey, Postmaster General and Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, entered the PM’S office. Mackasey was in good spirits; he and his wife had just returned from a Portuguese vacation and a pleasant stopover in London on the way home. Then, inside Trudeau’s office, Mackasey’s outlook on life grew rapidly darker, and before the day was out the veteran of 14 years in parliament, six of them as a cabinet minister, was an ordinary MP again. Just what had happened was far from clear. The conventional explanation was that two proud men had quarreled almost by accident. But the split, viewed against the long-standing public affection between the two men, prompted a chain of unsubstantiated reports, theories and questions: did the volatile Mackasey shout obscenities at the PM? Did Trudeau draw back and tip over his prime ministerial chair as Mackasey stomped out of the room? Did Trudeau or his advisers intentionally misread Mackasey in order to force him out?

What was abundantly clear was that both Trudeau and Mackasey later regretted what had happened—for obvious reasons. Just a year after John Turner’s resignation, Trudeau had lost the most popular minister in his cabinet, and Mackasey was out of the role he loved so much at centre stage.

The Mackasey-Trudeau blowup apparently stemmed in part from Mackasey’s desire for more cabinet clout and, further in the future, for financial security for his family. Trudeau began by noting that in the impending shuffle he wanted Mackasey to stay on at Consumer and Corporate Affairs (C&CA). Mackasey indicated his willingness, but also reminded the PM of a letter he wrote last July, expressing a wish to retire soon from the cabinet. It appears in retrospect that Mackasey intended the letter as leverage in an effort to expand his personal clout in the party and to get assurances about his future when he left politics. (Mackasey has had two heart attacks and has suffered heavy debts from the poor management of a blind trust he had to set up when he reentered the cabinet in 1974.) Among other things Mackasey wanted an assurance that he would become a regular member of the infuential cabinet committee on planning and priorities, a kind of inner cabinet. He also wanted responsibility for political organization in anglophone areas of Quebec, his home province, and a promise that after his eventual retirement he would be named to the $85,000-a-year chairmanship of the Canadian National Railways.

Trudeau reportedly had already indicated several months ago that the CNR job would be Mackasey’s. But at their meeting the PM noted that, before moving on, Mackasey would first have to choose a suc-

cessor and get him elected in his Montrealarea riding of Verdun. This new condition apparently angered Mackasey because he did not consider it part of the original deal. He. told Trudeau inelegantly to shove his job and stomped out of the room. At 4 p.m., Mackasey decided to return to apologize to Trudeau and talk about staying on in the cabinet. They met at 6 p.m. But for reasons that are unclear, the rapprochement never took place. “Mackasey was convinced,” noted a source in his camp, “that unknown to Trudeau, certain key elements in the Liberal Party felt it in their best interests to keep him out of the cabinet.” Trudeau’s advisers rejected any suggestions of intrigue. If Mackasey was bargaining with the PM, said one adviser, “it wasn’t clear what he was bargaining for. There was nothing he wanted to do in terms of being a minister that he couldn’t have done.”

The personalities of the two men were obviously a major factor in the debacle.

The proud Trudeau makes it a habit not to pressure people whose support he needs to stay with him if they want to leave.

For his part, Mackasey has always exhibited a personal tendency that can be dangerous in political life — overreacting when he is tired. As Mackasey admitted to a friend: “I went too far.”

As Mackasey contemplated his future, he was able to take more comfort in an avalanche of supportive mail that flowed in. Among Trudeau’s followers the tendency was to try to play down the importance of Mackasey’s departure. “It would be better if he were in

than out,” said a senior Liberal. “But it’s not a politically cathartic event.” That analysis may be largely bravado. Liberal Party polls indicate that Mackasey was riding high with a 50% popularity rating, with Trudeau languishing at 28%. From his unaccustomed position out in the cold, Mackasey declared that there was “no way I am going to let my retirement from the cabinet, which was an accident, reflect on Trudeau.” Privately, however, he ruminated on the PM’S chances of lasting out the year as Liberal leader. And if Trudeau were to step down, it was possible that Bryce Mackasey would be among those seeking to succeed him. ROBERT LEWIS

ROBERT LEWIS