ELECTION '79

Clark: turning the barbs around

Ian Urquhart April 16 1979
ELECTION '79

Clark: turning the barbs around

Ian Urquhart April 16 1979

Clark: turning the barbs around

Conservative leader Joe Clark spent a morning last week touring the tar sands in Alberta. He asked some inane questions (“What is your natural vegetation here?”). He made a few general comments about his plans for development of the oil-soaked sands, which turned out to be essentially the same as the government’s (encourage private enterprise with tax breaks and use government money only as a last resort). And he shook the hands of a dozen bewildered workers (“He looks so dopey,” commented a female employee). In sum, it was not a good morning for Clark in the first full week of the election campaign. But it didn’t really matter. What did was that film of a purposeful-looking Clark touring the tar sands made the national television news that night. As

a result the impression of a concerned Opposition leader searching for solutions to Canada’s energy problems probably penetrated the public mind. And that, for Clark and the Conservatives, was the whole point of last week’s campaigning. Said a satisfied Bill Neville, Clark’s chief of staff: “Generally speaking, we’ve done what we set out to do.”

Clark’s itinerary took him to six different provinces (see map) in a bonewearying search for television footage. He started each day with a tour of a mine, factory or shipyard that provided good “visuals.” He held a brief press conference preceded by a statement from him on what he had just seen. If the press insisted on asking questions about other subjects, they were usually cut off after a few minutes. Then Clark moved on to deliver a speech to the local Chamber of Commerce or some other receptive body. In the afternoon he climbed back aboard his DC-9 jet and flew to another city where, in the evening, he attended a “workers’ reception” bringing together a couple of hundred local Tories. (In Halifax, the reception was held in a hall with no chairs and the party workers were instructed to press in close to create an illusion of a large, enthusiastic crowd for the cameras.) The next day the schedule was repeated with only the place names changing. There were no

big rallies, which are considered risky ventures, and little hoopla.

Clark’s schedule may change slightly in the coming week but the tightly scripted and controlled nature of the campaign will not. Using a strategy that could have been borrowed from Toronto Maple Leafs’coach Roger Neilson, the PCs will try to minimize their mistakes rather than risk everything with a desperate lunge for power. The strategy arises from a conviction that people are ready to kick out the Liberals as long as the Conservatives don’t give them cause to reconsider; and also from a memory of past blunders. The Conservatives are haunted by visions of their disastrous 1974 campaign and Clark’s gaffe-a-day world tour in January. As a result they are an uptight group, from the leader on down. (Their nervousness may have been aggravated last week by the presence on Clark’s tour of Doug Ball, the Canadian Press photographer who took the classic picture of former Conservative leader Robert Stanfield dropping a football during the 1974 campaign.)

Perhaps because he was nervous, Clark appeared stiff and uncomfortable most of last week. His speeches contained some good rhetoric but were delivered without any passion and failed to ignite his audiences. In his brief press conferences and in television interviews, where he was operating without

a script, he frequently got into trouble, especially on the questions of his proposed “stimulative deficit” and his plans to dismantle Petro-Canada.

But buoyed by the Gallup poll showing Conservatives and Liberals in a dead heat (a result that would translate into a Tory minority government) and by the release of the Lambert commission report on government management (which adopted many of his ideas)*, Clark seemed to gain confidence as the week wore on. He also knew he had weathered the withering barrage of ridicule heaped upon him by the Liberals. Indeed he had turned some of their barbs around: noting that he stood accused of being a friend of Tory premiers, Clark said so be it—at least he has friends. “Nobody can make that accusation of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.”

If Clark can sustain his no-mistakes, good-visuals campaign all the way to May 22, he will probably become Canada’s 16th prime minister. But it is a task that will grow increasingly difficult as the campaign wears on and the public starts demanding more of Clark than film footage of a quick tour of the tar sands can provide. Ian Urquhart

*The Royal Commission on Financial Management and Accountability released its 586-page report last Tuesday. It says that control over government spending is so lax that it poses a serious threat to the economy. Headed by Allen Lambert, 67, former chairman of the Toronto-Dominion Bank, the commission was set up in 1976. In the report Lambert says, “. . . the serious malaise pervading the management of government stems fundamentally from a grave weakening and, in some cases, an almost total breakdown in the chain of accountability. ” The report recommends that the government subm it annually five-year financial plans as a first step to accountability.