The PM’s problem: how to keep his party moving left

Peter C. Newman December 17 1960

The PM’s problem: how to keep his party moving left

Peter C. Newman December 17 1960

The PM’s problem: how to keep his party moving left


Peter C. Newman

THE DEBATE NOW RAGING in the House of Commons conceals what historians may come to classify as one of the most significant events in Canadian political history: the testing of the Tory party’s traditions.

The central figure in this trial is John Diefenbaker. But here he doesn’t wear the robes of prime minister. He carries his other vestment of office — that of party leader, a much less publicized but equally heavy mantle.

Last month’s Speech from the Throne and the debates that have followed mark a vital turning point in Diefenbaker's twenty-year struggle to reorient the economic, social, racial and ideological principles of his party. This session’s legislative proposals transcend to an unprecedented degree the most sacred of Tory tenets: that it is wrong for a people to cast the responsibility for their personal prosperity on to the state.

Diefenbaker’s struggle with the reactionaries of his party — who still make up the great majority of its organized element — is prompted not only by his passionate determination to remain in office at least until after the 1967 Centennial celebrations; in his view' the very survival of the parly he heads is at stake.

In four general elections Diefenbaker watched the Conservatives being denied power because of leaders and policies identified in the public mind with a philosophy that, to him, appeared outdated. He smashed that hurdle in the 1957 campaign by adopting liberal ideas and ignoring Tory traditions.

But this didn't solve his problem within the party. Most of the MPs swept into power wuth Diefenbaker were faceless men. To form even a weak cabinet, he w'as forced to include many of his ideological adversaries. Of the tw'enty-four ministers now in the Diefenbaker cabinet, only six supported him actively during his contest for the party leadership in 1956. Eight others did vote for him, but as bandwagon-hoppers, not as disciples.

Nearly all his ministers have since become loyal followers of the man who gave them their power. But they haven't been converted. Diefenbaker remains convinced that without him the Conservative party w'ould quickly swing back to its George Drew' format and, in his opinion, more decades of political oblivion. He is therefore attempting not only to govern the country, but at the same time to reform the thinking in his own ranks.

Out of this reformation — gradually and still below the level of public attention — is emerging an entirely new philosophy of Canadian Conservatism. It’s an ideology not yet sufficiently evolved to warrant more than a statement of its governing principle, lacking even coherent and continuing expression in Diefenbaker’s own speeches. But its main theme can be isolated by looking back to the Liberalism of Mackenzie king, particularly his policies of social welfare.

During the three years of Conservative rule, over-all welfare payments (excluding Unemployment Insurance and veterans' benefits) have gone up 63 percent. Not much new welfare legislation has been introduced, but Diefenbaker's approach has been basically different. While king's social welfare measures were designed to fill demonstrated needs. Diefenbaker has claimed to be giving Canadians help that it is their right to expect. He talks always of social justice, never of social welfare. It's social welfare to get help when you need it; it's social justice to be brought up to the

same economic level as your “fellow Canadians” for a chance to compete in this country’s development.

This change in emphasis, as slight as it may seem, reveals the very soul of Diefenbaker’s political strength. He has appropriated to himself the cry from every underdeveloped section of the country’s population — a cry not for charity or special privileges, but for an equalization of opportunity within the Canadian confederation.

He is really the leader of a prairie protest movement that managed to become national.

Out of his principle of social justice flows the Diefenbaker theme of national development. The northern “Vision” of the 1957 campaign was a vote-catching gimmick, but out of it came the belief that the cost of the nation’s social capital is being borne by too few people. Diefenbaker wants to extend the sharing of these costs by investing government funds into areas that eventually feed money back to the federal treasury. This stream of income can then be channeled into more "social justice” payments.

It is only in this context that the current campaign against American investment in Canada gets its real meaning. Diefenbaker and his advisers recognize that sovereignty in the geopolitical sense can only harm our economy. But a lively economic nationalism that pushes more domestic investment funds into tax-producing enterprises can eventually raise revenues for still more “social justice.”

The legislation being debated this session clearly shows that Diefenbaker is determined to push the government into areas formerly occupied exclusively by private enterprise. Because he dislikes bankers and doesn’t think they’ve been properly looking after the needs of small business, he has injected Ottawa into this type of money-lending on a grand scale.

All this doesn't mean that Diefenbaker has repudiated private enterprise. It does mean that he is determined to make the role of government in the publicenterprise sector equally enterprising. That’s why he recently set up a royal commission to streamline civil service procedures.

Diefenbaker’s rejection of Tory traditions is complete.

There are even whispers that he may change the name of his following to the National Conservative party, as a symbolic cutting away of more orthodox Tories.

Diefenbaker has already managed to whittle down the influence of the old guard within the party organization by pushing through a new constitution that has significantly widened ihe voting base for future leadership conventions. Instead of the previous system under which there were only two hundred eligible ballots representing the party hierarchy, fifteen hundred representatives of every constituency and all age groups now vote on party business.

He’s having greater difficulties within the House of Commons caucus. While the landslide proportions of the 1958 mandate might make it appear that as prime minister he would have freedom to govern the country exactly as he wishes, there has never been a more motley crew of politicians in any party.

The Conservative parliamentary caucus includes every shade of political opinion from two former lieutenants of Adrien Arcand. the leader of the prewar fascist National Unity party, to one Conservative

MP (recently promoted to a senior cabinet job) w'ho campaigns in his home constituency almost entirely on a platform of state medicine that would do away with "the evil power of the doctors.”

Diefenbaker is desperately trying to reconcile the views represented by his caucus, without being able to count on his many adversaries in cabinet to promote the existence of a Conservative party cast in his own image as a radical reform group. His rush to the left is forcing the Liberals into an unpalatable option. They must either move even further left and compete for votes with the new CCE-labor party, or they must oppose the socialization of the Conservative party, which would place them on its right.

Party strategists have been urging Mike Pearson to make the jump to the left while there is still some manoeuvring room left in this crowded section of the Canadian political spectrum. But the Liberal leader’s hesitation has been interpreted by the country’s businessmen as a repudiation of this advice.

The Liberals will hammer their ideology into coherence at the national rally they plan for Ottawa in January. Meanwhile any clear definition of the differences between Canada’s main political parties is impossible. One attempt was made recently by Jack Pickersgill, the Liberal front-bencher who remains Diefenbaker's most effective critic. “The real Tory,” said Pickersgill, "believes he has a hereditary right to govern. The real socialist thinks the virtuous should govern. The real Liberal believes everybody who isn't in the penitentiary has an equal right with everybody else to have a say in governing the country.” ★