WHY DIEFENBAKER LOST CANADA
PETER C. NEWMAN
Maclean’s Ottawa editor In four years, “the man of the people” had become a Man of Power. Now he’s neither one
AT EIGHT O'CLOCK of a Saturday night in late April, which now barely three months later seems curiously long ago, the Prime Minister of Canada got up to speak in a stuffy little movie house called the Orpheum Theatre in his own prairie town of Prince Albert, Sask. That night John Diefenbaker was still leader of a government with the largest parliamentary majority of any western democracy, and he had every expectation of maintaining the glory of that power. He was on the verge of his ninth federal election campaign, which ought to have been the easiest of them all, and he'd come home to be nominated in his own riding by his neighbors and friends w'ho'd turned out eight-hundred strong, eager to be swayed by sentimentality and nurtured on nostalgia.
The prime minister had no intention of disappointing them. For nearly an hour he talked about his prairie childhood. about his struggles as a young lawyer obsessed with the cause of the common man, about the rise to glory that came late in his life and w'as all the sw'eeter for it. Finally, in that hot little hall, the climactic moment arrived and the hometow n boy back from the thrones of the mighty grasped his lectern and leaned forward into the microphone. “You have no idea w'hat it means,” he breathed in emotioncharged syllables, “what it means to come here and be addressed by my first name. I tell you,” and the long head shot back and the soft jaw' worked, “this is something that money can't buy.”
The words were right and the sentiment perfect but there was a note of false humility in his manner which made the audience shift in their seats; and in the front row' a long-necked lady in a blue crepe dress muttered to her husband: “1 wonder what else he thinks I'd call him, after forty years?”
Looking back, that curiously flat moment seems symptomatic of the reasons why only seven w'eeks later, the greatest parliamentary majority in Canadian history collapsed like a snowbank in March, leaving Diefenbaker in office. but not in power.
On June 18, he lost eighty-seven seats and took a worse beating than any previous government except that of his Tory predecessor, R. B. Bennett in 1935, who had five harsh years of depression against him. In the 1962 election,
Diefenbaker surrendered seventeen percent of the popular vote—a figure that gains meaning when it's compared with the fact that Louis St. Laurent, in the upset of 1957, lost sixty-four seats and nine percent of the popular vote.
That Diefenbaker was able to retain office at all was due for the most part to the inability of his opposition to rally the national discontent to their own colors. The riots at his meetings in Vancouver and Chelmsford, Ont., gave him an unexpected source of sympathy; his administration's generous treatment of the farmers held the prairies solidly in his camp.
If Diefenbakcr’s failure of 1962 can be traced to one simple cause—and that it was a failure is admitted by all but his most fervid admirers—it was this: he thought he understood the people better than he did.
ETHNIC VOTERS: THEY WEREN’T CREDULOUS
Diefenbaker had spent his life appealing to, and in fact being one with, the “average Canadian.” But five years in power had changed him; he was no longer a man of the people, he had become a man of power. At the same time, the voters had also changed. In 1957 they were full of optimism and eager for the kind of imaginative administration he seemed to be promising. But in 1962, after long winters of unemployment and plummeting national prestige abroad, they were disillusioned and frightened. Diefenbaker no longer seemed to understand their mood; one felt that he was only pretending to be part of them. He gave the impression of bending over from a great height, rather than talking to voters on their own level, eye to eye.
Nearly all the things that went wrong with Diefenbaker’s campaign had their roots in this misjudgment of the people and of himself in relation to them. He misjudged the sophistication of his urban and suburban audiences and instead of talking frankly about the realities of Canada’s economic difficulties, he tried by skillful imprecision to persuade them that these problems didn’t exist. He misjudged the credulity of the ethnic voters and the pride of French Canada. He misjudged the prestige of the press and put too much faith in his attacks on vague bureaucratic villains of his own devising. Most of all, he made the fatal error of believing in his own legend. Not
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He was talking but, this time, the cities weren’t listening
even his intimate advisers could persuade him that times had changed and that the melodramatics of '57 and '58 just couldn't work in the sober circumstances of '62. By constant overstatement of his case. Diefenbaker’s appeal ran into the law' of diminishing returns and multiplying public cynicism.
Diefenbaker’s misjudgment about the sophistication of the average Canadian was most marked in his attempts to defend the devaluation of the dollar. The exchange crisis which forced the government to peg the currency at 92.5 cents in mid-campaign pushed the prime minister into a defensive position on a vital issue. At first he tried to brush off devaluation as being nothing more than a gimmick to help our export and tourist trades. “My brother Elmer,” he told one Maritimes
rally, “w'as in New York the day we did it. He was told three times what a marvellous thing this would be for the tourist trade.”
This kind of explanation left even the not-so-sophisticated elector baffled. Why, if devaluation was such a good move, did it have to be done so suddenly and during an election campaign? Diefenbaker’s explanations then moved into a new stage, which involved dividing Canadian currency into “the Canadian dollar, w'hich is still a hundred-cent dollar” and “the external or trade dollar which is completely different and distinct from the domestic dollar—the dollar you use to support yourself and your family.”
That Canada had in fact only one currency soon became evident when the prices of many consumer goods, including bread, airplane tickets and gasoline, began to rise. Impartial economists pointed out that one of the very purposes of devaluation was to raise the cost of imports, thus to encourage domestic industry and improve the country’s balance of payments position.
When only a few of the price increases were halted by Diefenbaker’s threat to take drastic action against corporations using devaluation as an excuse to boost their prices, the prime minister switched his argument again. This time he maintained that “only millionaires criticize the devaluation, along with those whose Florida and California vacations will now cost more.” Meanwhile, speaking at Grand View, Man., Agriculture Minister Al-
vin Hamilton blamed the price hikes on the Liberals who "in desperation,” had persuaded their friends in big business to embarrass the government by raising prices.
This kind of backwoods approach, plus the memory of the Conservative government’s opposition to Britain’s entry into the Common Market, left many urban and suburban voters with the impression that the Diefenbaker administration either couldn't understand or was misrepresenting the true economic position of Canada. The voters of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver—the centres of sophistication in Canada—demonstrated their dismay with Diefenbaker’s tactics by virtually wiping out his metropolitan representation. (That he was indeed trying to hide the grim economic facts, he himself officially acknowledged less than a week after the election by announcing drastic emergency action to holster Canada’s sagging exchange position. )
The prime minister's chief concern during the campaign was to distract attention from his own problems by finding an enemy the electorate could hate heartily. In 1957 and 1958 he had successfully, and with cogent evidence, painted the L iberals as arrogantly unsympathetic to the unemployed, the frail and the poor. This time he tried to create in the voters' minds the image of the l.iberal Party as a group of unrepentant, unsavory characters, attempting to fool the people un4er a new guise of socialistic promises. At his meeting in Vernon. B.C., he used local folklore to compare the Liberal Party with Ogopogo, the legendary monster of Okanagan Lake—"wdth the head of a horse and the tail of a shark."
Because he realized that it was difficult to charge a party with arrogance when it had been out of power for five years, he switched his oratorical guns to Pearson's leading candidates and back-room advisers. Again and again, he attacked Walter Gordon as "the Toronto taxidermist who fills Mr. Pearson with flossy economic ideas"; Mitchell Sharp, “w'hose favorite sport is pushing people around and breaking the law”; Maurice Lamontagne, “an impractical economist who wanted to set up a board to control industry"; and Tom Kent, “a dreamer and philosophic socialist who wants to tax advertising.” He tried to picture the Liberal Party as a victim of these men, describing them collectively as “a circus of bureaucrats, a collection that has never been seen outside a menagerie."
But even for Diefenbaker’s most sympathetic listeners these were only vague villains, especially since every newspaper in the country was running their biographies, pointing out that they had never held jobs which would have allowed them to push people around. The total effect of Diefenbaker's repeated and increasingly vicious attacks on the IJberal brain trust seemed to be that he was making fun of these men for being educated—an attitude that may win votes in small prairie towns, but lost much prestige for the Conservatives in the urban sections of eastern Canada.
Neither did he gain the sympathy of the ethnic voters w hich he’d obviously been counting on. Diefenbaker tried to influence newcomers to Canada
with a two-pronged appeal. While attempting to identify Lester Pearson as an ineffective dupe of international communism, he tried to establish himself as a mighty enemy of the Kremlin, solely on the basis of promises to table anti-Soviet resolutions at the United Nations. Neither proposition was provable.
Some of the more rightist ethnic groups were delighted with Diefenbaker’s declaration, made at Toronto’s Massey Hall just four days before election day, that he would "give sympathetic consideration to granting the acting consuls of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania full diplomatic recognition.” But the majority of the newcomers were much more concerned with the immigration department’s refusal to allow their relatives into the country. The Chinese community was infuriated by the government’s methods, as carried out by the RUMP anti Hong Kong police during their investigation of immigration irregularities. (In fact, the ( hiñese vote was so fiercely anti-C’onservative that it helped defeat Douglas Jung, its first representative in the Commons; and even most of the Chinese in Prince Albert who in past elections had voted solidly for Diefenbaker, w'ent Liberal.)
Many of the ethnic voters lost their faith in the l ory party because Diefenbaker’s appeals to them on the basis of his successes against Nikita Khrushchov at the United Nations were so overenthusiastic that they eventually lost credibility. In Montreal, for example, speaking to an ethnic audience, the prime minister said, "J told Mr. Khrushchov, give the Ukrainians the vote, then he got mad, and that’s where he took off his shoe, you remember.” In reporting this speech the Toronto Star pointed out that the shoe-pounding incident had taken place sixteen days after the Diefenbaker speech, and that in fact Khrushchov wasn’t even in the hall when the Canadian prime minister was speaking. Diefenbaker denied ever making the statement when he saw the Star story and attacked the newspaper for "outrageous fabrication,” although his own staff had played a tape of the speech to him, which confirmed the Star report.
The incident was typical of his relations with the press. Ill feeling between the prime minister and reporters began early in the campaign, when the surge of affection he’d expected to get from the crow'ds who turned out to hear him wasn’t forthcoming. Diefenbaker accused the correspondents who reported this fact of waging a vendetta against him.
The deterioration of his press relations was fanned by the incredibly slapdash manner in which some of the most important announcements of the campaign were handled. Typical was the way Diefenbaker revealed, in Magog, Que., his intention to launch action “as effective as it will be drastic” against corporations which took advantage of the dollar devaluation to raise prices. Because the statement only hinted at the kind of action which might be taken, it depended solely on wide and immediate publicity for effectiveness. Yet the circumstances surrounding the announcement were such that it almost went unreported.
On the morning of June 7 the prime minister interrupted his automo-
bile tour of Sherbrooke and Windsor Mills, Que., with several phone calls to Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto — including one to Finance Minister Donald Fleming, who, according to one of Diefenbaker’s aides, was in the bathtub of his Toronto home at the time, and didn’t take it. At 1 p.m. the Diefenbaker cavalcade arrived at St. Jean Bosco parish hall in Magog, where local party faithfuls had arranged a luncheon for their leader. Because the building was jammed with enthusiastic supporters and there seemed to be no reserved table for newsmen, Fred Davis, the amiable Toronto photographer who acted as the Tories’ chief press liaison officer, suggested to several reporters that they eat with him at a restaurant across the road. Although no one was aware that the prime minister would be making any announcement (the official Diefenbaker itinerary specifically stated “no speeches” for Magog) a few reporters did push into the hall, and heard Diefenbaker make his dramatic attack on big business. As soon as lunch was over, the car caravan took off at its customary eighty-mph clip for a reception at East Angus, Que. The Tory drivers had been told to push on regardless of correspondent requests, and it was only because a few reporters threatened to leap out of their cars unless the drivers stopped at a pay phone, that the story made the afternoon editions.
Diefenbakcr's habit of publicly ticking off newsmen whose stories he didn't like eventually strained his relations with accompanying reporters so badly that one journalist, as he climbed on the PM’s aircraft to begin another leg of the campaign, summed up the feelings of the majority of the Parliamentary Press Gallery members by declaring: “To work gentlemen; we have a government to overthrow.”
That Diefenbaker’s administration wasn’t overthrown on June 18 was due
in part to the advantages he enjoyed by going to the country not only as a party leader but as The Prime Minister. The office gives the politician who holds it an aura of inestimable value. Word of Diefenbaker's approach invariably set up a certain tension among his audience, no matter what their politics. Hearts would pump a bit faster and lips would tighten as he strode into a hall. Diefenbaker made the most of it. He behaved on the public platform with a staged dignity, deliberately reducing the tempo of his limb movements to just a fraction slower than those around him.
His performer's sense of timing and drama seldom had the impact of the 1957 and 1958 contests. But there were times when the old warmth came into his voice as the emotions of his audience reached and stirred him. On those occasions his words appeared to spring instinctively from him, as he stabbed his finger at his yearning listeners and blazed away against unseen villains who, unlike himself, had little concern for “the average Canadian.’’ At the remote Newfoundland logging community of Deer Lake, for example, near the beginning of the campaign, he caught the mood of his audience perfectly. Exulting in his dream of Canada, he tremored: “Those who are living in castles don’t understand. But I understand. I understand the average people of this country.” The audience stood up and cheered.
Once, when the campaign aircraft had landed in Fort William, Ont., where a large crowd was waiting for him at the airport, I happened to be standing beside Diefenbaker as the cabin doors were being opened. In the flick of time that it took for the man to change into his public self, his complexion was transformed. The imprisoned, gooseberry eyes retreated into their sockets, the taut face relaxed and changed color. Suddenly he was aware of the crowd’s most subtle moods. The first man to greet him was the Rev. Dan Mclvor, a former local MP who was noted in Ottawa mainly for play-
ing his Irish flute on Parliament Hill. As Diefenbaker approached the parson, he made a flute-fingering gesture with his hands, and I saw' people in the welcoming crowd nudge each other: The Prime Minister had remembered about old Dan’s pipe.
While this kind of behavior on the hustings didn't work the same magic for Diefenbaker as it had four years before, he was aided considerably by the fact that his main opponent, Liberal leader Lester Pearson, never could quite bring himself to make any of the calculated moves a successful politician must, to win a parliamentary majority in this country. During his late-May tour of Toronto, for instance, a traffic light happened to halt the Pearson caravan in front of the Scott Mission—a charity organization that provides free meals for indigents. About four hundred men, obviously unemployed, stood before the building and stared back at Pearson whose wffiite convertible was stopped alongside. The men yearned to be recognized, a few' arms rose in a half-wave, and somebody shouted: “Come on in, the soup's fine.” But Pearson, although he had stumped the nation declaring that unemployment was the issue of the campaign, didn't move. His advisers tugged at him. hoping he'd mingle with the men; it would make a good picture. When the entourage moved on, Pearson quieted them all by saying: “No. I don’t want to exploit their misery for politics.”
It was only a minor incident in a long campaign, but it did emphasize both the man's deep humanitarian feelings, as well as his lack of political instinct even while fighting for his political life.
The Liberal campaign had a single theme, single - mindedlv propelled across the hustings without much change of pace or wording: only a Liberal administration would have the skill and knowhow necessary to cure unemployment and get the Canadian economy moving again. It was an intellectual appeal that suffered from
*oo much sophistication, just as Diefenbakcr’s was weakened by having too little.
The Liberals never effectively disassociated themselves from the violence at the Conservative rallies in Vancouver and Chelmsford, Ont. These riots, plus Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood's refusal to allow Donald Fleming to speak to the St. John's Rotary Club, gave Diefenbaker, near the end of the campaign, a valid hase from which to reawaken the resentment against Liberal arrogance that had been so strongly felt by Canadian voters in 1957. “The philosophy of the Liberals,” he thundered from the hustings, “is the philosophy of closure.”
Although the national Liberal organization functioned brilliantly throughout the campaign, the party's provincial leaders let Pearson down badly Quebec Premier Jean Lesage only put in token appearances with the federal chieftain and deliberately postponed publication of the Salvas Commission report until after the election. Originally scheduled for early June publication, this document, which summarizes the wrongdoings of the Union Nationale administration, was known to implicate several sitting Tory members. Federal Liberal strategists expected that its publication before polling day would considerably boost their Quebec chances. The SmallwoodFlcming episode in Newfoundland had national repercussions and in New Brunswick, Liberal Premier Louis Robichaud’s waning popularity turned out to be a liability to the federal campaign. In Saskatchewan, Liberal Leader Ross Thatcher failed completely in organizing his province for a federal election.
When the campaign really began
One of the tactics the Liberals hoped to use in their campaign was to attack Diefenbaker for making too many promises as he prowled the hustings for votes. But the prime minister avoided that trap. During the official span of the campaign itself, he made mostly generalized national and regional promises which couldn't be interpreted as bribes to specific ridings. He had already made most of the pledges which affect local welfare, before the election was called. During the seven months preceding the official start of the campaign at London on May 5 Diefenbaker and his ministers crisscrossed the country, sowing promises that would improve the material standards of specific constituencies. Between last Nov. 15 and Dec. 15, for instance, the members of Diefenbaker's cabinet filled 243 political speaking engagements outside Ottawa. There was something for everybody. The two thousand tobacco growers of western Ontario were granted bank guarantees on their unsold surplus (and the tobacco district seats stayed loyal to the Tories on June 18); negotiations were started to remove the toll across Montreal's federally administered bridges (and Pierre Sevigny's seat at the foot of the bridges withstood the anti-Conservative tide in Quebec); Prince Edward Island was promised a Si 05-million causeway (and the province turned out to be the only one which gave all of its ridings to Diefenbaker on election day); Fredericton
was promised the construction of a new terminal and airport services building (and Fredericton went against its provincial trend to remain Tory).
Dozens of such specific promises were made by Diefenbaker and his ministers before the campaign got under way and the majority of the ridings involved voted Tory. (Ironically. Diefenbaker’s postelection decision to cut federal expenses by a quarter billion dollars a year will necessarily postpone almost all of the projects he promised.)
Diefenbaker's half - victory would have been a crushing defeat but for the continued loyalty of the prairie provinces which gave him forty-two of their forty-eight seats—only five less than in 1958. Even nature helped the Tories on the prairies. The rain which fell during the week of May 27 obliterated the threat of a major drought. The expected grasshopper plague turned out to be fairly minor and cutworms appeared in only two constituencies—one of them, to the delight of Tory strategists, was Liberal Hazen Argue's Assiniboia riding.
Although the trend was less noticeable in the other provinces, a close analysis of the 121 constituencies across the country dominated by rural electors, shows that the agriculture vote remained firmly Tory everywhere except in those sections of southwestern Ontario where the farmers are so advanced in their tastes and thinking they have virtually become suburbanites.
Part of the farm-vote loyalty was based on the recognition of the good job Alvin Hamilton had done as minister of agriculture, especially in selling wheat. This feeling was reinforced by the avalanche of checks which has flowed out of Ottawa to the farmers since the Conservatives took over. During the last five years of the Liberal regime, federal payments to agriculture totaled $363 million; in the past five years, this amount jumped to $706 million — roughly $1,085 per farm family.
The prairies were the only section of the country where the Tory strategy held true. Although Conservative advisers had made many suggestions on how the national campaign should be conducted, the final shape of that campaign was hand-tailored by Diefenbaker himself. By choosing to go to the people on an emotional appeal to their instinct and trust, rather than to their reason, Diefenbaker obviously thought he w-as following the cardinal dogma of previously successful Canadian political leaders, who always managed to make a virtue out of their dependence on the people.
That he failed to obtain a clear mandate w'as not due to any of the causes that have badly mauled federal majorities in the past; there was no agrarian revolt, no crushing depression, no party leadership crisis and no particular scandal.
But something went very wrong. John Diefenbaker had committed the fatal political error of overestimating the stretch of his authority and the limits of his influence. He had lost sight of the fact that in the average Canadian, whose self-proclaimed champion he aspired to become, there is a strong, inborn aversion toward manifestation of political power in the raw. ★