0

My first year as Prime Minister

How did the job measure up to Pierre Trudeau’s own expectations? Was it frustrating? Did he find Canada impossible to govern?


 

Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives.
Learn more or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.

One year ago Canadians elected a new prime minister in an atmosphere alive with expectation. How has the job measured up to Pierre Trudeau’s own expectations? Has it been frustrating? What has he achieved? Does he find Canada impossible to govern? He gives candid answers in response to questions from Maclean’s Editor Charles Templeton

I AM FREQUENTLY ASKED which of my official duties I enjoy most. The answer is two, each almost equally. One is chairing a good cabinet meeting and the other is sitting in the House of Commons either when specific legislation is being debated or during the question period. Perhaps the latter is the more enjoyable. I don’t mean to say that it is not sometimes tedious and sometimes embarrassing, what with the questions leveled at us and the answers we give. And perhaps the presence now of so many people in the galleries and so many schoolchildren coming to see parliamentary democracy at work and obliging us to keep on our toes is part of the enjoyment. When I go into the House at two o’clock there is always a sense of exhilaration. But a good cabinet meeting on a good subject is also very interesting. There you see strong men with great experience in politics or in other fields debating a question and arriving at a conclusion. This is exciting, too.

The aspect of my official duties I like the least is, I suppose, sometimes not having enough time to get through my paper work or my correspondence. It’s not that it is boring, but it is a bit frustrating to find there is a lack of time and perhaps even a lack of human capacity to use that time. I have not had adequate time either for the reading and thinking I would like to do.

I am reconciled to this, however, because I have told myself that the first year will be one of putting the mechanism in working order and getting the right people in the right places. We are nearing the end of that phase now and soon there will be more time to reflect, to read, to meditate and also to spend hours completely away from the government, in sports or out in the country.

I enjoy the business of government. There is no other job I would rather do than the one I am doing now. But I would prefer, naturally, that the job I am doing would give me more time for sports, for reflection, for reading. Even so, there are many opportunities for recreation that arise, even as part of my job.

Take last summer when I spent three of four days in Stratford with part of my staff and a couple of ministers. We spent the days hammering out policy and laying plans for future action, and in the evening we went to the theatre or to a concert or met with friends. Occasionally, we went swimming. This is a good way of doing things. Some of my dinner parties are much like that. They're part of my job — in the sense that it’s important for a prime minister to meet various and representative people in the community — but they’re very enjoyable, particularly when we get down to important points of discussion, whether it be on external affairs or business or labor problems or the arts, this is enjoyable.

WE BEGAN OUR FIRST YEAR with a set of priorities. I had spelled them out during the election campaign. I don't want to repeat here the slogans of One Canada and a Just Society but, in substance, they indicated that our priorities were related to the creating of a united country by (a) doing what we could to correct regional disparities and (b) solving the French-English language problem. Another priority was economic growth. Another was peace in the world and our participation in it. In these four areas we have laid the groundwork for progress and we have made real progress.

For instance, in the language area we have reached the consensus we talked about at the last federal-provincial conference. And we have brought a federal language bill into the House. Moreover, I think we’ve helped the French-speaking Canadian to realize that he is well represented in Ottawa and that he could be even more strongly represented. In other words, he now knows he doesn’t have to look to his provincial government as his spokesman in all things. He can have faith in the federal system.

On economic matters we have, I believe, begun to fulfill our priorities in that we have brought confidence back to the economy. We faced some tough strikes last summer — the mail strike, the grain-handlers’ strike, the Seaway strike — and we’ve settled them. We’ve prevented others from happening. And we’ve done this within the general guidelines, guidelines that have set a limit to uncontrolled inflation, that have restored confidence in the economy, that have reduced the rate of price increase and that have increased productivity per man hour.

In the fourth area, our place in the world, our contributions to a peaceful and just world society are, I think, best illustrated by the decision we made on NATO, by our reassessment of our foreign policy, by our decision to move to recognize Red China, our new policies concerning South America and Europe and so on. All these are actions that may not be all that original but they just hadn’t been done over the past 10, 15 or 20 years. At least we’ve been able to take these steps and this is gratifying.

WE HAVE been able, I think, to establish in the mind of the public that problems can be solved by government. There is still much criticism of what we do or do not do. I think we were building up, in the early part of the decade, to the feeling that the government in Ottawa could do little, that it was the provincial governments that were becoming strong, and that the federal government would never be able to do anything but muddle through. I believe we have re-established confidence in the possibility of governing a great country. Whether we have received plaudits all the time is another matter. What is important is that the feeling of disenchantment with the process of government has passed. It may exist from time to time with such and such a decision by the prime minister or his ministers, but that is secondary. If we make the wrong decisions we can correct them, but if the people are disenchanted with parliamentary democracy and with our federal system, this is very serious. It is this disenchantment that I think we have overcome.

When we came to office I was, of course, acutely aware that there were great expectations abroad in the country, despite the fact that during the campaign I did whatever I could to tone them down and to tell the people that we weren’t magicians and that we weren’t Santa Claus. It is a fact that we did create great expectations. That is, in part, the name of the game of politics during an election. People are enthusiastic. They want to participate. They create expectations for themselves.

But one thing we didn’t do was make promises of a monetary nature. We said we’d try to reform our laws, and so on, but we didn’t promise bridges or harbors or ports and all the rest. On the contrary, we said there would be some tough decisions to be taken, and we’ve taken them. We have made decisions that should have been taken years ago — those related to the post office, for instance. We’ve made tough decisions in cutting back winter works and in curtailing other expenditure programs. I repeat: it is almost inevitable that in an election, with all the excitement and the volunteer activity that goes with it, there should be great expectations, but the responsibility of government between elections is to administer the country and not to try to keep expectations at election pitch. I think we’ve administered fairly well.

If I were to summarize my feelings on my first year in office I would say it has been a year in which I have had the satisfaction of seeing the government gradually take control of the mechanism of politics. There is now the feeling that the machinery is operating well. We have instituted reforms in parliament, making it more efficient under the new rules. We have brought about reforms in the cabinet committee system. We have allocated funds to the Opposition so that they may play their role better. We have restructured the administration by setting up new departments, departments more functionally attuned to the jobs to be done. We have named several new deputy ministers. Beyond that, we have reorganized the machinery of government in general.

Much of this progress, I suppose, is due to the fact that we have a strong mandate from the people. The previous governments were minority governments and there had been a fairly long period during which control could not easily be asserted and where a backlog of business had built up. It was a period during which many basic reforms couldn’t be brought in because the Opposition, more than the government, was able to control the kind of priorities that should be established. We have gone from that situation to the present one. We have tackled problems. We have, if I may put it in this way, cleaned up the backlog of the past. We have caught up with the process of government.

THE QUESTION OF French-English relations, which has preoccupied Canadians for some years, is, I believe, intensifying in kind and diminishing in scope. I mean by this that a focal point of discontent has now been created through the formation of a separatist political party with René Lévesque and Gilles Grégoire at the head. There is now a focal point for the discontent and, in that sense, it is now possible for people to focus their activities, to concentrate on one instrument. In that sense there has been an intensification of the problem, but in terms of the gravity of the situation I would say it has diminished. The very fact that this focal point now exists has identified a lot of the quasi-separatist, quasi-independent feelings that existed all over the map and that expressed themselves in very inarticulate ways.

Now that it has become a focal point, the separatist party will have to put up or shut up, and it’s not putting up very much. It is being asked how it can solve this problem or that and generally the answer is either they don’t know or wait and see.

Is there a viable possibility that Quebec will separate from Canada? That depends on how Canadians conduct their affairs in the future. I am not speaking so much of the federal government — because I think we have shown leadership in this field; it will depend on what the other provinces do, on what all Canadians do to remove the causes of separatism. Nationalism is always produced by some form of dissatisfaction with a regime and, whether it be in Canada or elsewhere, it stems from the failure to resolve certain problems, problems that create such sentiments as the desire for separatism. I think we are demonstrating at the federal level that we can solve the problems.

But without referring to any specific level of government, we still have some distance to go to destroy the root causes of separatism. However, we are making progress. I think it is an indication of the wisdom and the maturity of the Canadian people generally that there has been no backlash to the excesses in violence of certain Quebec elements in the past several years and in recent months. The Canadian people should remain patient, should be willing to recognize the errors of the past and to accommodate themselves to a bilingual state. I think what we are seeing is very encouraging, and this is why I believe the overall danger is diminishing rather than increasing.

THERE IS ANOTHER regional problem: a disaffection with the east in western Canada, and it is a problem of consequence. It has grown to significant proportions over the past several years. I take some comfort from a recent Gallup Poll that showed that there is probably more confidence in the federal government in the west than in other parts of Canada. Nevertheless, I see it as a problem of great import. If there has been any progress it has been in the past several months.

At the federal-provincial conference in February we heard the specific things the western premiers were saying, the things they demanded and for which they demanded redress. We have applied our minds to these things and are continuing to do so. Committees of the constitutional conference have begun to discuss the solutions to the problems they raised related to what we should do with the spending power and the taxing power, and so on. I have had meetings with some western premiers in which, we sat down and said: let’s try to delineate the problems and see what the limits of the solution may be insofar as the federal government is concerned. I wouldn’t say that the discontent in the west is receding, but I am saying that it is becoming more clearly articulated and therefore more subject to solutions.

INSOFAR AS THE procedure of constitutional review is concerned, the next move is up to the provinces. We have put to them certain schemes for limiting the federal spending power, certain rules of the game that we would spell out and to which we would seek constitutional agreement. At the federal-provincial conference in February we were able for the first time to come to grips, not with the solution, but with the problem.

Until now many of the governments in Canada — indeed, much of the electorate — have taken the line that the federal government has too much; let her give more to the provinces and everything will be solved. I think we’ve been able to demonstrate that it's not as simple as that. Expenditures of all governments of Canada have been growing faster than revenues; therefore, the federal government cannot solve this problem by just giving more money to the provinces. It needs more money, too. We have begun to come to grips with the problem in this area and we are now in the process of trying to control or de-escalate the speed of the increase in expenditures.

AS FOR THE entrenchment of language rights, I have to be optimistic. If I didn't believe in the realization of such goals, I don’t suppose I’d be able to stay in this job because my conception of federalism includes the achievement of such goals. If I felt they were not possible, I doubt that I could be like Sisyphus and eternally try to roll my rock up to the top of the hill.

I am optimistic and I do think that progress was made over the past year. You merely have to count the number of provinces that have made very definite progress in terms of increased protection for the French language in the schools and in recognizing the two official languages in the legislatures. Six governments of 11 now recognize both French and English as the official languages of their legislatures.

There has been a tremendous increase in the enrollment of federal civil servants in bilingual, in French courses.

I am optimistic. We are moving and I think we are moving relatively fast. It’s a pity we started so late in our history.

THE ROLE OF THE Opposition is an important one and I do not wish here to embark on a judgment of their performance; I’d rather leave that to the Canadian electorate. I do think, however, that it is now more important than ever for the Opposition to present realistic alternatives, especially on fundamental questions. I don’t think that at this sophisticated stage in our democracy people conceive of the Opposition as merely a tool with which to find scandals in the ranks of the government or to level criticism or jibes at specific actions. I think the Opposition will more and more be called upon to suggest alternatives, which means spelling out their own policy rather than merely attacking ours.

The Canadian public is participating in the discussion of many of the major issues. Academics are participating, editorial writers, newspapers and the magazines are arguing for certain courses of action and, I think, more and more the Opposition will also have to state its priorities and its solutions to specific problems.

A kind of game has been going on for a long while in the democracies where opposition parties criticize the government for raising taxes and at the same time call for vastly increased expenditures in various fields. I think this kind of game is gone and done with, and it’s a good thing.

AS FAR AS OUR HOPES for more participatory democracy are concerned, this is, perhaps the area in which we have still the most progress to make. I don’t think this government and this parliament have come to grips with the question of how a parliamentary democracy evolves given the much greater degree of sophistication, knowledge and information of the electorate today. The proliferation of the media of communication now permits you to know instantly what is happening in all the four corners of the earth, to know instantly what is being decided in Ottawa and what the arguments are for it. The electorate is much more sophisticated.

Speaking for our own party, the level of members of parliament is higher than it has ever been. The members of parliament are much more enlightened and more willing to do the job. Cabinet ministers are more informed than they have ever been; the cabinet-committee structures permit us to handle a much greater volume of work. Everybody is doing more but parliament is going on much as it has in the past.

To be more specific, we haven’t yet found out exactly what the new role of the member of parliament should be. Serving his constituents — fine, this has to be done. But the member of parliament now is much more sophisticated and we will have to find ways in which he can participate much more in governmental decisions or in Opposition criticism.

We have done something on this by increasing the role of the parliamentary committee and by forming caucus committees and permitting members of parliament to specialize in various areas, but we have not solved the question of total participation. This involves also a restructuring of the Liberal Party, which we are now working on, and which entails a very involved set of mechanisms. It includes my office regional desk, permitting the public to be tuned in or plugged in to my office. We’ve set up what we call “troikas,” or consultative committees whereby a member of the provincial caucus, a member of cabinet and a member of the Liberal Federation meet every week to go over issues, policy decisions and other things and make sure that the input is fed into my office and into cabinet. The mechanisms are there. But it will be some time before the machinery is rolling at high gear.

The increased sophistication of the electorate relates also to young people. Marshall McLuhan has helped us all to realize a lot of things in this area; how a child of three or four learns things on television which we learned only when we were 18 or 19. I’m not thinking necessarily of events, I’m thinking of images. They see pictures of fighting and dying. They are aware of wars abroad and great events happening everywhere in the world.

Young people today are much more sophisticated in political terms than we were at their age. This sophistication has led them to want to participate to a much greater degree. I often think the term “drop out” as it is applied to many of our youth is exactly the wrong one. They are not dropping out, they are dropping in on society. They are letting us know they want to have a part in this world and in the decisions that order the world and their destinies.

In this sense, I’m very concerned about the role youth will be playing. It is extremely important that those in authority — whether it be in the state or in the university or in the home or in the corporations — dialogue with young people so that the values they are developing for themselves do not develop in isolation but are constantly being tested against the values in which we believe.

I would hope that in this dialogue there will be some acceptance and some rejection of each other’s ideas but, at least, there will not be two different worlds, two different sets of values.

Have my relations with the press deteriorated? I would say they have not, although it’s possible their relations with me have deteriorated somewhat. There may still be in some members of the press a state of pique over the argument we had in London about, not my private affairs, but the private affairs of people I go out with. I don’t think too much remains of that. But perhaps the honeymoon is over in another sense: they have moved from the excitement of the election period to the administration period, which is one of more dull routine and a long-haul approach to solutions; in that sense, I think the press is less excited about our government than it was in the election period.

I said recently in Toronto that good government doesn't make news. This is, of course, a paradox and like all paradoxes has to be explained. Generally speaking, a good crisis or a good scandal or a division in cabinet with ministers resigning or a good fight in parliament makes more news than no strikes or no violence or no resignations of ministers. It doesn’t mean that good government is necessarily dull government. Good government is often engaged in solving crises, but, more important, in preventing crises from arising. If you prevent a crisis from arising, the people don’t see it and there is no news.

If we can set up the machinery to foresee where areas of tension will develop and solve crises before they arise, that doesn't make good news but it makes for good government. . .

Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.


 

Sign in to comment.