World

Waiting for the fall that never came

Roy MacGregor July 9 1979
World

Waiting for the fall that never came

Roy MacGregor July 9 1979

Waiting for the fall that never came

World

When the prime minister’s jet lifted off from Tokyo’s Haneda airport Saturday afternoon, it marked the 40th day since the last Liberal election advertisement labelled Joe Clark a potential embarrassment for Canada in international politics. While some of those 40 days since have indeed been spent in the wilderness—the worst ones appropriately concerning the Holy Land—it cannot now be said that the short history of Clark’s stewardship could be written in a suicide note.

The Tokyo summit was seen as Clark’s first designated test, and that the Tories were much concerned could be seen the moment the Canadian Forces Boeing 707 left Ottawa. “Everyone's hyper,” one aide admitted. “The word’s out not to say anything because it might not be interpreted right.” Such interpretation was given to the care of 50-odd journalists—Canada sent more observers to Tokyo than anyone but the Americans—and they set out with visions of Clark’s disastrous round-the-world trip in January dancing on the Telex lines: that, too, had begun in Japan.

Clark and his two ministers—Finance’s John Crosbie and External Affairs’ Flora MacDonald—seemed destined to play minor and uninteresting roles. As the sum-

mit’s youngest and newest leader, Clark said he saw his trip as more learning experience than anything else and he tried to take his mind off it by stocking up on light escape fiction during a fuelling stopover in Vancouver. That Canada was determined to take a lesser role than the oh-so-visible Pierre Trudeau had taken in previous summits was summed up by Crosbie, who told Maclean’s: “We're a fly-by-night operation compared to those other countries. I really don’t expect Canada to take the initiative on anything.”

The politicians, however, underestimated a bit. With the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) gathering in Geneva to pump the price of oil up to $18-$23.50 a barrel, some of the energypoor countries at the seven-nation summit were beginning to think of Canada as a bit of a self-serving lout. Not only did Clark represent the world’s largest per-capita energy waster, but his country, according to figures released by the International Energy Association (IEA), was self-sufficient to the tune of 103.9 per cent. There was bound to be arm-twisting. And when people thought of international strength they thought of the athletic mind and physique of Pierre Trudeau before they thought of Joe Clark, who may well believe isometrics is a type of triangle.

The Wimp Watch—as the Clark press came to call itself during the campaignsat up in the Sakura Room of the New Otani Hotel and waited for the fall that never came. Not only was Clark seldom seen (and then usually on Japanese television) but the distraction of the Japanese security

reached such a level that one reporter was actually reduced to tears.

Short glimpses of the prime minister were available as he came and went from bilateral meetings, as he strolled the grounds of Akasaka Palace and as he talked animatedly with two princesses at the imperial banquet—and from those small insights it could be said he passed easily. The one time he appeared uncomfortable was during his meeting with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a stern man who could hypnotize a cobra, and a Clark aide admitted the new prime minister was “apprehensive.”

During the actual summit meetings, however, Clark was said to be tough and involved. His two ministers, Crosbie and MacDonald, also performed well; MacDonald’s decision two weeks ago to accept 3,000 more Indo-Chinese refugees is thought to have given a gentle nudge to the summit’s declaration on the refugee problem.

As for gaffes, they were left this time to others. The press made one, when Clark’s innocuous small-talk reference to U.S. General Douglas MacArthur (who virtually ran Japan immediately after the Second World War) was taken for a major diplomatic blunder. In fact, MacArthur is held in extremely high regard. The other silly came from Clark’s press staff. When several “selected journalists” were invited to a closed Tuesday-night session with the prime minister, Clark spoke frankly about his reluctance to accept the European countries' demands that Canada set specific targets for oil import reduction and he also admitted his intentions to raise the price of Canadian oil toward world levels. Those were the two major Canadian news stories of the summit and the journalists present—mostly columnists and commentators—were given permission to use the material as background as long as Clark was not identified. When the "hard-news" reporters learned about the meeting, tempers naturally flared. In the end, PMO press adviser André Payette admitted his error and a tape of the session was played for the others. But it marked the new administration’s first souring with the press, which also complained bitterly about the support staff’s abysmal briefings.

With rare exceptions, the PMO staff was judged “amateurish,” but none of that concerned Clark directly. Judgments on the new prime minister ranged from an unimpressed embassy official, who would allow only that “at least he’s got some new suits," to Haruo Furuva, the delighted waiter at Clark’s hotel, who will forever remember that Clark “ate everything we served.” The diplomatic corps were obviously impressed with him, as were the other leaders. In any event, the Tokyo summit was a definite diplomatic victory for the new leader. Roy MacGregor