The defense plea was the same but the jury’s mood changed
PETER C. NEWMANJuly141962
BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA
The defense plea was the same but the jury’s mood changed
PETER C. NEWMAN
THE AGONIZINGLY INDECISIVE outcome of the election campaign was a direct result of John Diefenbaker’s failure to overcome the peccadilloes of his past. In trying to prolong the term in office of his party — which shouldn't have been difficult for a prime minister going into the election with seventy seats more than he needed for an absolute majority — he was severely hampered by a personal background that weakened his appeal to the voters.
His career as an eloquent and often underpaid defender of the underdog in the courtrooms of dusty prairie towns fitted him ideally for the 1957 and 1958 contests, when he cast himself as the angry avenger of Liberal insolence. But 1962 was not 1958, and Diefenbaker was stuck playing the backwoods attorney, propounding his personal testament before the voters. As a result, his message aroused nearly as much ridicule as admiration.
His undisputed talents as a defense counsel could never really be brought into play during this campaign, as they had been four years before. For one thing, he was defending not some benighted underdog, but himself. For another, he was trying to breath fire into the same old arguments in the same old way. The trouble was, the mood of the jury had changed.
Just a week before he finally called the election, Diefenbaker told the annual meeting of the Young Progressive Conservatives: “The people trust me — in this election they will
again place their faith in the Conservative Party.” But in his campaign, he never assumed that voters supported him out of conviction.
Instead of appealing to the countrywide longing of the voters for national greatness — as he had done so successfully twice before — Diefenbaker tried to mobilize the ballots to his side, by dividing the country into separate blocs, then shaping his campaign to include all the promises to which he thought these groups would be attracted.
The Conservative leader lost his chance of emerging from the campaign with a majority government, because three of these blocs simply didn't find his promises attractive.
The first of these groups, and the one on which Diefenbaker and his strategists probably spent the greatest amount of effort, was the ethnic vote — particularly the half million postwar newcomers who have settled in Toronto. Tory planners had calculated that 102 of the nation’s 263 ridings are “ethnic sensitive,” and it was for the benefit of this audience that Diefenbaker so often repeated his promise to bring up a resolution at the next United Nations Assembly, condemning Russian imperialism, and requesting the USSR “to give its subject peoples the right to decide their own future by a free vote.” This was heady stuff to cheer at during Diefenbaker rallies, but the immigrants, when they got home and thought about it, must have realized that it was a purely political gesture, with absolutely no chance of having any results.
The second group of voters Diefenbaker tried unsuccessfully to corral were the farmers of Ontario. During its five years in office the Conservative government had done more for Canadian farmers than for any other sector of the population, not only because it seemed a fertile source of votes but because this legislative area had been pretty badly ignored by the Liberals. Federal payments to farmers — both in the Prairies and in eastern Canada — had increased a fantastic 95% from the last year the Liberals had been in office; hardly one sensible request of the farm organizations had been denied. Yet in rural Ontario, where the Conservatives had expected to lose only one or two seats, they dropped thirteen. It’s difficult to point to a reason for this debacle,
although one factor seems to have been the increasing sophistication of these electors: the Diefenbaker personality rubbed them the wrong way.
The biggest loss for the Tories, of course, was in Quebec, where 36 sitting members were defeated. Here, Diefenbaker — just like his Liberal predecessors — trotted out some lastminute goodies for French Canada: bilingual cheques; the promise of a Canadian flag and anthem; the Gaspé Railway. But the Quebec voters, already disillusioned by similar deathbed repentances of the Liberal Party, realized that the Conservatives were just as bad. They chose to become independent in Canadian politics, by voting Social Credit.
Just as Diefenbaker suffered from a lifetime in the courts and in parliamentary opposition during his campaign, so the other three party leaders were held back by their backgrounds. Tommy Douglas, the NDP leader, was haunted by his preoccupation with Depression era issues, so fiercely relevant when he first entered politics, but now sadly out of date. He would have electrified the voters at a time when his fundamentalist, sloganeering approach had some relevance. But when he attacked, as he did at nearly every meeting, “the dictatorship of the price-fixing monopolies,” he was sounding a battle cry resolved long ago. His plucky campaign amply demonstrated Douglas’ courage, but it revealed him as a badly dated figure.
That Robert Thompson, the Social Credit leader, couldn’t get the non-Quebec wing of his party off the ground was not due to any lack of conviction in himself. -r Rather, he believed his own doctrine too well. His faith dated back to his 1934 conversations in Calgary with the great Bill Aberhart himself, where as a twenty-year-old student he was converted to the monetary mysticism of Social Credit. He went into the 1962 campaign to seek not just votes, but converts. “Social Credit,” he insisted, “is above politics,” and his listeners beamed back at him, friendly and totally baffled.
The campaign left little doubt about L.ester Pearson’s concern and understanding of Canada’s domestic problems. But it also proved that his view of life — tempered by twenty years as a career diplomat — was still that of an intellectual who looks upon politics as something if not alien, at least imposed upon his nature.
Not the least interesting of the many fascinating aspects of the June 18 election were the silent but grievously damaging ghosts of personal pasts, pursuing the party leaders across the hustings.
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