The eleventh hour

Robert Lewis May 21 1979

The eleventh hour

Robert Lewis May 21 1979

The eleventh hour



Robert Lewis

The networks left little to chance as Sunday’s television debate approached, right down to laying on a back-up generator in case of power failure. The three party leaders paid the same attention to detail as they disappeared from the hustings in undecided Ontario to rehearse their scenarios for attack and defence. A potential audience of seven million—many undecided—awaited a showdown that could determine next Tuesday’s election.

The seven long weeks of electioneering had left the candidates drained and punchy on the eve of the great debate. In Halifax, as a visibly weary Pierre Trudeau rang a town crier’s bell, he paused dangerously after declaring, “For whom the bell tolls...” then recovered to continue: “. . . for Joe Clark, that’s who!” In Regina, Clark forgot where he was, stammering in the midst

of a speech, “Here in ... here in ..

With one week to go, much had been debated, but little was settled. The basic themes were two years old:

• Liberals insist that the future of the country is the most important issue and that Pierre Trudeau is the only man with the solution.

• Conservatives counter that, after 11 years of Trudeau, it is time for a change to Joe Clark and an untested team.

• New Democrats offer Ed Broadbent as a broker in a minority Parliament with a shopping list of programs on Canadian ownership, prices and the poor.

It has been a campaign in which issues have been as fleeting as the countryside from 30,000 feet. The role of nuclear power was not debated. The future of medicare surfaced, then disappeared as everyone rushed to embrace it. There were only brief flurries about the RCMP, even as past Liberal ministers under oath asserted their ignorance of Security Service impropriety.

Strangely, when issues did cut, the other side seemed to neutralize them in

a burst of role-reversal. A case in point was whether Quebecers have the right to self-determination in a referendum. Clark, on record before the campaign that he would negotiate sovereignty-association with René Lévesque if he wins, denounced Trudeau as a showdown artist. Then Clark evoked midnight in Belfast by asserting that Quebec had no right to vote itself out of Canada.

Trudeau countered that a “yes” vote on a clear referendum question would lead to negotiations with Ottawa, although earlier he criticized Clark’s willingness to negotiate. But he promptly fudged his stand by saying that Ottawa could not allow separation simply because Quebec voted to leave—which sounded a lot like Clark.

On the economic front, it was Clark who did the neutralizing. He vilified Trudeau for Liberal budget deficits and high spending—but stumbled as he tried to explain his plan for a “stimulative deficit” and promised more spending on new programs than Trudeau (SR° Maclean's, May 14).

Trudeau and Clark did part on the popular Conservative proposal for tax deductions on mortgage interest and on a Conservative undertaking to sell off the state-owned Petro-Canada, which the Liberals put forward as the ideal agency to buy oil from Venezuela and Mexico.

In the only foreign policy issue of the campaign there also was a split on Clark’s promise to side with Israel and move the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Conceived as a pitch for Jewish voters in nine ridings across the country, the policy switch was almost embraced by the Liberals when they learned of the Tory plan through their intelligence network. Trudeau, however, rejected the advice of senior campaign strategists. Ironically, last week in Toronto when he defended the 2 decision, by arguing that countries with | embassies in Jerusalem are “not signifi| cant nations,” Trudeau overlooked Cang ada’s new friend in oil, Venezuela.* 2

For his part, Broadbent railed about the failure of the other leaders to discuss issues—his, as it turned out—and ran into heavy heckling when he told French-speaking students in Timmins, Ontario, that national unity was not an issue, since all the leaders agreed on the goal. In Sydney, Nova Scotia, he attacked a Liberal pledge to spend $50 million on the steel mill—then proposed to triple the ante.

In his cameo role, Créditiste Fabien Roy inherited the federalist party of the late Réal Caouette, then recruited Parti Québécois members to run the creaking machinery. It was hardly surprising that when Trudeau arrived in Caouette country in late campaign, he inadvertently lavished praise on one “René Caouette.”

Trudeau and Clark both did shake paws with a dog along the campaign trail—and both made at least one baby cry. But mainly they stole each other’s themes and lines. Clark denounced Trudeau and said Canadians wanted to know what leaders are for, not what they are against. But his party ran a vicious, negative ad campaign in Quebec that suggested that Trudeau is an economic criminal.

Meanwhile Trudeau, hobbled by an indifferent record of collegial cabinet government, literally stood alone on stages across the land, in counterpoint to Clark’s team. Clark-like, he also called his candidates “builders.” In the beginning, Trudeau invoked former Liberal prime minister Louis St. Laurent for his role in building the transd Canada pipeline; in the end, Clark ? promised a compromise administration

*The other 12 countries represented in Jerusalem: ^ Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican g Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, g Netherlands, Panama and Uruguay. E

in the manner of Uncle Louis.

With the campaign drawing to a close, mercifully for undecided voters, the parties went back to something simple—leadership, with Liberals and Conservatives attempting, in effect, to turn the election into a referendum on Trudeau. “The issue,” Nova Scotia’s Allan MacEachen proclaimed, “is mainly about the man.” Trudeau called Clark a “tumbleweed,” a “weathervane” and “a man who will change his mind on just about anything.” He claimed that Clark would give Canadian resources away to

the world and repeated continually: “Sometimes you have to say no.”

Clark retorted with an “image of a team player, capable of compromise with seven Tory premiers and proud of uniting a fractured Conservative party. He also attempted to erode Canadians’ perception of leadership by mocking Trudeau’s gunslinger pose and by declaring that the Liberals have been “governing against the nature of the country.” His mortgage deductibility scheme was aimed squarely at suburban voters—as was his virtual daily note that daughter Catherine prays for Ronald McDonald, hero of the golden archways.

Broadbent, mindful of Clark’s accusa-

tion that a vote for the NDP is a vote to keep Trudeau in power, was careful to attack both big party leaders with equal intensity. He even ducked direct questions about which party he would support if Canada elects a minority government. Instead, he issued a shopping list that included price controls and Canadian ownership of resources.

The eleventh hour rhetoric tended to obscure the shifting currents of the long campaign. In the early weeks, a nervous Clark stumbled out of the gate on the cost of his promises, his Petro-Canada policy and confused statements about bringing multinational oil companies into line with Canadian interests. His refusal to debate the other leaders also brought charges of a Saran-wrapped campaign and a “Bermuda strategy” to keep the leader out of sight.

Trudeau, meanwhile, started aggressively. He zapped voters unconcerned about national unity as “almost treasonable,” farmers as “complainers,” western premiers as “selfish” and told demonstrators demanding jobs to “get off your ass.” When he was accused of arrogance by his opponents, Trudeau dropped his heckler-bashing and started talking up Canada’s favorable economic standing in a troubled world.

In the early campaign bid to manipulate the media (see story, page 4), Broadbent scored best, although he was campaigning at half the speed of the other leaders.

In the fifth and sixth weeks, the campaign came into focus. Clark’s handlers took the wraps off as he held a press conference and agreed to the televised debate. He also grabbed the headlines with statements on Quebec self-determination, Jerusalem and the Mounties. Trudeau was in a campaign low. In one 24-hour period alone, the Liberal government of P.E.I. was overturned, Trudeau mused aloud about clinging to power even if the Tories won a few more seats and a poll showed the Conservatives ahead in southern Ontario and the lower mainland of B.C.

For a while last week, watching Trudeau in action seemed to confirm that he was a spent spirit. Repeatedly he got his facts wrong—from the year of his selection as prime minister to the month of this election—and his audience down East was restless. In Charlottetown, Trudeau sat glumly staring at the floor as he was being introduced and Staff Chief Jim Coutts stood off in the wings with tears in his eyes.

Clark seemed to be managing the political equivalent of icing the puck in the closing minutes of the Stanley Cup with a one-goal lead. He was visibly more confident and even managed to reassure a plane load of critical reporters during an emergency landing in Toronto after

his Air Canada DC-9 lost an engine. Broadbent’s campaign also came to life when the Toronto Star endorsed him, the first big paper to back the NDP since The Windsor Star in 1972.

The Trudeau forces countered at midweek with a successful rally of 17,000 in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. Trudeau spent most of the next two days writing two major speeches designed to shift the focus to national unity. In Toronto and Montreal, the Liberal leader proposed a scheme to immediately patriate the constitution, now lodged in West-

minister, with provision for a referendum if the provinces can’t agree on a way to amend it.

With polls showing national unity low on the scale of interest in English Canada, Trudeau’s patriation card was a major gamble. As the debate approached, Trudeau looked like the boxer in the movie Rocky, the theme of which is played at his rallies. It was round 13—and he desperately needed a knockout punch.