A recluse walks on troubled waters

Ian Anderson March 17 1980

A recluse walks on troubled waters

Ian Anderson March 17 1980

A recluse walks on troubled waters

Ian Anderson

Calum Kennedy, the Scottish singer, likes to tell a story about his friend Allan MacEachen, Canada’s finance minister. The two were cruising the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in search of the croft that had been home to MacEachen’s forefathers. As the seas grew heavy MacEachen turned to Kennedy on the deck and remarked, “Isn’t it fortunate that I love danger?”

MacEachen found the croft, only its chimney standing after 150 years of disuse. It is a story that has some meaning now. His love of danger certainly will be tested in the heavy going of the finance ministry of Pierre Trudeau’s resurrected government. After 23 years in Parliament, the enigmatic Cape Breton Island bachelor seems bent on winning public recognition for his talents. It has been a long climb back from when his abilities fell short of his ambition in 1968. He had been humiliated in the run for the Liberal leadership, his health was on the rocks, and deaths in his family drove him to despondency. With his quiet tenacity he began to rebuild and, 13 years later, at 58, Allan Joseph Mac-

Eachen, after Trudeau, is the most powerful politician in the country. And the man his constituents call Allan J. is going to take centre stage this time.

MacEachen is a very private man. His close friends are few and they tend to fall into three groups: Liberal cronies, old Cape Breton pals and the people with whom he shares his passion for Gaelic music, literature and history. Few of his friends seem to mingle with each other and none claims to know “the real Allan.” “There’s always a barrier you never cross,” says someone who has known him for 20 years.

In Ottawa, MacEachen has the reputation of a recluse, a man devoted to his work. “His greatest asset is his integrity,” says a longtime adviser. “He has no interest outside politics, no ties to corporations. He has never used politics to feather his own nest.” But few in Ottawa have attended one of his celebrated ceilidhs, Gaelic for “gathering.” He puts up a tent, hires a bagpiper and fiddler and invites up to 200 friends to his Cape Breton hideaway on Lake Ainslie—“L.A.” to his staff. And few have shared the long sessions in Scotland where the pipes wail and, MacEachen says, you “mix the whisky with

morning dew.” These trips to Scotland came to a climax in 1977 when he opened the Highland Games with a speech in Gaelic, a language he still uses when politicking through his riding.

Danger, dancing and Gaelic scholarship are not the things most Canadians know MacEachen for. His image is blurred, in part by his own choosing. He has survived 10 elections because he understands the contrariness of his Scots-blooded constituents. “You’re not held in any great esteem in Cape Breton,” says Senator Robert Muir, who held a Cape Breton seat 22 years. “Politics is a great leveller. You’re there to work for them, and they know it.”

“If you were born in Cape Breton in the 1920s or 1930s, you’d have a clear idea of what makes Allan MacEachen £ work,” says John Young, a Halifax 5 lawyer and former MacEachen assisis tant. MacEachen is not fond of recalling ? his youth in Inverness as the third son ^ of a poor Cape Breton miner. He reÍ members the “wasted time” of a bright I lad who “could have been reading, adío vancing my knowledge.” The driving force for him was his mother, Annie. “She wanted to get us educated,” he says. She sent two of her three sons to university. When MacEachen left, he says, “I said, ‘Well, thank God I left that place; I’ll never go back.’ ” But he has kept the small company house in which they lived and he has represented the town in Ottawa for 23 years.

MacEachen’s scholarship took him to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, close to Cape Breton. It was then a hotbed of social activism under Father Moses Coady, the one man MacEachen credits with being a major influence on him. Coady’s “People’s University” spread adult education to fishermen, miners, farmers. He helped start co-operatives and credit unions. He opened MacEachen’s eyes. “I learned there was a possibility after all to change the world,” MacEachen says, adding dryly: “And I have been trying to do that ever since. But it is true that was a profound impact on me, that here was a world of ideas and activity that was revealed through the window of the university. That indicated the conditions under which people live could be changed and improved, and it wasn’t necessary to accept things as inevitable.”

MacEachen was a professor of economics at age 25, after studying in Toronto, Chicago and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Out of his graduating class of 48, a dozen became priests. His friends describe him as a devout Catholic, though he jokes about skipping the

priesthood because “my lack of spirituality was recognized at an early date.” He is known to carry a rosary, although one intimate says MacEachen was painfully torn by Pope Paul’s stand against birth control. As external affairs minister MacEachen had been keenly interested in Third World affairs and had concluded that birthrates had to be controlled.

At heart, though, MacEachen practises the art of the possible. “He’s the kind of person who recognizes that you can’t have radical change quickly in this country,” says Young. “If you want change, you have to build toward it, like MacEachen did when he brought in medicare.”

When, in 1968, he decided to run for the leadership, Pearson warned him against it. The Atlantic delegates were split among himself, Trudeau and Robert Winters. One of his advisers at the time remembers the debacle: “He went into the thing not expecting to win. He was supposed to represent a certain cause [the party’s left wing]. Unfortunately, he got caught up in it.”

It was the nadir of his career. His mother died early in the year, he was in debt because of the race, the strain got to him in the form of ulcers, his political reputation was in tatters. His star had fallen. “Conventions are fairly ruthless operations,” he says now. “They are not

interested in anything but winners.” Out of the ashes of 1968, MacEachen built a position of enormous power in

his party. His Commons tactics kept Trudeau in power through the minority Parliament of 1972-74. Before the session, MacEachen prepared a battle plan for the government’s first 15 weeks, the period he thought would be most crucial. The paper was pure MacEachen. “He’d make a great chess player,” says John Young. “He can plan a move on Monday knowing where it will lead him on Friday.” His staff has learned that his moodiness is usually no more than preoccupation when he “takes a problem and worries it around,” says an aide. But his Scottish blood is known to thicken with boredom and leave MacEachen melancholy, remote, like the old description of the Highlanders in winter—“with no diversions to amuse them, they sit brooding by their fire till the legs and thighs are scorched to an extraordinary degree.”

It was MacEachen who was among the last to see Trudeau before he came out of “retirement” last December. He told Trudeau he had a “duty and an obligation” to lead the party since it was he who had engineered the defeat of the Conservative government. He told the same thing in a rousing speech to the caucus. “I believe that the people who got up and stood behind their leader had a leader,” he says. “There was no need to start calling Toronto and Vancouver to find one.” That is probably too bland an assessment of his own role. One Liberal says MacEachen “delivered the caucus to Trudeau with that speech. Some people said it was the best speech he ever made.”

MacEachen had grown infuriated o with what he saw as the arrogance of

the Tories. He had warned Walter Baker, the government House leader, that Baker would have to seek more compromise to keep his minority government afloat. MacEachen himself is said to have succeeded as a diplomat because he always let an adversary “take at least something away from the table. He always let people leave with their pride,” said a former aide. In the closing days of the government, MacEachen says he sensed the Tories “weren’t in control.”

He is still baffled by Baker’s decision to press on with the budget debate on Dec. 13, the night the government fell on a nonconfidence motion keyed to the budget debate. “No one will ever know if it had been put off until the following Monday how people would have reacted after they had gone into their ridings,” MacEachen says. “You know there’s an atmosphere that you have to watch in that House. It is more atmosphere that controls it than issues and that atmosphere was building up.”

MacEachen’s motives through that period have been questioned by at least one close friend. “The more I see of MacEachen helping select the cabinet and being a power broker, the more I wonder if there wasn’t a strategy,” he says. “The essence of politics is, after all, survival. For MacEachen, the best chance of survival was under Trudeau instead of under Donald Macdonald or John Turner.”

MacEachen chaired the Liberal platform committee for the 1980 victory and used his position to help tilt the party back toward the left wing. As finance minister he wants to avoid the charge of

being a “spender,” yet will fight to preserve the income redistribution programs he championed in the 1960s. Accordingly, he doesn’t rule out increased personal taxes, and he says he doesn’t want to increase the budget deficit.

If anyone is needed to offset a freespending MacEachen, it comes in the rumpled corduroy jacket of treasury board president Don Johnston, a fiscal conservative and tax lawyer to Trudeau. “I’m rather fortunate,” says Johnston, “that the financial position of the government is difficult. My colleagues are going to have to recognize quickly that the money isn’t there. We are going to have to do more with less. The times are on my side, as it were.”

MacEachen agrees with Johnston, for his own reasons. “I would think if we are going to make social progress in this country,” he says, “we have got to be sure that the economy is properly managed. That’s why the deficit looms as a concern.”

Until further notice, the international money markets seem willing to give MacEachen the benefit of the doubt. “It was fashionable in the 1960s to spend money on social programs,” reasons a senior bank analyst. “All ambitious politicians did. But because MacEachen is a smart politician, he’ll realize that the No. 2 concern of the average household is inflation. His net fiscal policy will not be any different from the Conservative government’s.”

In one sense MacEachen has lucked into Finance at an opportune time. The

Canadian dollar is growing stronger and increasing revenues from higher oil prices will give MacEachen room to manoeuvre. A graveyard for most politicians, Finance could instead vault MacEachen toward his ultimate ambition, the prime ministership.

Could he win the nomination when he is 62 or 73? “Not the way things are now,” says one senior party official. “But if things go his way over the next few years he could. Remember he’s the last of the people who ran for it in 1968—except Trudeau himself.” Says a MacEachen adviser: “I don’t think there’s any deal between the two about succession. But with the closeness of the relationship, that sort of thing evolves.”

It is typical of MacEachen that when he was minister of external affairs he worked into his schedule a visit to the New Zealand town of Waipu when he was on a Pacific tour. It was to Waipu that a preacher named Norman MacLeod led 800 Cape Breton Scots in 1851, and their descendants still consider Cape Breton their “aúld sod.” At a meeting in Waipu, among relics of Cape Breton, MacEachen spoke in Gaelic and referred to “the invisible and unbreakable bond that links those who have Scottish and Highlander backgrounds,” and afterward he sent postcards to 10 Cape Breton friends. Each bore the same message: “I made it to Waipu.” MacEachen has now made it much further than Waipu. How much further he wants to go is a secret he keeps to himself. What is certain is that he will make it on his own terms. As a Highlander, he would have it no other way.