Introduction of Senator Gerry Grafstein


24 September 2001

Thank you President Riley, for a very generous introduction especially when it starts with public service. Most journalists don’t think of themselves as public servants but I’ll accept the complement.

First of all, I was very pleased when I received the phone call, inviting me to come down for this event. I was here at the three day party in 1996 to celebrate the life and times of Allan J. MacEachen upon his retirement from the Senate. It was a wonderful occasion, with many of the luminaries of my generation and those that went before, including Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and many others. So it’s wonderful to be back at the lecture that had its roots at that time. I’m just going to read a couple of sentences I wrote at that time about the honoured guest in whose name this lecture is given. Though five years old it still stands up pretty well.
Allan J. MacEachen, the master political strategist, who always had an ace in reserve, played his final parliamentary card on Saturday. Driven from office not by his foes but by the silent, inexorable and impersonal grasp of the constitution. He was driven into involuntary retirement, as he put it during the three-day retirement party, by the constitutional requirement that senators retire at the age of seventy-five, a measure he helped legislate more than three decades earlier. His final act, in a forty-three year parliamentary career that helped change the face of Canada, was in keeping with another tradition for which he is famous. As he thrust out his hand to say goodbye to several hundred of his former constituents in Cape Breton Highlands Canso riding, there was a cheque in it. He gave the Gaelic College of Cape Breton $5000, the money that the Liberal Party Association had given him as a retirement gift.

I thought that was a wonderful metaphor for Allan J. His goodbye to politics. Now, we are all waiting for his next intervention in politics which is his memoirs. I don’t know where they stand at the moment, but this is just a little prodding for Allan J.

Anybody who watched the CBC’s two-hour special last night on the life and times of Pierre Eliot Trudeau, will remember the segment on Joe Clark’s brief dance with power until the budget of December 1979, and its eighteen cent a gallon or litre ser-tax. I’m sure there are a lot of political groupies here and so I’m sure a lot of you watched Pierre Trudeau’s retrospective last night. Those of us who are old enough to have been following politics in 1979 might already know this. But for those who didn’t, we are actually privileged to have here tonight, the two people who played key roles in one of the most interesting political voyages or turning points, that I had the pleasure of covering in my journalistic career. Allan J. was one of the architects of the strategy to defeat the Crosby budget and hence, the government. And having created that opportunity, he then used it to persuade Pierre Trudeau to resend his resignation plans and to lead the Liberals into the election they had prompted. And, of course as you know, he won.

Gerry Grafstein was one of the lead strategists of the subsequent campaign. Joe Clark, again I remember this but it was on television last night, referred to it as the peek-a-boo campaign in which the liberal strategists brought Mr. Trudeau out of hiding for an hour a day. Gerry and the campaign team knew that there was a lot of lingering anti-Trudeau feeling out there, and so they decided not to remind people of why they had defeated Mr. Trudeau some ten or eleven months earlier. So, therefore, don’t provide too much of a target to shoot at. Forget personality and talk about policy.

Gerry was one of a group that oversaw the advertising and they called themselves Red Leaf Communications. It was a way of putting together advertising people from different agencies. In any event, one of these ads that Gerry was responsible for, showed Pierre Trudeau at the gas pumps because this had been the 18 cent gas tax election, talking to some poor soul about that increased tax. It was the first and only time Pierre Trudeau had ever been near a gas pump in years, and he didn’t have the slightest idea what a gallon of gas cost. One of Gerry’s soul mates in all this was Senator Keith Davy who described the strategy as ‘low bridging’ the former Prime Minister. Now those of us who grew up in Atlantic Canada around railways know immediately what he meant. That’s the brakemen who used to walk along top of boxcars, knew that they had to keep their heads down when there was a low bridge coming up.

Before we get to Senator Grafstein’s subject of the Liberal caucus, let me say just a little bit about the general political situation we find ourselves in at the moment. Let’s start with a bit about the Chrétien government. Its seems hard to believe today, but just a year ago Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was a worried and frightened man. His legacy had come under pressure leading up to the Liberal convention in March, 2000. Indeed, it came under pressure from the man who had helped him create that legacy which was to slay the deficit dragon, Paul Martin. And there was active scheming to try and force him to resign. Now, in the wake of the majority Liberal victory in the federal election of 2000, we have a Prime Minister who, after that period of anxiety, that whole questioning of his leadership, has through his own political perspicacity defined his own terms, and now seems unassailable.

Chretien is now in a position to take advantage of a process that’s been going on for sometime anyway, which is that concentration of power, that shift of power away from parliament, towards the executive and the Prime Minister’s office. I’d have to admit that I and my colleagues bear some responsibility for that. The very nature of modern communications, and especially television, facilitate the concentration of power in and around personalities and on executives. As a countervail, again to what I presume is going to be the Grafstein thesis, let me just read a bit from Donald Savoie, who is a professor at the University of Moncton who’s written a book called Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics, and it basically argues that there has been real progress made in modernizing government and the civil services. But there is a limit to how much public service can be improved if the political institutions are not working properly. “Despite massive changes in society, Canadians continue to assume that political institutions can continue to function in the traditional way. No country can long endure…” Mr. Savoie wrote, “if its political institutions are in a state of disrepair. This is now the case in Canada. Every government department is being affected by the information revolution, the global economy, and a more aggressive and different media. Yet our political institutions seem oblivious to all this. Our political parties have become little more then election day organizations; unable or unwilling to stake out firm policy positions.”

This concentration of power is not just vis-à-vis parliament. It is vis-à-vis the other members of the cabinet. On the other hand, the Prime Minister doesn’t only operate on his own. He operates through this staff of very powerful people in the PMO. These are the ways in which power has been concentrated more and more at the centre both formally and informally.
Before we get to Senator Grafstein’s examination of the government caucus, theoretically there should be another check, a major check on Prime Ministerial power and indeed, on government power. And it should be parliament itself. And it should be expressed by the opposition. That role is now totally dysfunctional. So, what you have is one of the major instruments of Canadian democracy completely castrated by its own regional and political and personality schisms. You have an official opposition totally without credibility. What we have is a power concentration in one place and a power vacuum in the other. And it’s a very unhealthy situation.

That brings us to our honoured speaker’s thesis about another form of checks and balances on the executive power,and that is the role of caucus. But let me first tell you just a bit about our speaker Senator Gerry Grafstein.

He’s actually three years older than I am though he doesn’t look it. He’s got a better hair stylist or colourist or whatever. He is a lawyer and qualifies as a genuine intellectual. He has edited and written books. He was original editor and founder of something called The Journal of Liberal Thought in the 1960’s. He has been very active in the legal community. He was one of the founding directors of the City TV which started out as one local television station and now has become an international empire. He has been an active supporter of the arts. He has been the chairman of the O’Keefe Centre. He’s been on the boards of Stratford, of the Shaw Festival and he was also involved with the start up of the magazine Toronto Life, I believe. So that’s a well rounded career, even without politics. But, let’s talk about his political background. He was one of those bushytailed, young liberals back in an earlier era during the days of the Pearson government. And he and some of his friends in the young Liberals started the move towards the abolition of capital punishment for example. They were successful on the first round and indeed, we did progressively remove capital punishment from the statutes. As a result of his exploits, John Turner invited him to Ottawa to be his executive assistant. He did that and he also was involved in getting people like Lloyd Axworthy and David Smith and several other notable young people into the political process. They came to Ottawa, worked for ministers, and they made noise. They were part of that group that created a bit of ferment, shall we say, that helped Pierre Elliot Trudeau to arrive in 1968, and, as you know, the rest was history. In addition, he was actually invited, he then worked on John Turner’s leadership campaign, not the one that he eventually won in 1984 but the one he lost to Pierre Trudeau in 1968. Gerry then went back to Toronto to practice law and so on, turning down an offer to work for Pierre Elliot Trudeau on a formal basis but becoming a major power broker within the Liberal party, especially around election times. I’ve mentioned earlier about his role with party advertising. Red Leaf Communications was a very important element in a number of Liberal campaigns.

These are some of Senator Grafstein’s credientals. In 1984, Mr. Trudeau put him in the senate and now we are fortunate to have him here to speak to us tonight.


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