Canada

The Axatollah rides again

John Hay March 10 1980
Canada

The Axatollah rides again

John Hay March 10 1980

The Axatollah rides again

Canada

John Hay

It was as if the Grits had never left power. When a senior Trudeau aide strode in to reclaim the government office he had vacated last year to Clark economist Jim Gillies, he was startled and disappointed to find nothing had changed since May: the same dingy pictures on the wall, the same in-out boxes on the desk still bearing his name. If Gillies was such a big shot, the Liberal aide joshed last week, why didn’t he at least get their office redecorated? Up on Parliament Hill, meanwhile, Pierre Trudeau was in the old office he had kept through the Clark interregnum, receiving an endless line of suppliants and advisers as he built his new cabinet. Near the top of the list was Lloyd Axworthy —a fresh face in cabinet to give the West a Liberal voice.

Lloyd Axworthy’s rise to cabinet rank and national prominence less than a year after first winning his Winnipeg-Fort Garry seat was assured by the paucity of western Liberals. With Robert Bockstael of St. Boniface the only other Grit elected west of Ontario, Axworthy was a shoo-in for a cabinet job as Trudeau reached for regional representation across the country. But there was more to it than being from the right place. Axworthy has always pursued politics with an implacable single-mindedness—in Manitoba Liberal circles he is known as the “Axatollah.” Just 40, he has attracted a fascinated following of friends and critics who aren’t sure whether he is driven more by ambition or his own sense of mission. He remains an enigma to those who know him best: a Prairie populist with a Princeton PhD, a reform-wing Liberal philosopher who preaches neighborhood power; a charismatic who generates zealous loyalty among some and repels others with equal force; an unbending “issue” politician who survived for two years as the lone Liberal in the Manitoba legislature by cultivating the grassroots. He has spent a political life-

time speaking for the West inside the Liberal party, yet is distrusted by many western Liberals and finds his strongest support in Toronto. When Trudeau announced his retirement last fall, it was in Ontario—not Manitoba— that Axworthy’s own leadership movement began growing before being clipped by Trudeau’s return.

It naturally fell to Axworthy and Bockstael to carry out Trudeau’s first

mission to the West, last week consulting beaten Grits and their backroomers and reporting to the leader how best to open new lines from the region to the cabinet. They prescribed mild palliatives: recruit a pair of senators Lministries; make the party itself the visible link between cabinet and westerners; and maybe open a prime ministerial office in the West. There was no need, Axworthy advised, to “rush to the barricades” with proportional representation or an expanded Senate. He thinks that “western alienation” lives largely in the chat of jour-

nalists and politicians and, in truth, Liberals undergo this hand-wringing about the West after most elections. Axworthy says westerners’ discontents should be answered by recognizing their demands for better freight rates and rail services, and by recycling resource income back into western industrialization. Lastly, Axworthy and Bockstael urged Trudeau not to invite Jack Horner-like defections from the opposition benches. (Saskatchewan New Democrat Lorne Nystrom says someone “close to Trudeau” approached him during the campaign with a cabinet offer,which he declined.) And they took some comfort from the rise in the Liberal share of the Prairie vote from May to February (20.7 per cent to 21.3 in Alberta, 19.9 per cent to 24.3 in Saskatchewan, 23.5 per cent to 28 in Manitoba).

If the West remains mysterious to the Grits, it’s equally hard to parse Axworthy’s own liberalism, which springs from two quite different sources: the yeasty Prairie populism of north Winnipeg where he grew up in student politics, and the sophisticated sort of liberal dissent that flourished within the Ivy League establishment during the turbulent civil rights movement of the Kennedy term—the cocky Camelot years of rationalism and easy graces. There is a button-down self-control about Axworthy, but “in the bottom of his gut is a realrage’,’ says friend Jerry Grafstein, a Liberal insider and Toronto lawyer. Agrees another less admiring friend in the West: “I’ve never seen anyone with a stronger sense of purpose.” Axworthy-watchers say, indeed, that he can be insensitive and almost cruelly rude in getting his way. But he is also a pragmatic party man still loyal to John Turner, his first boss in Ottawa back in the ’60s. A speechwriter for Turner’s 1968 leadership race, Axworthy says he would have joined him again had Turner moved to succeed Trudeau this winter, even though Turner now speaks for the right wing of the party. In the years since the ’60s—as aide to Paul Hellyer’s Housing Task Force, as direc-

tor of urban studies at the University of Winnipeg, as MLA for six years (’73 to ’79)—Axworthy has posed a puzzling conundrum: populist, dogmatist, pragmatist. “He is one of the best-rounded Liberals we have,” enthuses Liberal party Vice-President Lorna Marsden of Toronto. “He is concerned with the problems of urban working people.” “A brash, ambitious young man in a hurry” is how he strikes a leading Liberal in Saskatchewan who suspects, moreover, the rise of an Axworthy dynasty (Tom in Trudeau’s office, younger brother Bob a Manitoba organizer) that reminds Regina Grits of Otto Lang’s “family compact.”

Just as the rural West spawned the populism of both left and right, there is something still undecided about Axwor-

thy, an unsettled tension between reformism and careerism. At one point in a Maclean's interview last week he was recalling how as MLA he had interceded with Safeway to keep a supermarket open for a neighborhood of pensioners—a success that clearly pleased him. Then, as if it needed more justification, he added that it was “good politics.” Many Liberals are now waiting for the next chapters to see whether Axworthy in cabinet will lose his sense of mission and subside into the soft limousine seats of power. Axworthy frankly admits to being curious himself. “It’s hard to keep the fire in your belly in Ottawa,” he confesses.