Column

The party’s over in the West: spare a sigh for the Liberals

Allan Fotheringham December 4 1978
Column

The party’s over in the West: spare a sigh for the Liberals

Allan Fotheringham December 4 1978

The party’s over in the West: spare a sigh for the Liberals

Column

Allan Fotheringham

There are certain secrets hidden well away from public view. Such as the recipe for the bullet-proof lacquer on Fred Davis’ hair. The name of the construction firm that makes Dolly Parton’s bra. And the design of the computer subtle enough to measure Michael Pitfield’s charisma. In the same area is the most closely held secret of Canadian political life: that the Liberals are finished as a national party and that the country is headed, inexorably, toward a two-party system as fated as that of Britain. Not the American mould, where one party somewhat to the right of centre struggles with one party slightly to the right of centre. What is happening in this benighted realm (it has already happened in some one-third of it) is a definite split into the unsophisticated spheres of Left and Right.

We did not need the byelections of mid-October to reveal this sordid fact to the political scientists and those shrinks beside the Rideau who make their living feeling the bumps on the foreheads of cabinet ministers. It has been apparent for some years to anyone who keeps his antennae greased and his bifocals cleaned. If the truth was not revealed in the 1972 election—showing the Grits trailing the Tories in nine of the 10 provinces but surviving only through Quebec—it has been well documented since. The facts are there, naked and blushing, for all to see.

There is the problem of the West, the region growing fastest of all. In spots that are burgeoning, the Grits are dying. The only places where they are not dying is where they are already defunct. To illustrate the problem there is the cold truth that in 1951 the four Western provinces had 26 per cent of Canada’s population, Quebec 29 per cent. The West had drawn even with Quebec—at 27 per cent—by 1976. But by 2001, Quebec will go to 23 and the West to 31 per cent. By that time, the West will have a population of nine million—43 per cent of Canada’s growth.

To illustrate the reality, the Liberals

no longer exist as a provincial party in either Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta or British Columbia. The Alberta branch of course disappeared with the dinosaurs. The Saskatchewan rump that has been diminishing ever since Ross Thatcher was wiped out completely last month in Allan Blakeney’s NDP sweep. In Manitoba, there is only the lonely Liberal leader left, Lloyd Axworthy, who is attempting to make it back to the safety of Ottawa via Jimmy Richardson’s Winnipeg South seat. In B.C. only the lonely: leader Gordon Gib-

son, former aide to Mr. Trudeau, seeking a federal seat—the last refuge for a Western Liberal.

Ex-B.C. leader Ray Perrault is already safe in the thumb-sucking womb of the Senate. Gil Molgat, a leader of the Manitoba Liberals, has been taken into the same warm bosom. How long before Davey Steuart, latest leader of the Saskatchewan branch, will be offered the same milk? Not long.

As to the federal fate, no party can exist on a national basis with its stamplicking, door-knocking provincial structure removed (vide the Tories in Quebec, the NDP in the Maritimes). The Liberals are dead in the West federally precisely because they are defunct provincially.

They are, as we know, invisible in Alberta and will remain so despite the cynical buying of Jack Horner with a cabinet seat, a plot that has failed because Horner (a) has been a failure in his portfolio and (b) will not win his seat. Albertans admire success

and this was not a successful plot.

In the byelections, they lost the last seat in Manitoba they owned, St. Boniface. In Saskatchewan they will remain a rump, but in B.C. they will plummet from eight seats to a lucky two.

The Gallup confirms what the 1972 election told us—and the 1974 vote only forestalled the Tories’ lead in nine of the 10 provinces. If you want to know what is going to happen in Canada in the next 10 to 20 years, look at what has happened in the West. In Manitoba, there are now only two parties—the Tories and the NDP. The same in Saskatchewan. The same in B.C.—Social Credit (i.e. Tories) and NDP. What goes on in the West (the birthplace of the protest parties, the United Farmers Movement, the CCF, Social Credit) presages what goes on elsewhere. Quebec, in its own way, has only now a democratic socialist party, the Parti Québécois, and the Liberals, who assume the right-wing establishment and Union Nationale support.

What is happening is that this country is evolving into a leftright situation, as in Britain, as in Western Canada. The Liberals have expired, without a breath, in the West and are on the run in southern Ontario, barely holding their own in the Maritimes. With their pliable backbone (if necessary, the party of MacKenzie King would swallow both Hare Krishna and Ron Lancaster) they may encompass the NDP. What remains certain is only that the Tories are sure of survival.

The one man who seems to realize this stood in an ornate ballroom in the Royal York one lunch-hour two years ago, and in a magnificent speech to Ontario Liberals confessed: “I think we are out of touch with large sections of the grassroots. West of the Ontario-Manitoba border we exist as a third party and not a strong one at that... I think we have to worry as Liberals about our future as a national party.” The man was Pierre Trudeau.

He can see it, but he can’t do anything. He’s a professor, not a politician.