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Andrew Cohen

The political lessons of Lester Pearson Add to ...

Professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University and author of Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson

Last September, Stephen Harper asked the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament. He said that minority government was "dysfunctional" and that he needed a majority to address the growing economic uncertainty.

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That minority government is unworkable was one of two grand fallacies of that fading, feverish political season. The other was that the Liberal Party was in steep decline.

After all, in the subsequent election that returned the Conservatives to office, the Liberals fell to 77 seats (from 103 in 2006). And they dropped to 26 per cent of the popular vote, their smallest share since 1867.

Commentators began writing obituaries for Canada's "natural governing party." Bankrupt, diminished and dispirited, facing a long, expensive leadership race, the Liberals were called a spent force.

Yet, in the strange and wondrous ways of politics, the spring of 2009 is looking different than the autumn of 2008. The Liberals have a new leader, they have eclipsed the Conservatives in Quebec and national polls show a new competitiveness. As the economic landscape has shifted, so has the political landscape.

The events before and since the dissolution of Mr. Harper's minority government on Sept. 7 belie the conventional wisdom that minority government can't work and that the Liberals can't win. But we don't need the past six months to disprove these canards. We have only to look at national politics from 1958 to 1968.

Consider, first, the Prime Minister's assertion that minority government is ineffective. This isn't necessarily so.

Lester Pearson was elected with a minority in April of 1963. He governed for 2½ years before seeking a majority in 1965. Once again, he fell short. Yet, his five years in office were the most productive in our history. Today, Mr. Pearson emerges as a transformative leader; his Canada is today's Canada - modern, progressive and tolerant.

His government produced the national pension plan, universal health care, official bilingualism and the flag. It also brought in the guaranteed income supplement, the Auto Pact, the Order of Canada, new regulatory agencies and more open immigration.

Mr. Pearson was supported by the New Democrats as well as dissident Conservatives from Quebec. He also had the advantage of an expanding economy. But that didn't make it easy. Every day, Mr. Pearson faced John Diefenbaker, the fiercest of partisans, across the floor of the House of Commons. Their antipathy played out in a low, guttural catfight that dismayed Canadians.

Yet, the government governed. It embraced a vigorous federal-provincial diplomacy, for example, presiding over what historian John English calls the greatest period of decentralization in Canada's history. It sent peacekeepers to Cyprus.

Mr. Harper can learn the lessons of minority government from Mr. Pearson - but, in fact, he has already lived them. His 39th Parliament was the longest uninterrupted minority government in Canadian history. It passed a respectable 65 bills.

Dysfunctional? A hung parliament didn't stop the Conservatives from cutting taxes, increasing defence spending, declaring the Québécois "a nation" and extending our commitment in Afghanistan.

Mr. Pearson shows today's Liberals how to reconstitute themselves and gain power. The restoration of the Liberal Party between 1958 and 1963 is Mr. Pearson's greatest unacknowledged achievement.

For all the dark predictions of last autumn, it is important to note that the Liberals were worse off after the election of 1958 - when they were reduced to 49 seats - than after the election of 2008. The Conservatives had won the largest parliamentary majority ever, sending the Liberals into a political exile for what many thought would last a decade. And unlike today, Mr. Pearson's Liberals could not bring down the Conservatives and force an election when the timing favoured them.

Although his wife wanted him to quit, Mr. Pearson refused. Having marched his party into the abyss, he felt a duty to it; he hadn't become leader to preside over his party's demise. And so he set about modernizing an antiquated organization that had eroded under Louis St. Laurent.

How did the Liberals do it? Seeking ideas, they organized the Kingston Conference in 1960 and the National Rally in 1961, producing the blueprint for a more egalitarian society. Mr. Pearson appointed national director Keith Davey, who, with Walter Gordon, expanded the party membership, recast its advertising and streamlined its organization. In the early 1960s, the Liberals recruited tomorrow's leaders: John Turner, Jean Chrétien, Donald Macdonald, Mitchell Sharp, Herb Gray, Eugene Whelan and, later, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Marchand, and Gérard Pelletier.

While Mr. Pearson had been an indifferent administrator as a minister, he now learned how to run a big organization. He also learned to become a politician, much as he disliked politics.

A generation later, his lessons endure. As much as Lester Pearson can teach Stephen Harper about governing, he can teach Michael Ignatieff about leading. The next time out, the best student will win.

 

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