Canadian News

The national gripes fly home to roost

Robert Lewis October 16 1978
Canadian News

The national gripes fly home to roost

Robert Lewis October 16 1978

The national gripes fly home to roost

Canadian News

Robert Lewis

Out there on the byelection stump, in hotels that make strange bedfellows, rival campaigners are literally falling all over each other. One recent night in the dining room of Corner Brook’s Glynmill Inn, Brian Flemming, advance-manning a trip for Pierre Trudeau, stopped by the table of St. John’s Tory MP Jim McGrath, who was in town with Joe Clark. “Well,” said McGrath playfully, “if I can be of any help, Brian,

we sure would like him to come.”

Bravado and bluster aside, the dig underlined the fact that in the race for byelection victory Oct. 16, the Tories regard Pierre Trudeau as an asset— theirs. From Humber-St. George’s-St. Barbe on the craggy western banks of Newfoundland to the smug-bedroomed suburbs of Burnaby, British Columbia, Trudeau’s style and 10-year record emerge as the central focus for every national gripe—unemployment, inflation, the dollar, capital punishment, unemployment insurance.

The mood is chillingly vitriolic, at times hateful. In the words of Network's Howard Beale, whose celebrated call roared anew last week when the movie premiered on CBS and CTV, the Canadian people apparently have decided: “We know things are bad—worse than bad—they are crazy.” Tory candidate Bill Brown in Newfoundland actually tells his audiences: “I’m not going

to take it any longer.” Clark himself urges voters, George Wallace-style, to “send a message to Ottawa” and scoffs at “some guys from Harvard” who run the government.

Pierre Trudeau strides through the maelstrom, battered, wondering with some justification how one man can be blamed so harshly for so much. As the PM told BCTV’s Jack Webster last week: “In the years when I’ve been talking leadership, people would say: look at this guy. He thinks he’s the only one

who knows where the country should go. Suddenly, I’m not showing leadership because I’m saying I want to listen to people. You’ll have to make up your minds.”

Trudeau can only hope that the decision-making in the days ahead amounts to a national catharsis, because his Liberal party appears headed for a drubbing. Ten days before the vote, a Maclean's sample of the mood in 15 ridings suggested that the Liberals could lose all but three seats, suffer a wipe-out in Toronto and would be blessed just to win five of the races (see chart overleaf). Some party strategists are already rationalizing the anticipated losses: disaster, they argue, only confirms the sagacity of not calling a general election for this fall. Besides, regardless of the outcome, Liberals will retain their Commons majority—and governments tend to fare poorly in byelections.

Trudeau’s problem is that he won’t have much time to recover through the

harsh winter ahead before he is forced to call a general election by next July. His cabinet and caucus already are more restive about his leadership than at any time in Trudeau’s career. Trudeau’s strongest partisans are openly talking resignedly about his bleak future. Leadership aspirants are quietly setting their ducks in line, in the event that Trudeau steps down and makes way for a leadership convention this winter.

Trudeau is personally involved in strategy sessions to improve his image. At last month’s informal cabinet session at Meach Lake, he inquired if he was the problem. Two ministers, Monique Bégin and Len Marchand, reportedly said yes, pointing out that Trudeau’s unpopularity was endangering several Liberal seats.

Trudeau actually returned from Bonn last July determined to have a fall election. Senior ministers Don Jamieson in Newfoundland, Allan MacEachen in Nova Scotia and Marc Lalonde in Quebec all said they were ready. But when Trudeau turned to his three Ontario campaign strategists, Public Works Minister Judd Buchanan, Ontario campaign boss Royce Frith and national campaign co-chairman Keith Davey, there were three different predictions on seats—all of them involving net losses. Trudeau was stumped—and puzzled. Why couldn’t his three advisers get together? Was the situation in Ontario that bad? Was he the cause?

Not surprisingly, during the minicampaign Joe Clark is simply showing up. Ostensibly his extensive national touring—he uses a free, first-class Air Canada pass—throws him into the midst of all 15 scraps. But it is mainly an illusion of the TV screen. In fact, Clark spends most of his time visiting

committee rooms—preaching to the cheering converted—and meeting with senior party figures. Once or twice a week he delivers a basic, set-piece speech attacking the government’s economic record and ticking off Conservative policies (details not demanded). His delivery, after professional coaching, is crisp and effective—and he is no longer “Joe Who?” Trudeau, meanwhile, is wading into less controlled situations, taking questions from town meetings and defending his record before the skeptics.

With a few exceptions—immigrants on a downtown Toronto street, a surging throng of well-wishers at the openair market in Saint Hyacinthe, Que,—

Trudeau is provoking no mass enthusiasm, particularly in affluent areas of English Canada. His advisers have prepared an Olympic-style rating of Canada’s performance in the world based on 10 economic indicators. Canada, Trudeau submits, places first, ahead of the United States, Australia and Germany. But his audiences either don’t believe, or are more impressed by the price of eggs.

At a Liberal gathering in Toronto’s York-Scarborough riding, two questioners even voiced what so far has been unmentionable—leadership. “I have so many questions,” stammered one young man, “but I’ve lost confidence in you as a leader of this country.” The hall of mainly Liberal partisans fell silent, as Trudeau parried: “If you’ve just lost confidence in me the way I’ve lost hair, I understand.”

“I respect you and I know you are my

prime minister,” said the next questioner, an Italian whose voice trembled with a mixture of fear and anger. “But I think it’s time you stepped down and gave someone else a chance.” A Trudeau aide approached the meeting chairman on the stage and whispered; “Two more questions.”

The clearest signs of a government on the ropes are the seemingly accidental quotes and quips by Liberals which Tories gleefully are turning to their advantage. Clark, for example, provokes gasps of shock down east when he relates Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan’s disingenuous dismissal of the Liberal rout last month in Nova Scotia: “What defeat? It’s like a municipal election.” Maritimers, understandably, find the remark insulting.

The Tories are inciting the same kind of outrage in ethnic communities by circulating a slip by Ottawa Centre Liberal

candidate Bryce Mackasey. In his nomination speech, Mackasey was in full flight lauding the importance of immigrants to Canada’s development. Mackasey, an ardent proponent of loose immigration policy, declared: “Who would do the dirty work—dig the ditches, mine the mines, sweep the floors?” Inexplicably, the veteran campaigner left the thought hanging.

Even vote-getting Liberal policies seem to be backfiring. In Newfoundland, for example, cost cuts which threaten to eliminate two of four daily government weather forecasts have angered fishermen, who note that coastal weather is just too unpredictable for that. Low-income families also have focused on reductions in monthly familyallowance cheques, seemingly unaware that the Liberals propose a yéar-end tax credit of $200 per child for people making less than $18,000.