BACKSTAGE

Grits have the “grass” but where’s the “brass”?

BLAIR FRASER February 15 1958
BACKSTAGE

Grits have the “grass” but where’s the “brass”?

BLAIR FRASER February 15 1958

Grits have the “grass” but where’s the “brass”?

BACKSTAGE

AT OTTAWA

BLAIR FRASER

LIBERALS NOW are finding grim irony in the talk, so loud at their convention last month, about “the grass” of the party being dominated and frustrated by “the brass.” As they gird for battle they realize that they have no great shortage of grass and other vegetation, but that real Liberal “brass” is alarmingly scarce.

It was the officer corps of the party, the generals and the colonels and the field commanders, and not the other ranks who suffered most at the 1957 election. This was one reason why Lester Pearson produced such a labored contrivance in his first “fighting speech” as leader of the opposition. He wanted to denounce the government but he didn't, as he said, want an immediate winter election—not only for the reasons he mentioned, the lack of a 1958 budget and the lack of provision for the provinces, but also for the lack of a battle-ready Liberal force.

East of Quebec, only one divisional commander survived the election last June. Jack Pickersgill in Newfoundland. And he, despite his admitted talent for political strategy, has had more experience on the party's general staff than in actual electoral combat.

Pickersgill lives in Ottawa. There is doubt whether he has the kind of base in Newfoundland that he would need to build up the Liberal organization in that province.

However, he at least has a formidable captain in Premier Joey Smallwood. Nova Scotia Grits have no such comfort.

For ten years Robert H. Winters has been as towering a figure in Nova Scotia politics as J. L. llsley was before him. Winters wanted to get out of politics years ago, but loyalty deterred him. Liberals told him his departure would be ruinous to the party, and when the voters of Lunenburg solved his problem last June and sent him off happy to private life, this prophecy turned out to be all too true.

Conservative Premier Bob Stanfield has a majority in the legislature of only half a dozen, but he seems to be firmly entrenched and he gets on very well with his fellow Conservatives in Ottaw'a. Delegates to the Liberal convention admitted that they have no hope of regaining more than two or three Nova Scotia seats at most, and will do well if they hold the tw'o they have.

New' Brunswick and Prince Edward Island offer an even drearier prospect. The Liberals were wiped out in P.E.I. last June and expect the same fate again, ln N. B., their minister Milton Gregg lost his own seat and has gone abroad to work for the United Nations; no replacement is in sight for the local command, and the Grits think they’re more likely to lose another seat or two than to win any back.

Out west the picture is much the same, with the one cold comfort that Conservatives don’t necessarily gain by Liberal losses.

In Manitoba, Stuart Garson is happily practicing law and wondering why he spent so many years working so much harder, for less money, as a politician. He will gladly help out with the 1958 campaign, but he certainly will not be a candidate—and anyone else who talks to him may have some doubts about the wisdom of doing so. Manitoba Liberals prattle away about regaining two or three seats, but when asked who is to take over Stuart Garson’s Manitoba command they fall silent.

Saskatchewan Grits are still commanded by the Rt. Hon. James G.

Gardiner, w'ho will be seventy-five in November. He is not the favorite statesman of his nominal second-incommand, Walter Tucker of Rosthern. Some Liberals hope that the rise in Conservative strength will do them good by splitting the anti-Liberal vote, and thus allowing them to defeat the CCF in a few seats, but realists don’t put much stock in this. They expect to lose, not gain ground in Saskatchewan.

In Alberta the Liberals haven’t amounted to much for twenty-odd years, and 1958 is not their year to come back. In British Columbia they hope to hold their own, and re-elect Jimmy Sinclair and Jimmy Byrne: if they pick up another seat they will be lucky.

Altogether, then, they see no net

gain but a probable loss in the east and the west. Liberal hopes, such as they are, centre in Ontario and Quebec.

If Lester Pearson is to regain lost ground anywhere it should be in Ontario—a Conservative stronghold, true, but one in which Conservatives have already scored one smashing victory and may, just possibly, have gone a little beyond their real strength. In Quebec the Liberals are even more cheerful—they pooh-pooh the “bandwagon” theory, speculate happily on whether or not Premier Duplessis really wants a Tory government in Ottawa, and take vast comfort from the high unemployment figures.

But here, too, there is a grave shortage of “brass.” The men who commanded in the field last June are mostly casualties.

In Ontario they were C. D. Howe and Walter Harris, both out of politics for good. J. .1. McCann has said he will run again, but he was hardly a field marshal; Lionel Chevrier, who used to be a strong force among French-speaking Ontarians, is now the heir apparent in Quebec. Only Paul Martin, and a Paul Martin fresh from personal defeat at the Liberal convention, is left to be Pearson’s lieutenant in Ontario.

As for Quebec, only Hugues Lapointe among the senior Liberals was actually defeated, but Quebec has for years been short of large-calibre men behind the Rt. Hon. Louis St. Laurent. Jean Lesage is only forty-five, in a province where age is still equated with wisdom. Louis St. Laurent is seventy-six, which even in Quebec is a little too far in the other direction.

In this leadership-short situation even a few weeks make a difference. Liberals in January abandoned all idea of postponing an election for long—Pearson mentioned two months as the delay he had in mind—but it seemed worthwhile to make considerable effort to gain even that much time.

Another reason, in addition to those already mentioned, was a new need to let Conservative responsibility ripen.

When Prime Minister Diefenbaker produced a confidential report from a civil servant, and used it as political ammunition, he did something no minister of the crown had done before. It is something that could not be done very often, or civil servants would stop writing reports that might be disinterred and held against them later. But for purposes of this year’s election debate, it was an extremely effective tactic.

The Liberal government was not bound, of course, to accept the appraisal of its officials. Indeed, it was well known a year ago that sharp differences of opinion existed among the government’s advisers, some thinking that a recession was at hand and others saying that inflation was still the major threat. The document quoted by the prime minister made the case for the former view.

But the point that the Liberals have trouble escaping is that they had this warning and ignored it. Nothing could be further from the report's mood than the super-roseate Liberal advertising of 1957, all dedicated to the theme that Canadians never had it so good. If they believed the appraisal of these economists, their advertising must have been dishonest. If they rejected it. their judgment has now been proven wrong.

It’s a dilemma that any party would prefer to let lie for a while, before entering an election campaign. ★