The Liberals after the rout

CAROL GOAR October 25 1982

The Liberals after the rout

CAROL GOAR October 25 1982

The Liberals after the rout

The prime minister's principal secretary, Tom Axworthy, was in a surprisingly cheerful mood the morning after the government lost three Ontario byelections last week. He had to be. He was putting the final flourishes on the speech Pierre Trudeau will use to stave off a leadership challenge at the Liberal party's national convention next month and he could not afford to let the gloom of the night's events seep into the prime minister's inspirational message to the 2,500 delegates. With two calls for a leadership review on the agenda, the speech was crucial. Finally, Axworthy put away the text and cast off his forced optimism. "It was a bad night for us, obviously," he admitted.

The Progressive Conservatives had done well by winning two races: a surprise victory in the Northern Ontario riding of Timiskaming and a widely expected landslide in the eastern Ontario seat of Leeds-Grenville. Tory Leader Joe Clark was effervescent. The New Democrats retained the Toronto riding of Broadview-Greenwood in a fractious four-way race. And, although the NDP had hopes of regaining Timiskaming, party leader Ed Broadbent was grateful for at least one win. The results left the balance of power in the House of Commons unchanged but they caused a new

session of Liberal soul-searching.

Trudeau and his inner circle met promptly the morning after the voting to conduct a post-mortem. Their conclusion worried them even more than their own three losses. “It’s a Tory juggernaut,” said Axworthy. “The protest vote is not going to the NDP anymore. They could be facing a real massacre in the West. I would see the NDP being just devastated in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.” Axworthy acknowledged that too much can be read into three isolated races. But the theory provided a telling glimpse into the musing about political blue skies by the prime minister’s closest advisers. They

are acutely aware of the party’s precarious position-shut out of the West and confined increasingly to their Quebec ghetto. Axworthy now predicts a new friendship of convenience between Liberals and the NDP.

A few blocks away from the Prime Minister’s Office, at Conservative party headquarters, there were sighs of relief. Clark had delivered on two of the three byelections. And no one was

more pleased than Art Lyon, the lawyer organizing the party’s national convention in Winnipeg next January. The convention, expected to draw between 4,000 and 5,000 delegates, will feature the usual review of Joe Clark’s leadership. A poor showing in the byelections, Lyon acknowledged, would almost certainly have spawned a new outbreak of “dump Joe” sentiment.

The Conservatives have not held Timiskaming since the Great Depression. All three parties knew it would be a close three-way race, but most observers expected a narrow win by veteran New Democrat Arnold Peters. The 60-year-old union organizer had held the sprawling mine and lumber riding for 23 years before losing it narrowly to Liberal Bruce Lonsdale in the 1980 elec-

tion. “We knew it was close,” said Liberal party President Norm MacLeod. “But we thought it was the NDP we had to worry about.” Peters came a surprising third, 1,400 votes behind MacDougall and 700 short of 35-year-old Liberal businessman Pierre Belanger. It was the upset of the night, and even Clark’s opponents conceded that the Tories deserved some credit for a well-fought campaign, In the other two rid-

ings there was still another reading. In Leeds-Grenville, Tory candidate Jennifer Cossitt walked away with a convincing 57 per cent of the vote, riding a 14-year-old Conservative tradition in Leeds and helped by the memory of her husband, Tom, who delighted constituents by needling Trudeau about his personal spending habits. Leeds-Grenville was, in the view of most commentators, a gift for Clark.

The riding about which the Mondaymorning quarterbacks continued to squabble was Broadview-Greenwood, an east-end jumble of ethnic communities, trendy downtown homes and working-class neighborhoods. Lynn McDonald, a 42-year-old sociologist, won the seat for the NDP by about 2,000 votes. While Broadbent declared himself more than satisfied with the victory, Clark claimed that BroadviewGreenwood could have been his “if we had stayed together.” Instead, the Tories indulged in an internecine struggle when 34-year-old political aide Bill Fatsis grabbed the nomination away from well-known Toronto Sun Editor-inChief Peter Worthington, only to finish a dismal third, 6,000 votes behind McDonald. Worthington, running as an Independent, managed an impressive second-place finish, just 2,000 votes behind the NDP.

What did happen in the three ridings added up to a decidedly mixed conclusion-one clear breakthrough for the Tories, one gift riding and one that still puzzles. Three byelections do not make a trend. Although conventional wisdom is that byelections are a magnet for antigovernment feeling, history reveals a somewhat different analysis. There have been 44 byelections since Trudeau came to power in 1968. The government party has lost 12 seats but won four from other parties. An overwhelming 26 ridings—close to two-thirds—have not changed hands. Last week’s contests were true to that pattern: two ridings remained with the same parties and one went from the government to the official Opposition.

Historical precedents aside, even the Liberals agree that last week’s voting was an expression of anguish and outrage against a government that seems helpless in the face of a sliding economy and unemployment levels unknown since the 1940s. The Liberals knew they were in trouble. On election day even the once powerful Jim Coutts was desperate to get out the vote: offering to babysit for any voters with a Liberal sign on their lawn. The party’s poor showing in Toronto, combined with a flurry of rumors last week—that the federal deficit would hit $26 billion ($6.4 billion higher than forecast) and that Ottawa was about to end universality for such social programs as family al-

lowances—spurred Trudeau into action. In an uncharacteristic chat with reporters after a cabinet meeting at Meech Lake Resort, he assured Canadians that universal social programs would be saved in the short term. Then the prime minister unexpectedly requested three 15-minute blocks of prime television and radio time this week to address the nation on the state of the economy. Although no major policy announcements are expected, it is clear that Trudeau intends to use the unprecedented back-to-back broadcasts to signal a more active role in economic affairs. Trudeau’s involvement is good news for dispirited back-bench Liberals who cannot understand why the government’s Six-and-Five restraint program has the backing of 64 per cent of Cana-

dians while they have the support of only 30 per cent of committed voters.

One development went almost unnoticed in the election aftermath. Two women were elected to the House of Commons, breaking the previous record of 14 female MPs. For the first time, women have broken through Parliament’s five-per-cent barrier. Lucie Pépin, president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, was overjoyed. “It’s really wonderful,” she said. Then, like any veteran political trooper, she declared it was not enough. In the next election Pépin is looking for no fewer than 50 women MPs.

-CAROL GOAR in Ottawa.