CANADIAN Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's recently announced resignation is not a misfortune, but a blessing whose disguise will be short-lived. By week's end, the word will be out and he'll be stripped of all but his epitaph: he wore nice suits.
Canadians may choose to cling to the cult that was Pierre Elliott Trudeau: yet--class act or not--the truth is the country has been itching for a change of scene.
"Isn't it time?" has been the query of cross-country phone-ins for the past year. But the enigmatic Trudeau remained elusive to the end, waiting for the day of leap year to toy with Canadian mind and media. Adding insult to insult, he announced his decision by letter and bypassed the press he so disdains.
The gesture--half coy and fully arrogant--was that of the philosopher playboy and says much about the man who's exhausted national cynicism by playing Parliament and parading as Ambassadeur extraordinarie at the expense of domestic recovery.
In most countries, durability is usually a sign there's a gun behind the ballot box or lollipops in front of it. Trudeau was the sweetest of candidates, a perennial choice but a bit of a Catch-22. Fifteen years brought few political alternatives. Conservative leaders Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark were no match; what are molasses and oatmeal compared to the Jesuit-trained, Bhagavad-Gita believing wooer of Margaret, flower child and Rolling Stone groupie?
For a country whose reputation for being dull is only exceeded by its own schizophrenic sense of self, Trudeau became the alter ego--the seducer and inevitable misleader. He played on the nation's vanity and dour self-image, making Ottawa--the greyest of places--a momentary Camelot. Canada wanted a performer and found one in this brilliant intellectual star. But inflation surged, the dollar plummeted, and Trudeau's light faded.
Serious policy lost out to the rag trade. Over-spending brought the country budget deficits and an unemployment rate proportionately higher than that of the United States. A series of disastrous budgets in recent years demonstrated his party's inability to adapt the economic thinking of the past decade to the current one. For fiscal reasons alone. Trudeau would not have won reelection.
At the same time, his years saw the federal government increasingly at odds with the provinces over education, health care, and energy issues. Trudeau's attempts to address the country's linguistic divisions by legislating bilingualism and giving French official language status antagonized the English-speaking provinces at a time when the Prime Minister was demanding more concessions of these same oil-rich Western provinces. All this from a man whose political power base was decidely French, Eastern, and generally anti-business.
Worse still, Trudeau inherited an entrenched Liberal machine. With it came civil service technocrats and policy formulations that were aloof and irreverent to popular needs and the special realities of the Canadian economy.
THE CANADIAN psyche has suffered the politics of these egg-headed mandarins. Multi-culturalism, bilingualism, Canadianism--Trudeau programs from which the country has only begun to recover. Though linguistic tolerance improved, it came only at a grave price: the total alienation of Western Canada. It is not surprising that Trudeau suffered the humiliation of egg peltings and rock-throwings on visits to Alberta or British Columbia; west of Ontario, Trudeau's party has only one representative in Parliament, and still less popular support. Nationally, and for over two years, Trudeau has trailed in the polls.
Nevertheless, the imbalances of Parliament kept him in power. Populous and predominantly French-speaking Quebec is a traditional Liberal stronghold where the loyalty of numbers translated into seats and power. No matter that most of the country was colored Tory blue.
This discrepancy emphasized traditional East-West (Anglo-Francophone) antipathy, polarized policy and made much of the nation feel underrepresented and unlistened to.
The malaise finally crept into Trudeau's own party. An autocrat who rarely consulted caucus, Trudeau exploited his power of personality and cultivated his dislike for day-to-day administration. Accountability to the press and to members of his own party became less and less frequent, but back-benchers kept their mouths shut--knowing Trudeau was the only hope for their own political backsides.
Ideologically, the party is spent and its integrity sold to the small "s" socialism that is Trudeau's own. Unlike the rejuvenated and widely popular opposition Conservatives, the Liberal party has no program, no platform. Its body has long been attached to the head of its leader.
Outside Parliament, however, most Canadians have not been so duped. Most contentious has been Trudeau's xenophobic national socialism which served to restrict foreign investment and to suffocate the crucial oil and gas industry in the name of Canadian control.
The result has been economic disaster. Without foreign capital (especially U.S. dollars). Canada's economy has been paralyzed. Given its reliance on primary resources and a small population, Canada desperately needs investment and foreign good will. But Trudeau systematically denied this, while at the same time denying responsibility for all economic problems--ironically citing his nation's inability to control the effects of the world marketplace.
Even Trudeau's largest success--repatriating the Canadian constitution in 1980--brought mixed results. Trudeau wished to break the last colonial ties with London and symbolically bring Canada back to Canadians. He succeeded, but only after embroiling the provinces in unseemly squabbles and making the country painfully aware of its fragile condition.
Pierre Trudeau most often overlooked Canadians, shuttling off in pursuit of admirable foreign-affair goals and the position of the U.N. Secretary General. For this, he will go down in Canadian history as the politician who, while untying the colonial knot, more often played the absentee landlord. Move over, Perez de Cuellar.