Walter Gordon, John Crosbie, Paul Martin
Troy Media – by Pat Murphy
With a new federal budget due on March 29, it’s appropriate to take a trip down memory lane. Over the past 50 years, three Canadian budgets particularly stand out.
Walter Gordon: On June 13, 1963, finance minister Walter Gordon introduced his first budget. Lester Pearson’s Liberals had won power just over two months earlier, and Gordon – beloved of the Toronto Star – was perceived as one of the new government’s brightest lights. He was also an outspoken nationalist with a particular concern about the extent of foreign, essentially American, investment in Canada.
While the civil service wasn’t too keen on some of his proposals, Gordon was determined to plough ahead. As summarised by fiscal historian J. Harvey Perry, his budget included measures directed toward reducing foreign investment in Canada, a principal one being a 30 per cent tax on foreign takeovers of Canadian firms.
Gordon’s boldness may have been in keeping with the Liberal “60 Days of Decision” election theme, but the euphoria didn’t last long. Political opposition was intense. And as the civil servants had privately warned, implementation difficulties came to the surface. Within a matter of weeks, Pearson’s minority government withdrew the contentious provisions.
Gordon’s bright career never quite recovered from the episode. Writing in the old Toronto Telegram a few days after the watered down budget finally cleared the Commons, the columnist Doug Fisher presciently anticipated his political obituary. To Fisher, Gordon was an example of political puffery, a man whose reputation had been inflated by his party and its newspaper supporters who presented him as a “symbol of the all-wise.”
Except he wasn’t. When push came to shove, Walter Lockhart Gordon was out of his depth. Way out.
John Crosbie: In December 1979, another newly-elected government came a cropper with its first budget. But this time, the consequences went way beyond embarrassment and the derailing of a political career. The government fell.
Although his election victory over Pierre Trudeau hadn’t produced a majority, Joe Clark was determined to act as if it had. He was also in no hurry to bring in a budget, waiting over six months to do so. In the meantime, Trudeau announced his decision to resign the Liberal leadership and retire to private life.
It seemed like a golden opportunity to execute a strategy of “short-term pain for long-term gain.” Surely the effectively leaderless Liberals wouldn’t precipitate another election by defeating the budget and bringing down the government? So when finance minister John Crosbie stepped up to the plate on December 11, it was a relatively tough document, highlighted by a significant gasoline tax increase.
The failure was spectacular. Not only did the government misread the Liberals, but through a curious combination of hubris and ineptitude it also failed to bring all its members to the House or woo its putative Social Credit allies. On the evening of December 13, it fell by a margin of six votes.
Politically, this proved to be a genuine game changer. Trudeau decided to stay on and swept the ensuing February 1980 election. And, for better or worse, his 1980/84 term was momentous. Among other things, the constitution was patriated, the Charter was introduced, and the National Energy Program was implemented. Deeply unpopular when he finally left office, Trudeau still left his mark.
Paul Martin: Martin’s March 1995 budget was also a game changer, albeit in a direction contrary to that of the Trudeau years. After decades of deficits, spending was cut deeply, setting the stage for a return to balance within three years and a subsequent string of surpluses.
In the process, the Liberals turned their back on much of the platform on which they’d won power less than 18 months previously. Interestingly, when the upstart Reform Party had proposed to eliminate the deficit in three years during that very same election campaign, they had been slated as extreme and unrealistic. Life’s like that!
All of which brings us to the question of what category the March 29 budget will fall into. Will the infamous “hidden agenda” finally be revealed for all to see? Or will the deepest fears of conservatives and libertarians – that Stephen Harper is a paper tiger – be confirmed?.
We’ll soon know. But then again, given Harper’s penchant for cautious incrementalism, maybe we won’t.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.