MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Why Liberals almost wish Dief was back

They said "good riddance” to The Chief, but now who’s to beat Bob Stanfield?

BLAIR FRASER December 1 1967
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Why Liberals almost wish Dief was back

They said "good riddance” to The Chief, but now who’s to beat Bob Stanfield?

BLAIR FRASER December 1 1967

Why Liberals almost wish Dief was back

Backstage in Ottawa

They said "good riddance” to The Chief, but now who’s to beat Bob Stanfield?

IN AESOP’S FABLE the frogs who were discontented with King Log (because he didn’t do anything) foolishly insisted on replacing him with King Stork, who proceeded to eat them all up.

Federal Liberals are now having the opposite experience. Old King Storkenbaker used to dominate the House of Commons from the moment he set foot in it. No matter how they tried to disguise it. Liberal cabinet ministers were afraid of him. As he laid about him with his sharp beak he could draw blood from the toughest of them, and when he was finally subdued and suppressed by his own Tory followers, or ex-followers, the Grits drew deep sighs of relief. Now

at last, they told each other, Parliament would again become a chamber in which reasonable men could discuss important issues and still maintain a decent standard of courtesy and mutual respect. Life would be much pleasanter—as indeed it has been, within the confines of Parliament itself.

But even before the new King Logfield got his seat in the House, he’d been able to demonstrate that outside Parliament, where the voters are, he was a much more dangerous foe. Liberals were led to realize, many of them for the first time, how much their strength and apparent popularity had been exaggerated by the lack of viable alternative. Given another party leader to whom they could turn with confidence, 43 percent of voters sampled in a Gallup Poll said they would take him in preference to the devil they know (compared to 34 percent who stayed with the Liberals).

This has introduced an entirely new element into the Liberals’ own leadership race. So long as they were the dominant party it was safe to assume that any Liberal leader, either L. B. Pearson or any of the known aspirants to succeed him, could beat any of the Conservative leaders then in sight. Until midsummer it seemed the new Tory chieftain would be a member of the present House of Commons, or else an ex-member, Donald Fleming.

Liberals were not impressed by any of these champions. It took the Stanfield victory (with Roblin as runnerup) to bring home to MPs of both parties an unpalatable truth—that Parliament itself is no longer popular, and that membership in it has become more liability than asset.

Up to now, all Liberal aspirants have been members of Parliament and of the Pearson cabinet. None of the four Liberal premiers is a plausible entrant into the federal field— Campbell in PEI is too young,' Smallwood in Newfoundland too old (and too much a local dictator), Louis Robichaud has his hands full in New Brunswick. As for Ross Thatcher in

Saskatchewan, in Ottawa’s eyes he isn’t really a Liberal at all.

So if the Liberals do require a new face, instead of those tired old images on today’s Treasury benches, where could they hope to find one? This question is partly, perhaps largely, responsible for the recent crop of rumors that Eric Kierans, former revenue minister in the Lesage cabinet in Quebec, might be drafted into federal affairs.

Kierans has an impressive record. A self-made millionaire who then became a university professor and then went on to enter politics, and who meanwhile served a term as president of the Montreal Stock Exchange, Kierans can appeal to a wide sector of the electorate. On most social issues he is a radical, having fought side by side with René Lévesque for the more progressive elements in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. But he is also the man who, almost singlehanded at the outset, fought and defeated Lévesque on the separatist issue and drove him out of the Liberal Party. He is probably the only English-speaking politician in Canada who is capable of expounding to each of the lingual communities, in its own language, the viewpoint of the other.

It is far too soon to place bets on Kierans for Liberal leader. Already the publicity he has received is rousing enmity among the other men who hope to become Liberal leader, and they may well close ranks against him and try to cut him down. What’s more, they may succeed. It’s still a long time before the Liberal leadership convention, and a lot may happen in the meantime. But already it’s fair to say that Eric Kierans, win or lose, has altered the shape of the Contest. BLAIR FRASER

BLAIR FRASER