The new Number Two
Pierre Trudeau knew only one man could save him. Reluctantly, Allan MacEachen took on the job
Thanksgiving Weekend in the kingdom of Allan MacEachen. The yellow, L-shaped house sits on the east side of Lake Ainslie, 25 yards from the shoreline, in the middle of Cape Breton. The east side of the lake is a land of Protestants and Tories and speckled trout that fight the line. MacEachen is relaxed in a maroon pullover and salmon-colored slacks as he watches the workmen pour concrete for his new sidewalk. The weather, the moodiest in the country, has turned. The sky is slate grey. It is almost raining. Inside the house, MacEachen pokes at the stubborn fire and brings out a bottle of good port. He wants to stop talking to the mainlander for a while and listen to Kenzie MacNeil who dropped in for the afternoon. MacNeil, a young and gifted folk singer, weaves dark tales of death and shipwrecks with his songs. The music is haunting and the port takes everybody’s mind off the weather and the political talk, and even the fire is coming around. MacEachen talks about MacNeil’s songs and the writers of Gaelic
music. He seems to know every Hebridian song ever written. He moves to the stereo for yet another favorite when he suddenly remembers a commitment. A local man died a few days before and MacEachen had promised to drop in at the wake.
“Do they still have old-fashioned wakes in Cape Breton?” the mainlander asks, stupidly.
“Oh yes, we still die you know.”
Early September, the flight back from Honolulu to Ottawa. Allan MacEachen was feeling particularly pleased about his 17-day trip to the countries of the Pacific rim. The speeches had gone well, even in Australia where the stomach-kicking press is tough on visiting dignitaries. Diplomats were pleased that Canada’s external affairs minister was interested in them and that Canada’s “Pacific Dimension” seemed to be something more than foreign policy jargon. He spent most of the flight back alone. His aides chatted easily with the traveling reporters; they were pleased with the Boss’s performance. The minister was looking forward to briefing the Prime Minister when he returned. While he was away, the Liberal government had been battered by the results of a Gallup poll. The Conservatives, under leader Joe Clark, were basking in the warmth of a 47% popularity rating. The Liberals were lower than they had been in 18 years with 29%. While few people were moved to plead for Clark as prime minister, a lot of them were saying they couldn’t stand Trudeau’s controls program and, more significantly, couldn’t stand Trudeau. When a political party has the image of a loser, it soon takes on the reality of losing—support, campaign donations, elections, whatever. Trudeau wanted to do something and do it quickly, surgically. Even though he had admitted in the past he is a poor manager of men, he decided to shift around the ministers in his cabinet. One of the first
people he wanted to talk to was his external affairs minister, Allan MacEachen.
They met in the Prime Minister’s office at midmorning. The PM was agitated and apologetic but he had to make a request. He wanted MacEachen to go back to his old job of leading the government in the House of Commons. MacEachen was stunned. It couldn’t be because of his work at External. No, Trudeau was pleased with MacEachen’s two-year tenancy at the foreign office, but the question now was politics, not performance. There was the matter of the polls. Plus the fact that the coming session of parliament would be fractious, with a lot of contentious legislation. (“It’s going to be a long winter,” MacEachen would say later.) As the governing party, the Liberals had never been able to quite get the hang of parliament. The last session (under the House leadership of Mitchell Sharp) had been aseries of blunders from Sky Shops to the judges’ affair to the botched-up move to raise Members’ salaries. Trudeau could never bring himself to understand the delicate fulcrums and tension springs at play in the House of Commons. Even though it might appear to be a demotion, he needed MacEachen. The government, and by extension the country, needed him. MacEachen’s mind raced. He did not want to give up External Affairs. He was just beginning to bring things together in a department that had become moribund under the leaden leadership of Mitchell Sharp and Paul Martin. He was determined to shake it up, restore it to its former glory days of his own mentor Lester Pearson. The PM wanted to take it away from him. MacEachen had a chilling thought; he was about to become the first minister in Canadian history to lose his portfolio because of a Gallup poll.
Now, in the PM’S office, he faced three options. He could refuse the job pointblank, telling Trudeau he wanted to stay with External Affairs. He might win, but his long-range effectiveness would be impaired. Trudeau, with his adviser Ivan Head, likes to make his own foreign policy, and if he stayed over the Prime Minister’s objections MacEachen would never be sure that he had Trudeau’s unswerving support. Option Two was the Mackasey option. He could tell Trudeau that he was insulted, that he was leaving the cabinet. But that would have left Nova Scotia without a voice in cabinet. His home province is entering a delicate stage of development that will determine its economic fate for the rest of the century. There is the question of offshore oil, energy subsidies and the whole painful matter of Cape Breton industrial resuscitation. Nova Scotia needed somebody in the cabinet to plead its case. Option Three was perhaps the hardest in personal terms: he would take the House Leader’s job and give up the prestige and downright fun of External Affairs.
He chose Option Three, but he set down
a few conditions. First, he wanted to retain control over Canada’s foreign aid agency, CIDA. Aid to the Third World has been a long-consuming passion of his. He knows that economic realignment between developing countries and the industrial West is the key to peace and stability in the world. Secondly, he wanted to keep his job as the co-chairman of the North-South conference on the new economic order being held in Paris. He had accomplished a great deal during the last session of the conference. At one point he broke a deadlock among Third World nations that threatened to scuttle the entire endeavor. Next, there were a couple of political favors. For one thing he wanted to disabuse the Prime Minister of any thought he might have about demoting John Munro, the labor minister. Munro is one of MacEachen’s closest friends in cabinet. During MacEachen’s abortive drive for the Liberal leadership in 1968, Munro had delivered a large block of votes from labor delegates. Besides, he and Munro were firmly in the left-wing of the cabinet, in fact were the left-wing of the cabinet. Trudeau agreed to MacEachen’s conditions and added a consolation prize—he would officially designate him deputy prime minister. MacEachen didn’t ask for the title; after all it was meaningless. The last official deputy prime minister the country had was Paul Hellyer, Canada’s George Romney. MacEachen walked back to his Centre Block office. He
told his personal staff: “Well boys, we’re moving.” The reaction was a mixture of rage and sadness. MacEachen kept his anger to himself.
Only later, at the swearing-in at Government House, did it bubble over. Michael Pitfield is the Clerk of the Privy Council, Pierre Trudeau’s closest friend and the most powerful civil servant in the country. He is a shadowy character who hates doing the public’s business in public. After Trudeau met with MacEachen, Pitfield is reported to have told the PM that two of MacEachen’s conditions were unacceptable: that CIDA and the North-South economic conference were within the realm of External Affairs and had to go to the new minister, Don Jamieson. Trudeau reluctantly agreed. When MacEachen found out he was livid, and after the swearing-in he cornered Pitfield and chewed him out about political etiquette. MacEachen has a slow fuse, but when he erupts his temper is awesome. When he finished shredding Pitfield, he stormed out of the hall, saying to his chauffeur and close friend Alex Leonard, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” The limousine tore down the driveway, past the waiting photographers.
The return of MacEachen to the essentially dreary job of House Leader was the major surprise of the fiasco that was the September cabinet shuffle. European diplomats openly expressed displeasure at his departure from External Affairs. A New York Times editorial questioned the wisdom of moving him. Some of his own supporters urged him to quit, as did some of the hundreds of telegrams he received. But MacEachen is a tenacious man, and the idea of giving up didn’t sit well. Conservative Flora MacDonald has said of him: “You have to remember that Allan is a Cape Breton Scot; he has to fight to be happy.”
To read the press clips of this mercurial 55-year-old bachelor is to be carried away on a gout of adjectives by writers desperately trying to capture the man; dour, brilliant, lazy, reflective, practical, contemplative, witty, energetic, reserved, generous, easygoing, awkward, secretive, rigid, tough, cautious, suave, deliberate, methodical, shrewd, incisive. There is no consensus. He has one of the best minds in cabinet, yet at times has to grope for articulation. In public he is austere to the point of severity, but in private he can dominate a conversation with hilarious anecdotes. He has enormous powers of concentration, but he sometimes appears vague and distracted. He has the image of a political loner, and yet he is a good team player. In one area there is unanimity: MacEachen is a superb parliamentary craftsman. He knows the game of the House, its rules and its ethics as well as any man there, certainly far better than the Prime Minister. During the Liberal minority government of 197274, there was a saying around the House of Commons: “If MacEachen gets up to speak, the government must be in
trouble.” It was because of MacEachen that the 1972 Liberal government stayed alive as long as it did. Everybody recognized it. One Liberal backbencher said at the time: “The Prime Minister’s position has risen considerably these days. Now he’s just below MacEachen.” Now, with a new parliament and a new cabinet, Allan MacEachen has been called upon to be indispensable once again.
His father, as seen in a sepia photo in MacEachen’s living room, was a thicknecked, clear-eyed man with richly black hair. He worked in the coal pits of Inverness on Cape Breton for 44 years—“long
enough.” his son says. “I didn’t think that life in a Cape Breton coal-mining town in those times was all that ennobling.” He looked around for a way out. He went to university, to St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish where he came under the influence of the Reverend Moses Coady. Monsignor Coady, preacher of social Catholicism and founder of the Antigonish Movement, became an important part of MacEachen’s life. “He taught me that things could be changed, that all things in this world were not immutable.” He briefly thought of becoming a priest, as most Cape Breton Catholic boys do at one time or another, but decided to stay with the academic
world. By the time he was 25, he was a full professor of economics at the university.
Then in 1949. the new Prime Minister of Canada, Louis St. Laurent, called an election. In MacEachen’s home riding, a former judge of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, a man named William Carroll, announced he was going to try for the Liberal nomination. “I had respect for him but 1 thought the man was too old; he’d been in the House of Commons with Laurier. So I came up to contest the nomination. But Carroll had the support of all the party executive, the regulars, and here was I, an upstart, coming in to take the nomination away from him. They thought 1 was a radical, some kind of revolutionary brandishing dynamite.” MacEachen was roundly defeated and he returned to the protective coloration of academic life. He went to MIT to do postgraduate work in economics and industrial relations. In the 1953 election, Carroll finally decided to retire and MacEachen got the nomination. And won the riding.
During his first term in parliament, MacEachen became close with Lester Pearson. If he made a particularly good speech Pearson would send him a note. It was only natural that they became political allies as well as friends. When the Conservatives won their 208 seats with John Diefenbaker in 1958, they looked invincible. MacEachen had been defeated (he lost his seat by 16 votes) and Pearson consigned to the opposition outback. “1 remember the first time I saw all those Tories
in the House,” MacEachen recalled. “Everytime Dief moved, they moved with him. Everytime he smiled, they all smiled. It was unthinkable to me then that they could be beaten.” When Pearson went into parliamentary exile, MacEachen went with him. He and Maurice Lamontagne from Quebec became the opposition leader’s personal advisers. Later they were joined by Tom Kent, editor of The Winnipeg Free Press dtnà Walter Gordon, the Toronto management consultant. Together these four served as the nucleus of the Leader’s Advisory Committee, a kind of cabinet-in-exile, during the Diefenbaker “interregnum.” They began to work out
policies that would return the Liberals to power.
In the 1962 election, MacEachen regained his Cape Breton seat even though the Liberals failed to take the government. Pearson and MacEachen worked closely together and the next year the Liberals formed the government. The two men, different in so many ways, each respected the other’s intelligence. In his memoirs, Pearson refers to MacEachen as “the old smoothie,” able to almost flatter parliament into doing the government’s bidding. But friendship or not, MacEachen at one point threatened to resign from the cabinet. In 1966, the then finance minister,
Mitchell Sharp, ordered the postponement for one year of a national health care plan. MacEachen, who had babied medicare through all its legislative stages, was furious. He wanted to quit. Pearson was out of the country at the time so he went to see Paul Martin, the acting prime minister. “You can’t resign on me, Allan,” Martin told him. MacEachen cooled down.
Throughout the chaos that marked the Pearson years, MacEachen was an island of calm and unshakable competence. It never revealed itself in clearer terms than on Black Monday in February, 1968, one of the most hilarious moments in Canadian political history, when the Liberal government was accidently defeated. Pearson was in Jamaica sunning himself on a well-deserved vacation. Finance Minister Sharp was presiding over the second reading of a money bill. MacEachen looked around the House and saw an unusual number of Tories in their seats. He knew that the only sensible thing to do was call third reading at the next sitting. But Sharp didn’t hear, or misunderstood the deputy speaker, and allowed third reading to go ahead. The Tories kept the division bells ringing for 75 minutes. When the vote was taken the Liberals lost 84-82. Traditionally a government defeated on a money bill is a government that has to go. “The whole thing was ridiculous,” MacEachen says. Pearson had to trundle back to a freezing Ottawa and gave MacEachen the job of wording a confidence motion that would spare the country an election. MacEachen’s motion (with a bit of Pearson editing) carried, and the government was saved
At about the same time MacEachen told Pearson he hoped to succeed him as leader of the Liberal Party. Pearson told him he couldn’t win but wished him luck. MacEachen’s strategy, such as it was, saw him play the favorite son role, trying to get every Maritime vote he could get his hands on and hope for a strong showing on the first
ballot. When Maritime-born Robert Winters came into the race as the “boy from Lunenberg” he split the Maritime bloc and the strategy went out the window. On the night of his defeat for the leadership, MacEachen, with a few friends, sat up late in a suite at the Chateau Laurier Hotel. MacEachen’s close friend John “Piper” MacMillan marched up and down the suite playing Scottish laments while MacEachen did devastating impersonations of the new Liberal leader and Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
External Affairs was to have been the culmination of MacEachen’s career. For too long the department had been run by grey men and somnolent ministers who said such things as: “I think I can say with some assurance and from discussions we’ve been having that it’s too early at this time to say what Canada’s role will be. If Canada has a role.” He was appointed in August of 1974 and was something of an unknown quantity to the bureaucrats. And to other people. One night he was taking a reporter up to his office in the Lester B. Pearson Building when he was stopped twice by security guards and ordered to produce identification. But he soon became known to the diplomatic community as a man with an ordered mind and a determination to strengthen Canada’s foreign policy posture toward other nations. He made a trip to the Middle East to meet Arab leaders and lay the groundwork for bilateral relations between Canada and the oil-rich Arab states. Some leaders of the Jewish community interpreted this as a softening of Canada’s support for Israel, but when Israeli commandos rescued Jewish hostages from Entebbe, Uganda, MacEachen was one of the first foreign ministers to give strong and unequivocal support to the raid. “What we were trying to do in the Middle East was show that our policy was not frozen or fixed in stone; that it was open to change and evolution.” He also became an expert on that most confusing subject, the Law of the Sea. He also got along well with Henry Kissinger. But it was in the area of the Third World that MacEachen played a major role. As an economist he was profoundly distressed at the economic imbalance between the developing countries and the West; as a humanist he was determined to do something about it. But then came the summer, the Gallup poll, the meeting with Trudeau. MacEachen suddenly was more important in Ottawa than in the rest of the world’s capitals.
The place of House Leader in the hierarchy of Ottawa politics is ill-defined. It’s one of those jobs that everyone agrees is important but few really understand. “It’s largely an invisible job,” says MacEachen. “The only time you attract any attention is when you’re in trouble or when you make major mistakes.” Basically the House Leader is the general manager of the government. It is his job to set the legislative schedule, decide what bills will be called,
how much time will be allowed for debate and argue in cabinet against proposals that can hurt the government. There are two ways to play it. One is to be arrogant, tough and dictatorial, the way Donald Macdonald chose in his term as House Leader. The Macdonald approach has its disadvantages. For one thing, parliament can push back. It can stall legislation in a flood of amendments, making the government look out of control. The other method is MacEachen’s way. The hallmark of his approach is persuasion. “This has to be a job where consensus dominates,” he says. “If confrontation dominated, the job would be a living hell.” It becomes a matter of trading off, of promising an amendment here in order to save a clause there. The government House Leader meets at least once a week with his counterparts in the other parties; in the current session they are Stanley Knowles of the NDP, Walter Baker of the Conservatives and Léonel Beaudoin of the Social Credit. Whatever is said in these meetings is off the record. Each leader is bound to keep whatever promises he makes at them. If one of them goes back on his word, his credibility and effectiveness with the others are severely impaired. It is known universally that a deal made with MacEachen is a deal made.
He showed he could do the job during the minority parliament when he managed to gain the support of the NDP without seeming to put the Liberal Party in bed with David Lewis—and kept the Tories mad at the NDP for going along. A textbook example was the bill to reform the income tax law. It took weeks of meetings with the other House leaders, persuading, arguing, some shouting, to get it ready. He phrased the bill so that the NDP could vote for reductions in personal income tax and against lower tax rates for some corpora-
tions. Because of the way he framed the corporate tax cuts, the Tories had no choice but to vote for them. The Tories were mad, the NDP was sanctimonious and MacEachen was happy. Back at the job again, he will take a similar tack. With one difference. It is MacEachen who is in full charge of the government’s business, not the nameless people in the Prime Minister’s Office. By making a complete hash of the cabinet shuffle, the PMO has effectively isolated itself from the cabinet and from the business of the House. MacEachen intends to see that it stays that way, with the PMO playing, for once, by his rules. (Less than two months after the cabinet shuffle, MacEachen had won back the two jobs he wanted so much to keep: co-chairmanship of the North-South Conference and ultimate responsibility for CIDA.) It is some consolation. At a reception for Israel’s foreign minister Yigal Allon, MacEachen was asked by Professor Max Cohen of McGill University how he liked going back to his old job. “Max,” MacEachen replied, “how did you feel about going back into the classroom for the twentieth time using the same old notes?”
Thanksgiving Weekend in the kingdom of Allan MacEachen. The rain is starting to come now and MacEachen has to get back to work. He has been secluded up here for a week preparing for the opening of the new parliament. He mentions the names of three or four more Scottish singers, talks a bit about Scottish independence and shows the visitors his office. It’s a tiny place where he conducts “clinics” for his constituents.
“If you need it next week, good luck,” the mainlander says.
MacEachen says: “Who the hell knows anything about politics anyway?”