Another opening, another show

Robert Lewis April 9 1979

Another opening, another show

Robert Lewis April 9 1979

Another opening, another show


Robert Lewis

Joe Clark flinched at the sickening whine and the staccato burst of motor-driven press cameras each time he dropped his chin onto clasped hands at an Ottawa news conference. As the nightmare of an unflattering front-page picture receded, the Conservative leader chuckled softly and went on with his pitch.

In Toronto, Pierre Trudeau spread his arms wide and, through the telescopic lens of the television camera, seemed to embrace a giant Canadian flag to his rear. Down below, a fourmember film crew hired by the Liberals ground merrily away.

In Oshawa, Ed Broadbent arrived at the gate of a General Motors truck plant. The ostensible aim of the NDP leader’s visit was to greet home-bound workers. But the real purpose, it being J+ p.m., was to grab a few seconds of favorable TV time on the national news shows seven hours later. When Broadbent spotted none other than the CBC’s Knowlton Nash, he whooped: uWhat are you doing here? It’s not 11 o’clock!”

As the 31st general election campaign opened last week, the nation was trans-

formed into the equivalent of a big-time movie lot. The leaders were off, in search of the best take for the finale on May 22. Within three days of the surprise curtain-raiser all three were in the jet-lanes, swooping down on unsuspecting natives to grab the best light for their scripted performances.

A realistic Broadbent adviser spoke an early, evident campaign truth as he thrust a finger at a hotel television set: “The election happens here. When

someone knocks on the door campaigning, it’s like he’s from the planet Venus.”

For more than 1,000 candidates in the 282 electoral districts,* the era of leader-as-star may be a disconcerting consideration: local standard-bearers like to think they win by themselves. But with more television time available to the parties than ever before under the new election laws—a total of 6V2 hours of commercial prime time is up for grabs—the leadership blow-dryer and made-to-media dark suit have become staples, along with policy brochures, in the tote bag.

The national press, of course, intensifies the focus. When the three main entourages took off from Ottawa last week on Air Canada, there were 38 reporters with Trudeau, 35 with Clark and 28 with Broadbent. (For Maclean's Ian Urquhart flew with Trudeau, Roy MacGregor with Clark and Julianne Labreche with Broadbent.) Every utter-

*An increase of 18. Standings at dissolution: Liberals 133, Conservatives 98, New Democrats 17, Crèditistes nine, independents five, vacant two.

ance of import, and less, will be duly recorded as the parties strive mightily to stake out their turf on the issues of the day (see page 25). But in the end, the estimated 14.5 million voters will likely make their decisions on less cerebral matters—such as style, tilt and flimflammery.

They will see Pierre Trudeau playing nation-saver, in the manner of Han Solo from Star Wars, stressing leadership and a long list of villains—in hopes of distracting attention from his 11 years at the controls. There is Joe Clark, selfstyled anti-hero who offers not a vision but an alternative—or less government and reduced expectations. At stage left is the now beaming Ed Broadbent, no longer the wide-eyed socialist, prompting himself for a bigger part. In cameo roles at stage right are the Créditistes, their newly proclaimed leader, Fabien Roy, dodging the hook and looming as a spoiler on the rural landscape of Quebec.

After almost two years of false starts and continual speculation, Campaign ’79 got off to a most unlikely start. Having convinced almost everyone, including the Conservatives, that he would wait until June, Pierre Trudeau secretly launched final election planning for a call three weeks ago. But he retreated at the last moment—shades of 1977—because he wanted House passage of his treasured emergency energy allocation bill.

Finally, on Saturday, March 24, Trudeau set loose his fiercest election hawk, staff chief Jim Coutts. The midnight oil burned in the PM’s office Sunday as the next day’s call was being set. A staffer was dispatched to Earlton, Ontario, on Monday morning to plan the first rally.

The decisive factor for Trudeau was that by waiting one more day, effectively, the election would have been off until June 18. The reason: a May 28, June 4 or June 11 vote would have forced enumeration of voters during the quiet Easter and Passover periods. Instead of facing a fractious Commons empty-handed for three more weeks, and with Créditiste Roy coming into the race to threaten Quebec Liberal seats, Trudeau walked across Sussex Drive at 8:30 p.m. to seek formal dissolution from the new Governor-General, Edward Schreyer.

By happy coincidence, the election call virtually smothered the resumption of hearings by the McDonald inquiry on the RCMP (see page 29). Until the Parti Québécois took preventive action last Saturday, the vote also would have come the day after a weekend convention on sovereignty-association. The event might have generated “separatist menace” stories as people went to the polls, in the manner of the St. Jean Baptiste riot on the eve of the 1968 election.

So the PQ executive voted to postpone the convention until the first weekend in June. Trudeau may still attend a meeting of the International Energy Association in Toronto the week before the election. Obviously, a crisis climate on the issues of national unity and energy would play to Trudeau’s “leadership” stance.

After slow starts in Ottawa, by the weekend the three leaders on the stump had struck their themes for the early part of the campaign. It boils down to a referendum on the Trudeau years.

“The bottom line,” says Ontario political boss Judd Buchanan, reflecting the Liberal pitch, “is going to be leadership.” Hence, in Ontario last week, Trudeau declared that people who don’t think national unity is an issue are “really almost treasonable.” He defended imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970, telling students: “We’d do it

again.” Singling out Alberta, Trudeau also spoke of a “spirit of selfishness that can destroy our country,” accused the provinces of attempting “to weaken the central government” and provoked cheers from Liberal partisans when he shouted: “At some point, my friends, we’re going to ask the people of Canada what they think” on the constitution.

By the time Trudeau got to Camrose, Alberta, Friday night, after more subdued receptions in Saskatoon, he was backpeddling as he faced 2,000 lukewarm supporters of Trade Minister Jack Horner. “My argument,” he explained, “is not with the provincial premiers—they bargain hard, that is their job.” Then Trudeau attacked Clark as a

man who “has no concept of what a national policy requires.”

Clark plans to counter Trudeau’s strong image campaign by stressing teamwork and the Trudeau record. In Ottawa he accused Trudeau of casting himself as the only “good Canadian,” and declared: “It has been a decade in which separatism in Quebec has gone from a fringe movement to a provincial government; a decade in which living costs have doubled and unemployment tripled; a decade in which the Canadian dollar has gone from strong to weak.” Later, in Thunder Bay, Clark said that Trudeau “has set Canadian against Canadian” and “sometimes seems almost proud that he can’t get agreement” from the provinces.

Broadbent seeks to set a pox on both their houses. “Joe Trudeau and Pierre Clark,” he says mockingly. “Joe Gas,” he burbled in a slip of the mind last week. The NDP leader also defends medicare and pitches a more nationalist line on resource management. As he put it at York University, where he once taught political science, “General Motors plans 10 years in advance. In this case, what’s good for General Motors is good for us.” Because of concern that soft-core NDP votes might switch to the Tories in a defeat-Trudeau bid, Broadbent also has put out the word that his price for backing a minority Liberal government is Trudeau’s resignation. Trudeau, who hints this may be his last election, naturally wants a majority government, “mine or the Conservatives,” as he put it with feigned generosity.

In the overly long 57-day campaign, of course, there will be inevitable surprises to throw the leaders off their stride, and from their appointed rounds. A sudden drop in the Canadian dollar, which rose last week, would hurt Trudeau, as would a postal strike (possible) or a dramatic increase in the cost of living in the mid-May report (not likely, given past patterns).

For Broadbent a key ingredient of the campaign this time is the success that Canadian Labor Congress boss Dennis McDermott has in mobilizing not only his 2.3-million membership but, in all, 10 million Canadian wage earners. The NDP is counting heavily on its newly forged alliance with the CLC, but the signs are not all promising. A Gallup poll released last month reported that 59 per cent of union households believe organized labor has no role in politics.

The campaign can also turn on a careless phrase tossed off in the heat of battle, or a picture. Trudeau last week went along with advisers who favor regular press conferences (two were held) and uncontrolled events. But in Saskatoon he courted the arrogance charge when, criticized by a student for his world

travel, he shot back: “I wish that you would see Canada, too, instead of goofing off to Europe and the southern United States.”

Clark had problems mincing words on the issue of what he would do to ensure that multinational oil companies like Exxon work in the interests of Canada. Pressed repeatedly by reporters to be specific, Clark finally replied: “Well, you could, you could, there, let me, let me come up with some, here right now, faced with the question, ah, let me come up with some of the options that might be available.” Then he cited the prospect of threatening companies privately with more stringent environmental laws, cuts in oil exports and using the nationalization option —“not one that I would threaten.”

The qualification, predictably, was ignored by Trudeau the next night in Earlton when, ridiculing the Conservative proposal to sell off state-owned

Petro-Canada, he demanded: “What will he do, abolish it as soon as that one [Exxon] is nationalized?”

Naturally, the election is not exclusively the preserve of the high-flying rhetoricians. Slogging away on the ground are the foot soldiers in a series of interesting skirmishes (see page 27). The door-to-door canvassing could tip the scales in some ridings if the election is as close as the polls suggest it is. In about 85 ridings, for example, a switch of a mere five per cent of the vote could make the difference between winning and losing.

In the Atlantic region, all parties agree, the results will change little from current holdings. In Quebec, where Liberals are banking on 65 seats, the major question is the extent to which the Créditistes can hold onto or increase their seats. Alberta is unlikely to switch from solid Tory blue. The action, then, is expected to some extent in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but especially in volatile British Columbia and bandwagon-conscious Ontario.

In the mad dash to the countryside, legislators left behind an unhealthy list of unfinished business: legislation on the federal referendum, the RCMP, freight rates, pornography and prostitution, the Arab boycott, conflict of interest, access to information and a new bank act. Untended duties, however, seemed inevitable, since no peacetime prime minister has ever waited so long in his mandate to call an election. The show must go on.