The Allan J. MacEachen Lecture in Politics


17 April 1997

Your Excellency Bishop Campbell, President Riley, Bob Rae, my deputy leader in the Senate Al Graham, ladies and gentlemen, and of course, Allan J. Sometime ago, I was quietly arguing with my good friend Senator Gigantes about the appropriate English translation for a key phrase from the works of Heraclitus, the great Greek thinker whose philosophy was based on the theory of constant change. Heraclitus wrote in Greek "ethos anthropo damon." Now I said that that quote means "Man’s character is his fate"; Philip Gigantes said "Man’s character is his guide." In any event, Heraclitus preached that character, a politician’s character, is the motor of politics. And tonight, we can agree, for we are here to celebrate the career of one man and how one man’s character influenced party politics, the federal government and our nation.

The Canadian Constitution, the heart of our governance, that piece of paper that has preoccupied and continues to preoccupy so many, including many in this room, and in so many ways, is silent, absolutely silent, about two words that animate our public life. Two words that form the sinews and the lifeblood of our constitution: party politics. Now just as Saint Francis spent his life exploring and celebrating the mysterious canons and hidden patterns within man’s soul, so this lecture celebrates the life and the work of Allan J. MacEachen and his special genius, his unique genius for party politics.

Allan J. Allan J. Allan J. Just repeating those two names, side by side, would send ripples through the media, tremors through Tory ranks and waves through Tory leadership. And if those two names were not enough, I can bear special witness as to what happened in the Senate when Allan J. himself, in the raw, would appear, rise slowly in his place on the front benches to face the then Leader of the Government in the Senate, another distinguished Maritimer, The Honourable Lowell Murray, and I watched this from the rear, from a seat in the rear, and I could see an almost invisible shudder as Murray’s back would stiffen and his shoulders would hunch up and he’d cringe deep in his seat. And from the front, one could almost detect on Senator Murray’s now grim face a slight tremor of the lower lip and a quiver of the left eyebrow as Allan J. MacEachen softly, almost aimlessly at first, commenced to address the chamber. Then from my perspective in the seat in the Senate, I would note that otherwise almost perfect Roman profile of the avuncular Senator Finley MacDonald, a fellow Nova Scotian, quickly become distorted as his wistful smile drained, his florid face paled and he moved forward to the edge of his seat to hear what new blows would emanate from the lips of Allan J. MacEachen to bruise and batter yet again, the Tory body politic.

Obviously, the Tories learned to their regret that Allan J. had a secret. This awesome secret triggered fear and trembling in their minds. Allan’s middle name, J. stands for Joseph. Joseph is a good biblical name, which translated from the original Hebrew means to multiply, to add or to increase. Clearly, every member of parliament who sat opposite Allan Joseph MacEachen added to their miseries and increased their misfortunes and hence their obsession with the Honourable Allan J. So why, why this angst and why this anguish in the highest circles of the political landscape? Can we find a clue in his origins? Let us cast our minds back to his background. It has been recounted many times and in many places. This is my version of the Allan MacEachen that I know.

The rise of Allan, from his humble beginnings here in Nova Scotia - in Inverness - propelled solely by the power of his personality and the grandeur of his intellect, that allowed him to escape the narrow confines of his modest origins and move here to St. F. X. in Antigonish where he started what was to become what was a singularly distinguished academic career. However, he was determined to better himself. So, he spent what in retrospect was probably his most important early period, to broaden this perspective and studies at the very heart of the Canadian soul itself at my own alma mater, the University of Toronto. Which, obviously then, propelled him onto even greater heights at the University of Chicago, and finally to even the highest grove of academe in North America, MIT at Cambridge, Massachusetts, before he returned here to St. F. X. to teach. Then more than 50 years ago, or rather just more than 40 years ago, in the 1950’s, he joined the Right Honourable Lester Pearson in opposition as an advisor. He was elected and joined Lester Pearson and served in the House of Commons until he was summoned in 1984 to that highest and holiest of all places in Canada, the Senate.

We watched in amazement as Allan weaved his semantic words of wizardry and performed his intellectual gymnastics in the Senate. To our delight, he could elevate a minor point of procedure into a grand indictment of national malfeasance. You can tell he drew blood when some senators opposite turned ruby red or even better, mumbled or dare I say whined incoherently. Our Rabbis tell us that such a man, with such an intellect, is so gifted - gifted by God - that he can demonstrate, clearly, how two angels can dance on the head of a single pin. Balzac, the great French author, once wrote that the world was divided between the deceivers and the deceived. May we consider ourselves to have been deceived. We were deceived by the conventional wisdom in the media. First, we were told that Allan MacEachen was a radical, a revolutionary, a destroyer of Canadian values, a small L liberal, or better still, a far-left liberal or even worse, a reformer. Then we were told that he was a large L liberal, a reactionary, a dinosaur, a man out of his time. We were told he was a Pearson Liberal and then we had to be reminded that no, he was truly a Trudeau Liberal. All this, my friends, ladies and gentlemen, is deception. All this is deceit. For if the truth be known, Allan MacEachen was not a Pearson Liberal, never was a Pearson Liberal. Allan MacEachen is not, and never was a Trudeau Liberal. Allan MacEachen is a MacEachen Liberal.
Now, pray tell, ask yourself, what precisely is a MacEachen Liberal? A MacEachen Liberal is one who never gave up his belief in reform at a time when reform was not fashionable. He never gave up his belief in the Liberal Party as a vehicle of social justice when both the Liberal Party and social justice were not fashionable. He never gave up his belief in reversing the fortunes of the Liberal Party - and you’ll recall that in 1979, he almost single-handedly set the stage for Mr. Trudeau’s triumphant return. He simply never gave up and he was just repeating his earlier history. Early in the 1960s, even Liberals had written off the Liberal Party. Yet Allan’s ideas and actions paved the Liberal return to power in 1963. After that, Allan was instrumental in radically reforming the labour code as Minister of Labour and in establishing a new standard for the minimum wage. He was the architect of the Liberal’s social agenda of that period, through the Health Resources Fund, the Canada Assistance Plan, the Old Age Security Act, all of which were introduced or amended during his period as Minister of National Health and Welfare. He piloted Medicare through the tremulous debates in the House where Medicare was almost derailed. And that greatest of modern political reforms which is so important and relevant today, the Election Expenses Act, was introduced when he served as House Leader and President of the Privy Council. And finally, during his tenure as Foreign Minister in the 1980s, he almost single-handedly transformed the global dialogue between East and West into a dialogue between North and South, truly a liberal dialogue. All these steps - grand steps, small steps, large steps - lead by Allan, made the Liberal Party synonymous with Liberals and social justice.

Apparent failure in politics is cyclical - just a matter of timing. Being ahead of one’s time sometimes creates a strong reaction that ultimately leads the way to greater social justice. This was the case with Allan’s measures as Minister of Finance in 1981, measures that created an uproar in the country, measures on tax reform that again showed that he was ahead of his time. If one goes back as I have, and carefully examines the contours of the MacEachen tax reforms and the budget, his reduced tax rates, elimination of preferential tax shelters, while closing the gap between rich and poor, his measures still stand out, still stand out today, as models of equity and fairness.

And Allan J. transformed the Senate into a body of conviction and activity. Late in 1984, I was asked to attend a meeting to consider the Senate’s image. At that meeting, Allan stoutly argued that no legislative body, no national body, no parliamentary body, can maintain any legitimacy or any credibility unless it has a strong, active public presence, a public profile. A public profile was indeed necessary. And by removing pre-study and other measures, he slowly, carefully stimulated a reformist attitude. Allan MacEachen for better, for worse, has heightened the Senate’s presence and promoted the Senate’s public profile. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Conservative opposition in the Senate today has followed the MacEachen thesis and made the Senate a relevant and a more respectable part of the parliamentary landscape.

Liberalism for Allan MacEachen has always meant reform. Liberalism for Allan MacEachen has always meant creative innovation. So friends, the secret power from my perspective, that awesome power that emanated from Allan MacEachen, is not the man himself, but his liberal ideas. Let us say what was said of the late Robert Kennedy; we know that Allan MacEachen is not a myth but a man. We know that Allan MacEachen is not a hero but a hope. What better accolade can one liberal render to another, particularly in these times when liberalism is not in fashion, than to say that he is a liberal, that he is a man, and that he remains our hope.

So when the time came for Allan J. MacEachen to be retired, forcibly retired because of age from public life, he made it emphatically clear that he was not leaving party politics or the political party of his choice. And then, as I look back on Allan’s record of almost five decades of unblemished and honourable participation in the public life of our country, it became abundantly clear to me that there could be no more fitting, no more lively honour to bestow on Allan and his passion for politics, than to create the Allan J. MacEachen Annual Lecture on Party Politics, so we could continue to share his enthusiasm for party and for politics especially here in his beloved academic environment at St. F. X., where he first launched that most astonishing political career.

Last June, hundreds of friends, allies and adversaries alike, gathered in Ottawa to hold a memorable dinner in Allan’s honour together with one of his great party cohorts, the Honourable Keith Davie, who was retiring from the Senate at the same time. We assembled a tribute committee from coast to coast, men and women who quickly and generously pledged funds to establish this annual lectureship here at St. F. X. in Allan’s honour, and a similar annual lectureship at Victoria University at the University of Toronto in Keith Davie’s honour.

When I was told by President Riley that Bob Rae was to be the first guest lecturer, I could not have been more delighted. Bob Rae throughout his astonishing and prolific career has never failed to give liberalism a good name. I attribute this particular quirk in his professed philosophy to the breeding place of his birth, Ontario, where I must tell you, "true grits" continue to be discovered and in some numbers. I must confess I, too, was born in Ontario, in London - Ontario to be exact. There still must be something in the air of Ontario that determines that once a liberal, always a liberal. Before concluding, may I take this opportunity to thank all the generous contributors to this lectureship, some of whom are in this room tonight, and to President Riley and his colleagues, without whose creative assistance and encouragement, this remarkable event would not have been possible.

One final, one personal indulgence. A word to Allan. Allan, I recently returned to Canada from vacation and I read the newspapers and I thought to myself that Canada and the Party need you and your ideas as never before. So, keep alert, keep your phone lines open, you will be in high demand yet again. Thank you St. Francis Xavier, thank you ladies and gentlemen, thank you Allan J. for the pleasure of your company.


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