BACKSTAGE

BACKSTAGE IN POLITICS

The west, a nest and who, dear?

BLAIR FRASER June 21 1958
BACKSTAGE

BACKSTAGE IN POLITICS

The west, a nest and who, dear?

BLAIR FRASER June 21 1958

BACKSTAGE IN POLITICS

BACKSTAGE

The west, a nest and who, dear?

BLAIR FRASER

The foregoing classified ad has not yet appeared in any newspaper, but it almost could. The political picture in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia today is a rare study in irony. In all three provinces the Conservatives practically swept the board in the federal election March 31. Nowhere is morale as high among federal Conservatives as it is in the west.

Male Help Wanted—Five attractive openings as western representatives of two old established firms. Age bracket thirty to fifty, though younger and older applicants might be considered if other qualifications are outstanding. No experience necessary. Apply to either Conservative or Liberal party headquarters, anywhere west of Manitoba.

But provincially this Tory Eden is nothing but an unwecded garden. In Saskatchewan and Alberta the party is leaderless, in B. C. it has a leader whom many Conservatives would like to depose. and in all three provinces leadership conventions are to be held this summer or early autumn. In none, however, has any candidate emerged who makes Conservative hearts leap up.

As for the Liberals, they too are headless in two provinces and are hopeless in a third, although unlike the Conservatives they have no plans for removing the incumbent, Alexander Hamilton McDonald, in Saskatchewan. They don't really blame McDonald for the fact that they have only fourteen members in a legislature of fifty-three and are now in their fourth consecutive term in opposition. But by the same token they can hardly count on Macdonald, after ten years as an MLA and four as Liberal leader, to rekindle enthusiasm for a party whose western battalions at Ottawa have just been wiped out. Liberal hopes, insofar as they exist at all in the west, are centred in Alberta and B. C.

Both older parties are gloomily aware that in each province the reigning “splinter” party is far stronger than its failure on March 31 would indicate. Ernest Manning in Alberta and W. A.

C. Bennett in B. C. may not be the invincibles they once were, but they are vastly more formidable than any Social Créditer has ever been in the federal arena. Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan may well be anxious at the defeat of such CCF giants as M. .1. Coldwell and Stanley Knowles, but he still looks more than a match for any Grit or Tory in provincial politics. To upset all or any of these local champions will take a Diefenbaker-type campaign, and no Diefenbaker-type campaigner has yet appeared.

In Alberta, where Conservatives plan to hold their leadership convention in August, the odds-on favorite if he runs at all is W. J. C. Kirby of Red Deer, who has been the real Conservative House leader in the provincial legislature since he was elected at a by-election in 1954. (J. Percy Page of Edmonton is nominally House leader, but indifferent health and a non-partisan temperament make him somewhat inactive. Kirby has been doing the work.)

Kirby wouldn’t say yes

But Kirby, though he has many ideal qualities as a candidate, has some liabilities. The chief of these is his reluctance to take on the job at all. He married late and has a very young family, and the prospect of spending most of his time away from home (as any party leader must do) he finds extremely dreary. He also doubts that he can really afford so much time away from a growing law practice. The Conservative leader in the present Alberta legislature, whatever his future may be, is now not even leader of the opposi-

tion, but merely the corporal of a three-man squad getting an MLA stipend of $2,400 a year plus $1,200 expenses.

But Kirby has been not only reluctant, he has been indecisive. Conservative plans were held up all spring because he wouldn’t give an answer one way or the other to suggestions that he should run. He said he would give a definite yes or no by the first week in May, but let that deadline and then another go by in silence. Conservatives had no intention of taking “no” for an answer but they were beginning to doubt whether even a “yes” could be taken for final.

Another candidate for the post is Ernest Watkins, MLA, third member of the tiny Conservative group in the legislature. Watkins has made spectacular progress since he came to Calgary from England only four years ago. A lawyer who became a broadcaster and journalist while serving in the British army, he was a well-known voice on the BBC and a former staff writer of the Economist, London, when he came out to write a book about Canada in 1953. He was so impressed with the country that he decided to emigrate, and hung up his shingle in Calgary the following year. By last autumn he had got himself so well established that he won a provincial by-election in that city, and is now a serious contender for his party’s leadership.

However, Watkins has even graver liabilities than Kirby. He is an Englishman, in a province suspicious of outsiders. He is an intellectual, in a province where that is a dirty word. He is a city man, in a province that likes its leaders to have a rural background of some sort, wherever they may happen to live now.

The Elvis of Drumheller

The other aspirants for the Alberta leadership haven’t yet made any mark at all in provincial politics. Giffard Main of Edmonton has run once or twice and been defeated. E. A. Toshach is the mayor of Drumheller—a brash young man whom one Conservative described as “a cross between Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley.” He is thought to be a serious contender for the local nomination but only a nominal one for the leadership. One man whose name crops up in speculation is Arnold Platt, president of the Farmers’ Union of Alberta. It is perhaps significant that Platt’s name also crops up, with about the same frequency, as a possible Liberal leader.

Alberta Liberals are also headless since the resignation of J. Harper Prowse a month ago. On the form chart they should also be hopeless, since all seventeen of their federal candidates were defeated March 31. But provincially the Liberals are still in a fairly strong position. The Social Credit regime, tarnished by scandal and lamed by complacency, lost fourteen seats in the 1955 election; eleven of these went Liberal, while the Conservative group remained the same.

Aspirants for the Liberal leadership include William Hawrelak, mayor of Edmonton, who lost in the federal election of 1957; Grant MacEwan, MLA, a former professor of agriculture, now a

farm equipment executive, who scored an upset victory for the Liberals in Tory Calgary in 1955; and Hugh John MacDonald, the Calgary lawyer who has been a Liberal stalwart in the legislature for ten years. Compared to any Conservative in sight, all of these men look fairly strong. Compared to Premier Manning, none does.

In British Columbia the situation is still as described here a few issues ago (Maclean’s, May 10) except that tension seems to be increasing. Conservatives who are opposed to incumbent Deane Finlayson are more bitterly determined than ever to turn him out at the leadership convention he has called, but still have no candidate to do it with. Liberals continue to hope, pray and press for Jimmy Sinclair, the former minister of fisheries, but Sinclair continues to say no. If he should say yes, Conservatives as well as Liberals would be affected—a Tory leader who might do against a weak Grit would not do if Sinclair were in the field.

Always a bridesmaid

As for Saskatchewan, there the irony is keenest of all. In John Diefenbaker’s own province the Conservative tide is running very high, but it’s a province where Conservatives have been as rare as whooping cranes for twenty-three years. Alvin Hamilton, now minister of northern affairs and national resources, was beaten in no fewer than six elections—three federal and three provincial—before he finally got elected in 1957, and his example as a dogged punishment-taker inspired little imitation. Now there are half a dozen possible candidates for the provincial post he vacated, but none is very strong.

Robert Kohaly of Estevan is the only one with experience in the legislature—he enjoyed brief fame for taking a Conservative seat in a by-election in 1953. However, he failed to survive even one general election, running third in 1956. Young “Sandy” Macpherson, son and namesake of the Murdo Macpherson who was a leading contender for the Conservative national leadership in 1938 and 1942, is the likeliest to win of the candidates now in the field, but even Conservatives have grave doubt that he can overturn Premier Tommy Douglas.

In all three provinces, of course, Conservatives at the moment look stronger than Liberals, however frail they may appear beside the governments in power. Both parties know that this situation may not last. For more than thirty years the tendency of the west, especially the prairies, has been profound distrust and hostility toward the old parties in general and the one in power at Ottawa in particular. Westerners tend to regard John Diefenbaker more as a prairie radical than as a conventional Tory. If his government turns out to be a prairie radical government, no doubt Conservative stock will remain high in the west whatever happens to it on Bay Street. If, on the other hand, it turns out to be a normally Conservative regime, its chances out west will be slimmer.

Finally, there is the economy and the general state of the nation. If times remain bad, governments will suffer— the Conservative government in Ottawa, the CCF and Social Credit governments in the west. At least one year and perhaps two will elapse before any province west of Manitoba has a general election. By that time, anything can happen. *