The Liberals’ days of decision

John Hay June 18 1984

The Liberals’ days of decision

John Hay June 18 1984

The Liberals’ days of decision


John Hay

Fifteen weeks after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced his retirement on a snowy February morning, Liberals from across Canada gather this week in a tropical haze of tobacco smoke, tension and television lights to choose a new leader for their party and a new Prime Minister for the country. The three-day convention in an Ottawa hockey arena will end the remarkable era that began when Trudeau became Liberal leader in the same arena in April, 1968. The transfer of power to Trudeau’s successor will pitch the nation into a new political season which will likely culminate in a federal election later this year. But for the seven leadership candidates the convention is the climax to an exhausting race for a priceless prize.

The leadership decision is in the hands of almost 3,600 voting delegates, but they will form a minority among the crowds jamming the convention hall. Nearly 2,000 alternate delegates, 1,500 observers (each paying $400 for a convention pass) roughly 2,300 journalists and media technicians, 400 invited VIPs, and thousands of workers in the candidates’ camps will raise the number of people at the Ottawa Civic Centre to as many as 14,000. Arrayed in separate cheering sections along one side of the arena will be the candidates, with the two leading contenders—former finance minister John Turner and Energy Minister Jean Chrétien—flanking the other five: Economic Development Minister Donald Johnston, Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan, Indian Affairs Minister John Munro, Employment Minister John Roberts and Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan.

Last week Turner, the acknowledged leader, marked his 55th birthday on a speaking trip to Peterborough, Ont.—his last scheduled public event before going to Ottawa this Wednesday-then returned to his Toronto home to polish his convention speech and lobby delegates by telephone. Said Turner campaign chief Bill Lee: “We don’t think it’s necessarily in the bag on the first ballot, but we’ve got a very substantial lead.” Chrétien, Turner’s strongest opponent, did not deny that the Bay Street lawyer was leading but he disputed a Toronto newspaper survey purporting to show that Turner was extending his lead among formerly undeclared dele-

gates. And Chrétien teased Turner for easing up. “It’s dangerous to go to the locker room before the game is over,” he said.

Most of the other candidates were straining to emerge at the convention as a “third man” who could gather strength after a Turner-Chrétien deadlock on the first ballot, just as Joe Clark

did on his way to winning the Conservative leadership in 1976. Johnston, Munro, MacGuigan and Roberts have all laid claim to third place, and Johnston said last week that he had 400 first-ballot votes secured. But delegate surveys showed him and the other contenders trailing Turner and Chrétien with far fewer than 400 votes.

When the convention is under way, the three English-language television networks plan to devote at least 10 hours to the preliminary events and the convention-floor struggle. CBC, CTV and Global cleared their Thursday schedules to carry the Liberals’ opening-night program—an elaborate tribute to Trudeau which will last almost two hours and feature contralto Maureen Forres-

ter singing O Canada, impressionist Rich Little, singer Paul Anka and a farewell speech by the Prime Minister. After the candidates make their speeches to delegates on Friday, the actual voting is to start at 2 p.m. EDT on Saturday. Convention co-chairman Iona Campagnolo predicted that the first vote could take two hours to complete

and that subsequent ballots might take 2V2 hours each.

The networks’ convention coverage involved a massive deployment of people and equipment. Each planned to have eight to 14 reporters on the convention floor, along with anchor teams in glasswalled booths perched in the arena’s rafters. In addition, the networks will field platoons of pundits to provide expert analysis, including, for the CTV, former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney and former Liberal cabinet minister and two-time leadership candidate Paul Martin. The CBC’s experts were expected to include Conservative party finance critic John Crosbie and Finance Minister Marc Lalonde. In all, CTV is expected to have 200 people on the

site, along with 12 cameras and 12 trailers to house equipment and control rooms. For its part, the CBC will watch the convention through 17 cameras, with a crew of 175, and the network estimated that its coverage will cost about $400,000.

The convention seemed certain to generate sufficient drama to justify the investment. Polls in the final week of the campaign placed Turner clearly in the lead, with Chrétien just as clearly in second place. But the suspense lay in the complex and unpredictable arithmetic of delegate behavior. If all the 3,592 voting delegates cast their ballots, the minimum number of votes needed to win would be 1,797, and some Turner cam-

paigners predicted last week that their candidate could top that on the first ballot. But Turner could also fall short. A critical factor haunting both Chrétiens and Turner’s strategists was whether, if the issue is not decided on the first ballot, they can measure—or influence—the shifting votes on later ballots among supporters of the five other candidates.

Not only the size of Turner’s firstballot lead could decide the outcome. A Chrétien aide speculated that if Turner were to win about 1,300 votes and Chrétien 1,000 on the first ballot, then Chrétien would be “300 votes behind and very close.” But if Turner captured 1,750 and Chrétien 1,450, then the energy minister is “300 votes behind and doesn’t have a

chance.” In fact, Chrétien could only hope to pull ahead of Turner on subsequent ballots if the other candidates together draw between 500 and 1,000 votes on the first ballot—votes that could then move to Chrétien.

Throughout his campaign Turner based his appeal to delegates largely on the claim that he is the one who can lead the Liberals to victory in the next election. His presence at the convention may seem muted compared to the bands and noisy good cheer of the Chrétien camp, but his slogan reinforced his basic thrust: Win With Turner. Turner’s strategists did not choose that slogan by chance: polls recently carried out for the Turner camp indicated that delegates

were primarily concerned with finding a leader who could win an election and remake the Liberals as a national party.

Despite his apparent appeal as a potential winner, Turner might have trouble winning second-ballot support from the other camps. The Turner campaign machine bruised some feelings among supporters of the five second-tier candidates with what some of them regarded as arrogance.The Chrétien campaigners, by contrast, earned a reputation for being congenial good sports, who sometimes joined with others at delegateselection meetings to try to stop the Turner steamroller.

Should nobody win a first-ballot majority, the crackle of hundreds of walkie-talkies will signal seven-way bar-

gaining for support on the next vote. But even if a contender persuades another candidate to join him, no candidate can guarantee the loyalty of his supporters. In one possible scenario, Whelan or Munro might decide to back Chrétien after dropping out of the contest. But many of their backers would likely swing behind Turner. “It’s not going to be a coronation,” declared John Roberts. “After the first ballot, people are going to realize it’s a very open convention.” The three days of drama in Ottawa will leave the Liberal party and the candidates’ supporters with large debts to pay. Douglas Franklin, the British Columbian who is the general manager of the convention, said that the party itself would spend $3 million on the event and on the five regional policy forums that preceded it. Still, Franklin expected delegate fees and other revenues (such as concession stalls and sale of seats to observers) will cover the costs, which included the installation outside the Civic Centre of two portable offices and a Winnebago camper for each candidate. While delegates were booked into 30 hotels throughout the city —which, organizers said, took advantage of highseason demand to charge above-normal room rates—the candidates booked accommodation that ranged from serviceable to luxurious. Roberts, for one, reserved the Royal Suite of the downtown Holiday Inn. It has nine rooms ^ with a Jacuzzi and sauna 2 and usually rents for $700 a night. At the same time, delegates wooed by the Turner campaign will travel aboard double-decker buses and a tour boat on the Rideau Canal, while several of the other contenders arranged for huge tents in downtown parks and parking lots, with bands and cash bars to entertain and impress delegates.

Viewed through a TV screen the partying, politicking and posturing may appear to be an undignified way of selecting the man who will automatically become Prime Minister days later. But the gravity of the choice will be clear to the delegates, at least. They will know that their fortunes as Liberals ride on the right decision.

With Shorn McKay and Carol Goar, Mary Janigan, Susan Riley and Terry Hargreaves in Ottawa,