PROGRESSIVE Conservatives are cockier this spring than they’ve been since the roof fell in on them in 1949. Realists among them don’t really expect to win the 1953 election (after all, the Gallup Poll still gives the Liberals forty-six percent of the popular vote, the PCs only forty-three percent). But they do hope for a large enough gain next year to make victory a real possibility the next time.
Unlike some previous upsurges of Conservative morale this one seems to come from the bottom. At the annual meeting of the PC Association here a month ago party chieftains were amazed and mildly embarrassed by having just twice as many delegates as they’d expected. The last meeting was attended by three hundred and ninety “old faithfuls.” This one had nearly eight hundred and the resultant scramble for hotel rooms was something to see. At one luncheon the Chateau Laurier was told to have food for a maximum of three hundred women, and five hundred and forty turned up.
Still more encouraging was the fact that the twice as many delegates brought in about half as many resolutions. When a party is down in the dumps everybody has a radical prescription for its cure: sometimes there are as many suggested platforms as there are delegates. When the party’s healthy its workers lose interest in policy and talk about organization.
This year’s meeting spent almost all its time on organization. Delegates crowded in to hear financial critic J. M. Macdonnell explain, not the principles of Conservative fiscal policy, but the virtues of door-bell
pushing: “No more meetings for me,” he told them, “it’s the personal canvass that works.” Gordon Gray don didn’t mention foreign affairs, but explained how he managed to call on seven thousand Peel County electors in his first campaign.
Policy wasn’t ignored, but it was handled with realistic firmness—no hobby horses allowed. PCs have learned this the hard way. At the national convention in 1948 most of one afternoon was taken up by the handful of western Conservatives who support the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. They held the microphone for several hours running, talking not only to fellow delegates but to the whole national audience of the CBC. Ever since, Progressive Conservative workers have found prairie voters convinced that the party stands behind the hated grain exchange. It’s done them more harm in the west than anything else, they say—and hardly anyone will believe it isn’t true. Farmers heard it with their own ears.
This time no such minority will be able to identify itself with the party, or vice versa. The association’s policy committee will work with a committee of the parliamentary caucus, and no policy will be proclaimed which elected MPs aren’t willing to support.
Meanwhile, resolutions which canceled each other out were allowed to remain canceled. For example, several western associations had sent in stinging attacks on the appointment of a Canadian governor-general and the dropping of the word “Dominion.” Quebec associations had urged the Progressive Conservative Association
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to drop the word “Dominion” from its own constitution. Both suggestions were quietly dropped into the same wastebasket.
George Drew and his national president, George Nowlan, are both determined not to allow this kind of issue to be raised. Regardless of their private opinions on either question they know this is the way to fan racial and religious prejudice in Canada and they want no part of it.
* * *
Quebec is still, of course, the weak link in the Progressive Conservative chain, and party leaders are not deluded by the rosy reports to the contrary which come in (as they have always come in) from enthusiastic organizers on the spot. They know quite well they have no chance against a popular native son like Louis St. Laurent. But they do argue that their longer-term prospects in Quebec are reasonably bright.
Paradoxically, they see their own stock rising as that of Maurice Duplessis declines.
As long as Duplessis is in power the Progressive Conservative Party is caught in an intolerable dilemma. Duplessis is indelibly unpopular among English-speaking Canadians. He typifies everything they don’t like about French Canada. Any association with Duplessis, whatever good it may do the PCs in Quebec, is bound to be poison in the other provinces.
But as long as Duplessis is in power in Quebec the Progressive Conservatives have nowhere else to turn. There are some supporters of the Union Nationale who are Liberal in federal politics, but there are no Quebec Conservatives who vote anything but Union Nationale provincially. The PCs have no friends, present or potential, in Quebec who are not overshadowed by Maurice Duplessis.
If Duplessis were beaten the PCs would have some hope of acquiring what they need most in French Canada —a leader of recognized stature. They can’t hope to tempt such men as Hon. Antonio Barrette, Quebec Minister of Labor, or Col. Paul Sauvé to run for George Drew when they can be Duplessis ministers instead. But if they’re faced only with a choice of official Oppositions they could have more fun at Ottawa.
Meanwhile Progressive Conservative organizers in Quebec are plugging ahead at the routine task of rebuilding a party machine. In 1949 they put on an impressive show and spent a lot of money, but the whole thing was improvised at the last minute after Duplessis gave his ministers and MLAs permission to enter the federal fight if they wanted to. A scant two months before the election not a single organizer had been named in a Quebec constituency, and only one PC candidate had been chosen.
Today, probably eighteen months before election day, chief organizers have already been named in fiftysix of Quebec’s seventy-three ridings (there’ll be seventy-five after redistribution). One of them lately demonstrated to a visiting fireman what a difference this makes. In 1950 a meeting had been called in his riding, for the same visitor, which was attended by four people, not counting the visitor. In late 1951 a meeting in the same hall drew one hundred and seventy-two people.
PCs hope and believe, too, that Quebec’s attitude toward George Drew
has changed. They didn’t admit it at the time but they admit now that in 1949 he was actively disliked by Quebec voters. Now, they say, he has gone into Quebec often enough to make friends. His own French has improved to the point that he can carry on conversation and not (as in 1949) merely stumble through a text written for him by someone else. PCs don’t pretend that Drew is now or is likely to become a really popular figure in Quebec, but they do think he has ceased to be a serious liability.
Again they’re taking the long view. Against Louis St. Laurent he wouldn’t have a chance, but he might pick up a few seats, a foothold. And then, against any successor to St. Laurent, the PCs might come into their own again.
* * *
Liberals will go through the next election deprived of one asset which most of them don’t know they ever had. They won’t have John W. Pickersgill’s aid and counsel at headquarters. After fifteen years as the assistant and confidential adviser of two prime ministers, Piekersgill moves next month into the political neutrality of the Privy Council Office, where he will succeed Norman Robertson as Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary of the Cabinet.
This was by far the most interesting appointment in the diplomatic shuffle which is now going into effect. Most people in Ottawa knew that Arnold Heeney was going abroad, and many knew that Dana Wilgress was coming home from London to replace him as Under-Secretary of External Affairs. That made it easy to guess that Norman Robertson would go back to London as High Commissioner. But the number who knew about Jack Pickersgill’s move was very small indeed, and it left Ottawa flabbergasted.
Piekersgill has a lively distaste for publicity; not many people outside Ottawa and Winnipeg, where he grew up. have ever heard of him. Actually he has been one of the most influential men in the whole government service for at least ten years, if not longer. “Influential” is the right word—not “powerful,” which is the one the Opposition would use. They view him as a kind of grey eminence, a sinister power behind the throne. In fact he was for years an underpaid overworked civil servant whose job with Prime Minister Mackenzie King would have driven most men crazy.
His influence on government policy depended wholly on his advice, which was consistently astute. Piekersgill learned his politics at the feet of the old master, Mackenzie King, who never had an apter pupil. He loves politics and is a connoisseur of politicians, whom he regards with vast amusement and affection. That’s what made his new appointment so astonishing
the Clerk of the Privy Council may not be active in politics, and it’s very difficult to imagine Jack Piekersgill being inactive.
Piekersgill himself doesn’t discuss it, but his friends think one explanation may be the age of Prime Minister St. Laurent. It’s expected that the Prime Minister will lead his party in one more general-election campaign, but even that may not happen: in any event
retirement is not far off for a man in his seventy-first year. And Piekersgill could not serve in his present role with any successor — not because he doesn’t get on well with them, but because lie has been senior to them for too many years in the invisible hierarchy of real authority. For him to play the role of junior, at this late date, would simply be embarrassing. -*•
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