Election 1980

The foreign factor

Robert Lewis February 11 1980
Election 1980

The foreign factor

Robert Lewis February 11 1980

The foreign factor

Election 1980

Robert Lewis

Joe Clark acknowledged the exit of Canada’s six “houseguests” as a campaign break—“a big one”—but it was Pierre Trudeau’s foreign policy speech the day the caper came to light that pointed unintentionally to the rea-

son: “The Conservatives began their term by making Canada a laughingstock abroad, and our foreign policy has not recovered from it till this day.”

Political recovery was the theme Clark’s high-flying folks pushed during a week in the international glare. “Jerusalem is a dead issue now,” proclaimed Bill Neville, chief of staff. Rodrigue Pageau, the Quebec campaign director, was even more direct: “We were losing the election because of one embassy [Tel

Aviv] and now we are going to win it because of another.”

That heavy breathing had to be weighed after the release of two new television polls this week, the first indication since the Iran break of whether voters are making a lasting connection between Clark and the success in Tehran. Trudeau clearly hoped it would be otherwise when he responded to first accounts of the escapade. “If this is true,” he declared, “this is commendable action and all Canadians and myself applaud this brave work by external affairs officials and we commend the government for supporting it.” But Trudeau still faulted Clark for “political management instead of crisis management.”

It has been a long time—the campaign waged over nuclear warheads 17 years ago—since party leaders scrambled on all fours for the right spot in the queue for international rectitude. But, with events in Iran and Afghanistan a top concern of citizens, there has been no choice.

Clark avoided blatant attempts at political haymaking on the embassy exit, but he exhibited no such reticence about hitching his campaign theme of “security” to menacing events in the world. In an interview with The London Free Press, he conceded that parties which so desired “could use that delicate international situation to play the public opinion, particularly since there is fairly significant anti-Soviet opinion in Canada.” Intended or not, that was the effect of Clark’s address to 2,500 cheering Ukrainian Canadians in Toronto at the start of his week. “We and our allies,” he declared, “must send a clear message to Moscow and that message is: You shall go no further.”

By talking up the need for secure energy supplies and promising more troops for the armed forces (4,000 over four years), Clark marched steadfastly to the beat of a new Cold War drum. “We can’t let the West be weak,” he said in Wingham, Ontario. “There should be no doubt where Canada stands on the conflict of values in the world today,” he told an Ottawa rally—coincidentally staged on the night of Ambassador Ken Taylor’s return to the capital, where he was met by External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald.

Although Clark pulled up short of calling Trudeau “soft on communism,” he maintained that Trudeau was at least flaccid on NATO commitments during his years as prime minister. The Conservative leader also suggested that Trudeau acted irresponsibly by urging Clark to lead world protest about the

1 Thank you, Canada

Iranian take-over of the U.S. embassy. Clark briefed Trudeau on Nov. 26 about the presence of the six Americans in Canadian quarters. That very day, Trudeau said in the Commons that “it is not enough that each country singly . . . indicate its indignation over the breach of international law.” Clark said last week that he was “surprised by the tone” of Trudeau’s remarks and feared at the time that a strident anti-Iranian stand by Canada might “draw attention to the presence of Americans under our custody.” Taylor himself indirectly squelched Trudeau’s view that Canada should have led public tub-thumping against Iran. Noting that he was “in constant touch” with home office about a range of public postures—from strong to conciliatory—Taylor said that he didn’t recall any “conflict between what I would propose and what Ottawa would send back.”

The drama of the departure from Iran and Clark’s accusations forced Trudeau onto the defensive—a sharp turn for a man with a healthy reputation on the world stage. At his first

campaign press conference, Trudeau attempted to explain away his conditional commendation of the embassy affair by saying, “I didn’t, very simply, want to be the one who spilled the beans.” And he insisted that there was no reason for Clark to keep a low profile on Iran “because we happen to be harboring a few refugees.” Canada could have taken a stand “which would have at least shown to the enemies of the United States that the United States had friends. I still condemn the Clark government for not having taken the lead in that case.” Ed Broadbent of the NDP was understandably less diffident: the government did not brief him—as it did Trudeau—on the reasons for closing the embassy before the story emerged, and Broadbent spent a troubled week struggling out of an international quagmire (see page 22).

What, if anything, the week of international news would do for party standings on Feb. 18 was unclear. Trudeau seemed to presume a majority government win. “I would very much insist that before the four years are out,” he

said, “my party hold a leadership convention and choose a successor.” If Freudian slips are all they’re cracked up to be, Clark has more modest expectations. “We have 18 days to go before a minor ... a majority Conservative government,” he said Thursday night. With the Liberals secure in most of Quebec’s 75 seats and the Tories trailing in the early polls, realists inside Tory ranks reckon they’ll be lucky just to squeak back in. If they do, Clark can join Jimmy Carter, now comfortably ahead of Teddy Kennedy, in contemplating the slight trace of silver in the dark clouds cast on the world by the ayatollah. Whatever the outcome, Clark, especially, would see the irony of a prognosis he offered Maclean’s at the end of his troubled tour of the world just over a year ago. “I foresee now,” he said then, “the priorities of our early years in office as having their origins domestically.” By last week, the most welcome news was a call from the White House to Clark’s staff. Would Clark, Carter’s man inquired, appreciate a call from the president?