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Broadbent Reads: Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals and the Social Democratic Left

What is the true nature of the Liberal Party of Canada? Is it a genuinely progressive party of the centre-left, worthy of the support of those pushing for a more equal and inclusive society? Or is it essentially a party of the status quo which campaigns from the left but generally governs from the right? These questions have a rich historical dimension which remains relevant today.

Historian Christo Aivalis has published a new scholarly book, “The Constant Liberal: Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour and the Canadian Social Democratic Left” (UBC Press, 2018.) The core argument is that Trudeau was essentially a small-l liberal before and during his terms as Prime Minister, despite a lifelong engagement with the CCF-NDP and the labour movement. His political goal was to govern from the centre, while absorbing the left.

The parallels with today's situation in which Justin Trudeau portrays himself as a progressive on social and environmental issues are striking, though Aivalis leaves it to the reader to draw her or his own conclusions regarding the contemporary relevance of his historical account.

Before entering electoral politics on behalf of the federal Liberals in Quebec in 1965, Pierre Trudeau was widely seen as a man of the left. He had been a student of the socialist and leading British Labour Party intellectual Harold Laski at the London School of Economics, and was a close friend and colleague of F.R. Scott of McGill University, a leading intellectual force in the CCF, the precursor of the NDP. He was also close to Charles Taylor, the most prominent NDP intellectual and politician in Quebec in the 1960s, and to Eugene Forsey, the long time research director of the CCL, the precursor to the Canadian Labour Congress. Trudeau played an active role in labour education and in public and legal support for the Quebec labour movement in its struggles against the reactionary and anti-labour Duplessis regime in Quebec through the 1950s into the 1960s.

While Trudeau was clearly close to the social democratic left and the labour movement, Aivalis convincingly argues that he ultimately joined the Liberals since he sought a broad popular coalition of popular forces in opposition to Duplessis which would be undercut by too great an emphasis upon class issues. His priority was the fight for democratic and political rights, not democratic socialism, and as a convinced federalist he was also put off by the centralizing impulses of the CCF and NDP and, later, by  NDP willingness to constructively respond to Quebec nationalism on the basis of the “two nations” view of Canada.

In 1968, Trudeau campaigned for what he called the “Just Society” but this had limited content in terms of advancement of economic and social rights, and reflected his respect for private property rights and support for a mixed economy. In the 1970s, the Liberals widely canvassed the option of introducing some form of Guaranteed Annual Income as an anti-poverty measure, and expanded funding for Unemployment Insurance as well as other forms of social spending. But, when it came to issues of progressive taxation, social spending and income re-distribution, Trudeau generally deferred to his Ministers of Finance who, like John Turner and Edgar Benson, had close links to Bay Street and corporate Canada and wanted to reign in government spending after big increases under the Pearson government. (Allan J. MacEachen as Minister of Finance from 1980 to 1982 did introduce a major fair tax budget, but this was largely withdrawn under strong business pressure.)

Aivalis argues that Trudeau's greatest political achievement, the repatriation of the Constitution with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was flawed by its virtual exclusion of social and economic rights, including labour rights. However, property rights were also left out, despite the support of Trudeau. Labour and the left generally supported the Charter and stressed the importance of entrenching democratic and civil rights to secure the continued progress of the left, while pushing successfully for equality rights for women and recognition of aboriginal rights.

Trudeau in office in the mid to late 1970s ultimately chose to deal with high and rising inflation and unemployment, “stagflation”,  by imposing legislated wage and price controls, which were effectively only applied to wages while profits recovered. The labour movement saw this with good reason as the start of a major attack on labour rights and the gains of the post war welfare state generally, and Trudeau's bid to promote an accord with organized labour in the post controls period foundered due to labour's rejection of the very limited form of power sharing that was on offer from Trudeau.

While the Prime Minister, under the influence of progressive economists like John Kenneth Galbraith and social democratic leaders like Helmut Schmidt of Germany, did advocate ongoing consultation with labour as a part of national economic management, he was clearly opposed to labour's call for a major expansion of public ownership and public investment as the alternative to rising unemployment and stagnation. Trudeau was not a “neoliberal”, but he was strongly committed to the core institutions of a liberal market economy and set the stage for the attack on the Keynesian welfare state which gathered pace in the 1980s under the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney and the Chretien Liberal government.

The partial exception in this small-l liberal record was the turn towards economic nationalism with the National Energy Program, the creation of Petro-Canada, the establishment of the Canada Development Corporation and the institution through FIRA of reviews of foreign investment in Canada. However, as Aivalis argues, most of this activist economic agenda reflected the demands of the NDP during the 1972 to 1974 minority government which strengthened the hand of the few nationalists in the Liberal Cabinet such as Eric Kierans.

To a degree, the Prime Minister welcomed pressure from the left to balance off conservative forces within his own party, but the vision of a more independent Canada and a strong economic role for government came from the left and thinkers like Mel Watkins and Kari Levitt who strongly influenced the NDP.

Aivalis's argument that Pierre Trudeau was a “Constant Liberal” is subtle, and acknowledges that organized labour and the NDP were not always consistently advocating policies well to the left of the Liberals. There was, for example, some NDP support for wage and price controls, including from then Premiers Alan Blakeney and Ed Schreyer, and there were sometimes less than crystal clear divisions between progressive Liberal ministers and the NDP when it came to social policy issues. Nonetheless, the picture that emerges from his detailed presentation of domestic policy is one of continued substantive differences in policy orientation between the Liberals on the one hand, and labour and the NDP on the other in the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Somewhat curiously, Aivalis does not discuss Trudeau's offer of cabinet seats to then NDP leader Ed Broadbent after the 1980 election left the Liberals with almost no representation in Western Canada. This overture was rejected, partly because the NDP would have been walking into a trap given the fact that the Liberals held a majority, and mainly because the NDP goal was to shift Canadian politics to the left. The episode underlines the argument of Aivalis that fundamental differences of principle separated the two parties.

Unfortunately Aivalis does not deal with foreign policy, where it can be argued that Trudeau played a constructive role in opposition to polarized Cold War politics. He did not, however, join the NDP in opposing the US war in Vietnam.

Christo Aivalis presents a convincing argument that Trudeau was a consistent liberal democrat, and that he operated at a clear distance from the social democratic tradition of which he was highly aware. This may not be an especially controversial thesis, but his careful re-telling of the historical record provides a useful and interesting narrative which will be of interest to many readers today, and provides considerable fodder for thought as we engage in current political debates.


Andrew Jackson is an Adjunct Research Professor in the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University in Canada, and senior policy adviser to the Broadbent Institute.

Photo: Lawyrtd. Used under a creative commons license.