Profile

A Lyon in winter: the Tory’s Tory bows down to his makers

The world can he divided into good guys and the Commies

Susan Riley November 10 1980
Profile

A Lyon in winter: the Tory’s Tory bows down to his makers

The world can he divided into good guys and the Commies

Susan Riley November 10 1980

A Lyon in winter: the Tory’s Tory bows down to his makers

Profile

Sterling Lyon

The world can he divided into good guys and the Commies

Susan Riley

For the liberal-left eastern media establishment—and its friends in Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet, in the universities and among Toronto’s beau monde—Manitoba’s resolutely rightwing premier, Sterling Rufus Lyon, is regarded as everything from a troubling anachronism to a dangerous loony. The stout redhead offends contemporary style at every turn. It is a minor detail, but his executive assistant wears a Ronald Reagan tie—a personal gift from the premier, who attended the Republicans’ Detroit convention last summer as a fascinated observer. More significant are Lyon’s belligerently unfashionable political views. He openly proclaims that the world can be divided into “the good guys and the Commies.” He believes “the generals who run Chile,” whatever their shortcomings,

are less dangerous to world order than the late Marxist leader Salvador Allende “because at least they are on our side.” He thinks the current Pope is the best thing to happen to the Catholic Church in years because he emphasizes “discipline.” His political heroes include Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and fellow Prairie firebrand, John Diefenbaker. He is an “unrepentant monarchist,” loyal to his ScottishIrish roots and skeptical of people who dress or behave in’ unorthodox ways. His favorite nonpolitical pastime is hunting sharp-tailed grouse (prairie chickens)—he does not jog—and his wife stays home out of the limelight, raising their five children (aged 12 to 21) virtually single-handed. The 53year-old premier has a happy, traditional marriage. He likes to read Canadian history and politics, drink scotch (moderately), but recently stopped

going to church regularly because, he says, the United Church is getting too caught up in social action instead of sticking to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Not surprisingly, in Lyon’s three years as premier he has alienated almost every progressive, labor, professional and minority group in the province. Even some members of his caucus regard him with fear because of his occasionally caustic tongue. He has infuriated Manitoba feminists by referring to Tory women as good “breeders” and has stung the New Democratic opposition by referring to its caucus as a “ratinfested nest.” This is not—for the eastern ruling elite and a growing number of ordinary Manitobans — a pretty picture.

At this point, the conventional journalistic gambit would be to say wait: Lyon is not all he seems; he is an enigma. But that is not true. Sterling Lyon is exactly what he appears to be: a committed, right-wing ideologue. He is also blunt and honest and has a sense of humor, delivering some of his most savage lines with what one colleague calls “a sense of high old Victorian abuse.” Lyon relishes debate—he’s good at it— and loves to win. In private conversation his analysis is less simplistic than his public utterances would indicate, but they tend to lead to the same conclusions: socialism is an evil cancer and mankind’s only salvation lies in freeenterprise capitalism.

“Lyon’s greatest strength is his conviction; his greatest weakness is his conviction,” says Sid Green, the independent MLA who is about the only opposition member who will still have a drink with Lyon. Compared with the slippery opportunism that marks so much of Canadian politics, Lyon’s consistency and principle make a refreshing change. But purists don’t last long in politics. Lyon was never personally popular, and his image at home is worse than ever—partly because of the clumsy zeal with which his government slashed spending and hacked at the civil service in its early days, and partly because of Lyon’s own perpetually inflammatory rhetoric. “It just doesn’t make sense,” says one longtime Lyon watcher. “Why would he want to sound moderate in private and so extreme in public? It’s usually the other way around.”

Lyon’s aides are hoping, his new high profile on the national scene—where he is helping lead the fight against Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional plans—will enhance his image at home, give him an aura of statesmanship. The premier’s interventions at the constitutional conference in September were indeed temperate and persuasive, and he managed to convince many doubters he is not against human rights—just against en-

trenching them in a constitution. He presented himself, quite convincingly, as the embodiment of British parliamentary decorum, waging a gentlemanly battle against Pierre Trudeau, whose “mid-Atlantic, Gallic mind” marks him, in Lyon’s view, as a closet republican.

But the remaking of Sterling Lyon’s image is not going to be easy. The man is fuelled by an intense hatred for socialism—he sees it everywhere from Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet to Pierre Berton’s books—and he can’t seem to

help blurting out snide put-downs at every opportunity.

Such ideological burrs grow naturally on Lyon, who was raised in the careful farming community of Portage la Prairie neither rich nor poor. By dint of sheer effort and scholarships, he became a moderately successful corporate lawyer; from there, attorney-general in Duff Roblin’s Tory government at the age of 31 and, three years ago, premier of Manitoba. Those are tough, conservative roots, and they are responsible for a poisonous atmosphere in Manitoba’s legislature, where 40 per cent of the seats are NDP. “There is a meanness around here,” complains NDP frontbencher Len Evans of Brandon. “This government has been mean, negative and unimaginative.” The general prevalence of that view might account for the Tories’ current slump in the popularity polls.

The irony is that in real life Lyon has behaved far more reasonably than his speeches suggest. He has had to. Like his heroine, Margaret Thatcher, he has discovered that economic revival based on the free and unfettered operation of market capitalism is a slow—some would say dubious—process. For all the deafening Tory cockiness across the country at the time Lyon was elected, the world has proven too complicated for neo-conservatism’s simple remedies. This is particularly true in Manito-

In Lyon ’s three years as premier he has alienated almost every progressive and minority group in the province

ba, which suffers these days from a static population, the lingering effects of last spring’s drought, the U.S. recession and the fact that no oil has been discovered lately within its boundaries.

Not that the Lyon government hasn’t had its successes. Mining activity has boomed thanks partly to the removal of an NDP tax on exploration, and a $100million hydroelectric power deal is expected to be signed next year with Alberta. In one of its many surprising de-

partures from right-wing orthodoxy, Lyon’s government has entered a partnership with a private firm to mine potash near the Saskatchewan border. Lyon says he has always approved of a limited role for public enterprise: his message simply hasn’t been put across. “The problem with ideologues,” says one of the premier’s former associates, “is that they get hammered for being rigid, then they get hammered when they compromise.”

That was perfectly clear during last spring’s legislative session, which qualified as an almost unmitigated disaster for the Tories. First there was the infamous legislation which would have made it illegal for political candidates to make “misleading statements” during campaigns: amidst cries of political oppression, an embarrassed Lyon was forced to withdraw the badly drafted legislation, calling it a “silly proposal.” Next came a controversial plan to give a newly appointed energy authority the right to enter private homes in emergencies to check for infractions—hardly consistent with Lyon’s Big Brother paranoia—and dropped after it was se-

verely criticized in the media. Then there was the election finance act which, had it not also bitten legislative dust, would have prohibited anyone outside Manitoba from contributing to a provincial election campaign—with slightly less stringent rules for corporations, those traditional Tory buddies. Finally, the government lost a good deal of public support when it threatened to phase out rent controls, leaving thousands of elderly renters panic-stricken

at the prospect of huge rent increases. All this came gift-wrapped in a record deficit projected at $200 million by next spring—higher than the NDP’s politically disastrous $191-million shortfall in 1977. And this from a government that three years ago promised thrift and a balanced budget. Instead of heading for tax cuts, economic growth and social peace, the Lyon government seems to be facing the last year of its term amidst mounting insecurity, confusion and growing public disenchantment.

It could well be that Sterling Lyon will be defeated next year—it is a common prediction—to be remembered, perhaps, as a colorful, short-fused meteor across Manitoba’s political night. Confidants say he never understands why people don’t see things his way, but they also say he will accept the verdict of the people. He may be unfashionable-narrow in some views and extreme in others—but Lyon is no tyrant. He believes in the democratic process. Says Sid Green, admiringly: “I don’t regard Sterling Lyon as a dangerous ideologue. He will give the people a choice— either accept my ideas or throw me out. And he will live with their decision. The dangerous people in politics are those who say one thing and do another.”