Monday, December 15, 2014

Our Lives: Liberal Governments, 1963-1974 (7)

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The generation that grew up during the Depression was mainly interested in achieving economic security in the decade that followed WWII. They had no interest in challenging the values of their parents and their grandparents. The 'baby boomers' who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, however, tended not to have any experience of wanting the basic necessities of life. They found conventional notions of respectability stultifying, suburban lifestyles alienating, and  religious understandings increasingly empty. The availability of the Pill after 1960, the use of soft drugs, and rock and roll music were emblematic of the demographic. The baby boom of the 1950s was followed quickly by a baby bust in the 1960s and 1970s. Children were producing at below the replacement rate (2.1 children per family). The Canadian population still managed to grow from 18.2 million to 22.9 million persons between 1961 and 1976. This was accomplished largely on the immigrants, which increasingly came from non-European backgrounds.

The Liberal Party, first under Lester Pearson (1963-9) and then under Pierre Trudeau (1968-1979, 1980-1984), who very was briefly leader of the Official Opposition (1979-80) during the Conservative government of Joe Clark, led the country for almost 20 consecutive years.

The political ethos of the times favoured reform-minded forces. When the Liberal party took power in 1963, it had yet to find a common aim. By 1965, even the Canadian Chamber of Commerce had accepted that social programs like a Canada Pension Plan was an inevitability. And if business interests capitulated to popular demand, the federal parties could hardly hope to resist. All the remained was to persuade the provinces. Quebec and Ontario, due to their unique statures, proved a little more difficult than others to bring on board.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker commissioned a Royal Commission on the feasibility of a national program of medicare before his government was replaced by Pearson's Liberals. Led by a Conservative Justice from Saskatchewan, it was expected that the finished report would oppose compulsory medicare. When the report came out in 1964, it made the surprising recommendation to the Liberal government to implement a sweeping program along the same lines of the National Health Service in Britain. Given the prohibitive costs, they also suggested the program should be phased in over a period of time. The provinces, with the exception of Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, were decidedly hostile. In the event, the federal government conceded the rights of provinces to govern their own programs, which would be matched with federal funding. The minority Liberal government, at the urging of the NDP, whose support was needed to retain power, introduced the Canada Pension Plan, the Canada Assistance Plan, a national student loans plan, and a national health care program.

When Pierre Trudeau came to office in 1969, Canada was experiencing exceptional economic growth, due in large part to American economic policies and military spending during the Vietnam War. A period of low unemployment, companies often conceded to union demands, passed the new often onto consumers, who were quite often union members, who would, in turn, take advantage of the next round of collective bargaining. Along the increasing wartime expenditures, this helped to create the conditions were rising inflation. The Pearson government took modest step to reign in inflation, including slowing growth in the money supply and pegging the Canadian dollar to 92.5 cents American.Trudeau resolved to be much more aggressive. He  made large spending cuts, unpegged the dollar, introduced monetary policies, and struck a commission on tax reform. Trudeau quickly lost his allure as a reformer.

When an approach recommended by the commission on tax reform was first ignored and then altered in significant ways that ignored its original egalitarian spirit, the electorate's response was quick in the 1972 election. Trudeau returned at the head of a minority government, again needing the NDP support. The new collaboration saw the establishment of Petro-Canada and the hiking of social benefits.


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