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Christopher Grier: The what-ifs of the Budget 1979 vote

Commentary

Usually we think of history as the story of what actually happened. Yet, as historian Niall Ferguson recently argued in a podcast, another way of thinking about history can be found in “trying to remind yourself again and again that what happened, that what we know happened, might have gone the other way.” 

This process of counterfactual analysis, as Ferguson noted, allows us to think about the contingencies of history: that is events that could have plausibly gone a different direction than they did and, in that one change, a whole series of events would have been unfolded differently.

To illustrate his point, he offered the dramatic example of the decision of the U.K. cabinet to enter World War I, which was the key factor in turning that conflict from another continental war into a world war. Ferguson noted that at the time it was not taken for granted that the British cabinet would in fact choose to join the war, and if it had not, the history of the 20th century would have been significantly altered. 

Canadian history may, at first glance, appear to not be fertile ground for counterfactuals given it lacks some of the drama that popular counterfactuals are often built around. Yet there are undoubtedly key moments where Canadian history turned even though people at the time may not have realized it.

One such moment occurred on an evening in Ottawa 43 years ago last month. On December 13, 1979, MPs gathered in the House of Commons to vote on the first budget of Joe Clark’s young government.

John Crosbie, Clark’s finance minister, had tabled a budget which sought to demonstrate a new note of fiscal responsibility with limited new spending and a hike to the gas tax but was not well received by the public. Sensing an opportunity, the Liberals pulled out all the stops to get their MPs to the Chamber that evening leading to an unusual level of suspense about the outcome. The final tally was 139 Nays to 133 Yeas with five MPs abstaining. Joe Clark’s government had fallen a little more than six months after it was sworn in. 

In the campaign that followed, Pierre Trudeau emerged victorious and moved back into 24 Sussex. Rather than rest on his laurels, the next four years cemented much of what is remembered of the Trudeau legacy. It’s fair to say that, in many ways, we’re still living in the world that was set in motion during the Trudeau government’s subsequent term.

That legacy first and foremost being the 1982 repatriation of the Canadian Constitution, which most notably included the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This term also saw the creation of the National Energy Program, to much unhappiness in Alberta, and the federalist victory in the first referendum on independence in Quebec. While this was a productive term, it also left the Liberals deeply unpopular, as John Turner discovered upon succeeding Trudeau. So in some sense, the Mulroney government that followed was also part of the legacy of the final Trudeau term.  

However, all of this could have been very different. A few weeks before the 1979 vote, Pierre Trudeau had announced he would leave the Liberal leadership once a leadership contest could be held, and the party had started planning for his succession. Had the PC government survived that vote and lasted even a few more months, Pierre Trudeau would not have led the Liberals into the campaign and thus never returned as PM. 

As this never happened we can never fully know what this alternative history would have looked like, so some caution is required when engaging in the not entirely scientific practice of counterfactual history. But it seems undeniable that had the Clark government won that vote, the last 43 years of Canadian history would have some distinct differences.  

This is most clearly seen in the patriation of the Constitution. This was a particular passion project of Trudeau which he had tried and failed to achieve in his first round in office as he could not get a consensus among the premiers. Rather than be discouraged by the challenges of finding agreement, Trudeau returned to office prepared to spend enormous political capital and hardball tactics to make it happen. It is far from certain that another PM from either the PCs or Liberals would have been so committed to constitutional reform. There was no grand popular demand for constitutional reform. The deal happened because Trudeau was willing to go to great effort in outmaneuvering his foes in the provinces. 

No constitutional deal means no Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the accompanying judicial revolution that followed. As The Hub has recently reflected on, the Charter has so massively reshaped Canadian law and policy that it is hard to imagine Canada without it. But it can too easy to miss the degree to which the Charter and the entire patriation project required Trudeau’s will to make it happen. 

While the impact of the deal is most felt in the impact the Charter has had on our laws, it had implications in many other ways. For instance, the final deal was famously done without the participation of Rene Levesque who was surprised to learn that Trudeau was willing to cut a deal without Quebec. What Trudeau may not have realized (or cared about) is that doing so would help shatter the Liberal’s dominance of Quebec. From 1891 up to the 1980 election the Liberals won a majority of the seats in Quebec in all but two elections, frequently dominating the seat count in the province (in 1980 they took 74 of 75). In the 12 elections that followed the Liberals have won a majority of Quebec seats only once, by a narrow margin in 2015.

The National Energy Program is another big what-if. It is unlikely that the Clark government, with so many of its MPs from Western Canada, would have enacted such a program. The NEP in the West and the repatriation in Quebec both contributed to disillusionment with Ottawa in the East and West. This first benefited Mulroney as it swept him to power, and then it helped to tear his party apart, resulting in the rise of both the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois. 

On the other hand, some major developments may well have happened even if Trudeau had not returned to power, such as the free trade deal with the U.S. While John Turner offered voracious opposition to the deal, Mulroney adopted free trade at the recommendation of the Macdonald Commission which was established by the subsequent Trudeau government. The namesake of the Macdonald Commission was Donald Stovel Macdonald, a long-time Liberal cabinet minister who was the favorite to succeed Trudeau as Liberal leader in the leadership contest that was cancelled in 1979. Had he succeeded Trudeau as Liberal leader and won the next election, perhaps it would have been his government rather than Mulroney who made a deal with the U.S.

Or alternatively, a longer-lasting Clark government may have launched free trade talks given another early champion of the idea was Finance Minister John Crosbie (who was ironically attacked by Mulroney for proposing the idea in the 1983 PC leadership race.) 

The impact of a Trudeauless 1980s on other events is harder to know. For instance, the 1980 Quebec referendum saw the Yes side lose by nearly 20 percent. It’s possible the result would have been similar under a Clark government. But, on the other hand, having Trudeau and his top lieutenant, Jean Chretien, at the top of the government was a major challenge to the Yes argument that Quebec needed independence to have power. In contrast, despite Clark’s best efforts, the PC government was thin on Quebec representation with only two Quebec MPs and 13.5 percent of the popular vote in Quebec. If the PQ had had Clark as a foil during the referendum campaign, it is possible that the dynamic of the campaign would have been different and the result could have been different as well. 

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Of course, this all leads to the question: is it plausible to think PCs could have won the 1979 vote? That night there were 136 PC MPs to 114 Liberals, 27 NDP, and 5 Social Credit serving in the House. With Liberal James Jerome serving as Speaker, that meant the Liberal/NDP MPs had a maximum of 140 votes. If the PCs and Social Credit voted together, they would have 142 votes. 

The Social Credit MPs had been trying to convince the PCs to give them some concessions in order to get their support for the budget. The Clark government may have assumed that the Social Credit MPs had no choice but to support the PCs given an election would not be in their best interests. And given that the 1980 election saw the entire Social Credit caucus defeated and the party disappeared from the political scene, this was not entirely wrong analysis. But in the moment, it was not so great as a tactical assumption.

However, given that the final count was 139 Nays to 133 Yeas, even if the five Social Credits MPs had been enticed to vote in favour, the government still would have fallen thanks to three missing PC MPs who were absent due to illness or ministerial travel. Unlike the Liberals who went to extreme lengths to get all their members to the vote, the PCs had two ministers away travelling on the day of the vote. Clark and his cabinet appeared to have been operating on an assumption that a defeat would see Canadians rally to the newly elected government and turn the minority into a majority as John Diefenbaker did in 1958. 

This assumption was clearly faulty in retrospect but it was also pretty dubious at the time given there was little evidence in public polling that the voters were excited by what they were seeing in the Clark government. This also gets to one of the challenges of this counterfactual: if the PCs were capable of recognizing the risks of a loss and avoiding it, they may also simply have been better at politics overall and thus more likely to win the election when it did happen.

Since we cannot go back and redo that vote we’ll never be able to be certain of what may have happened. Yet it is still a useful thought experiment because it helps to illustrates the ways in which history is highly contingent. While it is undoubtedly clear that the world in which Clark and Crosbie won the parliamentary vote would have in large part produced a similar to the one we live in, it is a reminder that the tides of history are less certain than we sometimes imagine, which is a reason to take the choices before us a little more seriously. 

Richard Shimooka: Canada’s fighter jet debacle is a costly ode to unseriousness

Commentary

In the days leading up to Christmas, the government quietly made the decision to acquire the F-35. This should be the final step in the long-running saga to replace the CF-18, and the timing was fairly revealing—it is a file that this government wants to draw as little attention to as possible, given how poorly it has handled it.

Many Canadians may be confused by this development, as the government had seemingly stated last March that the F-35 would be Canada’s next fighter. Yet what was announced at the time was that it was the preferred solution, and the government would now enter into negotiations with Lockheed Martin and the U.S. government to finalize the contract. While there was the possibility that Ottawa might have decided to go to the second-place bidder, such an outcome has never occurred with a major Canadian procurement program. 

On the surface, this may seem like an orderly process, but the reality is that it reflects a serious governance failure around the procurement. Yet this was an obfuscation; in reality, this was a needlessly drawn-out process that further increased the cost to Canadians and detrimentally affected the country’s security. 

In 2014, the Harper government decided for the second time to acquire the F-35. Their negotiation for it—which was also more complex than the 2022 procurement because it incorporated a swap with the U.S. government to deliver four aircraft within a year in order to accelerate the transition—required four months. This should be seen as a baseline for comparison to the current situation, where the Trudeau government has taken 10 months to make a similar decision.

Much of the delay arises from allowing bureaucratic parties to hold up progress because of resistance to the method by which the F-35 had to be procured. While the typical refrain for this sort of objection is that these parties are ensuring the “integrity” of the process and obtaining the best value for money, it does nothing of the sort. 

In reality, the government had no real ability to alter any part of the contract under negotiation with Lockheed Martin. The government will acquire the F-35 through a unique arrangement with the U.S. government and six other countries, known as the Joint Strike Fighter Partnership. This allowed it to purchase it at the exact same cost as what the U.S. government pays. In contrast, Canada typically pays a 3-20 percent surcharge on any item purchased from the United States. The partnership also allowed Canadian firms to bid on lucrative subcontracts for all F-35s produced, which has netted $2.8 Billion dollars thus far over the past 15 years. However, to be a member, Canada was required to invest nearly $700m in membership fees and purchase F-35s for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

By acquiring F-35s through the partnership, Canada’s ability to change the contractual terms of the agreement was non-existent—those were largely established in a memorandum of understanding signed in 2006. Roughly speaking, all Canada can request is how many aircraft it wants and its preferred delivery schedule. The cost is set by the negotiations between the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office (representing the partnership) and Lockheed Martin. The program office then merely attempts to align this request with available slots in the production line. This is why Canada is only moving to acquire 18 aircraft out of a total fleet of 88 at this time—Ottawa must wait for the Program Office’s negotiation on cost to occur for future years before it can select aircraft. 

However, by delaying its own selection process, Canada’s delivery schedule has likely slipped. Earlier in December, Germany finalized its order of 35 F-35s, which will push the RCAF’s delivery slots further down the list. This is highly problematic considering the atrocious state of the CF-18 fleet, which requires urgent replacement. While the plan was to retire these aircraft by 2032, it’s unlikely now that this schedule will be met—which means the RCAF will have to soldier on with the aircraft that will be over 50 years old by the time they will be retired from service. 

But even now the limitations of the CF-18 fleet are evident. Last week, it was announced that the RCAF will not provide a rotation of fighters to defend European skies next year for the first time in five years, in spite of the ongoing war in Ukraine and Russian threats against NATO. The reality is that the RCAF is unlikely to be able to do much more than defend North America for the next decade. In the coming years, Canada will divest half of its CF-18 fleet, leaving less than 40 aging fighters to defend Canada’s airspace and its interests. Despite being updated with new radars and weapons, the remaining aircraft will be far behind the average of all of our allies. This is a key factor behind the RCAF’s poor retention rate: personnel are aware of the fighter force’s perilous state due to years of neglect and inaction and have given up and left the service. 

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Simply put, this entire situation can be attributed to the Trudeau government’s lack of leadership. Even ignoring all of the missteps on this file between 2015 to early 2022, it failed to cut through irrelevant bureaucratic objections that in real terms delayed the retirement of the CF-18s by another year, and likely cost Canadian taxpayers tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars due to the cost of keeping the antiquated aircraft flying for that additional time. 

While the fighter replacement saga is drawing to a close, similar dynamics are evident in other programs. Canada desperately requires a new Maritime Patrol aircraft to undertake security over our coasts. The current aircraft, the CP-140 Aurora, is now over 40 years old and has seen heavy service over the past two decades. As David Pugliese recently reported, Boeing Aerospace offered an untendered proposal to the Canadian government to replace them with eight to twelve P-8 Poseidon aircraft. 

Boeing’s push is partly due to the reality that the production line for the aircraft is set to shut down in 2025, and the U.S. acquisition system requires two years lead time for aircraft to be delivered. The P-8 has become the replacement for almost every single close ally that used the same airframe as the CP-140 (known as the P-3 Orion). Countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Norway, and South Korea began an orderly replacement process that started a decade ago and is now nearing completion. 

Considering the Trudeau government’s inability to deliver decisions in a timely fashion, it is quite possible that it will make a decision outside of Boeing’s window of opportunity. If Canada fails to acquire the P-8, its potential options are limited. One option, which many military officials seem to fear, is that the air force will be forced to acquire a much smaller, shorter-ranged, and less capable aircraft, perhaps based on a Bombardier 6000 series. Such an aircraft would not meet Canada’s military requirements and would likely cost more than the P-8 option due to the cost of modifying the platform to meet the RCAF’s needs. 

What the entire fighter saga debacle has shown is that this government must become much more adept at making decisions in a timely fashion. Unnecessary bureaucratic processes and delays do not improve outcomes for Canada. Instead, they increase costs and compromise the country’s security. If this government is serious about improving the country’s security, this is a good place to start.