BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

Tory Luck Can Only Get Better

BLAIR FRASER October 1 1953
BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

Tory Luck Can Only Get Better

BLAIR FRASER October 1 1953

Tory Luck Can Only Get Better

BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

BLAIR FRASER

WHAT is the future of the Progressive Conservative Party?

It has lost five consecutive elections in eighteen years. It has run under three names (Conservative, National Government and Progressive Conservative) and seven leaders —two of them temporary “acting” leaders, but each the best the party thought itself able to find at the time and under the circumstances. It is now once more restive and mutinous under the leadership of a man who has twice led his party to electoral defeat. Even the pluckiest Conservative may be forgiven for despair as he looks forward to another four or five years of Liberal rule.

Yet it’s possible, I think, to make a realistic analysis of Canadian politics which is not at all discouraging to Conservatives. Despite August 10, they may be on the verge of a revival.

Let’s begin with the date August 10 itself. Why did the Liberals undertake the risks and inconveniences of a summer election?

Evidently because they were afraid to wait until fall. They could not have had an autumn election earlier than November, because of the rigidities of the Election Act. There are plenty of signs that by November we may have some economic problems that we didn’t have in August. The Liberals prudently held their election before the farmer tried to market his 1953 crop, before seasonal unemployment began to set in, and before the Korean truce could have any effect on heavy industry.

Perhaps they were over-cautious. Since World War II, economists have predicted at least two depressions

which for one reason or another never happened. Maybe we shall get through this autumn and winter with the same high levels of employment and income to which we have become so accustomed.

But even if prosperity is unabated in the coming year it’s a fair guess that we shall have some downturn before 1957. During the life of this parliament the Liberals almost certainly will face what they have not faced since 1929—the chill breath of adversity. They won’t like it.

In good times it is hard to put a government out. In bad times it is hard to keep a government in. It is the Conservatives’ good fortune that they now appear, as they might not have done a few years ago, as the only possible alternative to a Liberal government.

Ten years ago the CCF was riding high on the strength of a near-victory in Ontario and a prospective victory in Saskatchewan. Many Canadians thought the CCF would soon replace the Conservatives as the major opposition party— and if we had had the serious postwar recession that many economists expected, that prophecy might have come true.

But we didn’t. Other countries, especially Britain, demonstrated that socialism is not a guaranteed cure for all economic difficulties. The popular part of a socialist program, welfare and security legislation, has become the common property of all parties. Meanwhile Social Credit, which might have become a formidable threat with its currency witchcraft, has been exposed as a somewhat over-publicized and

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local Conservative splinter group.

On the national scene we are left with the Conservatives, as always—the only political organization, other than the ruling Grits, which has proven vitality.

THAT VITALITY has really been remarkable. All through its sojourn in :he wilderness, and despite the rise of a whole new generation which by now must dominate the electorate, the Conservative Party has shown the same hard core of indefatigable supporters. From 1935 to 1953 nearly one-third of Canadian voters have remained loyal and steadfast Conservatives.

These hardy souls have survived without visible nourishment. There have been no great issues except those, during the war, which split the Liberals but did the Conservatives no good. There has been no Conservative program which differed in any readily recognizable way from what the Grits were doing already.

Moreover, no sensible Conservative was able to comfort himself with the illusion of imminent victory. It has been all too evident, on each election eve, that the Liberals were going back in. Had any large number of Tories been willing to bet on the last five elections the party would be even harder up than it is now.

In a word, things couldn’t possibly be worse for the Conservatives than they have been. They are evidently entitled to rely, no matter what happens, on the support of about thirty percent of all Canadian electors. The Liberals have twice swept the country and rolled up huge majorities with

about half the popular vote. If the Conservatives can transfer only twenty percent of the electorate from the Liberal column to their own, they’re in.

IN HOLDING that crucial twenty percent the Liberals have had a spectacular run of luck. They have had eighteen years of uninterrupted prosperity (counting the slow but sure start between 1935 and 1939). They have had the problems but also the kudos of a successful war in which Canada suffered no damage or even inconvenience at home. They have had a rare combination of leadership—first Mackenzie King, the most astute Canadian statesman since John A. Macdonald, if not of all time; then Louis St. Laurent, the most popular and even beloved public figure we have ever had in office.

There is a strong probability that all these advantages are going to vanish at once, during the term of the Parliament just elected. If the boom does come to a close, and if “Uncle Louis” does retire, the Liberals will suddenly find themselves in very poor shape.

A great deal is said about the successor to Louis S. St. Laurent as Prime Minister—will it be Abbott, or Pearson, or Walter Harris, or who? Hardly anyone ever brings up a much more serious Liberal problem:

Who is to follow St. Laurent as federal Liberal leader in Quebec?

At the moment there isn’t anybody. Bobby Lapointe, Minister of Veterans’ Affairs and son of the great Ernest Lapointe, is popular but too easygoing for the rigors of leadership. The other young men like Jean Lesage and Rene Beaudoin are so jealous of each other that none can surmount the others’ hostility. A dark horse is Alcide Côté, Postmaster General, an extremely personable man in his early

fifties who might, yet emerge as the heir apparent in Quebec—but he has not done it so far, and the hour is growing late.

And without a commanding leader among French-Canadians, the Liberals might lose the very heart and soul and spine of their political strength. The great reliable bloc of sixty-five or seventy Liberal seats, between the Ottawa River and the Baie de Chaleur, will again be a fighting ground.

IT IS TRUE of course that the Conservatives haven’t an outstanding Quebec leader either. But they have, or could have in 1957, something which the Quebec Liberals have not had for nine years: A strong provincial organization which could be put to work in the federal field.

Maurice Duplessis has been no help to the Progressive Conservatives in the last three elections, but he is a Conservative by heritage and training. Having no wish to be associated with defeat, and having the good sense to see that the Conservatives were getting nowhere between 1945 and 1953, he has kept his provincial machine very largely inactive. In part, in fact, it is made up of men who are Liberals federally and support St. Laurent.

But given a change of political and economic climate, given a real fighting chance for the federal Tories, and Premier Duplessis’ attitude might be quite different.

Moreover, Quebec Conservatives have their full share of that amazing vitality the party has shown. Despite their small effect in seats actually carried, thirty percent of Quebec voters cast Conservative ballots in August. That is only one percentage point below the party’s national average, and a very satisfactory foundation on which to build—should a building season open.

One other possibility might have a radical effect on Conservative fortunes, and that is the retirement of Premier Duplessis himself. Ever since the war the Conservatives have been caught in an unbreakable dilemma. If they try to win support in Quebec they are accused, quite rightly, of seeking an alliance with Duplessis. Since Duplessis leads 'the only possible nucleus of a Quebec Conservative Party, that is inevitable. But Duplessis is personally unpopular among English-Canadians; he represents in their eyes everything they dislike about the French and the Roman Catholics (whereas St. Laurent represents everything they like about these two categories). So long as Duplessis is in office, Conservatives cannot make headway in Quebec without losing ground (and so far they have lost a great deal more ground) in the other provinces.

But this dislike on the part of the English-speaking is directed against

Duplessis in person. If he were out of the way, there would be no great obstacle to an open alliance between the Conservatives and the Union Nationale. Duplessis is getting well on in his sixties, and his health lias not been very good lately.

SPEAKING of leadership, though, brings up the Conservatives’ greatest problem of the immediate future. What, if anything, should they do about George Drew?

If the party follows its recent folkways Drew will soon be dangling from the same yardarm on which Bennett, Manion and Bracken paid the price of failure on the hustings. Indeed, Conservatives quite openly predicted when the campaign began that if Drew got less than ninety seats he would lose his job.

But if they take time for reflection, in the aftermath of defeat, they may come to the conclusion that they have nobody available to replace him who is likely to do much better.

George Drew’s likeliest successor, by far, would be John Diefenbaker of Saskatchewan. There is no question that Diefenbaker is a considerable political force on the prairies. Ever since 1940 he has been the one Conservative returned from Saskatchewan and he has just demonstrated that he can perform this feat in more than one riding. He is the party’s best debater and parliamentary shock trooper.

There is no solid evidence to indicate, though, that Diefenbaker would rally mass support for the Conservative Party in the East. He has twice been a candidate for Conservative leadership; both times the eastern delegates, and perhaps some western delegates too, have decided against him. In Quebec he would labor under somewhat the same disabilities as George Drew does, with the added disadvantage of not being as well known.

Also, since the great test of a politician is his ability to be elected, the Conservative MPs are a deser\edly powerful voice in the party’s councils. So far, Diefenbaker has not had widespread support among the parliamentary group. Their minds may be changed by another defeat, but up to election day there was no doubt of their preference for Drew.

There is of course no doubt in anybody’s mind that George Drew lacks the popular appeal of Louis St. Laurent—but so does every other Conservative and, for that matter, every other Liberal. Nobody can beat St. Laurent, but St. Laurent will quite probably not be there in 1957. The question is, what Conservative has any better chance than George Drew of beating Mike Pearson, Doug Abbott, Walter Harris or whoever else carries the Liberal Convention?

The answer isn’t clear at present.