Remembering Allan J MacEachen

Remembering Allan J. MacEachen: Parliament’s unmatched Celtic sphinx

Canny, shrewd, and wily, Allan J. MacEachen knew how to get things done.

Veteran Liberal cabinet minister Allan MacEachen, pictured centre, with then-prime minister Jean Chrétien and his chief of staff Jean Pelletier en route to the funeral of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 2000, died earlier this month. Photograph courtesy of Jean-Marc Carisse

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 12:00 AM

Justin Trudeau called him a “peerless” Parliamentarian. Allan J. MacEachen was certainly that. MacEachen venerated Parliament as an MP and then a Senator; he mastered its procedures with effect. He used his skills to help shepherd through a remarkable package of social reforms including medicare, a labour code for Canadians, and insurance for Canadians out of work.

He taught me and the many who worked with him over his 38 years in Parliament that politics is much more than a competitive sport, that ideas do matter, and that it is your duty to influence, shape, and make public policy in support of the common good.

Our job, he told us, was “to help those who need our help to put bread on their table.” His liberalism drew from the Moses Coady school of a hand-up, self-help, and hard work.

Justin Trudeau described the relationship between Allan MacEachen and his father, Pierre Trudeau, as a “match made in heaven.” MacEachen served Pierre Trudeau as House leader and Canada’s first deputy prime minister as well as minister for Manpower and Immigration, External Affairs, and Finance. Pierre Trudeau would later write in his memoirs that MacEachen was “the kind of man I respected, because he had no ulterior motives. He said what he thought, and the reasons he would give were always his real reasons.”

Elected from Cape Breton, N.S., in 1953, MacEachen served as a private member during the St. Laurent years. He chastised me for describing an MP as a “backbencher.” He thought it unfairly diminished the independent role of the private member.

He worked for then-opposition leader Lester Pearson after losing his seat (by 16 votes) in the 1958 election. MacEachen, Maurice Lamontagne, and Tom Kent were a powerful brain trust to Pearson. MacEachen always described himself as a “Pearson Liberal.” A photograph of a smiling young MacEachen riding with Pearson in a convertible with the top down during a campaign tour in the early ‘60s occupied a place of honour in MacEachen’s parliamentary offices.

MacEachen profoundly believed in the redemptive power of government and the moral duty of the state to look after the sick, the poor, and the elderly. These were themes of his campaign for the Liberal leadership in 1968.

In his chronicle of the period, Distemper of our Times, Peter Newman described MacEachen during the campaign as an “authentic voice of the Liberal left.” As the Laird of Lake Ainslie, he left as his legacy new roads, airports, and harbours; improvements to the steel and coal industry; a heavy water processing plant; and a national citizenship office.

MacEachen deserved the sobriquet the “Celtic sphinx.”

I served as his legislative assistant (1982-4), having won the assignment probably because I wore my clan’s tartan tie to the interview (MacEachen was very proud of Canada’s Scottish heritage).

Shortly before Question Period, I would enter his cavernous office, across from the House of Commons, to brief him while he finished the plate of cream cheese and fruit prepared by his indispensable assistant and gatekeeper Pearl Hunter. MacEachen would listen, nod, and then slowly walk over to the House. Three months had gone by and he had not said a word to me.

I had asked Sean Riley, who later become president of St. Francis Xavier University, if I should do anything. “Three months…it was at least that for me…just wait,” he replied.

Finally, one day when I had given him a particularly obtuse response on a Middle East issue, the Sphinx stirred.

The deep, rumbling baritone asked: “Would you really say that? Would you really say that in the House of Commons?” Pondering my loyalty to the foreign ministry (my department) against my service to its minister, I blurted “No minister.”

There was a pause. “What would you say?”

I burbled something. He nodded and went into the House. A variation on the question was asked but his answer bore no resemblance to what the department or I had offered. It was erudite and informed, earning him admiring laughter but leaving nothing for the opposition to chew on.

MacEachen also knew how to manage the mandarins. He would keep a piece of paper with two columns: what they wanted and what he wanted. Their list was always much longer and they would constantly push to get things done. He had some projects he wanted done–for the constituency and for Atlantic Canada–as well as policy initiatives around North/South relations or trade. He would take out the piece of paper and remind them the score was very much in their favour but his asks were still outstanding. It got results.

Canny, shrewd, and wily, Allan J. MacEachen knew how to get things done. Canada is a better place to live and work thanks to Allan J.

Colin Robertson is a former diplomat who worked as a departmental legislative assistant to Allan MacEachen from 1982 to 1984 while he was foreign affairs minister and deputy prime minister. Mr. Robertson is now vice-president and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a senior adviser with Dentons, LLP.

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Allan J. MacEachen: How to be a cabinet minister

They don’t make cabinet ministers like they used to – for better or worse


Special to The Globe and Mail Tuesday, Jul. 16 2013

As ministers, new and old, begin anew the process of governing, they might reflect on the career of Allan MacEachen.

Mr. MacEachen, who recently celebrated his 92nd birthday, worked on Parliament Hill from 1953 to 1995. He sat as a private member, as senior advisor in the office of opposition leader Lester B. Pearson, then served in the cabinets of Mr. Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, John Turner and Jean Chrétien before his retirement from the Senate in 1996.

Through four decades he served in a dozen cabinet portfolios, including Minister of Finance, Health and Welfare, Labour, and Manpower and Immigration. He served several stints in External Affairs (as it was then called) and as Government House Leader. Mr. MacEachen got things done, including the passage of Medicare.

Still, Allan MacEachen’s first priority was always to his constituency in Cape Breton. Not a day passed without a call and concentrated attention to the riding. He had lost, by fourteen votes, his seat in the Diefenbaker sweep of 1958. It would never happen again.

Mr. MacEachen practiced retail politics and he understood the redemptive power of government and the importance of helping people to “put bread on the table.” While he was in cabinet, Cape Breton would receive funding for docks, for lighthouses, for the heavy water-plant, and for those who worked in the coal mines. As a regional minister, he made sure Nova Scotia and the Atlantic received similar attention.

As minister, he would keep a piece of paper in his pocket, neatly divided into two columns. On the left were carefully inscribed the two or three things that mattered to him – like his next quarterly with his old MIT professor, U.S. secretary of state George Shultz. Mr. MacEachen understood the importance of the U.S. relationship. Always on list, of course, was also something for the riding or region.

On the other side of this ledger, brought to him daily by his senior officials, were the urgent and the immediate. It was a long list. After their barrage of briefings, Mr. MacEachen would steer the conversation back to his agenda. Out would come the list and the request for an update on progress.

For Allan MacEachen, good policy made for good politics and good politics was usually good policy.

On departmental matters, he benefitted from a practice dating to the early days of External Affairs but that exists no longer. Memoranda to the minister would always include the name and telephone number of the originating author, usually the desk officer and subject-matter expert, in the upper right hand corner.

Canny ministers like Mr. MacEachen would call the desk officer to get their opinion. Flora MacDonald was famous for her calls to junior officers.

While civil service advice is intended to be fearless, there is a tendency by those higher up the ladder to shade and shave to what they think the minister of the day would like to hear. The result is homogenized recommendations, pale shadows of the original proposition.

Mr. MacEachen had a lot of time for deputy ministers, as long as they knew their stuff. Those that didn’t found themselves disinvited from briefings and, in short order, replaced. He expected insight and intelligence from the senior civil servants. He would read the cabled dispatches, annotate his comments, as he would also do with the cabinet memoranda, and send them back to the department for action.

There was another feature to earlier governments, since discontinued: the embedding of junior and mid-level civil servants within the ministerial staff as legislative assistants or spokespersons – jobs now held exclusively by the exempt staff.

With the title of departmental assistant, they would daily grease the divide between the ministerial staff and permanent civil service. This had the additional benefit of giving these officers a political education that they never forgot. Personally loyal to the minister and always threading a fine line between the political and the policy, for the most part they adhered to the principle of non-partisanship. In the longer term it made for a better civil service because they understood the way it worked.

Mr. MacEachen depended heavily on his political staff, especially for constituency matters. He recruited well and the alumni have become university presidents, cabinet ministers and CEOs. There was no five-year rule, since imposed by the Harper government as part of their accountability commitments, prohibiting exempt staff from working, post-politics, in positions now deemed to be lobbyists.

While it increases accountability and prevents a too cosy transition between government and government relations, the new approach effectively narrows the talent pool and curbs the incentive for public service. Bill Clinton had imposed a similar rule when he become president, but subsequently lifted it, recognizing that the public good is better advanced by being able to draw on the best possible talent for those who do the nation’s business.

Different times come with different mores, but it is useful to recall these earlier experiences and the practices of that era.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson served as a departmental assistant to Allan J. MacEachen.


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