Trudeau in his own words

October 5th, 2010
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As a post-script to the many articles written at the tenth anniversary of Pierre Trudeau’s death, it’s worth going back to contemporary sources, trying to peel the crusty layers off his image. The source is a volume of 1975-6 Empire Club speeches I turned up amongst my father’s books.

At least two of that year’s two dozen-odd speakers spent a lot of time critically analyzing the then Prime Minister. Readers will recall that Trudeau had won a majority government in 1974 (largely due to 60 seats from Quebec) promising not to impose wage and price controls – only to impose them himself less than a year later.

Trudeau’s two main antagonists at the Empire Club that year were Don McIvor, the geologist executive VP of Imperial Oil, and Gerald E. Pearson, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. McIvor, under the title “Alternatives for a free society”, gave a speech that contemporary Canadian executives would envy for its depth and eloquence. He quotes a number of the Prime Minister’s statements, some apparently completely out of character:

“The preservation and strengthening of the free-market sector of our economy is absolutely central to the liberal view of the Canada of the future”.

“We have a mixed economy that, in the way that it has evolved, has served us very well in the past, and is uniquely suited to Canadian beliefs and values”.

“The size of government at all levels , and the impact of their size upon national productivity, cannot escape the spotlight of re-examination … I see no intrinsic reason why governments should stay forever in the business of providing some services which could be provided by the private sector”.

The issue before us is to what extent we will be controlled by government regulation and to what extent we will be controlled by our own sense of responsibility. I think we favour as little of the former and as much of the latter as is humanly possible”.

“We have the opportunity to enjoy the most valuable gift of a free society, the right to make choices about our own future”.

Almost sounds like classical liberalism. Well clearly, actions – as in the case of wage and price controls – speak louder than words. McIvor then cites quotes more in line with Trudeau’s legacy:

“… we haven’t been able to make even a modified free market system work in Canada…”

“(on wage and price controls) … it’s a massive intervention into the decision-making power of the economic groups, and it’s telling Canadians we haven’t been able to make it work, the free enterprise system.”

Trudeau was appearing to give Canadians a “choice”, given the drawbacks of the free market and mixed economy – “The choice is there. The people do it by changing their values… their behaviour, or the government comes in with new regulations. No mystery.  It has to be done.”

Pearson continues on the same theme. Announcing spending cuts in December 1975, the Prime Minister suggested Canada was entering “a new era”, and that “a new kind of society” would have to be created. Further to the “massive intervention” of wage/price controls he mused – “Our problem is how to deal with bigness? That means the government is going to take a larger role in running institutions”. And further – “Much public comment has accused me of wanting to kill free enterprise. This is a phoney issue … I absolutely made no mention of free enterprise. I spoke of the free market. There is a difference.”

Whew! These statements run far across the ideological map, but McIvor and Pearson’s gut feelings were correct – that Trudeau’s inclination was toward (massive) expansion of the state. Despite his high-minded talk about individual freedom and choice, the reality was much the opposite. So after “only” eight years of P.E.T., without the benefit of experiencing the excesses of his last term, these two critics had it right.

It is in the light of those facts that one should judge past and present Liberals, past and present Trudeaus too. The only operative freedom is the freedom of Liberal governments to determine what you may or may not do. And the “valuable gifts” of the free society flow toward Ottawa, not out.

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By John Weissenberger
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