ON FEBRUARY 22 SOMEBODY WILL EMERGE AS THE NEW LEADER OF THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY -OR WHAT’S LEFT OF IT
On the night of February 19, in Ottawa’s 9,355-seat Civic Centre, the Progressive Conservative Party will hold a “salute” for former prime minister John Diefenbaker. On the following night the party will hold a “testimonial” for Robert Stanfield. Two days later the Conservatives will choose a new leader. The very fact that they feel moved to say good-bye to not just one but two former leaders underlines the bitter dissension within the party. If Diefenbaker chooses “his” night to harangue the party one more time, it would signal a bloody conclusion to a leadership race that has already developed into a fierce clash between competing ideologies for control of the party. It would then be up to Stanfield on “his” night to pick up the pieces—if he can. If he can’t, the fragile coalition that is the Conservative Party in 1976 could disintegrate, condemning the party to another decade of opposition, where it has spent 59 of the last 80 years.
The Conservatives’ internal divisions arose out of the last leadership convention in 1967, which dumped Diefenbaker and replaced him with Stanfield. Since that convention, the various party factions have continued to evolve and harden into two wings—Diefenbaker’s and Stanfield’s— each representing totally different visions of where the party should be going. The two groups have been described as Rightwing and Left-wing, or Reactionaries and Red Tories, but while all labels are inadequate, it is probably more accurate to describe them as Diefenbaker Conservatives and Stanfield Conservatives. The Diefenbaker Conservatives, western-based and under the spiritual leadership of the Old Chief, swung hard to the right after Stanfield became leader. The group, which includes MPS Jack Horner and Sean O’Sullivan, opposed without exception all the moves of Trudeau’s Liberals toward the Just (now New ) Society, bilingualism, an increased government role in the marketplace and what it perceived to be “permissiveness.” The Stanfield Conservatives, eastern-based and including such MPS as Flora MacDonald and Gordon Fairweather, formed a voice-of-moderation bloc in the party, rallying Conservatives behind such programs as bilingualism (over considerable internal dissent) and trying to hold the party in the centre of the political spectrum, closest to the greatest number of voters. It was a pragmatic, non-ideological approach and, with control of the leadership, the Stanfield people usually prevailed. They also took a responsible approach to opposition, not only denouncing government measures but proposing new or alternative policies of their own. This ran counter to the thinking of Diefenbaker, who once said: “The duty of the Opposition is to turn out the government.”
The disastrous results of the 1974 general election, in which the Conservatives chose the “responsible” tactic of proposing a program (wage and price controls) as well as attacking the government’s record on inflation, seemed to prove Diefenbaker right: Trudeau swept back to full power and Stanfield used up the last of his three chances. As a lame-duck leader, Stanfield’s influence began to wane after the election and the Diefenbaker Conservatives—most of them had retained their seats—began to gain the upper hand. Led by this group, and sensing that a nearglobal right-wing backlash was taking place, the party has moved further and further to the right. It has opposed virtually every reform introduced by the Trudeau government, no matter how watered down (the Liberals too are quite aware of the rightward turn in thinking). In a series of lengthy and largely rhetorical debates in parliament, the Conservatives have fought the establishing of a government-owned petroleum corporation (Petro-Canada), the competition bill, legislation to end some anti-competitive practices in the marketplace (the Time-Reader’s Digest bill, for example, would remove special tax privileges enjoyed by the two Americanowned magazines) and, finally, wage and price controls, the policy they themselves had advocated just 18 months before.
Within the Conservative caucus, the socalled “Chateau Cabinet” of right-wing MPS devised ways of aiming the party even further toward the right. While Diefenbaker himself did not attend any of its meetings (he does not even attend regular meetings of the caucus; he’s boycotted it since Stanfield was elected leader), Sean O’Sullivan, a close Diefenbaker confidant, was instrumental in its establishment. The Chateau Cabinet (so named for its seminal meeting at the Chateau Laurier Hotel) has not formally supported any single candidate for the leadership but most of the “Chateau ministers” are out campaigning for one or another of the right-wingers. They have several prime candidates to choose from, including MPS Claude Wagner, Sinclair Stevens and Jack Horner, and former MP and (Liberal) cabinet minister Paul Hellyer. From the tone of the meetings with delegates, there is every chance one of those four will be elected. For one thing the Conservatives, because they have been in opposition so long, have attracted more than their share of malcontents to their ranks; many of these will be delegates, and they want a leader who will say the things they believe and not sacrifice principle to pragmatism. With more than 1,500 of the elected 2,600 delegates selected by local riding associations (and. presumably, representing grass-roots feelings) these dissident voices could be heard as they have never been heard before at a Canadian political convention.
The Stanfield Conservatives, with an equally large contingent of candidates in the field (including Flora MacDonald, MP Joe Clark and Montreal lawyer Brian Mulroney) are growing alarmed at the trend to the right as the convention draws near. “It’s not just a revolt against change,” says one Stanfield Tory. “It’s a revolt against the politician, the operator, the compromise. It may seem in tune with the times now, but will it be the same in 1978 when we have to fight an election?”
Flora Isabel MacDonald is speaking to about 35 delegates, alternates, and hangers-on in the basement of a motel just outside Dalhousie on New Brunswick’s north shore. Her audience is rock-ribbed, smalltown Conservative. Many of them are elderly. They sit in stony silence while she praises the virtues of “hard work, self-reliance. and thrift.” She is trying to project an austere image, but her audience sees right through it to the bleeding heart that lies beneath. (Just prior to this meeting, for example, she had taken an hour out of her campaign schedule to call on a Micmac Indian chief who wanted help in obtaining a government grant.) After she has finished speaking, the audience probes her with questions, searching out weaknesses: where does she stand on hanging? (She’s opposed.) On bilingualism? (In favor.) Finally, comes the cruncher: is she, or isn’t she, a left-winger, a Red Tory? “If to be left-wing means to be concerned about people in the country who are disadvantaged or who are discriminated against,” she says, “then, sure. I’m leftwing. But don't put me in a box. I also believe in hard work.”
MacDonald does not have to apologize to any Conservative for her views. She has supported the party all her adult life, and has spent the past 20 years actively toiling in its vineyards. Since 1956. w'hen she worked for the reelection of Premier Hugh John Flemming’s government in New Brunswick, she has participated in 36 elections at the federal and provincial level. After the New Brunswick election, MacDonald, a devoted follower of Diefenbaker in those days, went to Ottawa, where she soon wound up running the party’s national headquarters. But in 1966, Diefenbaker, suspecting her of disloyalty, had her fired. Today, as she seeks the leadership of the party, she still encounters the opposition of Diefenbaker Conservatives. Personal matters aside, she’s dismayed and a little confused with Diefenbaker’s shift to the right: “When I first knew' him he was a fighter for justice and the rights of the dispossessed. I don’t know' w'hat happened.”
Needless to say, MacDonald rejects labels such as “free enterprise party” for the Conservatives: “her” party stands for both individual initiative and collective responsibility, a mixture of capitalism and socialism. She believes government must occasionally and necessarily intervene to protect the disadvantaged, and the Canadian economy and identity. And she is probably truer to the principles of John A. Macdonald, whose old constituency of Kingston she now represents, than any other candidate in the race. But there are few in the party today who share her perspectives; the Tories have swung against government intervention and nationalism (taking over roles once traditionally Liberal). On the Time-Reader’s Digest bill, for example, she was one of only two Tories to vote with the government. After her New Brunswick speech a delegate mused: “Flora’s all right, I guess. But we’re moving to the right and she’s left. It’s as simple as that.”
All is not lost for MacDonald, however, She is running an imaginative campaign (instead of sending a glossy pamphlet to delegates, she sent long-playing records with extracts from her taped interviews and speeches) and she is getting a lot of media attention, perhaps more than any other candidate, by virtue of being the first woman to be a serious contender for leadership of one of Canada’s major parties. (As the only woman candidate, she should have first call on many of the votes of the 600 or so women delegates expected at the convention—although this advantage may be offset by an equal number of malechauvinists who would never vote for a woman.) Finally, she may appeal at the grass roots level, riding a wave of what columnist Richard Gwyn calls “the anti-bureaucratic populism” that is sweeping the continent. If enough delegates are touched by that phenomenon she should have a slight edge over other Stanfield Conservatives in the field, including Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney.
Joseph Napoleon Claude Wagner is speaking to a ballroom full of about 250 delegates at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Town Hall. While they sip Canadian wine—provided free—he tells them he believes in “old-fashioned” policies. And they cheer. Later, he lists some of those policies in quick succession, giving the impression of “a-man-who-will-take-charge” once installed as prime minister. Played back later, however, those policies do not amount to much more than a bureaucratic shuffle: split off the bilingualism program from the Treasury Board and give it to the Secretary of State’s department to manage; bring together the Department of Justice and the Ministry of the Solicitor General; permit the provinces to appoint 40% of the Senate; and send out a short summary of government expenditures to taxpayers each year along with their income tax forms. But the delegates do not seem to notice the threadbare content. They cheer again when he calls himself an “unhyphenated” Canadian, a direct throwback to Diefenbaker who coined the phrase. Some delegates are nonetheless impressed and afterward muttered praises such as “he has presence” or “he looks like a leader” are heard. Not from everyone.
When the Diefenbaker Conservatives were casting around for a candidate for leader last year, Claude Wagner emerged as the perfect man. Wagner owned a “law ‘n’ order” image from his days as a Crown prosecutor, judge, and Liberal Minister of Justice in Quebec. He was known as the “hanging judge” (although he never actually sentenced anyone to hang). Here surely was a right-winger who could win. To top it off, he was French, a fact to belie all that nasty talk about the right-wing being anti-French. (It might also help win a few seats in Quebec.) With his image and a head start of 400 delegate votes from Quebec, Wagner looked like a shoo-in for the leadership. But things haven’t quite worked out that way.
For starters, Wagner became uncomfortable with his image. He rejects the label “right-wing,” as unequivocally as Flora MacDonald rejects the left-wing tag hung on her. During a recent breakfast with reporters, Wagner went to great lengths to show he is also a man of compassion, relating stories of the criminals he had given breaks to when they Came before him as a judge because he felt they had suffered enough. In front of delegates, he has toned down his support for capital punishment—a favorite panacea in right-wing circles—by cautioning them not to think crime will disappear as soon as one man is hanged. “You must eliminate poverty to eliminate crime,” he says in an outburst of liberal thought. This could be interpreted as an appeal for votes from moderates by a man who is quite sure of his right flank. But Wagner has other, more serious problems to face as he chases delegate votes, not the least of which, it is sad to report, is that he is French.
The mood of the delegates outside Quebec is decidedly anti-French. The French Canadian has become a scapegoat for uneasy people in uncertain times. At a meeting with delegates in Timmins, forexample, Wagner was subjected to more than an hour of abuse when he tried to defend the federal government’s bilingualism program. One woman told him he was “sick,” and a man summed up Wagner’s views in one word: “horseshit.” Even among Wagner’s supporters there are antiFrench elements. For example, John Reynolds, a right-wing British Columbia MP: though he’s working for Wagner, he’s also backing a petition to keep French-language television off the air in Vancouver. There are other liabilities too. Unlike MacDonald, who has fought election campaigns in most parts of the country and seems to know somebody everywhere she goes, Wagner does not know the country that well nor is he well acquainted with the membership of the Conservative party, which he joined only a little more than three years ago.
Wagner also seems slow in catching on to the wave of resentment against bureaucracy, government and extravagance. He dresses expensively (a fur coat is part of his wardrobe), carries himself in an aloof manner, and tends to use the royal “we” in speech. When asked by a radio interviewer if he would eschew the use of a limousine if elected prime minister, he dismissed such gestures as “con jobs.” To help raise money for his campaign, he was planning a $l,000-a-plate 10-course dinner at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. This is the sort of profligacy Conservatives have come to associate with Trudeau, and considering the way Tories feel about Trudeau the association can do nothing but hurt Wagner. (Wagner canceled the dinner shortly after announcing it, salvaging some image.)
But most damaging of all to Wagner has been the publicity concerning the $300,000 trust fund set up for him by the party after he left the bench to reenter politics in 1972. Wagner defends his use of the fund by pointing to similar funds set up for Lester Pearson and other political leaders as a form of security when they took on the risks of political life. But politicians are supposed to be squeaky clean in the postWatergate era, and while the fund, with its anonymous donors, may be entirely
proper, it doesn't look entirely proper. Coupled with that is the dispute over whether or not Wagner lied to the public in September, 1972, when, in announcing his candidacy in the upcoming federal election, he declared: “I have no need of, I have not asked for, nor have I ever been offered any pension fund or financial compensation.” Wagner insists his statement was true at the time, that the fund was set up only after the October election in 1972, and that discussions before the election dealt in vague terms only with his desire for “security.” He says further questions should be directed to Stanfield or Mulroney. (Both had worked on him to run for the Conservatives in 1972.) To that, Mulroney replies: “Don’t ask me—ask the guy who got the 300 grand.” The dispute has contributed to a falling-out between Stanfield Tories and Wagner, who mutters darkly these days about “smear attempts” against him.
These liabilities have brought Wagner back closer to the pack in the leadership race now crowded on the right side with Paul Hellyer and Sinclair Stevens, among others. And although the pundits have been forecasting a final ballot showdown between MacDonald and Wagner, representing the two wings in the party as much as themselves, it could just as easily be Mulroney vs. Hellyer.
Of the whole field, Mulroney, the 36year-old Montreal lawyer, is by far the freshest face, once a liability (“inexperienced!”) but today almost a definite asset in politics. “In the television age, leaders are consumed very quickly,” says University of Toronto professor Paul Fox, the dean of Canadian political scientists. “It is now a disadvantage to have been round for a long time.” With youth, good looks, a gorgeous, 22-year-old, pregnant wife, and fluent French (he is one of only three perfectly bilingual candidates; the others are Wagner and Heward GrafTtey although Clark and Hellyer make a good effort), Mulroney is the perfect candidate for what one opponent describes derisively as the “soap salesmen types.” The fact that he has never been elected to public office is quite irrelevant in such considerations. So is policy: Mulroney qualifies as a Stanfield Tory by prior association (he helped dump Diefenbaker and then worked for Davie Fulton’s leadership before switching to Stanfield on the deciding ballot), but when it comes down to specific policy positions he is largely an enigma. Says one Quebec Tory who has known Mulroney all his adult life: “I couldn’t tell you where Brian stands on any issue.” For all these reasons, Diefenbaker Conservatives are highly suspicious of Mulroney and call him “Dalton Camp’s candidate.” Several others have been called that at one time or another, but the label seems to be sticking to Mulroney, even though he hasn’t seen Camp for several years. Camp, of course, is the former party president who masterminded the dumping of Diefenbaker and then helped put Stanfield in. Diefenbaker Conservatives do not like Camp. Indeed, they have been known to describe him as a “malignant tumor.” Camp calls them “neo-Fascists.”
Unfortunately for the Diefenbaker Tories still lusting for what’s left of Dalton’s scalp, Camp isn’t working for anyone. His only connection with this convention will be that of commentator on the CTV network.
The only person who seems able to bridge the Diefenbaker and Stanfield wings of the party is Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, a Westerner with eastern tendencies. But despite seemingly undying attempts by many Conservatives to try to draft him into the race, he continues to be a non-candidate. Lougheed says he feels his first commitment is to Alberta, which reelected him as premier less than a year ago. But his friends say that is not the only reason for his reluctance. They say he views the federal Conservative party, with all its infighting and backstabbing, as a dubious prize at this point and prefers to wait a few years before entering the fray. Should he have a sudden change of mind, he has until 9 p.m. on February 19, the deadline the party has set for the filing of candidates’ papers.
With Lougheed out, chances are the delegates will vote with their hearts not their heads and do what the Republicans did in 1964: choose a candidate who satisfies their ideological whims of the day ... a Goldwater. And that could spell disaster for the Tories now as it did for the Republicans then. “Muddled ideology has been the hallmark of Canadian politics from the year one,” says Professor Fox. “I just don’t believe that in a country as diverse and complicated as Canada that any party with a simplistic ideology can win. For one thing, I don’t think an ideological party can successfully fight a non-ideological party, and the Liberals will remain non-ideological. That’s their stock in trade.” O