Pierre Trudeau may be a proud man. but of late he has had to confront the harsh reality of his own political mortality. At a cabinet meeting last month a few of the new ministers skated around the delicate question that one of the party’s problems is Trudeau himself, from his freewheeling lifestyle to his confrontation politics. Prompted by one of the senior ministers at the table, Trudeau eagerly launched into an animated preview of his future, almost as if he thought they’d never ask. Cabinet ministers should realize, Trudeau indicated, that he was not about to carry on without their active support—but until such time as that confidence was lost, he planned to be around to fight the next election, expected in 1978.
The candor with which Trudeau faced the question was reflected in a newfound directness out on the stump. As parliament, that great national circus under the Peace Tower, prepared to open for another run, Trudeau took his plain-speaking act to the public. There were no philosophy lessons when Trudeau met uneasy Liberal party bosses from Ontario, invoking the Liberal pantheon, from Laurier through King to himself, Trudeau’s blunt message was that the Liberals were “out of touch with the grass roots,” disorganized and headed for oblivion. Trudeau took some blame for that—but not too much. It was a cleverly articulated variation on the mea culpa that Trudeau used so effectively before the last election, and it drew a decidedly mixed response.
A week later Trudeau was back in Toronto for a Financial Post seminar on the post-controls society, where he said that his government has heeded the angry cries about the anti-inflation program. The end of the program will come sooner than the original 1978 target date “if economic circumstances are favorable,” he said, at the same time assuring his audience that controls “will not be extended.”
As the political season opened again, the Conservatives and New Democrats, similarly, were testing themes—and the occasional political trick. In Simcoe, Ont., where he was warmly received while presiding at the opening of the 136th Norfolk County Fair, Conservative leader Joe Clark stressed small-town values and handed out awards for tobacco growing, cheerleading and a tug-of-war victory by burly students from Rutherford High.
Ed Broadbent, meanwhile, was trying vainly to recapture the NDP glory days by attacking corporate fat cats. He also vowed, presumably counting on an extraparliamentary genie, to replace the Tories as the main opposition this session because. as he put it. Clark’s party has been “sitting back” engaging in a “cynical game of politics.”
In their pre-session strategy meetings.the Tories seemed not so much cynical as realistic. They agreed, for example, that their speeches should routinely contain barbs about ex-finance minister John Turner, just in case he hears a Liberal leadership call before the next election. (Trudeau had the same possibility in mind in verbalizing his commitment to stay.) The Tory frontbenchers also drew up a list of ministers whom they view as weak or ripe for attack. Among the old and new faces singled out: Warren Allmand of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jean-Pierre Goyer of Supply and Services, Solicitor General Francis Fox, Tony Abbott of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Postmaster Jean-Jacques Blais and Len Marchand of Small Business. Revealingly, Trudeau was given a low vulnerability rating, an indication that he generates grudging respect, even among the Conservatives.
Clark’s own stock slipped markedly when he backed down from a confrontation with fellow Albertan Stan Schumacher over which man would run in the new riding of Bow River, which includes Clark’s boyhood home of High River. Clark announced he would run in
the northern Yellowhead constituency which, along with criticism that he is evasive on issues, raised the image of young Joe What, From Where? Clark blamed the “fellows” of the press for exaggerating the flap, but then acknowledged he was prepared to endure short-term criticism (“the downside risk”) to avoid a divisive and protracted public battle with Schumacher.
In the context of the long race ahead to the next election, the flurry of activity and bombast suggested only that the horses are approaching the starting gate. A series of events could abruptly alter track conditions: two federal by-elections October 18 in Ottawa and Newfoundland, which the Tories were expected to win, and Trudeau’s eight-day trip to Japan starting October 19. The Throne Speech debate in the PM’S absence will be an opportunity for Clark to start staking out alternative positions to the Liberals. The muted document was a clear signal that the government has adopted a “we’ll leave you alone” stance toward business. In sharp contrast to his “new society” musings about more government intervention, Trudeau is now set
on a course of increased “reliance on the individual enterprise system to stimulate investment” which, he adds, precludes detailed management of the economy by the government and will prevent excessive intervention in the daily lives of Canadians.
In the end, however, the new session is likely to be dominated by the old issuesinflation, unemployment, postal disputes and unrest in the penitentiaries. The real interest will centre on the performance of Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark and the national economy. ROBERT LEWIS
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