Crosbie: the Tory to watch

Carol Goar,Susan Riley May 23 1983

Crosbie: the Tory to watch

Carol Goar,Susan Riley May 23 1983

Crosbie: the Tory to watch


Carol Goar and Susan Riley

The big silver bus with the name John Crosbie emblazoned in bold blue capitals rolled along the back highways of southwestern Ontario last week, a strategic battleground in the fight for the Conservative leadership. Although he was far from his home turf, Crosbie was cheered by the constant parade of motorists who honked horns and peered out of car windows for a passing glimpse of the candidate from Newfoundland. Said Crosbie, urging the bus driver to acknowledge the hooting cars: “Give ’em a blow, boy.” Added Crosbie aide Ross Reid: “I wish we could convert those horns into votes at the convention.” Indeed, although the highway head count will not be any help at the Tory leadership convention in June, it is a mark of the increasing attention that the Newfoundlander’s low-key but high-powered campaign has attracted throughout the country.

Crosbie’s unexpected strength has proved the biggest surprise of the lead-

ership contest—an ironic twist of fate for a man who once said, “I have no political ambitions.” In just two months he has been transformed from a regional candidate—the wisecracker from the outports—into a significant contender for the vacant Tory throne. The two front-runners, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, draw each other’s fire and ire—in clashes over the Constitution and in trading charges of “dirty tricks” in recruiting Quebec delegates. But the third man, with the help of a well-tuned political machine, has quietly been marching to his own drummer since St. Patrick’s Day two years ago when he started assembling his campaign team. Whether that will be enough to catapult him to the leadership will only be decided at the Conservative convention in Ottawa on June 11. But one thing is already strikingly clear: John Carnell Crosbie’s campaign is not a Newfie joke.

Crosbie is already nationally known for his quick wit and quicker lip—and for the disastrous “18-cent budget,” named for the ill-fated gasoline price hike, which he produced as Joe Clark’s

finance minister. But beyond that he remains—for most Canadians—one of the more inscrutable mysteries of the “Far East,” as he calls his native province. He is characterized by some as a dilettante millionaire and by still others as a shy introvert. But what was once only idle speculation about the man has suddenly become an urgent search for his identity because of the prospect of a relatively unknown politician becoming prime minister. For his part, the candidate—with a characteristic blend of candor and canniness—is keeping his dreams to himself. “I can’t really lose,” he says. “If I win, I win. And if I lose, I spare myself untold agony.”

Large numbers of the 3,000 delegates are still “comparison shopping” among the seven chief candidates—their loyalties shifting almost daily. But John Crosbie—“granddaddy of the candidates” at 52 years old—faces other obstacles if he is to become leader. Chief among them is his inability to speak French. He is, in his own words, “not even functionally illiterate in French.” He blames it on an accident of birth-

place and he argues that “you don’t have to speak a language to be sympathetic.” He has studied French—both in Ottawa and for an arduous 10-day immersion holiday in St-Jean, Que. In StJean, Crosbie and his wife, Jane, also 52, spent a week with a bilingual family. There, on their first night, Crosbie managed to break an uncomfortable silence by screwing up his courage and asking his host, “Avez-vous un scotch?” But at week’s end, when they departed, Jane admitted, “we felt as though we had been let out of jail.” Crosbie’s closest advisers—including his wife —acknowledge that the lack of French is a problem. “Apart from that,” says Jane, “he would have it [the convention] knocked.” Meanwhile, Crosbie tries to win over doubters by pointing to Pierre Trudeau and declaring that Canadians would rather have a leader “who is sincere in one language than someone who is a dishonest twister and a twit in two.”

Another of Crosbie’s alleged liabilities is his sense of humor—because he is operating in what many analysts contend is one of the most humorless political constituencies in the world. And early in the campaign his handlers tried to curb his notorious wit. But last week, as he met delegates from some 56 ridings in Ontario, the Newfoundlander was patently ignoring that advice. Speaking without notes, in a broad brogue, he was shamelessly funny in several cheerless hotel meeting rooms across the province. One of his favorite targets was Liberal External Affairs

Minister Allan MacEachen, “the Celtic sphinx” from Cape Breton, who was so successful as finance minister, according to Crosbie, “that he was shuffled off to external affairs where he could bafflegab to his heart’s content and disguise the fact that we have no foreign policy whatsoever.”

Crosbie was not always a stand-up comic. When he entered municipal politics as a young, ambitious lawyer 18 years ago, his speeches were, by his own admission, lifeless. Recalls longtime friend William Rowe, a St. John’s lawyer and former provincial colleague: “John was a dour, standoffish, painfully private person whose speeches were deadly dull.” The transformation began when he was 38 and he decided to challenge the tyrannical Joey Smallwood for the leadership of the ruling provincial Liberal party. In preparation, he was coached by a Dale Carnegie public speaking instructor. “As a lawyer, I could get up and speak, of course, but it was in a monotone, not as a rabble rouser,” he explained later.

But not even Crosbie’s newfound rhetorical flourishes could win him the provincial leadership. After a bitterly fought campaign—which dwelt, among other things, on the number of indoor toilets in the province’s schools—Crosbie lost to Smallwood 1,070 to 440. The high-cost campaign created deep divisions within the Crosbie clan. His younger brother, Andrew, made no secret of the fact that he considered John’s ambition overblown and that his leadership bid was premature. In fact,

Andrew, who has always been, and remains, close to Smallwood, managed the former premier’s 1971 election campaign. “Blood aside, the Crosbies do what they want to do,” he says philosophically. The wounds have healed now, and Andrew is tapping his business connections across the country for John.

Crosbie spent the next two years hovering unhappily around the fringes of the Liberal party before he jumped ship in 1971 and became a Conservative. He rapidly became the top-ranking minister in Frank Moores’s government, serving as finance minister, fisheries minister, house leader, mines minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs. “He had all the tough portfolios, a tremendous workload, and he towered over everyone else,” recalls Rowe.

Crosbie seemed ideally positioned to succeed Moores, but he soon grew impatient and decided to enter the federal arena. A fairly safe seat opened up in 1976 when Walter Carter, the Tory member for St. John’s West, left politics in disillusionment after seven years as an Opposition back-bencher. Conservative headquarters in Ottawa made it clear that they considered Crosbie a star candidate, and even before he was elected stories were circulating about the responsible shadow cabinet post waiting for him in Parliament. He quickly became energy critic in thez Clark government, then, a year later, § industry critic. At the same time, he I was attracting rave reviews for his Don ^ Rickles-like wit. He called Industry 2

Minister Jack Horner “the Honorable Loose Lips,” Finance Minister Jean Chrétien “Mr. Slippery Heels,” and fellow Newfoundlander External Affairs Minister Don Jamieson was “Jetlag Jamieson.”

But it was his appointment as finance minister in the Clark government on June 4, 1979, that firmly pushed the Newfoundlander into the national spotlight. His selection was a surprise to many observers who expected the prestigious post to go to former banker and longtime finance critic Sinclair Stevens, or even to Michael Wilson, a bright newcomer from Bay Street.

His days at Finance were long and gruelling. His wife, Jane, worried quietly about his health. Crosbie, who suffered a stroke warning in January, 1979, keeps a blood pressure cuff in his apartment in Ottawa and is monitored almost weekly by his physician cousin. But the finance department bureaucrats, used to the happy-golucky, slapdash approach of Crosbie’s predecessor, Jean Chrétien, were lavish in their praise.

Despite the plaudits, Crosbie had made enemies in Ottawa. One of the

most serious criticisms _

directed at him—one that has not been widely circulated—is that as finance minister in the Clark government he refused to consult others and made arbitrary decisions. “There is a fear he may be like the current prime minister-or Diefenbaker,” said one Tory MP, who requested anonymity. That impression was largely formed in 1979 when Crosbie began sending his deputy minister to cabinet meetings, attending only the élite “inner cabinet” sessions himself. He also lost caucus support as finance minister when he continued an unpopular program of reducing tax breaks for small businesses, a policy initiated by his Liberal predecessor, Chrétien—over the

spirited objections of three-quarters of the Tory caucus.

Those events explain Crosbie’s relatively limited support on Parliament Hill. He estimates that about 20 MPs will eventually support him, fewer than the 26 already claimed by Mulroney, who has never been elected to any office. (Insiders say 15 MPs will declare their support for Crosbie within two weeks.) Now, Crosbie acknowledges that if he becomes prime minister he will have to “learn to delegate.”

_ Despite his easy wit

and laconic appearance, friends say that Crosbie is possessed with a fierce impatience to be number 1. Rowe recalls his old friend bridling under Joey Smallwood’s tightfisted rule. “If John Crosbie were ever marooned in the Funks [a group of uninhabited barren islands off the northeast coast of Newfoundland], he would want to be head man of the puffins,” he says.

Clearly, should Crosbie win the leadership— and the subsequent election—he will swiftly seize the reins of power. One of his most recent caucus supporters, Haldimand-Norfolk MP Bud Bradley, likes Crosbie “because he is one tough son of a bitch.” A Crosbie government would have

little patience with dissenters, says Bradley. Still, he does not fit the image of an unadulterated, right-wing ideologue. As a former Liberal, Crosbie’s basic stance—beneath his right-wing rhetoric—is plainly mainstream. “Crosbie looks with stupendous contempt on all party labels,” says his old enemy Smallwood. “He’s not a Liberal or a Tory or an NDPer. He’s a Crosbie and will never be anything else.”

In fact, Crosbie’s stand on the issues rambles from centre-right to liberal to Liberal. Like Trudeau, he says Canada must test the cruise missile to honor the country’s NATO commitment and, like Trudeau, Crosbie does not want Canada to become a nuclear nation. Crosbie also wants to bolster Canada’s rundown conventional armed forces—he does not say by how much—noting that “in Newfoundland they lie awake nights worrying that St. Pierre and Miquelon might invade them.”

A nonpractising United Church Protestant, Crosbie says he personally favors freedom of choice on abortion and he would support a free vote in Parliament on the issue. At the same time, he says he would honor the antiabortion views of his own constituents and vote in favor of further restricting the abortion law. On capital punishment he is, like Joe Clark, an abolitionist, but on that subject, too, he would allow a free vote—which would almost certainly mean a return to state executions. Crosbie also fulminates against most Crown corporations, but he would keep Petro-Canada.

But clearly, Crosbie’s most potentially explosive promise has been to

tighten links between Canada and the United States. “I’m not trying to make a better deal to benefit the Americans,” Crosbie explained to a Toronto audience last week. “I’m trying to hoodwink them.” He believes that in many international trade negotiations, Canada and the United States should bargain as a single unit.

He adds that the two countries should also initiate a “Buy North American” policy and open their borders to free trade.

That stance has begun to draw fire from rival camps. Mulroney, for one, said on the weekend that “opening the floodgates” to trade with the United States would endanger Canada’s economic base.

“U.S. economic priorities are not necessarily Canadian priorities,” he added.

The other candidates are clearly ~

growing increasingly concerned about the “Crosbie factor.” Summing up the campaign so far, one highly placed Ottawa Conservative commented: “The Crosbie campaign has gone better than expected, the Mulroney campaign has gone worse than expected, and the Clark campaign has gone just as expected.” The analysis leaves Crosbie supporters beaming; Clark workers grudgingly agree; and the Mulroney workers scoff angrily. “That’s fantasy time,” says Mulroney’s campaign manager, Paul Weed. “People who make comments like that don’t have hard facts.”

Unfortunately, there are no facts. But there are various estimates of the amount of support for each of the three front-runners. Most organizers agree that Clark’s first-ballot standing is in the 1,050 to 1,100 range. Mulroney may have about 800 to 900 delegates, and Crosbie seems to be close on his heels with 650 to 700.

No candidate has enough support, according to rough canvasses, to win on the first ballot.

Clark would then face the prospect of his supporters deserting him after the first ballot if he appears to have too few votes to gain any further momentum. The firmness of Clark’s support is, in fact, one of the biggest uncertainties of the race. But there is a widespread conviction that many of his backers are wavering. “Clark’s support has gone soft,” says Mulroney’s Saskatchewan organizer, Kenneth Waschuk, a former Clark organizer himself.

“All the candidates have growth potential except Joe.”

As Clark campaigned in Alberta last week, it was clear that his support was not as solid as he would wish or expect as a native son. Clark probably has between 50 and 60 per cent of delegate support in Alberta, most of which is in the northern half of the province. But from Red Deer south, his support declines. In Calgary, where Clark has commitments from only 10 of the city’s 40 delegates, he received a warm reception last Friday. But it was the kind of support accorded by friends, some of whom drove in from High River, his home town, and Red Deer. Said Judith Williams, a Calgary delegate: “He’s a terrific guy. He has lots of experience

but he can’t win the country. We want a winner.”

At Mulroney’s Toronto headquarters at the old Board of Trade building on Adelaide Street, workers are picking up hints that their candidate is fading. But Mulroney’s handlers have deliberately avoided journalists, hotline shows and huge attention-getting rallies. “We’re talking to delegates directly, not through the airwaves,” said campaign manager Weed.

But outside the Mulroney quarters the situation looks somewhat different. Said Gordon Paul, a delegate who owns a tourist business in Niagara Falls, Ont.: “Mulroney is an also-ran—he

_ wants to become pope before he is

cardinal.” The worst fate that could befall the good-looking Montreal business tycoon at next month’s convention would be if the other camps were to gang up on him. And there is some evidence of just such an AnyoneBut-Mulroney movement developing, particularly in Alberta. According to Mulroney’s provincial organizer, Douglas Lomow, one of Clark’s western lieutenants has vowed to “drag our people, kicking and screaming” to John Crosbie if Clark is eliminated from the race. The ideal sequence of events for Crosbie would be similar to the one that vaulted Clark into the leadership seven years ago: one of the front-runners would falter, and he would emerge as the second choice of a majority of candidates. To have a g chance of winning in that situa| tion Crosbie has to avoid making E enemies on the campaign trail, à Although the Newfoundlander’s

workers insist that he has kept his tactics above board and his relations with the other contenders cordial, there have been flashes of irritation from the other camps recently. Both Clark and Mulroney workers point out that the blustery Newfoundlander is as adept at stacking delegate lists as any other contender. The small province of Newfoundland has the same number of campus delegates as Ontario. And virtually every nursing school and vocational college in the province is sending three delegates to the June convention. “He has pulled this whole thing off beautifully,” said an annoyed Clark insider, who is upset by the fact that the former prime minister was criticized

more harshly than anyone else for the “dirty tricks” that have characterized the delegate selection process. And an equally incensed Mulroney worker described Crosbie’s efforts to sign up delegates as “more Newfoundland jiggery-pokery.”

Still, virtually no opponent criticizes Crosbie’s organization, a tightly knit cross-country chain of provincial command centres mostly run by bankers, brokers and investment dealers. Said Michael Meighen, Mulroney’s Ontario chairman and the party’s former national president: “[John] Laschinger [Crosbie’s chief adviser] knows the party well and knows how to organize well.” Added a Clark strategist: “Crosbie’s organization is masterful—he was ready to go before we were.” Crosbie’s team was, in fact, ready to go as early as

1981, when the Tories put Clark’s leadership to the test at their general meeting. An unsettling 33.6 per cent of the membership voted for a leadership review. The party was divided and dissatisfied. It was then that Crosbie decided to act, quietly and unobtrusively. Less than a month later, he began assembling, piece-by-piece, his political machine.

On March 17,1981, Crosbie and three friends, who would later come to be known as the “Newfoundland mafia,” gathered in Crosbie’s living room for the first time to develop a leadership strategy. Crosbie asked his friends—Laschinger, Basil Dobbin, one of the province’s most successful businessmen, and his partner Frank Ryan, who had run Crosbie’s 1976 byelection campaign—to

help him if the leadership of the party opened up. They agreed and began setting up a network of people across the country to brief Crosbie on local issues wherever he went. One of the earliest high-profile Tories to join the team was Jean Pigott. Said Pigott: “This is something that’s been deep within him for a long time.”

The Crosbie campaign emerged from the shadows in Winnipeg when Clark called a leadership convention. Pigott was standing with Crosbie when Clark threw out his challenge. Said Crosbie to himself: “Well, he has freed me now.” Within a day Dobbin and Ryan began organizing in earnest. When Crosbie officially declared his candidacy on March 21, they had already raised about $250,000. Said one acquaintance of Dobbin’s fund-raising ability: “He can

wring cash from a stone.”

But the organizational genius behind the Crosbie campaign clearly is 40-yearold Laschinger, a no-nonsense veteran of countless campaigns—for Ontario Premier William Davis, Newfoundland’s Brian Peckford and former federal Tory leader Robert Stanfield. Many Tories were caught off-guard when Laschinger quit his job as Ontario’s assistant deputy minister of tourism and recreation in early March to become Crosbie’s campaign manager. He had been expected to wait for Davis to make a decision on whether to run himself. (Davis declared formally that he would not be a candidate on May 4.) Said Laschinger, smiling confidently: “I made a promise a long time ago.”

Laschinger, who has learned election

■ techniques from his seven years with IBM and regular contact with U.S. Republican organizers, which taught him the in-

Itricacies of direct mail and phone banks, runs Crosbie’s high-tech command centre in Ottawa, arguably the most advanced in the campaign. There is a state-of-the-art AES computer, which churns out letters, press releases, itineraries and contains a list of every delegate who will be at the Ottawa Civic Centre next month.

Despite the frantic backroom activity, Crosbie gives the impression of riding above—or perhaps behind—it all in the comfort of his specially equipped campaign bus. He gets to bed by 11 p.m. every night, aims for at least one square meal a z day and promises audiences that even if he loses he will r * cheerfully support the winner. He seldom refers directly to any animosity between himself and Joe Clark—perhaps because he believes that he can gain more electoral support by taking the high road. But MP Bradley says Crosbie was “hurt” in 1981 when “Joe kneecapped him” by shifting him in the shadow cabinet from finance to external affairs critic. Crosbie’s disenchantment was much rumored in Ottawa, but in caucus , at least, “he was only a bit curt.” Crosbie’s main achievement so far has been his careful—and apparently effortless—ascension up the ladder that stands in the wide gulf between Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. Crosbie, said Ontario delegate Bruce McIntosh, “is everybody’s second choice.” That may be wild conjecture—it certainly will not be proven until June 11. But last week in Toronto Crosbie started to say “If I win,” then stopped himself. “They tell me I have to start saying ‘when I win.’ ” It could be sound advice.