Take a long, hard look at the Western Liberal. It may be your last chance

Allan Fotheringham February 6 1978

Take a long, hard look at the Western Liberal. It may be your last chance

Allan Fotheringham February 6 1978

Take a long, hard look at the Western Liberal. It may be your last chance

Column by Allan Fotheringham

There was Custer and there was Alf Landon and there were the Denver Broncos. And then there are the Liberals in Western Canada. Born losers all. Destined to live on the banana peel of life. Almost eager, in their orchestrated, carefully rehearsed ineptitude, for failure, Who was the general, watching a doomed regiment walk bravely into destruction by German machine-gun fire in World War I, who remarked, “It is brilliant, but it has nothing to do with soldiering”? That is a perfect description of the Liberal Party, the most powerful political machine this country has ever seen, in that electoral desert that stretches west of Thunder Bay. In the election of 1974, the efficient party that has skillfully managed to rule this country for 41 of the past 52 years somehow managed to win just 13 of the 68 seats in the four provinces that are supposed to be the burgeoning wave of the future. In the election to come this spring, they will be lucky to win eight—even with the redistribution that acknowledges the surging population of Alberta and British Columbia. There has hardly been a time when the Liberals have been so unpopular in the West, there has scarcely been a time when they so richly deserved it.

The Liberals have been so long at the top they’ve forgotten the peasants who fuel the bottom. The inexorable slide started long ago at the provincial level and without the great unwashed to lick stamps and consume bad coffee the federal machine ticks down to a slow, sputtering stop. The Liberals have not had a provincial government in Manitoba in 20 years, not one in BC since 1941, not in Alberta since 1921.

(They’re not that much better elsewhere. They haven’t been in power since 1943 in Ontario, where they have only 34 of 125 seats. They have only 11 of 61 seats in Saskatchewan, only 26 of 110 in Quebec. It’s generally forgotten that they now govern in only two minor provinces: Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.)

It is in the West, however, where the true enormity of the disaster ahead sits waiting to unfold, the Liberals in Saskatchewan are in decline, in Manitoba in hiding, in Alberta they’re invisible and in BC they’re a protected species.

In Manitoba, the provincial Grits are down to one lone eagle, Lloyd Axworthy, a

former Paul Hellyer aide in Ottawa who sprains his wrist every day checking his watch to determine the date of the next federal election so he can àbandon the lost cause and seek a federal seat. An internal autopsy after last fall’s election revealed that the Liberals fought the campaign while in chaos, with campaign material lost or mislaid and mailing lists in turmoil.

In Alberta, the Liberals do not exist. The last living one left the province with Aimee Semple McPherson and has never re-

turned. No one has missed them.

In BC, there is again just one valiant Grit left in the legislature, Gordon Gibson, who can hold his caucus in a phone booth. A former Trudeau aide, he is also eyeing the womb of Ottawa as a way out of this oblivion.

Saskatchewan, the last Liberal holdout on the prairies, where Ross Thatcher was in power just seven years ago? It is to laugh. The party is well along on its appointed task of self-destruction and will disappear at the next election into the sump hole that envelopes it in adjacent provinces. A bitter leadership fight between Tony Merchant, the humorless brother-in-law of Otto Lang, and eventual winner Ted Malone vitiated the party. There have been three byelection losses and two defections to the Tories. It is now Dick Collver’s Tories, who shot up from 2% to 28% of the vote in 1975, who are the obvious threat to Allan Blakeney, the last NDP premier in the country.

The cocktail party atmosphere (good suit, no principles) that has so pervaded the Liberal provincial scene inevitably has af-

fected the federal prospects. In Manitoba, the Grits will be lucky to elect one, probably Axworthy. The wandering soul, James Richardson, latest example of the Paul (lemming) Hellyer Action Canada syndrome, is not wanted by the Tories, who perceive even deeper trouble to their Quebec chances if they adopted this strange anti-francophone bird.

In Saskatchewan, Otto Lang, wisely keeping a rather low profile these days, may be able to help retain the party’s three seats. Alberta? On present form, turncoat Jack Horner will lose his Crowfoot seat unless he abandons all trade and commerce chores in Ottawa and retreats in haste to the riding. Calgary East is a possible.

It is in bc—with eight seats providing practically all the Liberal strength in the West— that Armageddon looms. Of those eight, five are in deep danger. Of those five, Justice Minister Ron Basford was the one with the largest majority— 1,900 votes in 1974—though that had been slipping steadily through three elections—and he is now resigning. Another seat has a cushion of only 484 votes, another 348, yet another one won on a recount with just 57 votes.

With an electoral Dunkirk in the cards, Liberal ministers have lost their taste for the battle. Richardson jumped overboard and is still treading water. Basford’s departure means the senior BC minister in the cabinet is Ray Perrault, who’s from the Senate and he’s in the Senate because the BC voters rejected him. There’s now, with the departure of John Turner and Jean-Luc Pépin, not a single Liberal minister who can speak in the West with any credibility. (Pierre Trudeau can command respect, but he seems no closer to understanding Western Canada than he was 10 years ago.) Horner has not emerged yet as a rising power, if he ever will.

The consequence—unless Trudeau can pull his phoenix act once more and Joe Clark tries to catch a football, put on cowboy boots or hit his head on a low-flying liberation movement—is a party even more hived into Quebec against a hostile West. It’s sad. If the Tories fail, they at least fail in uniform fashion across the land.

When the Grits come calling with their ballot boxes this spring, they’ll be walking into the machine guns.