How Pierre Trudeau survived a minority government and how Justin Trudeau can do the same

In Northern Magus, his well-regarded account of Pierre Trudeau’s first decade in power, Richard Gwyn writes that the definitive account of the minority Parliament he navigated from 1972 to 1974 was authored by Vernon Harder, a graduate student at Queen’s University.

Harder’s masters thesis in 1977 meticulously recounted the public and private machinations that produced a relatively productive and successful period of government.

It wasn’t always pretty. The success of that period was “marked by untidiness and flexibility,” Harder writes. But, by Easter of 1973, 13 bills had passed Parliament and another 12 were before the House of Commons.

Vernon Harder, who interviewed many of the senior players in the three major political parties, is better known by his middle name, Peter. These days he’s the government representative in the Senate, a position to which he was appointed by Justin Trudeau in 2016.

So if the prime minister and his team are looking for advice on how to approach their current situation, they might call on Harder again (four years ago, Trudeau enlisted Harder to lead the Liberal transition team).

But the example of 1972 might emphasize one big decision Trudeau must make as he prepares to name a new cabinet: choosing his government’s House Leader, the individual with the primary responsibility for managing and guiding the legislative agenda through Parliament.

Ample time will be devoted over the next three weeks to speculating about who will end up in the more glamorous cabinet posts — but if Parliament is to matter more than it did in Trudeau’s first four years in power, it’s all the more important that he have a House Leader suited to the task.

The ‘old smoothie’

In 1972, Pierre Trudeau had Allan MacEachen.

“MacEachen was particularly well-suited to the role of House Leader in these difficult minority times. He was a respected parliamentarian and, as his mentor Lester Pearson described, an ‘old smoothie,'” Harder wrote in 1977.

He was a “Liberal left-winger” who had advised Pearson during the minority governments of the 1960s and held several ministerial portfolios before becoming House Leader to Trudeau in 1970, Harder continued.

“During this time a lasting friendship, based on mutual respect, developed between Stanley Knowles, the NDP House Leader, and MacEachen,” Harder wrote. “His negotiating skills contributed immeasurably to the Government’s survival. His colleagues and adversaries respected him for his intellect, debating skills, thoroughness in foreseeing problems and ability to deal with both the opposition and his fellow ministers.”

The House that MacEachen contended with in 1972 included 109 Liberals, 107 Progressive Conservatives, 31 New Democrats and 15 Social Credit MPs.

Playing for time

Under MacEachen’s guidance, Pierre Trudeau quickly outlined an approach that did not treat all government bills as matters of confidence. The throne speech was written to appease the NDP, which had already outlined a “shopping list” of demands. The most contentious items on the government’s agenda were pushed back to allow the government time to establish itself and for Parliament to settle into some working habits.

No formal process was established for negotiations between the Liberals and New Democrats. Instead, progress depended on a combination of public pronouncements, parliamentary amendments and unofficial channels of communication, particularly between MacEachen and Knowles.

Harder writes that the two parties appeared to develop “an implicit understanding of the nature of the ‘rules of the game’ which would ensure cooperation. The Government was able to make the concessions necessary to meet the political needs of the NDP without appearing either to be in ‘bed’ with that party or held for ransom by it.”

Citing one contemporary columnist, Harder also lists a series of proposed rules for minority governments — largely based on the idea that parties should always leave themselves and their rivals a way out of any dispute.

Losing on your own terms

There were numerous bumps and stumbles, but the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau found ways to keep legislation moving. And that time allowed the prime minister’s standing with the public to recover.

In the spring of 1974, MacEachen worked with Trudeau and John Turner to engineer the government’s defeat at a time of its own choosing, with a budget that managed to spurn both the Conservatives and the New Democrats. Six weeks later, the Liberals won a majority.

MacEachen’s legend as a parliamentarian was cemented in those two years.

A firm grasp of Parliament has generally eluded Justin Trudeau’s government to date.

There was a close call in the spring of 2016 when the opposition caught the Liberals unprepared and nearly defeated a government bill. Dominic LeBlanc, Trudeau’s first House Leader, was accused of being too tough on the opposition. He was replaced by Bardish Chagger, a rookie MP, who then stumbled into a protracted fight over a series of proposals for parliamentary reform.

At the end of the day, though, the Liberals had the votes to proceed with their agenda. That advantage is now gone — not just in the House, but also at the parliamentary committees that can amend legislation and launch investigations.

It’s not obvious who Trudeau should pick to manage this moment. Chagger has no experience with minority government — in fact, just 26 members of the current Liberal caucus have any experience with the minority governments that existed from 2004 to 2011. The most senior Liberal in the last Parliament, Ralph Goodale, has been defeated. LeBlanc, whose experience and style might suit the current challenge, is still being treated for cancer.

In certain ways, Trudeau’s situation now might be easier than the one his father faced 47 years ago.

The Trudeau government in 1972 had just one useful partner in David Lewis’ NDP (though Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives also voted with the government in some instances). Justin Trudeau’s government might rely on either or both of the NDP and Bloc Québécois to pass legislation. Barring abstentions, it would take the Conservatives, Bloc and NDP voting together to defeat the Liberals in the House.

If the federal Conservatives ultimately decide to plunge themselves into another leadership race, that also could buy Trudeau time — just as the Liberals’ unwillingness to trigger an election allowed Stephen Harper to pass legislation between 2006 and 2011.

But “easier” doesn’t mean “easy”. And the stakes for Trudeau are significant.

He has a second chance to show seriousness and political instinct, to answer the doubts about his leadership with a display of substantive and competent government.

Knowing that, the opposition parties will no doubt try to leverage their own positions to keep him from regaining his stride.

Trudeau may or may not be able to find a future parliamentary legend in the Liberal ranks. But much will be riding on whoever he picks to guide this government’s agenda — for however long this Parliament lasts.


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