The right hand of Trudeau

His title is Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, but Jim Coutts’ real job is keeping the Liberals in power

Robert Lewis June 28 1976

The right hand of Trudeau

His title is Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, but Jim Coutts’ real job is keeping the Liberals in power

Robert Lewis June 28 1976

The right hand of Trudeau

His title is Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, but Jim Coutts’ real job is keeping the Liberals in power

Robert Lewis

Living in a province dominated by Social Credit and conservatism, Harry Hays was understandably reticent when the Liberals asked him to carry Lester Pearson’s standard in the 1963 federal election. The former Calgary mayor had never voted Grit, and before he committed himself he wanted the results of a party poll on his prospects. The findings were depressingly bad (more than 50% opposed) but when Hays called Jim Coutts, Pearson’s 24-yearold provincial campaign chairman, and inquired, “How does it look?” Coutts deadpanned: “It looks good, Harry.” On that false hope Harry Hays ran, won and subsequently became Pearson’s minister of agriculture.

Such sangfroid in the face of adversity— and in the cause of Liberalism—is not unusual for Coutts (as in roots), now 38 and approaching his first anniversary as chief of staff (principal secretary is the formal title) in the Prime Minister’s Office or “PMO”, as it is known to admirers and detractors alike. Every day at 9:15 a.m. Coutts meets with Pierre Trudeau and the powerful secretary to cabinet, Michael Pitfield, to plan the day and, indirectly, much of the nation’s future.

Since he joined Trudeau last summer, the Harvard-trained management consultant has had to conjure all the tricks from a bag he has carried cheerfully through the party’s back rooms since his first campaign as a 15-year-old Wunderkind in Nanton, Alberta (60 miles south of Calgary and, as the sign proclaims, home of CANADA’S FINEST DRINKING WATER). On the theory that most elections are won or lost before they start, Coutts, as the PM’S closest political staff adviser, is in effect general manager of the “Committee to Reelect the Prime Minister.” His old and close friend, Senator Keith Davey, has been confirmed as chairman of the next campaign, expected some time in 1978. As a duet, Coutts on the plane and Davey in a hotel room, they helped Trudeau fashion his victory in 1974, and Davey is already contemplating a similar campaign, stressing “leadership,”

against young Joe Clark.

Coutts has settled into his job at a time when he could use some of that fine Nanton water. “Every time they start to do something,” says one venerable Liberal, “they have to get the hoses out.” Trudeau’s party is in a morose and frustrated mood, particularly in Ontario where governments tend to be made and undone. The conventional wisdom is that if an election were held today a dozen MPS from Toronto and its bedroom boroughs would lose their seats. “What really concerns me,” says a normally optimistic party official, “is that we’ve got so many groups mad at us—even immigrants and women who are our traditional supporters.” One active Quebec Liberal observes: “On the basis of our record and performance, we should lose the next election.” A Quebec MP says of Trudeau: “He has 18 months to turn things around or he’s finished.”

Since he left his $200,000-a-year consulting partnership in Toronto, Coutts has tried, with a cherubic ruthlessness, to make the PMO more responsive to politics than to the technostructure, which is run by Pitfield. For instance, when he feared that support was eroding for the Anti-Inflation Board because of its inaction on rising prices, he and a PMO sidekick paid the board a visit, and that evening the AIB announced a rollback on beer prices in Quebec, an item that led off the CBC National News. Since the visit, the AIB has cranked out more decisions on prices. Coutts’ modus operandi is rooted in his conviction that despite the recent scandals and bloopers that have helped plunge the party nine percentage points behind the Conservatives, Trudeau’s reelection depends on the government’s ability to show economic leadership. A former adviser to Robert Stanfield says grudgingly of Coutts: “He’s got his ear to the ground. In pure, crass, amoral terms, it works.” Coutts starts with a willing and still-potent client. Pierre Trudeau’s leadership is not challenged (“He’s so far above everyone else,” notes an Ontario MP) and he is determined to fight the next campaign (“Just watch me,” he says). Recently, the Prime Minister confronted a restless Ontario caucus and asked the MPS to tell him what they had come to Ottawa to accomplish. French Canadians, he suggested, had “fire in the belly” about establishing the francophone presence; what did the Ontarians want in return for their toil, he demanded, beyond grabbing the levers of power? One MP reports that the pitch was not resoundingly received: “Some of them think those levers aren’t so bad at all.” There are Liberals who whisper in dark bars—insisting on anonymity—that

Coutts is part of an Ontario power grab now under way in the Liberal party. Says a former Trudeau staffer, “In the early days Quebec took over the PMO and shunted aside the Toronto power brokers. Now the Ontarians are there and it may be not so much to broaden the PM’S horizons in the

party as to be there for the kill—maybe even to help it along.” Coutts evinces no signs of participating in conspiracy—his admiration for Trudeau runs high—but there is no doubt that his intuitive calling is to the party, not the man. In 23 years of active service he has been an organizer, candidate, a staff aide to Lester Pearson and, before drawing close to Trudeau in 1974, one of the most active workers in keeping the party together after the near-debacle in 1972. As one of Coutts PMO associates puts it: “We’re primarily Liberals first,” with a desire to insure that “when Pierre Trudeau is gone, there will still be a party.” Whether to prepare for the eventual transition to an Anglo leader, or to further his own career or simply to insure Trudeau’s reelection (if not all of the above), Coutts is established now at the vortex of an intricate and largely secret game of power on the Rideau (see box), in which discretion and conservatism in operations are prized. Revealingly, Coutts’ predecessor, Jack Austin, had become embroiled in a public controversy over his promotion of min \ ,g stocks before joining the public service (• had been deputy minister of energy before joining the PMO). Austin’s understanding with Trudeau was that he would leave the office and become head of Petro-Canada, the government’s new energy corporation, but when oil industry executives objected—and then-energy minister Donald Macdonald supported them—Trudeau offered to let Austin remain in the PMO on the condition that he stay for two years. Austin demurred, and Trudeau appointed him to the Senate. (A longtime Coutts associate, Maurice Strong, was then hastily nomina led as Petro-Canada chairman, although the board of directors, whose job it was to name the chairman, had not then been created.)

Coutts’ most striking characteristics, perhaps because of his youthful air, are the ease of his relationships with his seniors and his ability to enlist people in his causes. In his teens, recalls his mother, Alberta, the old folks of Nanton “never saw a child so interested in older people.” In Edmonton, where he got his BA and a law degree by 1961, it was not unusual for other students to help Coutts pack for summer vacations. As his father, Ewart, notes, “He has a facility of getting along with people and making them work for him without them knowing they are doing it.”

In political life, anyway, Nanton came out of the boy early. He was soon cutting senior party officials short at meetings when they rambled. As appointments secretary to Pearson between 1963 and 1966, he cultivated a first-name relationship with the power brokers, adding them to a list of contacts he began developing as the peripatetic president of the Young Liberal Federation of Canada in 1961. During this period Coutts teamed up with Keith Davéy, then national director of the party. It is a rare day now when the two back roomers do not confer.

Coutts is a proverbial optimist, a characteristic that was shaped by the do-goodism of community-minded Nanton, founded by the CPR in 1892. Its population of 1,100 has not grown significantly since he attended Consolidated School # 51. In Nanton nobody was really rich or poor and life revolved around work, the weather, box socials, dances, sports, the lodges and numerous associations. Coutts’ father moved to Nanton in 1925 as an accountant in Harvey Cook’s garage and became a community activist (as public works chairman his budget the year Jim was born was $ 1,500). Eventually Coutts père moved on to real estate and insurance sales, before retiring

in 1966. In addition to caring for her two children (a daughter, Jean, is married to a Calgary geologist and is the mother of four), Alberta Coutts worked in a variety of local shops and played piano for the silent movies at Cuthbertson’s Rex Theatre.

Coutts was an achiever and organizer from the beginning. He worked at the Broxy Theatre as a projectionist and at the Nanton News as a floor sweeper, typesetter and occasional social columnist. He was active in amateur drama and is best remembered for a female impersonation in which, to the tune of Red Hot Mama, he strutted in red dress and high heels. Another endeavor that betrayed his nascent

hustle was a three-tent circus he erected in the backyard with the family bed linen. The neighborhood kids paid admission, although the only live performance was by the family dog. Unprompted, he sent the proceeds to the children’s hospital in Calgary. Coutts’ most vivid pubescent recollection is of the day, August 10, 1953, that Dorothy Dowhan, a schoolteacher and News reporter, got him a summer job working for the Liberals in the local (and losing) federal election campaign. Ever after, Coutts’ loyalty was tinged by the rec-

ollection that the Liberals gave him his first chance, which no doubt accounts for his ambitious penchant for party recruiting today.

At the University of Alberta, law was his subject but Liberalism was his major. He was “prime minister” in the mock parliament in which Joe Clark served as Tory opposition leader. At McLaws & Company in Calgary he was required to spend an extra three months articling law because he was away from the firm so much politicking (Clark dropped law for similar reasons).

Roy Deyell, who recruited Coutts to the firm, observes that “Jim really got his law degree as an educational process.” A senior Tory who ended up opposing Coutts in local campaigns, Deyell goes on to say that “Coutts had a feel for what he was doing, although he wasn’t a bitter partisan. A lot of people in politics have an axe to grind, but they don’t make very good bedmates.” After leaving Pearson, Coutts went to Harvard for an MBA and shouldered his way into Professor Richard Neustadt’s seminar on Presidential power. There he

listened attentively as Henry Kissinger detailed how his blunt policy advice to John Kennedy resulted in his banishment from Camelot. In New York, as a consultant for McKinsey & Company, he participated in a study to reorganize John Lindsay’s chaotic mayoral office—a period that embraced crises in the jails, streets and slums of Harlem, and his discovery of blues singer Mabel Mercer at the St. Regis.

A bachelor, Coutts recently moved into a tiny-perfect Victorian-era farmhouse which he has tastefully redecorated and where he seeks refuge on weekends. Weekdays, he lives in a one bedroom apartment at Ottawa’s Inn of the Provinces, part of the “blind trust” owned by William Teron, the former developer who is now chief mandarin of the urban affairs ministry. Coutts is a theatregoer and a collector of Canadian art. At a recent housewarming, 60 friends listened (some uneasily) as a trio played chamber music. At another party Sergiu Stefanschi of the National Ballet scarred Coutts’ new pine floor with an impromptu version of Swan Lake. Coutts’ own forte is impersonating politicians, one of his classics being a rambling Paul Martin celebrating the joys of his old Windsor riding. One of his close friends, MP John Roberts, describes Coutts as “much more civilized than the image of party hack that’s hung on him. He has a gift for friendship that has nothing to do with politics.”

Back at the office, the assessments are sometimes less charitable. “He can hack and chop,” says one of the dozen staffers who have left, or been squeezed out, since Coutts took over the PMO. “He has a management consulting approach which presumes that if something has to be done for the good of the team, the victim will understand.” Several other aides complain that, under Coutts, their access to information is more limited—which, as one observes, “matches Coutts’ proclivities.”

Coutts is praised, in the words of one cabinet minister, for “bringing more political advice to the Prime Minister who is very dependent on his intellectual friends.” He has tried to make the office less structured than it once was, with few senior officials now doing a greater variety of chores (see box). He views the operation as a “switchboard” to keep the Prime Minister in touch and as a service centre to cope with daily needs. In that respect the Coutts era evokes a certain feeling of déjà vu: after the near-disaster in the 1972 election, MP Martin O’Connell used roughly the same words when he took over from Trudeau’s first principal secretary, Marc Lalonde, now minister of health, who was criticized for walling the PM off from political realities.

Last year the PMO’S budget was $ 1.4 million for 82 employees (not counting Trudeau’s household staff of 10), compared to $900,800 for 85 staffers in 1970. (Ontario Premier William Davis spent $ 1.4 million for 58 employees in 1975.) The

largest component in the PMO is the Correspondence unit, whose 38 clerks, typists and writers process the 150,000 pieces of mail the Prime Minister receives annually (including 2,000 requests for photos). Trudeau is given a scientifically selected sample of 25 letters per week. For routine responses on topical issues such as the seal hunt (more than 1,500 letters between January and April), there is a mechanical signing hand and three AES-90 processors whose computer-driven keyboards crank out coded responses at a rate of 500 words per minute.

Press relations are less susceptible to technology, as Coutts discovered in a six-

month search for a press secretary that ended in February with the appointment of 48-year-old Richard O’Hagan. Significantly, Coutts did not offer the job to the acting secretary, former Time and Maclean’s reporter Courtney Tower, a longstanding advocate within the PMO of greater candor in dealings with the press. O’Hagan, a former Toronto Telegram reporter, was recruited from MacLaren Advertising by Walter Gordon to work for Pearson, whom he served as press secretary before landing a cushy appointment in 1966 as minister counselor for information in the Canadian embassy in Washington. Coutts pried him away from Washington

by broadening the scope of the PMO job (Special Adviser on Communications) and by appealing to loyalty at a time when the Liberal ship is listing.

Like Coutts, O’Hagan is an old pro at orchestrating the news; some reporters say it can be a pleasure to be misled by him. But O’Hagan does bring to the job a commitment to more information and a concern that Trudeau is partly responsible for his sour relationship with the Ottawa press corps. The jury is still out on whether he can change Trudeau’s dealings with reporters, but already there are hints of his presence:

Item: At the opening game of the Stanley Cup finals at the Montreal Forum, Trudeau’s smiling presence with Margaret and children generated valuable, primetime TV exposure. In fact, Trudeau’s interest in hockey is doubtful since, a week later, he did not know which team was ahead in the Montreal-Philadelphia series.

Item: In April Joe Clark’s office announced that the Tory leader would hold a press conference at 10 a.m. to announce his “shadow cabinet.” After that announcement, Trudeau’s office scheduled a briefing on patriation of the constitution—for 9:30 a.m. the same day.

Coutts acts injured about complaints that the entire 1974 election campaign was engineered with similar slickness. He traveled with Trudeau, keeping him away from reporters and the confrontations that Trudeau seems to relish but in which he tends to be goaded into flamboyant outbursts (such as the “shove it” he recently directed at one reporter who was badgering him in Ottawa).

The test ahead is whether Coutts can persuade Trudeau to temper his shootfrom-the-hip style. He seems to sense reluctantly that the days of Socratic dialogues with Canadians are over. He was frustrated by the outcry that attended his “new society” musings last year, when some of his own MPS, as he put it, “freaked out.” Despite cautions from his handlers, he must be weighing the merits of a return to his freewheeling form in the next election. He may decide, in the end, to trust his pugilistic instincts over the tactics suggested by the back roomers. “Jim’s problem,” a friend concludes of Coutts, “is how much the PM listens to him.” In large mea -sure, their still developing relationship will determine to what extent Trudeau listens to the rumblings within the party. Since Coutts took over the PMO, a series of informal gatherings of Liberals and sympathizers have been taking place across the country. The tone reflects the uncertainties of party regulars about the future of Liberalism and, in their eyes, of the nation. One participant in a Toronto group was asked recently if he got involved because he wanted to help steer Trudeau’s “new society” along conventional lines. In an apt reflection of where things seem to stand, he replied: “I want to find out what the direc-