Will Harper be stupid or smart?

Trudeau was very clever to engineer his defeat in 1974, but Clark made a dumb decision six years later

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 2, 2011

For a government to fall on a budget, it must be one of two things: very smart or very stupid.

It's only happened twice in Canadian history. In the case of Pierre Trudeau in 1974, it was very smart. In the case of Joe Clark in 1979, it was very stupid.

In both instances, minority governments were defeated on a treasury issue, automatically resulting in an election.

The defeat of John Turner's budget in May 1974 triggered the election of July 8, 1974, which restored the Trudeau Liberals to a majority. The defeat of John Crosbie's Conservative budget in December 1979 triggered the election of Feb. 18, 1980, which resulted in the second Trudeau restoration.

The defeat of the 1974 budget was brilliantly engineered by the Liberals. The defeat of the 1979 budget was a train wreck of epic proportions, one that could have been avoided but for the bungling and obstinacy of Clark.

In 1974, Trudeau went out of his way to offend the NDP, his dance partner in a perilous minority House. (In 1972, Trudeau had won only 109 seats to Conservatives' 107 under Robert Stanfield, leaving the New Democrats with the balance of power.) As Richard Gwyn later recounted in The Northern Magus, his splendid biography of Trudeau: "He kept on going out of his way to taunt the NDP as 'seagulls, squawking and squealing above the ship of state, pretending to steer it.' "

The first oil shock of 1973, tripling the price of oil, caused a ripple effect of inflation that Stanfield proposed to address with wage and price controls. In the pre-writ period, the voters thought it was a bad idea and flocked back to the Liberals.

When the government was defeated on Turner's budget, Liberal campaign director Keith Davey had the poll numbers for a majority in his pocket. "Watching from the gallery," Gwyn later wrote, "Keith Davey heaved a sigh of relief."

The rest is history. Trudeau campaigned against wage and price controls ( "Zap! You're frozen.") only to impose them a year later.

The 1979 "bodgit," as John Crosbie called it, was the Clark government's first, and its last. Crosbie brought in an 18-cent gasoline excise tax that was the pretext for what became known as "the 18-cent election."

In what was then, as today, a four-party House, Clark needed the support of only one opposition party, the six Creditistes under Fabien Roy, to win the budget vote. As for the Liberals, with Trudeau having just announced his retirement they were in the first days of a leadership race, and considered unlikely to defeat the government.

But Liberal House leader Allan MacEachen talked Trudeau out of retirement and talked the caucus into opposing the budget, and it then became a very different game. At least one member of Clark's office, Nancy Jamieson, implored him to postpone the budget vote until the new year. "Sir," she famously told him, "we don't have the votes."

Clark called the vote anyway, and then did nothing to secure the support of Roy and the Fab Five, who were only asking for party status so they could hire the staff that went with it. Clark would have none of it, and as a result the six Creditistes abstained.

And on a confidence motion proposed by the NDP's Bob Rae (yes, that Bob Rae), the government fell 139-133, an outcome that would have been avoided had Clark a)called off the vote or b) bought off the Creds, which would have resulted in a tie, with the speaker obliged in those circumstances to vote with the government.

This accident of history resulted in Trudeau's fourth and most consequential term in office, which left Canada with the transformational Charter of Rights, the patriation of the Constitution, and the disastrous National Energy Program.

Clark would go on to face two leadership reviews. After receiving 66-per-cent support on the second one, in 1983, he announced to his party that "it is not good enough" and called a leadership convention that he lost to Brian Mulroney, who went on to win consecutive majority governments in 1984 and 1988.

None of which would have happened had Clark cancelled the 1979 budget vote. Or, as the ancient proverb goes: "For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost."

Where do we stand in the walk-up to the 2011 budget? Are we in smart or stupid territory? Jim Flaherty is coming up on his sixth budget, and no finance minister in history has survived six budgets in a minority House. This might be due to some good luck, but it has much more to do with good management.

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