JOHN AITKEN May 1 1972


JOHN AITKEN May 1 1972



Robert Stanfield defines and defends Robert Stanfield

Robert Stanfield is Canada’s most visible political alternative to Pierre Trudeau. And yet he has not been taken seriously. Not by the press; not by major sections of the electorate; not even, in a public way, by himself. For he has nearly always been described to us (and we have thus nearly always thought of him) in terms of his opponent.

For the past five years, Canadian journalists have been writing and talking about Trudeau as if he were the first specimen of a new evolutionary step in man. Columns have been predicated on a single gesture. Thousands of words have analyzed every utterance. There has been wide and thoughtful speculation about his background, his social conscience, his political philosophy. Aside from a certain amount of trivia, this has been all to the good; Trudeau is our prime minister. We have the right to know something — indeed, as much as possible — about him.

But we know very little about Robert Stanfield. The press, evidently, has been bored by him, exasperated with him, as though he had no right, given the calibre of his opponent, to be the kind of man he is. We know that he is considered to be a dull and pedantic speaker, a grey gull to the Prime Minister's nightingale. We know, vaguely — for less is made of this as time goes on — that he once had power, as the premier of Nova Scotia, and evidently wielded it successfully. Very few political observers have gone beyond that. Stanfield is probably the most underexamined man in Canadian political history.

Yet Stanfield, behind the flat perceptions of Ottawa's Parliamentary Press Gallery, is in many ways a more interesting politician than Trudeau. He bristles with paradox. He invokes trust in an age that prefers excitement and acceleration. He is humble and we consider humility to be embarrassing. He is diffident and that quality, in this political decade, is catastrophic.

I have traveled across Canada with Stanfield and talked with him in public and private. I have become fascinated by him. And I have become frustrated by his diffidence. For if the press has failed Stanfield, Stanfield has failed the public, simply by being what he is — an insuperably reticent man who holds an office in which reticence is no virtue.

Throughout my conversations with Stanfield, I found myself wondering if his self-questioning candor had any real place in contemporary politics. In a perfect country, of course, the quality would be implicitly attractive. In this one, it can act as a lead weight. For we have proved, with John Diefenbaker and again with Pierre Trudeau, that we are highly susceptible to demagoguery and that we resent anyone who does not entertain us. We demand in our politicians the self-confidence of acrobats.

But Robert Stanfield approaches power almost in a corporate manner. He seems to see the country as a huge enterprise, one that demands superior management, clear vision, common sense, stability, unruffled competence. One seeks promotion then, by exhibiting these qualities, as a vice-president of a corporation performs to impress the chairman of the board.

It was on the last leg of a 10-day publicity tour Stanfield made across Canada, on a flight between Halifax and Toronto, that I first asked him about all this. I was the only reporter to travel the whole route with him; we had finished our dinners and I joined him for coffee, uninvited but apparently welcome. There are, I said, some questions — personal questions — / continued on page 46 which 1 would like to ask and which he might not care to answer. He nodded pleasantly, half smiling as though he knew what was coming.

I asked him whether he believed that he will someday become prime minister — whether he felt a sense of destiny, or whether he was simply content to lead his party for better or for worse — and he paused for a very long time, perhaps two or three minutes, gazing out the window. 1 wondered whether he had heard or whether he was ignoring the question, but I waited; and eventually he began to talk, still gazing at the blackness of the window. He told me he didn't want to become prime minister badly enough to go after it with the singleminded intensity of a Kennedy or a Nixon.

“I want it,” he said, “but only on my own terms.”

I asked him whether he thought this was enough, whether this was what the people of Canada deserved for their logical alternative to Prime Minister Trudeau. The question again seemed to make both of us uncomfortable. The impact of his reply seemed to be that Stanfield wants — although not very badly — greatness to be thrust upon him. He doesn’t want to debase himself or his highminded view of leadership and statesmanship with naked hunger for power. He doesn't want power for its own sake.

The aircraft began to descend and the conversation was over. I hadn’t taken notes because the moment seemed too fragile, yet I felt he wanted to talk, to be understood, wanted it very badly, and that the unfulfilled desire itself was part of the barrier between Stanfield and the public.

I suggested, then, that we complete our brief airborne conversation, that it be under relaxed circumstances, and that it be tape-recorded. He agreed readily. And I found myself sitting with him, one morning a few weeks later, in the seclusion of his home in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe.

I switched on the tape recorder and for three hours we talked, sometimes argumentatively, sometimes with mutual annoyance.

“I wouldn’t be prepared to accept the prime ministership,” he told me, “or to run a campaign, under circumstances that would involve serious damage to the country and to the prospects of the country . . . okay, I have no lust for power. I'm not going to die an unhappy man if I don’t become prime minister of this country, and if I do become prime minister 1 will regard it as a very heavy responsibility to carry. But on the other hand, if you are suggesting that I am in this thing just for some patrician sense of duty as someone suggested, that I have a sort of squirearchal view of society, that one son goes into the church and one goes into politics and so on, that’s sheer baloney.”

“If,” I interjected, “you can sit there and tell me that you won’t die unhappy if you don’t become prime minister, should you be the leader of the opposition?”

This drew a chuckle at first. “I’m talking to you in personal terms,” he said, “in terms of my personal attitudes.”

“Yes, but your personal attitudes affect the whole country.”

The chuckle ended abruptly. “I’m trying to give you honest answers to your questions,” he said, “and when I say that I won’t die unhappy without becoming prime minister I’m answering your question in the terms in which you ask me.

“You’re speaking in terms of my personal ambitions, desires, you know, whether I lusted for power or had a messianic desire to become prime minister. I gave you honest answers to those questions. I’m not — I don’t pretend to be — 100% statesman; I’m the leader of a party and I have to fight as a practical politician, but I’m not going to get involved in smearing Pierre Elliott Trudeau because I don’t think it would work, and because I don’t intend to do it anyway.

“Now, in terms of fighting Trudeau,” he continued, “in terms of the condition of this country, in terms of getting things corrected and on the right course, that’s an entirely different thing. Why the hell do you think I’m going through what a leader of the opposition has to go through — and I’m not complaining about this — unless I want to do something about it? I’m in this thing. I care deeply about this country. Whether I’m the only guy who can do it or not is irrelevant in the present circumstances. I’m the guy that’s there. I’m the guy who’s leader of the opposition. I’m the guy who has the responsibility not only in terms of keeping the party strong but I'm the guy who’s going to carry the main responsibility for unseating Trudeau.”

Fine, but there is the Stanfield proviso: “I don’t believe that I’m the only man who’s capable of governing this country, but I do say that I’m more convinced than ever that the country is being badly governed under Trudeau and I’m by no means convinced he’s unbeatable in the upcoming election.”

But by now the forbidding, beetlebrowed reticence has begun to crack and even the dour Stanfield is beginning to realize — if reluctantly — the dimensions of his own timidity. The recognition seems to annoy him, but he can no longer ignore it.

Stanfield is, then, a captive of his ambivalence toward power. But the captivity is, at least in part, a matter of choice. He has the equipment to mount a savage offensive.

In his appearances at the Ottawa Press Gallery’s annual dinners he has made mincemeat of Trudeau with stinging wit and repartee, and reporters began to wonder why he didn’t use this new and hitherto hidden sense of humor more often. I asked him about this ability to turn audiences on and why he used it so rarely.

“Well,” he drawled, “I don’t think there’s all that much difference from most speeches I’ve been making. I want to level with you. Let’s go back to this business of turning the electorate on. I started off in the 1968 campaign discussing issues and whatnot, and there was some humor in what I was saying, but the . only time the press seemed to think that I was turning anybody on was in a speech I made in Sault Ste. Marie. There was a certain amount of emotional content — in fact I said some things that were, to be perfectly frank about it, that I thought were pretty hammy. But I thought I’d try it. I don’t mean to suggest it was insincere — it was about Canada in fairly general terms but, you know, highly emotional terms.”

“What did this emotional outburst do to your audience?”

“I don’t know if it was the audience so much as the press.”

“What did it do to the press, then?” “Well, they said it was the first indication that Stanfield’s getting through.”

Earlier he told me that when he first arrived in Ottawa, in 1967, he felt that the issues facing the nation were serious, and that both politicians and the press would be willing to listen to serious debate. He was wrong. “They weren’t prepared to listen to them, particularly in terms in which I was discussing. Quite frankly it’s become apparent that a good crack is worth a thousand arguments. . . For example a crack that it would be possible to eliminate winter in Canada by making seasonal adjustments in the temperature was probably worth more than anything else I said in connection with unemployment.”

I asked him what sort of campaign he planned to run this time, and whether he would reveal his real self, his real emotion to the people who matter most — the voters.

“I’m not afraid of revealing genuine emotion at all. But you started off by asking me if I thought of myself, as a leader of the opposition, whether I had any messianic feeling about being prime minister of the country and so on, and I felt very strongly when I came here in 1967 that I could contribute something in connection with what I considered to be the basic difficulties of the country. I’m even more convinced that this is so because of the Trudeau record. I’m even more convinced that I was basically right in my approaches of 1968. I’m not thinking of myself in terms of continuing as leader of the opposition. I repeat again, I don’t think I’m the only one in the country capable of governing, but, once again, I’m the head of the national party and I think I’m on the right track, so let’s get that settled. But when you ask me if I were prepared to accept power on any terms I told you I was not, and I’m not. I wouldn’t be prepared to accept power or accept the prime ministership or to run a campaign under circumstances that I believed would involve serious damage to the country and to the prospects of the country. You know, we talked about motivation and I think I answered your questions very frankly regarding motivation. Now you’re raising questions about communication.

“You see,” he continued a little later, “this is one of the things. The press, the public get a certain attitude in their minds and it takes a little doing to get it out — people quickly get an impression of a national leader and it’s a little difficult to change it. Now most people, most reporters who make comments about me and my public appearances, have been to very few of them.”

It seemed to me, as . I sat there listening to Stanfield, that the former premier of Nova Scotia has spent the past four years feeling his way as opposition leader, and even if he doesn’t particularly like what he’s learned at least he’s learned. Yet he keeps stumbling over his own statesmanship. We spoke, for example, about occasions when he has had — at least in the view of many observers — chances to do more damage to the Liberals than he chose to, and here is where he begins to sound more like a perpetual statesman than a politician.

One of these was in February, 1968, when Lester Pearson was still prime minister and his minority government lost a vote on an important tax measure. It appeared to many that Stanfield had the government cold and could force it to resign. He disagrees. Pearson was vacationing at the time and, when he returned, he pleaded with Stanfield for a 24-hour period to cool things off. Stanfield granted this; Pearson went on television with one of the most impressive performances of his career. The moment passed, although at that point Stanfield had the numbers with him if he could have gained the support of other opposition parties.

“I’m pretty doubtful about that, really,” he said. “I think it’s true that Mr. Pearson used the media effectively on that occasion to put his side of it across, and I think I would admit that we did not use the media to greatest effect at the time. I’m by no means convinced we could have upset the government, even assuming for the moment that it would have been desirable to do so. Our legal position was not airtight. Mr. Pearson had resigned [the Liberal leadership]; the Liberals had not yet held their convention [to elect Trudeau as successor to Pearson] and the country was in a very serious financial situation which was daily getting worse. It’s possible if we’d brought down the government we could have brought down the country with it.”

So, once again, hadn’t he acted more the statesman than the politician?

“Well I haven’t come to that yet. I’m saying that as a politician my judgment was then and is now that public opinion would have run increasingly strong against us. I know a lot of people said we had the government by the throat; but I think it was a very simplistic analysis of the situation.

“Now as to what was in the best interests of the country, that’s a different matter.”

But what Stanfield thinks hurt him most was the effect of the FLQ kidnappings and Trudeau’s use of the War Measures Act.

“I’ve been saying for some time that if you got Trudeau down to around 40% of the Gallup Poll and we got up around 33% or 34% the whole ball game would have changed, because the general public — at least those who follow things — would have recognized the big majority he has compared to us, that in the country as a whole it was at least a minority government situation. Well, we got to that point just prior to the Quebec crisis where he was down 42% to 43% and we were around 32% ... If it hadn’t been for the bloody Quebec business we would have been in the ball game by this time.”

“You had an opportunity there to do Trudeau immense damage,” I ventured.

“Well, first of all, it had never occurred to me until he did it that the War Measures Act would be considered an appropriate measure for dealing with the matter. Although there were terrible things going on in Quebec, and I quite appreciate the anxiety of the people there, but when it was first suggested, when there were rumors around the parliament buildings a day or so before it happened that the government was considering invoking the War Measures Act, it just seemed incredible. It had never occurred to me that this was an appropriate measure for dealing with the problem.

“When the measure was invoked, I expressed reservations about it, doubts about it. We asked Trudeau at the time whether he’d give some assurance that some different measure would be introduced within a period of time. He refused. Over the weekend Pierre Laporte was killed and we had a good many discussions among ourselves and we decided that if we could get assurance from the government that they would introduce a more limited measure within, say, a month, that on that basis the government deserved some preliminary trust . . . and we got that assurance.

“If you ask me about the party, I don’t think, frankly, that the party would have supported me in voting against the invocation of the War Measures Act at that time. In the light of events over that weekend I think that’s clearly so. The mood of the country was overwhelmingly in favor of the government taking some firm action.

“I think now things could have been quieted down with less drastic measures. The police picked up about 450 people, charges were laid against 30, serious charges and, apart from those involving the murder of Laporte, you know they really haven’t amounted to anything. The conspiracy charges have been dismissed, and I think it was a further instance of confrontation, of escalation and disillusionment.”

If Stanfield thinks that manipulation has no place in politics, that style is also irrelevant, he must feel an intense bitterness about the fact that Trudeau uses them so well. For Stanfield undoubtedly thinks that Trudeau has been bad for the country. He feels Trudeau has polarized and alienated Canada; that he has weakened Canada’s economy. He is angry about Trudeau’s apparent refusal to search, with any sincerity, for a constitutional solution to the problems of Quebec.

“Trudeau’s policy has been to confront his opponents, people who differ with him,” Stanfield believes. “He’s tended to polarize people between those who agree with him and those who don’t; and anyone who doesn’t agree with him is a separatist. This tendency to drive federalists who are really federalists, but with a different attitude from Trudeau’s, tends to move them at least into alliance with the separatists.

“You have successive governments in Quebec requesting additional authority in the federal area — Maurice Duplessis, Jean Lesage, Dan Johnson, and now the fellow who’s regarded as the most moderate of all, Robert Bourassa. This isn’t something that can be dismissed as a kind of ephemeral thing. It’s been going on for quite some time.

“I felt we should try to see if there is a constitutional solution. Mr. Trudeau has now made it pretty clear that he never really believed there was — he seems to be taking the attitude that this is so and it doesn’t really matter. I think it matters.”

“What,” I asked, “do you think your chances will be in the forthcoming election?”

“If Trudeau is saved,” he said, “in my opinion it will be because of the division of the opposition vote. Not because of any strength of his own.”

That was precisely it, that last remark, the quintessential Stanfield. Almost any other politician would have responded to the question with a ringing prediction of victory; Trudeau would have smiled, shrugged, and the gesture would have dismissed any possibility of defeat. Stanfield seemed merely to look over his shoulder. ■