Trudeau's legacy: economic woes and a charter of rights

PET's speeches skewered sovereignists during the 1980 referendum campaign

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The Gazette, Monday, April 7, 2008

Forty years ago yesterday, the Liberal Party of Canada voted for generational change by choosing Pierre Trudeau as the first leader in Canada's second century.

He was a singular figure, different in style and substance from any leader the country had ever seen. He was unconventional, almost non-conformist. Sponsoring a divorce bill as justice minister, he declared "the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation." Asked about the possibility of legalizing marijuana, he airily mused about "some pot in every chicken."

More seriously, in his speech to the leadership convention at Ottawa's Civic Centre, he spoke of "a just society," which would become one of the touchstones of his 15 years in office. He was also the only leadership candidate to refer to the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King, the previous evening in Memphis.

It has been lost in time that the convention was actually a close-run thing. Though Trudeau led from the beginning, it took four ballots before he defeated Robert Winters in a runoff, and then with only 54 per cent of the vote.

The Liberals were not only choosing a 48-year-old swinger who drove a Mercedes convertible and wore a leather coat, they were also choosing a Quebecer to turn back a rising current of Quebec nationalism. In other words, not only a favourite son, but a proponent of orthodox federalism. To those who said he had been sent to put Quebec in its place, he replied that its "place is in Canada." Robert Cliche, the leading Quebec socialist of the day, merrily called Trudeau "Quebec's revenge on Canada."

Two generations later, there is much to consider in Trudeau's legacy. There's no doubt that he motivated a new generation of Quebecers and Canadians to consider politics and public service as a calling. Many of those baby boomers are now reaching retirement. Some of them can still recall that, for their cohort of Canadians, Trudeau inspired their public service much as Jack and Bobby Kennedy did for young Americans of the 1960s.

Neither can there be any doubt that Canada, generally dismissed as a boring backwater, was seen as a more interesting place. Trudeau was unquestionably a unique and compelling personality.

But Trudeau's policy legacy is decidedly mixed. On the positive side of the ledger, there's his central role in the 1980 referendum campaign, and in bringing us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, which in itself qualifies him as a transformational prime minister.

On the negative side, there's his mismanagement of the fiscal framework and the economy. He inherited a country in great economic shape, and left it in an incredible mess. For good measure, he threw in the National Energy Program, which is gone but not forgotten in Alberta.

Make no mistake about Trudeau's role in 1980. He was, as Jean Chrétien said in introducing him one famous night, "the pride of Quebec and the pride of Canada." Anyone who was there on the night of May 14, 1980, can attest to their pride and relief in having such an eloquent champion of Canada.

In three strategically spaced speeches over the course of two weeks, Trudeau skewered the sovereignty side to devastating effect, while making both a logical and emotional case for federalism. It was as if his entire career had been a preparation for that one seminal event.

His solemn pledge on the night of that "Elliott" speech was to achieve constitutional reform, and not to stop until the work was done. Then he kidnapped the results of the referendum to achieve his own ends - patriation of the constitution with an entrenched charter. He achieved both, but at significant political cost to the Liberal brand in Quebec, which has equally taken an enduring hit from his role in sabotaging the Meech Lake Accord in 1990.

But there is no doubt of the Charter's overwhelming acceptance by the public and its dominant role in influencing public policy. Every legislative memo from the Justice department carries a sidebar called "Charter implications."

But on the economy, Trudeau left a terrible legacy of deficit and debt. Canada's national debt, $18 billion when he took office, had passed $200 billion when he left, an increase of 1,100 per cent. That is not a typo. He ran against wage and price controls in 1974, and then imposed them in 1975. As for the NEP, don't get them started in Alberta.

As to his electoral legacy, he won four elections out of five, with majority governments in three of them. And in the last one, he even came out of retirement to regain the keys to 24 Sussex. But his bravest campaign was the one he lost to Joe Clark in 1979. He was gallant in the attempt, and held the Conservatives to a minority, which in the end allowed him to fight and win another day.

It is one of the great ironies of Canadian history that, had the Clark government not been defeated in the House, there would have been no Trudeau restoration, and no Charter.

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