BACKSTAGE At Ottawa

BACKSTAGE At Ottawa

BLAIR FRASER November 12 1955
BACKSTAGE At Ottawa

BACKSTAGE At Ottawa

BLAIR FRASER November 12 1955

BACKSTAGE At Ottawa

The Safe Seat That Wasn't

BLAIR FRASER

CONSERVATIVES were hardly less astonished than Liberals by their recent by-election victory in Restigouche-Madawaska, N.B. So impregnable did this Liberal fortress appear that a strong group of local Conservatives wanted to let it go Liberal by default and spare their own party the humiliation of a public trouncing. Conservative morale got an even bigger lift from confounding these pessimists than it got from beating the Grits.

As its hyphenated name indicates, Restigouche-Madawaska is made up of two provincial ridings on the north shore of New Brunswick. Each elects three members of the legislature. At the last provincial election in 1952 all six of these seats went Conservative. Two of the MLAs then elected became members of Premier Hugh John Flemming’s cabinet. In the provincial field the Conservative position could scarcely have been more comfortable.

Nevertheless, the federal election of 1953 demonstrated that provincial gains are not always transferable. The late J. Gaspard Boucher had no trouble winning the seat for the Liberals, in spite of the fact that, one of his opponents was the Independent Liberal who had won over the official nominee at a by-election four years before.

Some provincial Conservatives drew the obvious moral: “Stay out of federal affairs. Look at Ontario, where most people have the habit of voting for Leslie Frost and Louis St. Laurent. Maybe it’s the same here. Let’s play safe, tend to our own knitting and let the Grits tend to theirs.”

Federal Conservatives rejected this timorous counsel, root and branch. But having done so, they were embarrassed to discover that they had no candidate willing to run. Some of them were on the point of giving up when they found a young Campbellton lawyer, J. C. Van Horne, who was willing to play Daniel in this Liberal lions’ den.

Luckily for him, the Liberal lions were already behaving like Kilkenny cats.

WHILE THE CONSERVATIVES were desperately searching for a candidate, Liberals were squabbling about who should get the nomination which, they thought, was tantamount to election in this Liberal stronghold. Three aspirants were available.

Two were native sons who had left the north shore and gone to work in Ottawa, one for New Brunswick’s cabinet minister Hon. Milton Gregg, the other for Prime Minister St. Laurent. Both were young men; one was French-speaking, an important point in a riding whose MP has been Canadien or Acadian in every parliament but one since 1917.

But by leaving home these men had become “outsiders.” Also, their comparative youth made them the favorites of the Young Liberal Association in the riding but, by the same token, made them objects of suspicion to the senior Liberal Association, which strongly believes that children in politics should be seen and not heard. The senior Grits gave the nomination to one of their own, a local man named John Bugold. Junior Grits were so furious that some of them, according to Liberal sources, actually went out and worked for the Tories. Conservatives deny this, but they do admit serenely that the split in Liberal ranks did them a lot of good.

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After the votes were counted, Liberals were even more emphatic than Conservatives in pointing out that the new Conservative MP, Van Horne, proved to be an excellent candidate. He put on a whirlwind campaign, spoke and shook hands and rang doorbells in every corner of the riding. The fact that he had a French-speaking mother offset any disadvantage that might have been caused by his Dutch name.

None of these assets would have been enough for victory, though, if the Liberals hadn’t cut each other’s throats. Conservatives are delighted to agree with this judgment. Intra-party squabbling, they add, is one of the symptoms

of a regime too long in power, too sure of itself, too ready to hand out "safe” seats as if they were feudal baronies.

TWENTY-TWO YEARS AGO in another set of by-elections the same situation developed in reverse.

Restigouche-Madawaska was then a Conservative seat, and R. B. Bennett’s Conservative government was in power at Ottawa. By-elections were called in Restigouche-Madawaska and in the down-river Quebec riding of Yamaska. The late Hon. P. J. A. Cardin, in charge of Liberal strategy and tactics, decided to let Restigouche-Madawaska go to the Tories by acclamation; he wanted to save the money and the man power for Yamaska, where a Liberal had squeaked in at the general election of 1930 by a majority of one.

That time it was the local Conservatives and those of Saint John who rebelled. They insisted on running a Liberal candidate, however small his chances might appear to be. The Liberal candidate was an unknown named Joseph E. Michaud—soon to be a minister in the Mackenzie King cabinet, and the man who made northern New Brunswick safely Liberal for the rest of his life.

Will Van Horne’s victory also turn out to be a directional signal for the future? Conservatives would like to think so and a few Liberals are glum enough to think so too. The government has no cause for jubilation about any of the recent by-elections, even though it did win most of them.

Beforehand, the Conservatives expected to do worst in RestigoucheMadawaska, middling in Quebec South and the rural down-river riding of Bellechasse, and best in Temiscouata. The last named is the seat won by Jean-Paul St. Laurent, younger son of the prime

minister. Conservatives didn’t quite dare to hope they could defeat young St. Laurent but they did count on cutting his majority far below the four thousand by which Senator Jean François Pouliot won it last time.

One reason why they were so hopeful was the nature of the Liberal machine in Temiscouata. It’s fairly commonplace in Quebec to find party organizers who are Liberal in federal elections but who work for Premier Duplessis and his Union Nationale in provincial. Pouliot was one such collaborationist MP. Jean-Paul St. Laurent, on the other hand, is one of Duplessis’ most outspoken enemies. Naturally the Conservatives hoped he’d be unable to call out all of Pouliot’s legions.

They may also have been misled by Liberal grumbling about the fact that young St. Laurent was running at all. Party veterans do not fancy a new, green, back-bench MP having easier access than they have themselves to the party leader. They would have been better pleased if Jean-Paul had stuck to the practice of law and left politics to the older generation in the St. Laurent family.

But once he was nominated, of course, they had to make sure he won. A defeat for anybody named St. Laurent, in a riding which has been continuously Liberal since 1896, would have been an unthinkable blow to the party’s prestige. So the party’s biggest guns were moved into Temiscouata and nothing was left undone to elect the prime minister’s son.

Conservatives say, though, that the most effective of all Liberal tactics were the large parties—teas, cocktail parties, picnics—at which the prime minister himself would drop in unobtrusively and go about chatting and shaking hands. He made no speeches; it is traditional that prime ministers do not deign to take part in mere by-elections. He merely happened over from the family summer home and greeted some hundreds or thousands of old friends. It worked wonders.

Elsewhere in Quebec the Conservatives’ chances looked much worse on paper. Bellechasse has been Liberal since 1917 by majorities never less than two thousand and sometimes nearly six thousand. Quebec South had been held by Senator "Chubby” Power ever since it was created in 1917, and the new Liberal candidate was Chubby Power’s son. Yet in both these ridings the Liberal majorities were sharply cut and in Bellechasse the Conservative came within a few hundred votes of victory.

From all these facts the Liberals draw a moral which they don’t find very comforting. Evidently the St. Laurent name and presence still has its old magic, certainly in Quebec and probably in the rest of Canada. Uncle Louis remains the unbeatable man. But without Uncle Louis the Liberals would be in sad shape.

Theoretically there is still plenty of time to correct this situation. The party has plenty of good men in parliament, more indeed than it can usefully employ. It has cabinet ministers of medium to high seniority who could be built up into the stature of leadership. Unluckily, though, the party can’t decide whom to build up. It hasn’t any longer the firm, unerring sense of direction that made the transition from Mackenzie King to St. Laurent so smooth and easy, and enabled a Liberal government with a tiny majority to get on better from 1945 to 1949 than the cumbrous Liberal steamroller can do now.

Meanwhile, Liberals didn’t need to be reminded by recent events in the United States how imprudent it is to let all a party’s hopes rely on the health and strength of one man. ★