The Western powers that be

June 18 1979

The Western powers that be

June 18 1979

The Western powers that be


In the renovated elegance of Calgary's leatherbound Petroleum Club,

there was only quiet satisfaction mingled with a noticeable increase in the density of cigar smoke. And in Ottawa last week there was a strikingly similar mood of quiet elation, without the usual bravura and ostentation that normally mark such historic occasions.

With no lavish parties, no bands and no fireworks,

Charles Joseph Clark became Canada’s youngest prime minister, the first Conservative leader in 16 years, the first to be born in the West and the first Conservative to take power since John George Diefenbaker 22 years ago. On one of the few occasions since oil was discovered near Ledue, Alberta, in 1947, starting the westward

march of economic might1

which soared in the mid-’70s, Western Canadians could now entertain the possibility of combining their financial muscle with political clout where it counts—on Parliament Hill.

If only it were that simple.

For Joe Clark, from High River, Alta. —prime minister one day and 40 years old the next—there was little time to dwell on such dreams, to remember the outdated stereotypes of Stetsons and string ties, of cowboys and gopher-shoots. His thoughts turned instead to Tokyo and central Africa, to a longshoremen’s strike, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Quebec and, most of all, to the make-or-break task of cabinet-building and setting the tone for a nation.

By his first act, that of choosing a cabinet, it was clear beyond doubt that Clark—whatever history and fate may decide—was determined that his would be a government above criticism for its Western domination. In fact, by the time he had appointed an inner cabinet with only one other Westerner, picked a personal staff run by Easterners and selected a French-speaking Montrealer to take charge of the civil service, it could fairly be said at the outset that rarely had so many elected Westerners

had less clout in governing the nation.

But from the early, tentative signs, there was no doubt either that the voice of the West would be heard. The prompt reaction to a strike by West Coast longshoremen reflected a heightened concern about grain deliveries (see page 25) on the part of the new government, a subject which normally causes little more reaction in the East than instant eye-glazing. From the new economic development minister, Robert de Cotret, came word of a slowdown in the metric conversion system, the bane of western farmers, and from Clark himself a reiterated pledge to review the touchy subject of bilingual labelling of goods.

However, the prime minister, who wrote his MA thesis on aspects of John Diefenbaker’s years in office, showed few signs of repeating the mistakes of the Old Warrior as he named the men and woman who will surround him (see page 22). Diefenbaker, who became prime minister in 1957, was determined to build an urban, semi-populist coalition, but eventually ran up against the

Eastern Establishment—and lost. Says veteran Manitoba MP Walter Dinsdale, northern affairs minister under the Chief: “The West ran the country after 1958. That’s why we lost Ontario and Quebec the next time around. Western representation was much stronger then.”

In the West itself, the pleased but muted reaction to Clark’s victory came as a surprise to many Easterners who, despite their self-proclaimed sophistication, appeared to expect an instant display of Western retribution. Jim Foster, a Clark confidant and former Alberta attorney-general, ascribes the lack of such anti-Eastern sentiment partly to the fact that the Western elite now feels comfortable with its enormous economic wealth (see page 23) regardless of who occupies 24 Sussex Drive. Foster also points out that Clark won the Tory leadership in 1976 in part because of all the handshaking he did in the East, and thus he is no longer regarded as an out-and-out Westerner. In fact, Clark may now have the chance to emerge as the antithesis of the aggressive Western chauvinist, embodied in the image of Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, and symbolize a West that

has buried many of its grievances beneath the expansiveness of those who know they have all the power they need.

The style which the new prime minister set in his first week fell far short of promising the dawn of a new era, but it did suggest a long-awaited new start. Among 600 guests invited to the Clarks’ for a backyard garden party, for example, were many campaign workers from “the regions,” the kind of people who don’t often have a chance to rub shoulders with a prime minister. They sported stick-on name tags, listened to songs by Catherine McKinnon and went home early after sampling an array of Canadian-produced food and wine. Around town, as a plethora of jobseekers took over the city’s few wellappointed restaurants, it almost seemed as though Dubonnet and the one-hour lunch had been elevated to a national custom.

One reason for the change of habits— apart from the fact that the new power brokers are a different breed—was the uncertainty, shock and discomfort of discovering, after 16 years in the cold, just how hot the kitchen can be. Said

P.E.I. MP David MacDonald as he struggled to master his double duties as secretary of state and communications minister: “I thought after 14 years [in Opposition] I knew what pressure was. The change is just like lightning. Everything just exploded.”

Feeling the same disorientation, Perrin Beatty, a minister of state and at 29 the youngest cabinet minister in Canadian history, described the week as a “wild, hectic time; there are all kinds of decisions that must be made immediately, involving thousands of dollars, without being thoroughly briefed.”

On more substantive matters, the stately swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall, residence of another Westerner, Governor-General Ed Schreyer, was barely history when the government faced its first major challenges—the West Coast strike and a furious debate over Clark’s vow to move the Canadian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city completely taken over by the Israelis during the 1967 Six-Day War (see page 26). Said one Clark aide as he shuffled down a corridor in the government’s sandstone Langevin Building, feigning a shoulder separa-

tion: “The burdens of office have gotten to me.”

However, the toys newly available to the incoming government officials provided some welcome relief. For starters, after the frustrations over so many years of making their own phone calls, there were the marvels of the Bell Canada switchboard, with operators roundthe-clock who can find even the most obscure person at a moment’s notice. Then there was a videotape system, installed by the Liberals, enabling primeministerial aides to plug into a TV set and dial up a showing of the previous night’s news shows. Finally, there was the government printing bureau which, with a scant two hours’ warning, was able to turn out 1,000 news releases on the new Clark cabinet in time for reporters’ deadlines. (Until they learned about the facility, the Tories had planned to call in volunteers to party headquarters for an overnight work session.)

But for all the Keystone Kops air about town, there was a jittery fascination—in the bureaucracy, the press gallery and the Tory party—about the newness of it all. Said Jim Gillies, mint-

new policy adviser to Clark: “I think it’s just great. In a nonpartisan way, it’s exciting; the sun was out today and we have a new government.”

Despite the wait-and-see attitude of most Westerners, elected Tories from the region were also ecstatic. Jim Hawkes, for example, co-chairman of Clark’s leadership campaign, who returned to Calgary West for a successful run as MP, commented that although there are not many Westerners in cabi-

net, it is significant that there are now 57 western MPs in the governing caucus, compared with 11 in the previous government. That fact alone, says Hawkes, should be a strong antidote to any remaining western alienation from Ottawa. Commented Stewart Fettes, president of Autopar Distributors Ltd. in Re-

gina: “It feels like a breath of fresh air, a burst of freedom, like a whole weight was lifted off my shoulders—total relief.”

But the western mood after Clark’s swearing-in was not uniformly euphoric by any definition. Cattleman Bill Nilsson of Clyde, Alta., explained: “We will

probably be better treated now, but not a lot better and in general it’s business as usual in Alberta. No time to worry about who has power.” Evans Thordarson of Mozart, Saskatchewan, was even less hopeful that the new government will provide major benefits for the West: “When you start looking at all the impressive Tory material, it comes from Ontario—it ends at the Ontario-Manitoba border. It’s going to be interesting to see how the alliance from the redneck West fits in with the extremely efficient businessmen and academics in Eastern Canada. All the cabinet power is in the East and it’s almost coincidental that Clark is from the West. Central Canada’s understanding of the West is about as valid as its thinking that [former industry minister] Jack Horner is representative of the West.”

Clark, however, set aside those and other pressures for heavier Western representation in his cabinet, displaying an unexpected pragmatism in his choices. In comparison to his caucus, the cabinet he named had a surprisingly moderate, progressive slant as his government proposed to handle a dazzling array of policy problems. There was this month’s seven-country industrial summit in Tokyo to prepare for; the Commonwealth Conference in Zambia in August; the increasingly complicated question of the Israeli embassy; the badly buffeted dollar; the future of the government-owned oil company, PetroCanada, which Clark wants to abolish in the face of heavy opposition within and outside his party; and the everpresent problems surrounding a stagnant economy, with escalating unemployment and inflation.

Nevertheless, a number of key programs were set in motion during Clark’s first week in his new office. Michael Pitfield, former clerk of the Privy Council and a close friend of Pierre Trudeau, was asked to resign and was replaced by a francophone, Marcel Massé, as Ottawa’s top public servant. A moratorium was placed on new government service hiring; reviews were launched of Canada’s nuclear energy program, plans to purchase new fighter planes, the unemployment insurance system, as well as the freedom of information and conflict-of-interest legislation.

But perhaps Clark’s most controversial and puzzling move last week was his decision to appoint an 11-member “inner cabinet,” with power to make final decisions on its own without approval from the remainder of the 30member body. The inner group did not seem to conform to any known guidelines and was apparently intended to streamline decision-making. However, it raised numerous questions, not the least of which were how the inner group would interact with the remaining ministers and how the outsiders would feel about the system. Clark had previously indicated that his inner and outer cabinet would resemble the British two-tier arrangement, but it does not, because his insiders are not all ministers with senior portfolios. The inner cabinet will consist of: Finance Minister John Crosbie from Newfoundland; Secretary of State and Communications David MacDonald from P.E.I.; Supply and Services Minister Roch LaSalle and Senator

Jacques Flynn (justice minister) from Quebec; Deputy Prime Minister Walter Baker; Economic Development Minister Robert de Cotrot, Treasury Board President Sinclair Stevens, Federal-Provincial Relations Minister William Jarvis, External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald, all from Ontario; Energy Minister Ramon Hnatyshyn from Saskatchewan; and Clark himself.

It is with this cabinet structure and an always-fractious Tory caucus behind him that Joe Clark, the western kid who made good, now faces what some would say is the impossible task of reuniting a country whose basic French-English fabric is in tatters, while its outer regions grope uncertainly for an identity of their own. It is a challenge that will test to the utmost a philosophy that he first expressed more than a year ago: “I have had in my house in High River men who worked the range of Western Canada before there were fences. I know men who were the literal pioneers of that part of the country. You grow up with a different sense there—a sense of what can be done. A Western Canadian carries as part of his natural baggage the sense that there are things to do.” If Clark’s first week was an indication, he won’t have to look far to find them.