Anatomy of a comeback

Ian Anderson April 21 1980

Anatomy of a comeback

Ian Anderson April 21 1980

Anatomy of a comeback

Ian Anderson

Allan MacEachen had taken Trudeau’s resignation hard. He was convinced Trudeau could win again. He thought the momentum was building in the House against the infant government of Joe Clark. In a Nov. 19 byelection, the Tories had lost Prince Albert, the old Diefenbaker seat. Then, missing members, Conservative House leader Walter Baker had been embarrassed into postponing a vote on the mortgage tax credit bill, a keystone of Clark’s election platform. To Mac-

On that grey late-autumn day there were no bets being made that Pierre Trudeau would ever again sit on the prime minister's bench in the Commons. He had resigned, under some duress from his party's executive to make up his mind whether he wanted to be an active Opposition leader before they called a spring convention. While he had wanted to fight in the Quebec referendum, and wanted the convention held off to the fall, it was clear Trudeau would not commit himself to a convention 's review of his leadership. He quit instead on Nov. 21. Twenty-one weeks later he would be sitting on the prime minister’s bench listening to the throne speech opening the 32nd session of Parliament.

Beside him would be the same men who 21 weeks earlier had seen their fortunes fly out the window with Trudeau: Marc Lalonde and Allan MacEachen. And he would run the nation's affairs in consultation with the same men who 21 weeks earlier were being shouldered out of the party epicentre: Jim Coutts, Keith Davey and Al Graham.

How did the Liberals ever do it? Maclean’s has recently turned up many fascinating and previously missing pieces of what will go into the record books as one of the most surprising comebacks in Canadian politics.

Eachen that meant Baker was not in control of events; he was vulnerable. Most Liberals were acutely bored in Opposition. And on Dec. 3, the Gallup poll showed the Liberals with a 19-point lead over the Tories.

Into this confluence of events John Crosbie brought down his budget on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 11. He was hardly halfway through reading it before MacEachen was leaning over to Trudeau, his bench mate, and saying the Liberals simply could not support such regressive measures as the 18-cent hike in the gasoline excise tax. Trudeau was noncommittal, but late that night his lieutenant, Lalonde, made a unique appearance at the Liberal finance committee. The group decided to recommend that caucus oppose the budget and support an NDP motion that would in effect be a vote of no confidence in the government. At the end Lalonde surprised everyone when he was asked about two Liberals recuperating in hospital. “We’ll get them out even if we have to use ambulances,” he replied. The whip was on already.

It was a combative Liberal caucus that met Wednesday morning to hear MacEachen say they had to oppose the budget if they ever hoped for credibility as an Opposition. It all seemed simple to the caucus. There was no talk of an election. The members left the meeting with different ideas of what might happen in the unlikely event the government fell. Trudeau would lead them, or there would be a mid-campaign convention, or caucus would select a temporary leader. But most simply believed the Tories would never let themselves get caught without support from the five Social Credit members who gave them a one-vote edge.

MacEachen could say later that perhaps the major factor in the defeat of the Tories was that “some MPs in the caucus meeting really didn’t think through the implications of who was going to lead the party.” For MacEachen it was obvious: Trudeau. But at the caucus meeting it was not he who brought the matter up. “It seems to me there are some things so obvious they need not be articulated,” he says now.

By Wednesday, everyone knew the Tories were short two and probably three members. The Creditistes knew that better than anyone. They feared an election, but the rural party could not support the excise tax and dream of surviving. Its leader, Fabien Roy, announced Wednesday that he would recommend his members “abstain very strongly” unless Crosbie doubled the energy tax credit. There was only one other politician in the press room, MacEachen. He could not suppress a broad smile.

The next morning the Liberal party

executive is waking up to what is happening. President AÍ Graham, back from his Cape Breton home, is furious he had not been consulted on the decision to support the NDP motion. He is mollified by his friend, mentor and fellow islander, Allan MacEachen. Some senior party officials try to stop the juggernaut, but their phone calls are not returned. “We all just sat and watched in horror,” says a senior Liberal. Says another: “Everyone thought it was a lemming-like thing we had done. Some people from Toronto thought the end of the world had come—that we wouldn’t even be able to field a full slate of candidates.”

In Toronto, leadership potentials

Donald Macdonald and John Turner are getting calls through the day from caucus supporters. Neither man is counselling his people to dodge the vote.

At 3 that afternoon, Walter Baker says he will not delay the budget vote. MacEachen and Tom Lefebvre, Opposition whip, are both stunned. “No one will ever know if that vote had been put off until the following Monday how people might have reacted after they had gone into their ridings,” MacEachen said later. “There’s an atmosphere that you have to watch in the House. It is more atmosphere that controls it than it is issues.”

Most Liberals enter the House that evening expecting a deal to be struck with Roy. Most Tories seem to believe the leaderless Liberals would back down. They don’t. At 10:23 the government falls by a vote of 139 to 133. Trudeau seems composed, but one adviser, summoned later to his office, finds him extremely agitated. “I’m not going to do it,” he says. “I’m not going to stay.” He talks of how the party could have a convention, but he is rambling and it seems he has not thought the idea through.

Trudeau is little changed the next

morning when Coutts, Lalonde, MacEachen and Davey visit him at home. He indicates his heart is not with the party, that he still wants to move to Montreal with his children. MacEachen is dismayed. “I really don’t understand it,” MacEachen says on the drive back. “He sees his duty. He knows his duty.” Later MacEachen tells an interviewer: “It seemed to me that when we defeated the government that there was in that act an implicit number of commitments. One was that when Mr. Trudeau led the party in the downfall of the government he had an obligation and a duty to lead us into the election. I don’t think he was unaware of what he was doing.”

MacEachen fed that same line to the Liberal caucus at their jittery 11-hour meeting on Friday. At the morning’s regional caucuses, support for Trudeau had been mixed. Ontario was split down the middle. The West wanted a convention. Quebec and the Atlantic provinces backed Trudeau. In a brief appearance, Trudeau asked the caucus to hold a secret ballot. Those closest to him—MacEachen, Lalonde, Davey—spent the afternoon arguing against that. It would have been a tactical mistake. There would not have been unanimity. Further, it would have given the party executive, meeting the next day, the excuse it needed to have the tally kept secret in order that it could make the final decision on whether Trudeau would be asked to stay on. Those same Trudeau people also argued against holding a convention, saying it was too great a risk. They were backed by Graham, although he had concocted a scheme where five leadership candidates would cross the country in a moving convention, with balloting in different cities and a final tally in Ottawa by late January.

In the keynote speech, MacEachen spoke of Trudeau as the party’s greatest leader and tried to put events into perspective: “I believe the people who got

up and stood behind the leader had a leader,” he summarized later. “There was no need to start calling Toronto or Vancouver for one.”

While the drift had been toward Trudeau, MacEachen made the current irresistible. “He was saying in a sense to us that we were not so stupid as to bring down the government without a clear idea of what we were going to do afterward,” recalled an Ontario MP. “Of course, we were—and we did. But no one was going to admit it.”

MacEachen conveyed the caucus support for Trudeau to the national executive the next day. He had been invited by Graham, although normally such a function should be performed by the caucus chairman, Jacques Guilbeault. Aside from Graham, it seems unlikely that any of the executive knew then the extent of MacEachen’s involvement in the week’s events. While he took some flak, MacEachen carried the day. It was inevitable. The executive could not buck the caucus decision. Scant attention was paid to the travelling convention scheme.

Trudeau debated his future over the next two days before making up his mind on Monday evening to lead the party. Even before his announcement the next morning, the Trudeau campaign headquarters had been rented in his Montreal riding.

The election went as MacEachen, Graham, Coutts and Davey had thought. The West was a lost cause, but Quebec and the Atlantic provinces supported the Liberals. Out of fear for emerging Western power on one side, and Quebec separation on the other, Ontario voted for the man it believed was the best proponent of strong central government. MacEachen and Lalonde got the two most senior cabinet posts, the ones each had made known they wanted: Finance and Energy. Coutts is back as principal secretary. Graham will resign as party president but will no doubt be replaced by a Trudeau loyalist. A move by some party activists to hold the convention this fall has been squashed in favor of a July date. The bloom will still be on the election rose by then, and there will be no time for any dissident elements to organize any grassroots challenge to the power of Trudeau’s staff.

An eloquent reminder of Trudeau’s resurrection came when the new caucus met two weeks ago. Trudeau warned any potential leadership candidates that he would tolerate no politicking until he announced his retirement. He reminded caucus he could help or hinder any leadership candidate immeasurably. No one disagreed with the assertion and no one remarked how preposterous it all would have seemed 21 weeks before.