A testing time on the Tory Right

Hilary Mackenzie April 22 1985

A testing time on the Tory Right

Hilary Mackenzie April 22 1985

A testing time on the Tory Right

Hilary Mackenzie

Stretching back against the sofa in his lagoon-blue Parliament Hill office, Bill Domm easily acknowledges that he did not fully understand the meaning of compromise until January. The veteran antimetrie campaigner had for years led a rearguard fight to preserve imperial measurements and he was even a partner in an “imperial gallon” service station on the outskirts of Ottawa. Then, Consumer and Corporate Affairs Minister Michel Côté announced that the Conservative government favors making metric the main form of measurement, with gallons, inches and pounds allowed for comparison shopping only. Sitting with Côté when he announced the policy was his somewhat embarrassed parliamentary secretary, Bill Domm.

Recalling his awkward experience, 54year-old Domm predicts that there will be many more difficult times ahead for the Tory party as it moves steadily into the politics of compromise. Late last month Domm and five like-minded Conservatives formally filed a petition in the House of Commons bearing the signatures of more than 168,250 Canadians

who favor the return of capital punishment. But still acutely aware of what happened to the last cause he championed, Domm says, “I’m not sure whether it’s possible to only half hang people.”

The Tory party has historically provided a haven for a small but fractious and undisciplined group of right wingers—variously described as a cashew coalition of nuts, extremists and selfservers. Drawn to the party because it is the only one in Canada that spreads its wings to encompass the far right of the political spectrum, they make up about 25 per cent of the 210-member federal caucus. Traditionally, the outsiders have given the party its reputation for internal conflict and disunity, most recently during Joe Clark’s tenure as leader. “Nearly all of [John A.] Macdonald’s successors have had to deal with open and often continuous challenges to their authority,” said political scientist George Perlin in his book, The Tory Syndrome. “Most have resigned under the pressure of manifest or incipient rebellion.”

Indeed, since Brian Mulroney’s government took power seven months ago, the renegade element has been active. It has spearheaded the drive for restoring

capital punishment, introducing five separate private members’ bills. It led the unsuccessful campaign for the abolition of metric measurements, complained about full French-language rights in Manitoba and called continually for stricter laws on abortion. In caucus the rightists have also pressed for increases in defence spending and closer economic ties with the United States. On the domestic front, they advocate putting the economy firmly in the hands of the private sector, while cutting the social and cultural budgets.

So far, the government has not taken any action on the issues of most concern to the right. The administration’s first budget will not be released until the week of May 20, but it has already become increasingly clear that social spending—which accounts for 40 per cent of the overall budget—will likely remain the “sacred trust” that Mulroney described during the campaign.

The makeup of the Mulroney government, with such personalities as Deputy Prime Minister Erik Nielsen, Solicitor General Elmer MacKay and Regional Industrial Expansion Minister Sinclair Stevens in positions of influence, places it squarely on the right of the political

spectrum. But it is not nearly as extreme in its appearance as was the group that surrounded Mulroney on the day he won the party leadership—June 11, 1983. Mulroney himself is as committed to such issues as bilingualism as Pierre Trudeau was, and he appears to find the capital punishment issue repugnant. In truth, there has been little to distinguish the Mulroney policies from the later ones of Trudeau. “So much for . .. all that phoney blarney about being anxious to change ways,” NDP financial critic Nelson Riis charged recently in the House of Commons. “The people of Canada thought they had made a change, but in fact they have not made a change.” Currently, the fringe of the far right has little influence in the Tory caucus. But it is still unclear whether they will create problems for Mulroney or whether he will be able to ignore their demands.

Individually, the extremists tend to be flamboyant, use intemperate language and are often outspoken against positions taken by their own party or leader. Among the more notable:

Dan McKenzie: The Winnipeg Free Press once commented that the Winnipeg-Assiniboine riding he represents “needs a member with two oars in the water, not one who keeps rowing round and round in the same pointless circle” for his adamant belief that federal language policy is part of a grand strategy to eliminate the rights of non-French Canadians. On a Winnipeg radio talk show in 1981 McKenzie declared that under Joe Clark’s leadership the Conservatives were “dead in the water with him still at the helm.” He added, “So he better go ashore voluntarily before we make him walk the plank”;

Don Bienkarn: The MP for Mississauga South acknowledges a “damn weakness of calling a spade a spade.” Indeed, he has attacked a range of subjects from the Toronto airport’s Terminal 2 (“If this was a hog terminal the pigs would die of exhaustion”) to native issues (He once asked Noel Starblanket, president of the National Indian Brotherhood, “Is there something mentally deficient in your attitude?”);

Stan Darling: Round and ruddy-faced, the 73-year-old MP for Parry Sound Muskoka is known for his distrust of Quebec, gun control, metric and people who oppose capital punishment;

Gordon Taylor: The MP for Alberta’s Bow River riding, Taylor has tabled private members’ bills calling for the execution by hanging of mass murderer Clifford Olsen. When forced to remove Olsen’s name from the bill because of House rules, Taylor retabled the document, calling for the execution of any Canadian found guilty of having committed more than 10 murders—for which only Olsen qualifies;

Robert Coates: A new addition to the back benches following his February resignation from the defence portfolio, Coates was considered the token powerful right winger in cabinet. Four years ago, when the opposition Tories were leading the governing Liberals in the polls by 42 points to 38, Coates commented, “Without Clark we’d be 10 points higher on the Gallup. I have no doubt of that.”

Political scientist Perlin says that the Canadian right winger is a peculiarity. He tends to be someone who takes strong right-wing positions on an issue,

Perlin added, “but if you examine the underpinnings of their views they are not rigid, orthodox ideologues.” Stan Darling is among those rightists who favor stricter emission controls for cars and higher standards for acid rain control. Currently, he is also far less likely to rise in the House and denounce gun control. “You have to keep your mouth shut and sit on your hands more than you ever did as a member of the opposition,” Darling acknowledges.

Still, some observers contend that right-wing dissent will soon emerge again. As Perlin wrote in 1980,

“Changes in the leadership have often had little notable effect.” In 1966 it was a rebel reformist group that pushed then-leader John Diefenbaker to remark at the party’s annual meeting, “No leader can lead when he has to turn to see who is trying to trip him from behind.” Declared outgoing leader Robert Stanfield in 1976: “Some Tories would rather fight than win.” And in 1977 the Tory leader of the day, Joe Clark, said: “The election is ready to be won in the country. It’s waiting to be lost in the caucus.”

Party discipline has never been a fea-

ture of what former governor general Lord Grey in 1909 called “the stupid party.” And in August, 1983, Tory MP Doug Roche noted that despite Mulroney’s early success in keeping the diverse elements of the party under control, the unity would soon disappear. Added Roche: “The honeymoon is sweet and the smiles contagious, but down the road a trap is waiting.” Roche predicted that strains would develop over foreign policy.

But so far Mulroney has managed to silence the right-wing fringe through a combination of skilful manipulation of appointments, praising the performance of individual MPs and pledging parliamentary reform to enhance the role of back-benchers. His strength in both the caucus and the country at large has allowed him to put right wingers in positions where they are forced to deal with other views. Said Domm: “Politicians get upset when their side is ignored. A process that closes them out of decision-making breeds rebels.” But with 210 members the task is a difficult one. One forum used to air dissent is the regional caucus, where, said Blenkarn, “we fry cabinet ministers over wine and dinner.” Members can also seek out caucus liaison officer Patrick MacAdam if they want to talk to the Prime Minister. Said Darling: “It’s almost like an

open sesame to his door, and that’s important—he can put a flea in the Prime Minister’s ear.”

Two years ago pundits were predicting that the right wingers would cost Mulroney the leadership. They were wrong. Following the election critics said that the MPs would prevent the new Prime Minister from taking over the prized political centre. That has not happened. However, the potentially divisive debate on capital punishment still has to be held. And as Stan Darling told Maclean’s: “Nothing is fast enough for me. I’d like to see it next week.”^