The Macdonald-Laurier Institute hosted the first History Wars debate on September 27, 2011. The debate, first in a four-part series, brought together David Frum and Lawrence Martin to debate the resolution: Pierre Trudeau was Canada's most disastrous Prime Minister. The Ottawa Citizen, sponsor of History Wars, published David Frum's opening statement on September 28th and Lawrence Martin's opening statement on September 29th. Both statements were #1 and #2 in the ottawacitizen.com's best read list, which are provided below.

The next History Wars debate is on November 11, 2011 at 6:30pm at the Bronson Centre in Ottawa. The resolution: After Afganistan the Canadian forces should keep the peace rather than wage war. Debate will be between Michael Byers and Jack Granatstein with Michael Bliss moderating. Register now for your tickets!

 

Was Trudeau a disaster? Yes

It has taken nearly 30 years to recover after he nearly bankrupted and split up the country, writes David Frum.

By David Frum, The Ottawa Citizen, September 28, 2011

Canada today is a very successful country. It has suffered less from the  global economic crisis than any other major economy. So Canadians may be tempted to be philosophical about disasters in their own past. Hasn't it all come out  right in the end?

But I want to stress: Canada's achievement overcoming Pierre Trudeau's legacy  should not inure Canadians to how disastrous that legacy was.

Three subsequent important prime ministers — Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien  and Stephen Harper — invested their energies cleaning up the wreckage left by  Pierre Trudeau. The work has taken almost 30 years. Finally, and at long last,  nobody speculates anymore about Canada defaulting on its debt, or splitting  apart, or being isolated from all its major allies.

Yet through most of the adult lives of most people reading this, people in  Canada and outside Canada did worry about those things. And as you enjoy the  peace, stability and comparative prosperity of Canada in the 2010s, just  consider — this is how Canadians felt in the middle 1960s. Now imagine a  political leader coming along and out of ignorance and arrogance despoiling all  this success. Not because the leader faced some overwhelming crisis where it was  hard to see the right answer. But utterly unnecessarily. Out of a clear blue  sky.

Pierre Trudeau took office at a moment when commodity prices were rising  worldwide. Good policy-makers recognize that commodity prices fall as well as  rise. Yet between 1969 and 1979 — through two majority governments and one  minority — Trudeau tripled federal spending.

In 1981-'82, Canada plunged into recession, the worst since the Second World  War. Trudeau's already big deficits exploded to a point that Canada's lenders  worried about default. Trudeau's Conservative successor, Brian Mulroney,  balanced Canada's operating budget after 1984. But to squeeze out Trudeau-era  inflation, the Bank of Canada had raised real interest rates very high. Mulroney  could not keep up with the debt payments. The debt compounded, the deficits  grew, the Bank hiked rates again — and Canada toppled into an even worse  recession in 1992. Trudeau's next successors, Liberals this time, squeezed even  tighter, raising taxes, and leaving Canadians through the 1990s working harder  and harder with no real increase in their standard of living. Do Canadians  understand how many of their difficulties of the 1990s originated in the 1970s?  They should. To repay Trudeau's debt, federal governments reduced transfers to  provinces. Provinces restrained spending. And these restraints had real  consequences for real people: more months in pain for heart patients, more  months of immobility for patients awaiting hip replacements.

If Canada's health system delivers better results today than 15 years ago,  it's not because it operates more efficiently. Canada's health system delivers  better results because the reduction of Trudeau's debt burden has freed more  funds for health care spending.

Pierre Trudeau was a spending fool. He believed in a state-led economy, and  the longer he lasted in office, the more statist he became. The Foreign  Investment Review Agency was succeeded by Petro-Canada. Petro-Canada was  succeeded by wage and price controls. Wage and price controls were succeeded by  the single worst economic decision of Canada's 20th century: the National Energy  Program.

The NEP tried to fix two different prices of oil, one inside Canada, one  outside. The NEP expropriated foreign oil interests without compensation. The  NEP sought to shoulder aside the historic role of the provinces as the owner and  manager of natural resources. Most other Western countries redirected themselves  toward more fiscal restraint after 1979. Counting on abundant revenues from oil,  the Trudeau government kept spending. Other Western governments began to worry  more about attracting international investment. Canada repelled investors with  arbitrary confiscations. Other Western governments recovered from the  stagflation of the 1970s by turning toward freer markets. Under the National  Energy Program, Canada was up-regulating as the U.S., Britain, and West Germany  deregulated. All of these mistakes together contributed to the extreme severity  of the 1982 recession. Every one of them was Pierre Trudeau's fault.

Pierre Trudeau had little taste for the alliances and relationships he  inherited in 1968. His spending spree did not include the military. He cut air  and naval capabilities, pulled troops home from Europe, and embarked on  morale-destroying reorganizations of the military services. In 1968, Canada was  a serious second-tier non-nuclear military power, like Sweden or Israel. By  1984, Canada had lost its war-fighting capability: a loss made vivid when Canada  had to opt out of ground combat operations in the first Gulf War of 1990-'91.  Something more was going on here than a left-of-centre preference for butter  over guns. Throughout his life — now better known than ever thanks to historian  John English — Pierre Trudeau showed remarkable indifference to the struggle  against totalitarianism that defined the geopolitics of the 20th century.  Indifference may be too polite a word.

Yet it was upon the Canadian nation that Trudeau inflicted his greatest harm.  When Pierre Trudeau was elected prime minister in 1968, Canada faced a small but  militant separatist challenge in Quebec. In 1970, that challenge erupted in  terrorist violence: two kidnappings and a murder of one of the kidnapped  hostages, Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte.

Trudeau responded with overwhelming force, declaring martial law in Quebec,  arresting dozens of people, almost none of whom had any remote connection to the  terrorist outrages. The arrests radicalized them, transforming many from  cultural nationalists into outright independentists. As he did throughout his  career, Trudeau polarized the situation — multiplying enemies for himself and,  unfortunately, also for Canada.

At the same time, Trudeau lavished economic benefits on Quebec at the expense  of English-speaking Canada. Unsurprisingly, English-speaking Canada resented  this favouritism — with the result that Trudeau polarized English-Canadian  politics, too. In 1968, Trudeau's Liberals won 27 seats west of Ontario. In  1980, they won two.

To win the 1980 referendum, Trudeau promised Quebec constitutional changes to  satisfy Quebec nationalism. Instead, he delivered a package of constitutional  changes that tilted in exactly the opposite direction. The government of Quebec  refused to ratify the new constitutional arrangement, opening a renewed  opportunity to separatists and bequeathing a nightmare political problem to  Trudeau's successors.

Defenders of Trudeau's disastrous governance habitually rally around one  great accomplishment: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Well, Herbert Hoover  had some excellent wilderness conservation policies, but we don't excuse the  Great Depression on that account. Would it really have been so impossible to  achieve a Charter of Rights without plunging Canada into two recessions, without  wrecking the national finances, without triggering two referendums, without  nationalizing the oil industry, without driving not only Quebec, but also  Alberta to the verge of separation?

To me, one story will always sum up Pierre Trudeau:

1979. Trudeau had lost that year's election. His career seemed finished.  Reporters awaited in the driveway of 24 Sussex Drive as he stepped into his  gull-winged vintage Mercedes to speed away into history.

One shouted: "Mr. Prime Minister — any regrets?" Pierre Trudeau pondered. He  remembered something that Richard Nixon had said after losing the California  governor's race in 1962 and revised Nixon's words to his own very different  purpose. "Yes," he said. "I regret I won't have you to kick around anymore."

It's long past time that Canadians in turn resolved: no longer to be  posthumously kicked by this bad man and disastrous prime minister.

David Frum is a widely syndicated columnist and prolific  author, based in Washington, D.C.

 

Was Trudeau a Disaster? No

He is beloved because he liberated Canada from old men, old thinking, narrow  traditions and colonial caution, writes Lawrence Martin

By Lawrence Martin, The Ottawa Citizen, September 29, 2011

Conservatives tend to get very irate at the mention of Pierre Trudeau and his  icy brilliance. What really gets them pulling their hair out is that Trudeau  continues to be rated in poll after poll by Canadians as one of their most  admired prime ministers. Historians and academics don't see him as a disaster  either, tending to rank him reasonably well. And almost every book written about  Trudeau in power is laudatory.

Opponents tend to focus on his economic record — the big deficit, inflation,  joblessness. I'm no fan of his economic record either. But like any PM's  economic record it must be weighed in the context of the time.

Should we blame Stephen Harper, for example, for the recession we've been  through? Is he singularly responsible for it and for today's large deficit?  Hardly. To lay the blame on him without giving preponderant weight to global  conditions is intellectually infantile. The same in the case of the Trudeau  record. The stagflation of the period in which he governed pummeled not just  Canada but almost every western democracy.

To understand Trudeau's impact we need first recall the type of Canadian  leaders who came before him.

They were leaders who had their share of achievements but who were tired,  uninspiring men. There was that old fuddy-duddy Mackenzie King, successful in  many ways, but with about as much magnetism as a sea urchin. How about Louis St.  Laurent? He was so worn out that it was said of him that he got winded playing  chess.

There was that howling blowhard from the prairies, John Diefenbaker. He  wasn't dull, just deluded. His main appeal was to rural folk, aged 60 and over.  Lester Pearson has a very good image today but back then he was no star. On the  campaign trail, he was a bumbler, spoke with a lisp, could empty a room faster  than R.B. Bennett. His idea of a good time was watching baseball. He could never  win a majority, despite five tries.

All these leaders thought along conventional lines. Then came this phenom  with a roman cut, sandals and an air of Jesus Christ. Pierre Trudeau combined  intellectual electricity, star-power charisma, and a contrarian's independent  mind. What this blend of characteristics, rare in any leader anywhere, gave rise  to was a transformational impact on the culture and character of this country.  Trudeau challenged and tore down stereotypes, he unfastened Canada from old men,  from old thinking, from narrow traditions, from colonial caution.

Think of the ways in which he did this, the ways in he became the country's  liberator. With his repatriation of the Constitution, Trudeau liberated us at  long last from Great Britain. With his Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he  liberated us from the authority of the state. With his bilingualism and  multicultural polices, he liberated us from unilingual, unicultural trappings;  from anti-pluralist prejudice that had rarely seen a woman in top governing  posts, that saw no Jews in the cabinet or on the Supreme Court.

With ice in his veins Trudeau liberated us from the blackmail of FLQ  terrorism. With the same he took down the threat posed by René Lévesque in the  1980 referendum. With his never-back-down resilience, he provided a sense of  freedom from American encroachment, this at a time when the giant next door was  mired in war, racism, Watergate and economic nationalism.

Trudeau had many failings, but the backbone this prime minister demonstrated  was unprecedented and I think it rubbed off. I think his show of strength had a  lasting impact on this country's psyche. I was a young undergraduate when he  crashed through the stained glass windows. You had to be there to understand his  force, to witness how he lifted the spirits of a generation.

Trudeaumania inevitably evaporated but the backbone remained. Could any other prime minister have stood up to separatism the way Trudeau did? Biographer John English and many others say he saved Canada in the 1980 referendum. I'm not sure I would go that far. But we must recall his strength in the province of Quebec. There, he held 74 of 75 seats. Joe Clark was a good man who tried to understand Quebec but his Tories were woefully unpopular there. Do many think he could have fought the fight in the 1980 referendum that Trudeau did?

On the subject of bilingualism, imagine this. This was a country with a  25-per-cent francophone population, yet for 100 years, Canada had a central  government that functioned only in English. Trudeau's bilingualism program ended  that shame. Bilingualism was expensive, was resisted in parts of the country,  but never shoved down anyone's throat. Today millions of our citizens speak  French who otherwise would not. This is a richer and more cultivated country as  a result.

What other disastrous things did Trudeau do? There were his four election  victories, three of them majorities. There was his monumental Charter of Rights  and Freedoms.

The highly popular Charter unifies Canada around a set of principles, around  civil rights and political rights in the face overreaching government. It was  the work of one man. The obstacles Trudeau overcame to get this done were  enormous. History had rebuffed repatriation attempts and constitutional reform  attempts time after time. Trudeau pulled it off and even though Lévesque never  signed on — how could a separatist ever have signed on to a unity package? — it  was, as the polls showed then, highly popular in Quebec. That is until Lucien  Bouchard fled the Mulroney government and demagogically distorted the facts  surrounding the repatriation deal's conception.

Let's not forget certain things. Standards of living grew appreciably in the  Trudeau years, far more so than in the three decades following when they have  flatlined. Under Trudeau, the percentage of Canadians living in poverty dropped  from 23 per cent in 1968 to 13 per cent in 1984. Repeat, from 23 per cent to 13  per cent.

It need also be recalled that when Trudeau arrived in power, Lester Pearson  had just put in place major components of the welfare state — the Canada Pension  Plan, the Canada Assistance Plan, medicare supplements. It was the Trudeau  government that had to pick up the tab. Pearson had established a  super-expensive matching formula of 50-50 with the provinces on education and  health care. It was left to Trudeau to pick up the tab. In the Trudeau period  there were two globally triggered recessions. People who think any prime  minister would not have run major deficits through this period are simply  deluding themselves.

Perspective need also be applied to one of Trudeau's other great failings — the National Energy Program.

Since the 1960s the provinces had been aggressively extending their reach in  spending, in asserting their control over resources and, in Quebec, over  language. Trudeau wanted to halt the drift toward a confederation of duchies. He  felt no province should have special status.

He had widespread public support for the NEP, for the notion that one  province's resources wealth should be shared to a greater degree by all in the  federation. Alberta's Peter Lougheed saw it differently. He was an Alberta  nationalist.

Trudeau's mistake was the assumption made not just by him but by virtually  every expert everywhere that oil prices would continue to rise. If they had,  much of

the sting of the NEP would have been removed and the federal deficit would  have fallen appreciably. Stunningly the contrary happened, the policy flopped  and the West, which had been a wasteland for the Liberals before Trudeau  arrived, became even more of a wasteland.

But compare his wrong call on the NEP to the aforementioned number of right  calls that he made. The legacy of this prime minister is mixed as is that of any  prime minister. But the reason he is held in higher regard than most others is  that Canadians have enduring respect for what he symbolized and what he did. It  was under his leadership that Canada broke from its calcified conventions and  came bracingly of age.

Lawrence Martin is a best-selling author and a regular  columnist on national politics for the Globe and Mail.

 

 

One Coment, RSS

  • koby

    says on:
    October 6, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Frum's article is littered with factual errors and non-sequiturs.

    For example,

    1) Frum claims that commodity prices were on the rise when Trudeau took over. They were not. They spiked 5 years later and far from being good for Canada they pushed us into recession.

    2) Frum claims that Trudeau gutted the military. However, Trudeau kept military spending at roughly the same percentage of GDP as when he started. Furthermore, as the economy grew during that time, that meant military spending in real dollars went up.

    3) Leaving aside the fact that two thirds of Canada's debt accumulated under Brian Mulroney, when the Liberals were defeated in 1979 the debt to GDP ratio was 16% and the debt in inflation adjusted dollars was the same as what it was 1961! For his first 7 years as PM, the debt shrank as % of GDP and because of inflation actually shrank in real dollars.

    4) The notion that the recession of 1981 1982 was brought on by Trudeau's fiscal policies is absurd. The recession in the US and Canada was partially a self inflicted wound yes. However, the cause was monetary policy and not fiscal policy. Ever since the the disbanding of Bretton Woods and the 1973 OPEC oil crisis, stagflation had plagued every Western economy. At the beginning of the 1980s, the US Fed chairperson Paul Vocker, with prospect of another energy Crisis looming over the economy, decided to do something about it. He declared a war on inflation. The Bank of Canada followed suit. Both the BOC and the Fed purposely drove the economy into a deep recession by greatly increasing interest rates. An example should put things into perspective. In July 25th 1980 interest rates stood at already high 11%; on December 16th 1980 the US Fed had raised them to 21.5%. US policy coupled with surging oil prices brought about by the Iran Iraq war resulted in a spike in inflation in Canada and so the BOC responded in kind. In Canada interest rates reached a high of 23%! Interest rates were no where near as high under Mulroney.

    The war on inflation was won, but it came at a terrible cost. Sky rocketing interest rates meant that the amount of money used to finance the debt went through the roof, the spike in unemployment greatly reduced government revenues and unemployment insurance claims put further stress on government coffers. Furthermore, the quick success of the BOC's efforts meant that Canada's debt to GDP ratio went up at much faster rate than it would have had inflation remained high for a longer period of time. By the time Mulroney took over in Sept 1984 inflation had sank to 3.7% from a high 12.9% in May 1981, but interest rates, remained sky high for considerably longer. As a result, Canada was not able to inflate away some of the value of that debt as it had after World War 2 and for part of the 1970s.

    5) Frum claims that Trudeau increased federal spending threefold between 1969 and 1979. He did indeed do just that, but the figure Frum cites is not adjusted for a decade of record inflation, indexed to population or GDP growth. In other words, it is meaningless. No one, except an utter armature or someone wishing to advance a political agenda irrespective of the truth, would make, for example, a meal out of the fact that federal expenditures were 10 times higher in 2000 than in 1970. What counts is how much federal spending increased as percentage of GDP. And when you factor out the amount of money devoted to debt servicing -- which went up three fold between 1975 and 1995 -- the amount of Federal spending as percentage of GDP remained virtually unchanged between 1959 and 1989. Where there was a marked increase in spending during this time was at the provincial level.

    6) Frum makes a meal out of the fact that Trudeau introduced wage and price controls. However, neglates to mention that these policies were copied from Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield -- "zap your frozen" -- and Republican Richard Nixon.

    7) Frum implies Canada suffered much more than W. Germany the US and Britain during the 1981 1982 recession. This wrong. Unemployment, for example, in the US nearly doubled and stayed at 10% for much of 1981 and 1982. As for West Germany and Britain, unemployment doubled in W. Germany in 1981 and unemployment in Britain was above what it was in Canada and remained above 10% until 1988.

    8) Frum is right in saying that Trudeau alienated "the West", but it is absurd to say Alberta was ever on verge of separting. Furthermore, however much Trudeau alienated the West, Mulroney proved 10 worse. Indeed, while Liberal seat totals in the west went from 27 in 1968 down to 2 in 1980, a much more telling figure is the fact that the Torries went from 54 seats West of Ontario, Western Canada being their traditional base of support, in 1984 to 0 in 1993.