Roger Simmons felt fine on Wednesday morning. The night before, only one day after he had become the freshest Liberal face in the country, he had gone on Newfoundland television and called his leader “absolutely perfect.” But that was yesterday. Today he had no leader.
Eugene Whelan was down on his Amherstburg, Ontario, farm when the telegram arrived. The former agriculture minister had always stood behind Trudeau. Always. And when some of the light spilled on him when Trudeau stepped aside, it made his head spin. Perhaps the telegram held advice he should heed. Just three words: “Go boy go!”
Frances Wright was brushing her teeth when the phone rang to carry the news. As the Liberal party’s Alberta organizer, she had long known what a slow day felt like. But by the end of that particular day she had signed up 60 new members. Suddenly, her life had new meaning.
Distressed by the present, it should come as no surprise that the Liberal party of Canada began looking ahead at 11:15 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, Wednesday, Nov. 21, the moment Pierre Trudeau publicly declared he was leaving. They would be well advised, however, to look back first—back some 102 years to 1877 when Wilfrid Laurier, himself dreaming one day of being prime minister, said
that a key element of liberalism was that “there is always room for improvement of our condition.” Now leaderless, out of office in Ottawa, out of power in every province, with only three elected MPs from the Manitoba-Ontario border west, the condition has sadly deteriorated.
Without exception, Liberals described the Trudeau resignation as “a surprise,” yet that description suffers from some ambiguity. “It was a surprise, yet not a surprise,” said Frances Wright in Calgary. “Rather like your great aunt Harriet being 85 years old and dying.” For if there was sadness there was also relief. “Power wears down a political party and there must be a period of rejuvenation,” said New Brunswick Liberal leader Joseph Daigle. “And to get that you have to change, and the change must go right to the top.” In British Columbia a party worker admitted: “The timing couldn’t have been better.” And in Winnipeg, even defeated Liberal cabinet minister Otto Lang confessed: “It will be easier to rebuild the party in the West without him.”
“The Liberal party, so long as it stands for liberalism, will never die, never die,” Joey Smallwood argued in St. John’s last week. But no one knew better than Trudeau himself that the party had been failing badly and was in need of a transplant. “I think we are out of touch with large sections of the grassroots,” he told a Toronto policy convention in 1976. “I think we havé to worry, as Liberals, about our future as a national party. The party is not well-organized. You can’t organize without fire in your bellies, without faith in something.”
Liberals try, but it is difficult to draw much faith from the present. A federal byelection victory in Newfoundland, three provincial byelection victories in Quebec—all impressive—but they had taken also to cheering “good showings” in byelections they lost. Nick Taylor, the Alberta provincial leader, came within 233 votes in a Wednesday provincial byelection—his fifth unsuccessful run at a seat—and declared the loss “a victory.” But the truth, as Senator David Steuart of Saskatchewan points out, is that, “We have got to quit coming second and start coming first.”
Trudeau’s “fire in your bellies” will be administered, of course, by whoever replaces him. With the leadership convention slated for March 28-30 in Winnipeg, it is unlikely to be a case of a Joe Clark slowly emerging over a leisurely year-long campaign. To the front-runners—former finance ministers Donald Macdonald and John Turner—goes the advantage, and no one expects them not to take it. Turner, the Man from Glad and Bay Street, has support from everywhere but his own party. Perceived as a winner by the public and a quitter by his political colleagues, Turner offers charisma, bilingualism, corporate contacts and an important touch-base in the West (he attended the University of British Columbia). What he lacks is precisely what Macdonald offers: the love of the party.
Macdonald is solid, intelligent, a bit ill-tempered but his argument that he doesn’t have the “royal jelly” may already be inoperative, particularly if Pierre Trudeau is indeed delivering the silent nod of approval. Macdonald has opened the door to the possibility of running, but he will have to be wooed. The case of Golden Lilly royal jelly that Jean-Pierre Goyer sent him from Hong Kong remains unopened—“most vile-looking liquid I’ve ever seen”—and he claims watching the televised proceedings of the Commons makes him feel like “an old prisoner of war seeing Stalag 17 reruns.” But few doubt he will be persuaded.
The intrigue over the next four months will be less concerned with the two Bay Street lawyers than with other entrants and the role of Quebec. They will come with their ready-made constituencies—Eugene Whelan’s folks, Robert Andras’ accountants, Lloyd Axworthy’s New West and Art Phillips’ hair and dishy wife, Carole Taylor—and it
will be the rise, fall and rise of their fortunes that will dictate the manner of the Macdonald and Turner back-room lobbying. Turner, for example, has already spoken to Whelan about getting together, fully aware that Whelan has little time for him.
But Quebec will remain the wild card throughout. Holding 67 of the Liberal party’s 113 federal seats, Quebec is the party’s singular power base and the eventual winner will require approval there. The potential king maker is Jean Chrétien, the popular former finance minister who is a close friend of Macdonald’s and who has never forgiven Turner for the low blows a 1978 Turner “confidential corporate memo” contained. Chrétien, of course, might run himself, though he argues: “I have no commitment with destiny.” Besides, he adds: “It’s the turn of an anglo, and I cannot pretend I’m an anglophone.”
Alternating between a French and English leader is tradition only, however, and some Quebec Liberals are quick to point out that an anglophone, perhaps John Turner, would have followed Pearson in 1968 had not Trudeau become a last-minute entry. Two who might run are Jean-Luc Pepin and Monique Bégin. “They will tell us ‘Run, please run—we need a French Canadian to run,’ ” says Bégin. “But they will also be saying, ‘Make sure you come second.’ ” Significantly, the Quebec caucus has already met in Ottawa and decided to proceed with the utmost caution.
And caution, it would seem, is the public catchword for the moment. No one wishes to be the first to declare, but all wish desperately to know if they dare declare. Eugene Whelan admitted his people would be making “hundreds of calls” over the weekend, just to test the water. Eventually, someone will jump. For the bulk of the Liberal party, however, pausing to catch breath carries the risk of losing it
altogether. Party President Senator Alasdair Graham hurried away from the Trudeau press conference saying he couldn’t afford the luxury of mourning. “There’s not enough time,” he said over his shoulder as he headed back to his Senate office. “I’ve got phone calls to make. I’ve got to get organizing.” And on Parliament Hill behind him, the statue of Wilfrid Laurier stared silently straight ahead. Waiting.
THE MORNING LINE
John Turner, 50 7-5
Donald Macdonald, 47 5-2
Jean Chrétien, 45 8-1
Eugene Whelan, 55 14-1
Preferred rail position, early favorite, chomps a worn bit
Clubhouse favorite, trouble with short track, might slip on royal jelly
Trouble with English saddle, skittish, possible scratch in Macdonald’s favor
Likes the smells. Turner will need to watch for fouls on corners. Runs well with Chrétie’
Robert Andras, 58 18-1
Jean-Luc Pepin, 55 20-1
Lloyd Axworthy, 39 20-1
Art Phillips, 49 25-1
Herb Gray, 48 30-1
Monique Bégin, 43 30-1
Francis Fox, 39 40-1
Mark MacGuigan, 48 50-1
Workhorses don’t normally race, but have strengths in the field
Frisky, bolts. Might run own race, in any direction
A yearling with potential, but lacks both training and conditioning
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