The last of the red-hot liberals: Bryce Mackasey tilts with the corporate giants

Robert Lewis August 1 1976

The last of the red-hot liberals: Bryce Mackasey tilts with the corporate giants

Robert Lewis August 1 1976

The last of the red-hot liberals: Bryce Mackasey tilts with the corporate giants

Robert Lewis

When it comes to singing his own praises, Bryce Mackasey exhibits a furor loquendi that some of his colleagues find irritating. In an average day, on his own voluble testimony, Mackasey can move the mail and salvage the Olympic coin program as Postmaster General, and as Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs protect the little people. Then after dinner he defends the unemployed, relates to Bay Street barons and preserves national unity. But if he is more braggadocio than Brahmin, Mackasey is also perhaps the most popular federal politician of the day and certainly the only progressive with any national following. In contrast to the 27 grey men and one woman in Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet, tending to ministerial minutiae like chipmunks in a log end, Mackasey is a bold, brawling mandrill. He can be reckless, emotional and disorganized, but with Jean Marchand now gone he is the only minister with any flair or public passion.

Whether Trudeau tolerates the irascible Mackasey because he is a conscience in cabinet or simply a counterweight to the conservatives is far from clear. Nevertheless, Mackasey has been able to erect a platform from which he can launch his high-flying causes. Like Icarus, he tempts the gods—although he may be about to defy something much more temporal: the Canadian big business establishment. If he is still Minister of Consumer Affairs after the anticipated cabinet shuffle this fall he will be responsible for bringing in legislation to limit corporate monopolies, mergers and other practices that discriminate against small entrepreneurs and make the Canadian economy less independent. The competition policy, along with revisions of the Bank Act understudy by Finance Minister Donald Macdonald, will be central elements in Trudeau’s “new society.” In 1971, the last time the government tried to make free enterprise more competitive, vested interests mounted a furious lobby which cowed thenconsumer minister Ron Basford and his colleagues, and ultimately the legislation was withdrawn. Mackasey, however, has already started meeting with major business leaders in Toronto and other cities to make it clear that if he has his way there will not be another retreat.

The mood between the government and industrialists is not promising. Trudeau, in the mold of a European style socialist, harbors a distrust of bankers and businessmen, which is reciprocated in the private clubs of the nation where the standard line is, “Trudeau has to go.” One of the people

working quietly behind the scenes on the side of corporate might is ex-finance minister John Turner, whose newfound friends in industry have never been troubled by the evident lack of competition in the Canadian marketplace (from the CPR in Western Canada to the Irving newspaper monopoly in New Brunswick).

Turner already is spreading the word in Consumer Affairs that Mackasey, who is not a lawyer, is not equipped to handle the new legislation. It is a message designed to provoke the ire of Mackasey, who once shared a cramped Commons office with Turner when the two were freshmen MPs from English Montreal and chafed as Turner’s star rose faster than his own.

Mackasey is carrying his fight on two levels. In his meetings with businessmen, he says the government is anxious to consult with them and to avoid unworkable laws. He acknowledges the need to generate corporate wealth so it can be better redistributed, but he also warns that this time vested interests would be well advised to work with the government, not against it. At the same time, he is building within the Liberal Party a case for bold action. In a remarkably soulful series of recent speeches to Liberal audiences in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec, he has warned that the party is in danger of losing its principles by turning to the right in search of votes. “It’s tempting,” he says, “to stop

fighting with vested groups. But damn it, somebody’s got to stand up for convictions in this country.” For those who “want to cater to right-wing opinion” and “turn the clock back because of the wave of reactionaryism in this country,” Mackasey harks back to Harry Truman’s advice: if voters are given two conservative parties, they’ll elect the real Conservatives. “Trudeau’s ‘new society,’ ” he says, “is the good old-fashioned free enterprise system made to work as it should; with competition to make sure the cartels or monopolies don’t interfere with it; a society where at least everybody will have an income . . . even the lazy,” and where people who work hard can still have “a two-car garage, a summer home and the amenities of life.”

Mackasey’s final card is a threat that if the government’s fall legislative program is not sufficiently progressive, he will leave politics, possibly for a big job in private industry, where he has already put out feelers. On the other hand, politics is Mackasey’s lifeblood, and the likelihood that he will follow through on his threat (at least his fifth since he returned to cabinet in 1974) is remote.

It is distinctly possible that the Trudeau government’s low standing in the country is so profound that it won’t be able to carry support for its competition policies against opposition from big business. And yet digging in on an issue that could be tarted up to convey the appearance of the government defending the little people against big business might just be the only thing that now stands between Trudeau and political oblivion. On the basis of its sorry performance recently, the government has left the feeling that it no longer is in control of events. In fact, it often seems to have set out willingly to alienate every sector of society, one by one. “Once a month,” one member of cabinet says of Trudeau,“he goes crazy.”

The pity is that something as potentially beneficial as more competition in business may have no more promising a future than the Argus. As the debate on competition policy heats up the average Canadian— those mythological figures who rise daily at 7 a.m.—would do well to bear in mind that the free-enterprising North American Way has brought us more than the good life: it has been accompanied by strip developments, a porno-pop culture, benign neglect for minorities (in Wattsand Grassy Narrows), cirrhosis of the liver—and Hans Selye. Now it brings us Bryce Mackasey, who likely will stand in the midst of the storm, where he belongs.