MACLEAN'S REPORTS

Suddenly, everybody’s anxious to belong to a party — but how long before the fever cools down?

NORMAN DEPOE July 1 1968
MACLEAN'S REPORTS

Suddenly, everybody’s anxious to belong to a party — but how long before the fever cools down?

NORMAN DEPOE July 1 1968

Suddenly, everybody’s anxious to belong to a party — but how long before the fever cools down?

MACLEAN'S REPORTS

The New Politics — 1

DUST OFF one ancient and ringing political cliché — The People’s Choice. It's suddenly valid currency again.

The movement isn’t as strong or as widespread as some millennially minded optimists would have you believe, nor is it much like the “participatory democracy" the activists of the New Left have in mind. But it is true in 1968 that millions of Canadians have suddenly become fantastically interested in, of all things, Canadian politics; that hundreds of thousands of them have decided to do something about it; that they’re doing it by moving in on existing party structures; and that the parties, as a result, may never be quite the same again. Especially after generations during which real political power — the selection of candidates in the first place — was controlled by cosy interlocking groups of 100 or 200 party regulars in each riding, the shock waves are approaching seismic proportions. Even a year ago it would have been unimaginable that rank-and-file Liberals would d,eny renomination to two cabinet ministers, or that at least a dozen well-known “safe” candidates in all parties would find themselves fighting for their lives against unknowns, and in several cases losing.

The evidence crops up everywhere, perhaps the most astonishing statistic being a survey showing that 17,000,000 — yes, seventeen million — Canadians watched or listened to at least part of the final day of the Liberal leadership convention. That’s just general interest, at least partly sparked by the star of the show and the cult now enshrined in the language as Trudeaumania.

The real action has been out in the constituencies. Minnedosa, Man., for example, found itself the scene of a Liberal nominating meeting that drew 1,200 voting delegates and 600 spectators. Peel, in Ontario, turned out 1,500 Conservatives to choose a candidate; the Grits topped them two weeks later with a crowd of 3,000. In the biggest spurt of all, membership in the Toronto Davenport Liberal Association shot up from 200 to 5,455. In Alberta, where two lonely Liberals have been elected since 1957 (and one at a time at that), memberships in the Liberal party have been selling

at the rate of 400 a day; the Conservatives have enrolled between 15,000 and 20,000 since April.

The NDP (and the old CCF) have always, of course, depended on the dues of card-carrying members. They, too, are benefiting from the new interest. Perhaps the general feeling is what a Sudbury housewife told me: “I’ve voted Liberal all my life. But now I’m carrying a card and going to meetings.” She couldn’t explain exactly why, but she wanted to do something. Furthermore, she had come out to look over Robert Stanfield and, for most traditional Liberals, that’s unusual too.

Part of all this is patently curiosity and interest in two new leaders. Part of it clearly carries over from 1967: the ponderous banality that Canadians would never be the same after Centennial and Expo became a cliché because it was obviously true — or possibly so many people wished it was true that it became true. Part of it is undoubtedly due to television. Still in the throes of centennial pride, millions of Canadians who watched last September's Tory convention were nodding sagely and remarking that Canadian politics were by golly just as exciting as the American kind.

The new people who went into active Conservative politics to oust John Diefenbaker were relatively few, and mostly recruited by traditional methods. But suddenly those millions of Canadians saw a neighbor or a fellow townsman waving a banner or casting a ballot. It looked important, and interesting, and exciting — and they wanted a piece of the action. Prime Minister Pearson’s resignation was the signal for a volunteer movement that’s still building, and still shocking the old pros. In Ottawa West, for example, the Liberal executive was shaken to the core when it presented a slate of pre-chosen convention delegates to a meeting for what in time gone by would have been routine approval. New members — many of them young people — shouted “Railroad!” and demanded the right to nominate from the floor. They got it. Politicians who for years had been piously bemoaning the lack of public interest in party work began issuing bitter complaints that "newcomers

and upstarts” were “packing" meetings. They were, too, and doing it unashamedly, having finally decided that if war is too important to be left to the generals, democracy is too important to be left to the politicians.

There were excesses, of course. In Davenport, the riding constitution was so loosely drawn that hundreds of members were brought in from outside: those loopholes are already

being closed. One of the major complaints was the influx of teenagers who, in the words of one angry letter-to-the-editor, “don’t have a vote and don’t pay taxes.” An 18-year-old gave me a quick answer to that one: “I do pay taxes,” he said. “I have a job. and besides income tax, what about sales tax? Anyway, parliament starts a lot of things that won’t get paid for right away. Adults have always spent big money and passed on the bill to the next generation. Why shouldn’t I have some say in who does the spending?”

The big question is: will all this last? There are already indications that it may not. Alderman Charles Caccia of Toronto — nominated at that mammoth Davenport meeting — found himself with fewer than 200

working supporters three weeks before election day. In Rosedale, Donald MacDonald, instrumental in the Trudeau victory, got more than 400 out to the meeting that chose the convention delegates; only 200 turned out for his nomination (he was unopposed): and he, too, needed more help than he had in a stiff fight against Tory Robert Bradley.

Many of the young amateurs have been appalled to discover that politics isn't just waving signs and shouting for the cameras; it's licking thousands of envelopes and ringing hundreds of doorbells. Some are losing interest fast. And this during an election campaign. when enthusiasm is at its peak. As any old pro will tell you, the toughest job of all is keeping a party organization running between elections. when there’s mostly routine drudgery and little glamour. That’s why it's premature to cheer yet. The people have moved into politics where it counts — in the selection of really representative candidates. They could stay there — or they could let the system slip back into the hands of the backroom groups who. with all their faults, are willing to do the work.

NORMAN DEPOE