The blunt art of delaying democracy

John Hay August 9 1982

The blunt art of delaying democracy

John Hay August 9 1982

The blunt art of delaying democracy


John Hay

In a democracy the ballot box ... is the ultimate and appropriate technique of assessment.

—Pierre Trudeau, July 24,1969

There are times, of course, when the last thing a government wants is a democratic assessment of its performance; times of fearful unemployment and inflation, when the prime minister is unpopular and his future doubtful, when the governing party’s standing in the Gallup poll has sunk far below the Opposition’s. No prime minister with Pierre Trudeau’s sense of survival would choose such a season to call a byelection—and certainly not three byelections in politically crucial Ontario. In the north-woods riding of Timiskaming, in downtown Toronto’s Broadview-Greenwood and in LeedsGrenville along the St. Lawrence River, citizens this year are doing without their rightful representation in the Commons. No need to ask why, and last May Trudeau scolded a reporter who did just that: “For a journalist, you are incredibly naïve to ask that question.” Still, Trudeau must decide by September when to give those ridings a turn at democracy.

Perhaps because of their very remoteness from Parliament Hill, the people of Timiskaming seem to miss the presence of an MP the most. The vast riding, reaching from James Bay south nearly to Lake Nipissing, has been without a Commons voice since Liberal back-bencher Bruce Lonsdale was killed in a car crash one black night last January. Ian MacPherson, who runs a restaurant in Kenogami, says not having an MP makes him uneasy these days. “When times are tough, you get a feeling of insecurity when there’s no member of Parliament,” he says. “You get the feeling that you’ve lost a basic democratic right.” Not that MacPherson has any illusions about the clout of a back-bench MP: “Most of our customers say it won’t make a hill of beans’ difference who wins, as long as the people have a say in Ottawa.” The area’s municipal association was concerned enough to send a resolution to the Prime Minister’s Office in June asking for a byelection. Bill Jacko, a town councillor in Virginiatown, says the PMO’s reply was “less than satisfactory,” simply telling the municipalities that, legally, Trudeau has until September to set a byelection date.

Meantime, the New Democrats and the Tories are champing at the bit. NDPer Arnold Peters, who held the riding from 1957 until he was nipped by Lonsdale in 1980, has been nominated for another run. And the Conservatives are actively campaigning with equipment salesman and city councillor John MacDougall. The Grits have yet to pick a candidate.

Broadview-Greenwood lost its MP when New Democrat Bob Rae quit the Commons March 2 after winning the leadership of the provincial NDP. Though he sat in the Commons only 31/2 years, he had made an impact on the riding. “Bob Rae was my friend,” says Louis Halkides, owner of the Lucky Shop newspaper kiosk. Agrees university student Rose Tiano: “Bob Rae was always present, available and in the streets talking to people. He gave people a sense of security that has been missing around here.”

The riding holds a yeasty mix of voters (more than a third of its 72,761 people claimed a mother tongue other than English or French in the census last year) along with a trendy influx of CBC producers and other “white-painters.” No fewer than seven Tories are after the party’s nomination—among them Toronto Sun Editor Peter Worthington,

who has invaded the riding with canvassers who look strikingly like the tabloid’s leggy, T-shirted Swnshine Girls. The NDP has nominated sociologist Lynn McDonald, and the Liberals have fielded lawyer David O’Connor.

In contrast to the urban Broadview-Greenwood, LeedsGrenville is a bucolic smalltown constituency beside the Seaway, dominated for a decade by the belligerent, often shrill Tom Cossitt. Once a Liberal, he had been an anti-Trudeau Tory with a vengeance until he died of a heart attack last March 15. A Maclean ’s straw poll in the riding last week picked up an antipathy toward Parliament that seemed to echo Cossitt’s own corrosive hatred for the Trudeau government and all its works. Few were bothered by their lack of an MP. Said Julie Hodgson of Brockville: “It

doesn’t really affect me, and I don’t really care.” Anglican minister Harold Murray said having an MP hardly matters: “I couldn’t name five people who have had to get help from their

MP.” Jessie Aikens, a retired -

Prescott resident, did feel that the government “by rights shouldn’t wait too long,” but 25-year-old beer store worker John Ackerman of Brockville—a professed Liberal who “wasn’t happy with Cossitt”—said that “if the party doesn’t see fit to call a byelection, it doesn’t bother me.”

Cossitt’s successor seems likely to be his widow, Jennifer, 34. Already nominated by the local Tory party and eager for an election, she is even now running a constituency office. (In his will, published last week, Cossitt left an estate valued at $2 million, in part the fruits of

his insurance business. -

It directed trustees to find good homes for his 35 cats, had Cossitt and wife died simultaneously. And it provided support for Jennifer and the previously established Thomas C. Cossitt Foundation, stipulating that any animal hospital, museum or other good work financed by the foundation must be named after himself.)

As Trudeau has pointed out in his own defence, the Canada Elections Act gives a prime minister up to six months to set a byelection date once the Commons Speaker formally

tells the chief electoral officer of a vacancy. That gives Trudeau until Sept. 5 to call a byelection in BroadviewGreenwood and until Sept. 25 for the other two. So unenthusiastic were the Liberals for a ballot in Timiskaming, in fact, that they did not even officially tell Speaker Jeanne Sauvé of the vacancy after Lonsdale died. That was done some two months later by Tory MPs Paul Dick and Walter Baker—when they submitted the vacancy in LeedsGrenville.

Even the six-month limit imposes no great burden on Trudeau, since he is

free to set any byelection date he wishes—up to the next general election, which need not be called until 1985. Dick is harshly critical of a system that gives such leeway to the party in office in filling vacant seats. Other countries must call byelections promptly, says Dick, while “here we play politics with it.”

The Liberals, however, are unlikely to be moved by any such moralism. The latest Gallup poll has the Liberals at 32 per cent among decided voters, against 43 per cent for the Conservatives and 23 per cent for the NDP. It shows that fully 61 per cent of Canadians disapprove of Trudeau’s performance as party leader, while only 28 per cent approve. Clark’s approval rating is 40 per cent pro and 38 per cent con, while Ed Broadbent’s is 43 per cent and 25 per cent.

Trudeau’s Liberal party advisers have given him two basic options: call the byelections for the fall to get them over with or set a date in the spring. The crux of the decision will lie in the Liberal reading of public reaction to the government’s evolving eco-

nomic program—the six-five

scheme for wage and price restraint. If voters will be better disposed to the Trudeau government next spring, it would be worth the Liberals’ while to wait. In two past cases, Trudeau has let more than 13 months elapse before filling vacancies. Last year, on the other hand, he hurriedly arranged to appoint MP Peter Stollery to the Senate, set a byelection date to fill the consequent vacancy in Spadina, and placed ex-aide Jim Coutts in nomination for the seatall in 46 days. Coutts then lost to New Democrat Dan Heap.

The fastidious may complain that _ such Liberal manoeuvring stinks of cynicism. But Canadian voters have proven to be unforgiving of self-destructive politicians, no matter how well-meaning. They gave short shrift to short-lived Prime Minister Joe Clark in 1980 after he hobbled his way through nine months in office and fell flat into an election campaign by accident. Few, perhaps, will object if Trudeau does not subject himself to a similarly democratic assessment just yet.

Carol Bruman

Len Gillis

Ken Pole