BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

The “third-force” Tories: they’re aiming at ’67— without John Diefenbaker

Peter C. Newman December 15 1962
BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

The “third-force” Tories: they’re aiming at ’67— without John Diefenbaker

Peter C. Newman December 15 1962

The “third-force” Tories: they’re aiming at ’67— without John Diefenbaker

BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

PETER C. NEWMAN

EVERY POLITICAL PARTY has its traditions and one of the most hallowed customs of Canadian Conservatives is to undermine — fatally, if possible — a federal leader who gets into difficulties. This well-established habit, dating back to the 1896 betrayal by six Tory ministers in Sir Mackenzie Bowell’s cabinet, contrasts with the tendency of the Liberals to close ranks around a wounded party chieftain.

In Ottawa and around the country these days, Conservative functionaries are observing the tradition of revolution from within, with gusto.

It is not a pleasant process to watch.

John Diefenbaker, the lanky spitfire from Prince Albert who gave Canadian Conservatism its greatest electoral triumph, is now regarded by certain groups in the party as a major obstacle to its long-term aspirations.

The turmoil within the Conservative Party probably won’t come into the open until the P.C. Association convenes its annual meeting in Ottawa, on Jan. 18. At least three riding organizations are rumored to be contemplating resolutions that would call for the immediate resignation of Diefenbaker, to be followed by another leadership convention. Some desperate counterlobbying is under way to make them back down.

The very act of choosing Diefenbaker as leader six years ago split the Conservative party into two factions which have never really been reconciled. The pro-Diefenbaker, western radical wing which held sway during most of the Twenty-fourth Parliament, has urged more and more government intervention in the country’s economic affairs. The right-wing elements, on the other hand (considerably strengthened last summer by the addition of M. Wallace McCutcheon, the senator from Bay Street) have favored the more traditional Conservative principle of encouraging individual enterprise. With the cabinet membership split about evenly between these two positions and a prime minister weighed down by a reluctance to make decisions, the government floundered.

Both the main factions in the party are now swinging away from Diefenbaker. Part of the radical element is quietly touting Labor Minister Michael Starr as a potential leader, while the right-wingers are vaguely but hopefully talking up the sterling qualities of Finance Minister George Nowlan.

Much more significant than this kind of infighting among the existing factions, however, has been the rapid emergence in the past few weeks of a quite different clan of Conservatives. It is not an easy group to label, since it is both anti-Diefenbaker and antireactionary. Probably some phrase like “third-force Tories” is the best label available for the time being. This is a movement of responsible Conservatives who want to re-establish their party along lines that would eschew the ideological extremes of the two other cliques, and the movement is gaining important recruits almost daily.

The third-force Tories are optimistic about their chances of inheriting the party, providing they can field an effective leader. The two men presently being considered most seriously are

Trade and Commerce Minister George Hees and Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin, though neither has yet given even the appearance of seeking a call.

Hees is adamant, even in private, personal exchanges with fellow third-force Tories, that until the leadership falls open, Diefenbaker will receive his undivided loyalty. While outwardly respecting his position, the politicians who back Hees are discreetly attempting to shift the balance of power within the party to ensure that when the next leadership convention comes, Hees will be the candidate to beat.

Hees is being so scrupulously careful about not appearing to lobby for the job that he’s refusing all speaking engagements other than those involving the business of his portfolio, or appearances assigned to him by the prime minister. He’s turning down an average of three invitations a week to speak at Conservative riding association meetings — the very groups which would be naming the delegates to the next party convention. Instead, Hees spent the entire summer stumping his own riding of Toronto-Broadview, meeting constituents and trying to shore up his faltering organization. (ín the 1962 election, Hees’ 1958 margin of 8,626 ballots dropped to a precarious edge of only 1,200 votes.)

A few years ago, the thought of George Hees as a future leader of the Conservative party would have delighted every Liberal in the country. During his days in the opposition, he was regularly stung by the taunt of “good suit, no brains.” He has since established a solid reputation as an imaginative administrator and as one of the few members of the Diefenbaker cabinet “who gets things done.” Most important of all, his trade promotion activities have made him a hero to the nation’s young business executives — the community leaders of tomorrow.

BACK TO THE DAYS OF DREW — FOR A WHILE

Most third-force Tories expect their party to be severely humbled in the next general election, possibly slipping back to its hardcore representation of the Drew years. But instead of regarding this prospect with dismay, they anticipate the opportunity of ditching the present leadership and believe that a period of opposition is necessary for the party to purge itself of the Diefenbaker image. They’re quite willing to have the Liberals in office attempting to cope with the harrowing economic problems of the next few years, providing they can recapture federal power in 1966 or 1967. (1967 ,:s regarded as something of a magic year by most Ottawa politicians for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that it will be Canada's centenary. Long-range economic forecasts show that 1966 or 1967 could be the start of a prolonged boom period for Canada, because our war babies will be marrying and building houses at the same time as our export sales to the Common Market and the U. S. should start to pick up significantly. “The party that's in power in 1967 and manages to take the credit for this upsurge could be in office for a generation,” one Ottawa veteran said recently.)

If Hees’ leading competitor, Duff Roblin, manages to get an impressive majority in the Manitoba election he has called this fall, he’ll significantly strengthen his credentials for the Conservative leadership. As well as his proven success in Manitoba for the last four years, Roblin has the tremendous advantage of being fluent in French. It's doubtful — especially after what happened in Quebec on Nov. 14 — that the Conservative party will ever again be led by a politician who can’t speak French.

(George Hees is now cramming French under a private tutor.)

Roblin’s main disadvantage is expressed in a standard cliche of Canadian politics: provincial premiers can’t become ministers of Canada, since they have too sectional a view of national problems. The abortive federal careers of such provincial premiers as Fielding, Dunning, Gardiner, Bracken, Garson and Drew are usually cited to prove the point. (Actually, it’s not much of an argument, even historically. Sir John Thompson, who was premier of Nova Scotia in 1882, did become prime minister in 1892. Had he not died in office two years later, he might now be remembered as one of Canada’s most effective political leaders.)

Whether the next Conservative chieftain is Roblin, Hees or another man still lurking in the wings, is yet conjecture. But there seems little doubt left that within his own party decisions are being made that will bring the political career of John Diefenbaker to a close.