Superficially nothing much seems to have happened in Ottawa during the year since last fall’s inconclusive general election. But on closer examination, it becomes evident that important power shifts are taking place in federal politics, though most of the trends remain obscured by the alarums of daily headlines and the chest thumping (“Me Trudeau — You Bananas”) posturings of the daily question period.
Most significant, perhaps, has been the cautious emergence of the Conservatives as the only effective opposition to the government. Under David Lewis, the NDP has virtually become part of the Liberal party’s administrative majority. This unwavering support for the Liberals may make the NDP dismayingly vulnerable at the polls. In the next election, if the voter wants to express his dissatisfaction with government policies he will not, strictly speaking, be able to vote NDP since that party has loyally supported most of those initiatives. Conceivably this could help the Tories capture some NDP seats by capitalizing on the mounting anti-government feeling that exists across the country. If you add the not unreasonable proposition that in Quebec the Conservatives will be able at least to double their puny total of two, you can begin to read Conservative chances.
Last time out, Trudeau won 56 of the 74 available seats in Quebec. But that was before Yvon Dupuis moved into the leadership of the provincial Social Credit (a phenomenon described in Ann Charney’s article on page 28). Should Dupuis emerge as the opposition leader in Quebec after the election on October 29, he may well deliver an extra half dozen seats to Réal Caouette, his federal leader. (In 1962, the Socreds won 26 seats in Quebec under much less favorable circumstances.)
As the Liberals move toward the next election, which will likely come in the spring, they face the double dilemma of needing not only to hold onto every seat they’ve got but of somehow having to win two dozen extra ridings for the majority they so badly want. Most of those new seats will have to be won outside the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto triangle which has often appeared to mark the limits of the Trudeau government’s concerns. This may prove difficult since in the West, the Liberals are faced with the possibility of nothing less than decimation.
The key political question is how much Pierre Trudeau has changed since the last election. No one knows, of course, whether he will be able to adapt to the needs of campaigning on the defensive, but he certainly seems to be listening more to the advice of his ministers, MPs and his party machine under the leadership of Senator Keith Davey. Still, a year after their near defeat, the Liberals have yet to develop a credible policy program. Survival appears to be their only motivation.
The most intriguing aspect of the current Liberal style is how a government — whose every move used to be so delicately programmed you had the feeling cabinet ministers read computer printout cards instead of newspapers over their morning coffee — how such a government has, over the past year, turned itself into a troupe of disheveled vaudevillians behaving with an abandon that would have pleased the social director of the Titanic.
Out of these random soundings, it’s fairly easy to come up with the conclusion that the next government in Ottawa could be another minority — this time headed by the Conservatives. That places the onus squarely on Robert Stanfield to stop generalizing, equivocating and attacking. The electorate needs to know where he stands on all the vital issues.
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