The Liberals: starting over

Mary Janigan February 25 1985

The Liberals: starting over

Mary Janigan February 25 1985

The Liberals: starting over


Mary Janigan

The party president and the party leader strode side by side out of a closed meeting in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough last week and told Canadians that the Liberals were on the rise. It was a bravura declaration by Iona Campagnolo—a failed candidate in last September’s federal election—and John Turner, the man who was prime minister for only 80 days from June to September. But as members of the diminished Liberal caucus confidently left the meeting at the Guild Inn, reporters peppered them with questions about the security of Turner’s leadership. Undeterred, the opposition leader and Campagnolo responded with confident predictions about party reorganization, policy renewal and procedural reform. “It is obvious to me that the period of therapy is over,” Turner proclaimed. “And the period of renewal has begun.” Depression: That confident vow

marked the start of the Liberals’ struggle to revive their traumatized party. Less than six months after their crushing defeat in the Sept. 4 general election, Turner and the remnants of his once proud parliamentary caucus are finally emerging shakily from their shock and depression. They aim to build a modern machine with modern policies—against awesome odds. The party is in debt, its membership is depleted, its machinery is antiquated, and its internal disagreements are often profound as some factions continue to question Turner’s leadership. Indeed, the whole concept of liberalism seems to be under siege not only in Canada but around the world.

But the Scarborough meeting is the first public signal that the Liberals and Canadian liberalism are striving to survive and even to prosper again. Within 48 hours of that session the Conservative government stumbled over the resignation of Robert Coates as defence minister, while Solicitor General Elmer MacKay came under heavy pressure for his role in the Richard Hatfield drug case (page 22). In the House of Commons and on the hustings, Turner and his caucus began to capitalize on missteps by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his Conservative cabinet colleagues. At the same time, Liberal party membership is beginning to grow, policy committees are proliferating, and most factions have shelved their leadership I

doubts—at least temporarily. Across the country loyalists are struggling to rebuild eviscerated provincial parties.

But the signs of revival are tentative. And even the most committed Liberals alternate between hope and despair. “There is a recognition falling into place that we are all in the same lifeboat, so let us get the oars going in the same

direction again,” declared Doug Franklin, 35, former executive director of the B.C. Liberal party and the party’s new organization director. “We have come through a difficult time, we are getting new blood and fresh ideas and, let us face it, we have nowhere to go but up.” The Liberal defeat last September had been expected for at least a month,

but the magnitude of the party’s fall —from 147 seats to 40 and from 44 per cent of the popular vote to 28 per cent since the 1980 election—staggered its membership. With the exception of Joe Clark’s nine-month-long Conservative interregnum in 1979-80, the Liberals had held power since April, 1963. Liberal governments had reigned for 62 years in the 20th century. Party members had grown accustomed to the perquisites of power, and many made their living from federal paycheques or patronage contracts.

The trauma of defeat was a special shock for many Liberals who, buoyed by early-summer polls, had confidently expected to win the September election on the momentum of the party leadership convention in June, when they chose

Turner to replace Pierre Trudeau. Turner had served in the Commons for almost 14 years, 10 of them in the cabinet, before he broke with Trudeau in 1975 and left public office early in 1976. He left as a glittering political star, handsome, personable and articulate. But he returned as an unpolished actor —nervous, awkward in his public speeches and unaccustomed to the merciless eye of the television camera. The lethal combination of a stumbling leader and popular disaffection with the Liberal record produced the party’s electoral disaster.

For Turner, who had seldom experienced personal or public humiliation in his 55 years, the pain of defeat drove him into a protective retreat within a closed circle of friends and advisers. He rarely reached out beyond them—and notably not to the partisans of Jean Chrétien, runner-up in the party leadership contest. Some supporters of Chrétien and some who backed other leadership rivals privately criticized Turner’s lustreless performance in the Commons and the caucus. And, hurt by their increasing isolation from the Turner camp, they began to talk quietly of the need to replace the leader. Simultaneously, the caucus divided in a dizzying series of policy divisions over topics ranging from the reform of social welfare systems to Mulroney’s attempt to encourage more American investment.

Succession: Turner added to the dissension when he told Maclean's last November that “Trudeau really had not prepared for his succession. There was nobody in government, in his camp, who was a fair choice for leader.” Within days, Trudeau retorted that he could have won the election. Chrétien followed with the assertion that he probably could have won more than 40 seats. Only weeks after those public exchanges, a Gallup poll allocated popular opinion on the favored choice for Prime Minister as 47 per cent for Mulroney, 20 per cent for NDP Leader Ed Broadbent and only 11 per cent for Turner—roughly the same percentage as those who selected “none of the above” and those who fell into the don’t-know category.

While the caucus argued, the Liberal organization machine stalled. The party came out of the election with an estimated $3.5-million debt. A direct-mail operation to raise money barely broke even. Last month the party’s computer broke down and Liberal officials decided that it was not worth the repair bill. Now they are buying a new one. But the data banks for that computer were virtually useless. National membership lists were fragmentary. “I could not believe how bad it was,” said William Johnstone, a Saskatchewan farmer who became president of the Moose Jaw constituency association last September. “There were

people on the list who not only supported the PCs but actually ran for the Tories. One guy on the Liberal supporters’ list when I got involved was Bill Gottselig, and he won the seat for the Conservatives.”

Mistrust: Some provincial parties, such as Nova Scotia, do not have a central membership list. Some ridings, such as longtime PC-held Nanaimo-Alberni in British Columbia, do not even keep lists. And some provincial parties or individual riding associations that do have records of party members or election supporters have in the past refused to pass them on to national headquarters. That embargo is a legacy of mistrust from the Trudeau years, when many party executives and former MPS feared that the national party would tap their funding sources or use their membership lists to conduct a campaign to unseat them. As a result, the party was forced to buy general mailing lists from corporations for funding appeals.

Compounding confusion, the party was short of experienced administrators because the Trudeau government had planned to run the 1984 election campaign out of the Prime Minister’s Office. As a result, most important spending and planning decisions were made by a handful of senior politicians and aides in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, administrative and leadership problems were compounded by the fear that liberalism was out of fashion. In the United States the Democratic party was beaten badly in the November election—and polls show that many in the party’s traditional base, such as young voters, have deserted its ranks in pursuit of neoconservative values. The British Liberals—under leader David Steel—are almost invisible. In most European nations the great liberal tradition has been almost eclipsed by highprofile parties of the left and right. As a result, Canadian Liberals are concerned that their policies are out of date and that few voters believe that liberal solutions are robust enough for the uncertain economy of 1985. Moreover, they are afraid that the Tories have stolen the middle ground away from them. Last summer, in shocked envy, they watched Mulroney pre-empt the traditional Liberal position as a coalition of diverse regional, economic and cultural interests. And they are afraid that if his coalition holds, they cannot recover.

Throughout last fall and into winter, the combination of poor management and bad fortune nearly overwhelmed Turner. He and his chief of staff, John Swift, drew up a list of priorities to build a modern party, put the long-term requirements in motion and then simply tried to survive on a day-to-day basis. Judd Buchanan, a federal cabinet minister from 1972 to 1980, now a corporate

executive, toured the federal party organizations in each province and drew up a fund-raising blueprint that was accepted at the Scarborough meeting. Under the proposal, which provincial and riding associations are expected to approve, the ridings would surrender their lists in exchange for 50 per cent of the net profit from the direct mail appeals. Buchanan also reported at Scarborough that the party debt was now $2.75 million. He recommended that the party set up a tough management committee to decide budget allocations and a subcommittee to oversee direct-mail fund-raising. The need for that action was evident: last year the Tories raised $14

million—twice as much as the Liberals.

Plans: The Liberals also mapped plans to spend the money that they hope to raise. The party has decided to build a new $1.2-million headquarters on land that it owns on Laurier Avenue in downtown Ottawa. At present, the party is housed above a storefront office building on Bank Street, three blocks from Parliament Hill. The bat-infested building is slated for demolition.

The new facilities will contain a modern communications centre similar to that used by the U.S. Democratic party. Staff will be able to make films and send out manuals and policy papers by electronic mail—messages on computer screens—to party officials around the country. Organization director Franklin will produce training videotapes and booklets to ensure that all riding associ-

ations know how to run election campaigns and raise funds. The Liberals also plan to borrow a technique from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—academics are researching past party policy on a range of topics and applying those principles to future problems. Turner aides expect that the first booklet, on “fairness” as a philosophical doctrine, will be published within three months. As well, the party intends to hire a professional national director—to fill a nine-month vacancy—to supervise the ambitious expansion plans. And in a burst of self-confidence, the Liberals have asked a senior computer expert to recommend a new

system—and not worry about the price tag.

To complement those efforts, Turner is trying to build up a strong team, partly to counterbalance an existing team created by Trudeau. Maclean’s has learned that in 1983 former adviser Michael Kirby suggested that the former prime minister appoint specialists to the Senate in case the party lost control of the Commons in the 1984 election. Trudeau complied. To help with fundraising he appointed Ian Sinclair, former chairman and chief executive officer of Canadian Pacific Enterprises Ltd., and Leo Kolber, vice-president of Cemp Investments Ltd., to the upper chamber. To rebuild the party’s organization, he appointed former Dome Petroleum executive Colin Kenny as an Ontario expert, former public works

minister Romeo LeBlanc of Beauséjour, N.B., former New Brunswick MP Eymard G. Corbin and Alberta lawyer Daniel Hays. Trudeau also appointed his legislative assistant, Joyce Fairbairn, former House leader Allan MacEachen and political scientist John Stewart as procedural experts. In addition, he appointed Toronto lawyer Jerry Grafstein and former Montreal journalist Philip Deane Gigantes because of their communications expertise. And he chose Kirby and former party policy chairman Lorna Marsden because of their policy skills.

Strategy: Those senators form an available pool of talent—and Turner uses them. Every day that the Commons is in session, House Leader Herb Gray and party whip Jean-Robert Gauthier and their assistants meet with MacEachen and Fairbairn and the five MPs who head the caucus working groups: Don Johnston of finance, Raymond Garneau of government operations, Lloyd Axworthy of economic development, Doug Frith of social policy and Jean Chrétien of external affairs. Then, the group plans strategy for the day’s encounters in the House. Other senators, such as Grafstein and former campaign chairman Keith Davey, are consulted on policy, political organization and strategy. Some members of the group were responsible for convincing Turner to stop his habit of reading from briefing cards in the Commons. They have also improved his television delivery so that his staccato laugh and awkward mannerisms are less obtrusive.

But many of the grassroots members of the party feel that the Liberals should not rebuild by re-employing the same old team. Turner has told close friends that he shares that concern. And he is trying to ease away from his dependence on the senators in a way that does not needlessly turn them into enemies. Partly as a counterbalancing force, he is reinforcing his personal entourage. Chief of staff Swift is hiring more policy and communications aides, and he says that he wants to expand the Turner office staff from 40 to about 100 people—roughly the same number that served Mulroney when he was the opposition leader.

At the same time, aides are examining how to pool the policy and communications expertise in Turner’s office, the caucus research office and the party headquarters. Party stars such as Paul Martin Jr., the president and chief executive officer of the transportation conglomerate CSL Group Inc., are leading the search for new candidates and new resource volunteers. “The most sensitive thing that Turner has to do is to pass the torch along to new people,” says a Liberal insider. “The tricky thing is not to be vindictive.”

Meanwhile, the doubts about Turner’s

leadership have ebbed—but they have not died. After every meeting, regardless of what is discussed or decided, journalists relentlessly ask about the leadership. The questions are fuelled in part by the anxieties of some Turner loyalists who privately denounce “the dissidents.” But there is lingering bitterness from the June leadership convention. Former leadership contender Chrétien is still depressed by his loss, and at party activities he appears forlorn and half-hearted. But key loyalists from his campaign have remained friends—and kept in touch with each other as a useful network. Many of them claim that Turner has cut them off from the party mainstream. And most of them insist that Chrétien would have been—and still could be—a better leader. “But the Turner camp has not reached out to those who were against him in the leadership campaign,” argued a strong Chrétien supporter who requested anonymity because party feelings still run so high between the camps. “I offered to help repeatedly during the election and I was telephoned only once. Since then—nothing. Reaching out is the way that you make sure that people do not vote against you in a leadership review.”

Turner’s difficulties extend from his rivals to some of his former friends. Some are still bitter about the election loss—and convinced that the leader will never be able to rebuild his image. They point out that his manner in the Com-

mons and on the hustings is still wooden. And they say they that he is unable to think fast on his feet— a trait that is vital against the smooth Mulroney.

Resentment: That feeling is especially strong in Quebec, where many MPs risked a caucus feud to select Turner over Chrétien because they thought he could win. Instead, Quebec Liberal strength fell from 74 to 17 seats—and the resentment is almost unabated. Said Gordon Genge, president of the Newfoundland GanderTwillingate Liberal riding association: “ Turner’s image leaves a lot to be desired from the standpoint of what the public would like. It’s the same as with [Joe] Clark —the charisma just was not there.” Added Genge: “At some

_ point, a leadership review is something I would advocate.”

Other Liberals are concerned about Turner because they do not know where he stands on the ideological spectrum. They point out that during the election he swung from the right—with his concern about' the federal budget deficit—to the

left, with his proposals for heavier wealth taxes. Close friends say that Turner’s heart is closer to the right of the party. But they say he was so dismayed by the election loss and party criticism that he now simply avoids most potentially divisive policy stands.

The result can be confusing. One party loyalist who is a small-1 liberal says that Turner is superb on the mechanics of running a party but “he does not seem to have a framework or a set of principles from which he works.” Another Liberal who is closer to the right says that Turner “is only now starting to see that the things he used to believe in are not all that crazy.” But he adds that until Turner regains his confidence, he is not likely to confront the more

left-leaning members of caucus.

Meanwhile, Turner supporter Lloyd Axworthy has been using his position as head of a party council on northern and western affairs to flex his muscles. Turner created the council last year. And although it has only convened once, Axworthy has used it to take an active role in western party affairs. Some Turner supporters fear that Axworthy has undertaken that new role because he wants to build support for his own leadership ambitions. They fear that he is creating a faction that will vote for a leadership review.

Despite those differences, most party members have made an effort to smooth over their differences. Former leadership contender Johnston has ensured that key members of his camp, such as consultants David MacNaughton and Richard Anderson, are talking to—and helping—Turner’s staff. Moreover, many party members have come to the conclusion that it is simply counterproductive to attack the leader now. They point out that the party’s general convention—when delegates will be asked if they want a leadership review—will not be held until the fall of 1986. Until then, Turner’s leadership is technically safe.

Many Liberals also say that Turner lost largely because of Trudeau’s record. They sympathize with Turner for the pain he has endured. And they commend both his dedication and the progress that he has made in party reform. Most important, despite the fears of many loyal party workers, Turner has man-

aged to keep the Liberals ahead of the NDP in the polls. Gallup reported this month that 53 per cent of decided voters favor the Tories, 25 per cent the Liberals and 21 per cent the NDP. AS long as the party stays second, the Liberals are not likely to encourage mutiny. “There are very few responsible Liberals who are being tough on him,” argues former party president Norman McLeod. “He is travelling every weekend for the party, doing fund-raising, going to the national executive meetings. What more could he be doing?” Adds James Graham, the president of the Ontario wing of the federal Liberal party: “I have canvassed the ridings pretty thoroughly and most people are saying that he is fine—give him a little time. Of course there are grumblings, but the weight and numbers are not of consequence. Leadership is not a concern yet.”

Instead, many Liberals are concentrating on party and policy reform. The national executive has now agreed to hold regional conferences followed by a special national reform convention of an expected 700 to 1,000 party members in November in Quebec City, Edmonton or Montreal. Although the thorny issue of leadership could be raised at some of the smaller regional conferences and at the national convention, most members will be involved in such controversial nutsand-bolts questions as: should a party leader have a fixed term of office?

Mistakes: Still, there is continuing concern with the form and fate of liberalism and the role of a modern government. Some party members argue that the Liberals must remain faithful to the party’s traditional tenets, such as the universality of social programs—keeping family allowances and old-age security payments free of means tests—and Canadian economic nationalism. And they contend that the Liberals are out of favor only because Canadians felt it was time for a change of faces—and the Tories were wise enough to offer more of the same safe Liberal programs. Those classic small-1 liberals, including Senator Keith Davey, freely admit that the party needs to develop new policies to deal with modern problems, and they do not deny that there were some policy mistakes. “But small-1 liberalism is not dead,’’argues Senator Marsden. “It may be the only alive political ideology in Canada. If liberalism were dead, why would the NDP and the Tories be trying so hard to crowd into liberal ground?” Others argue that the Liberal party is based on principles such as compassion and reform. They say that policies such as universality can be adjusted as long as the party remains faithful to the principles behind the policies. Earlier this month finance critic Johnston told an Edmonton audience that because Liberals believe in reform, they are

committed to an active role for government. “From there, it is sometimes an easy matter to cross the fine line between beneficial government intervention and intervention simply for its own sake—in other words, a tendency to overgovern,” he said. “It is also an easy matter to move from there to a general public perception that the state thinks it knows best. When the government man-

ufactures aircraft, sells gasoline and repairs cars, it is not difficult to see why.” For the Liberals, those arguments about the role of government are powerful demons. With the NDP and the Tories crowding toward the liberal centre, the struggle to be both modern and moderate means that even once-sacred policies are up for examination: the contest has been summed up by Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Tom Axworthy.

“The public supports intervention but despises bureaucracy,” he wrote. “The dilemma for modern-day liberalism is that if the state is no longer to be the automatic instrument to achieve change, what will take its place?” Secrecy: That debate coincides with what is currently a more spirited Liberal performance in the Commons, in the Senate and across the country. Last month pollster Angus Reid of Winnipeg cited four fundamental policies that are linked with traditional Liberalism and which he said can be invoked in battles against current Tory positions. Those beliefs, he said, are in a strong central government, equality of opportunity, a secure Canadian identity and open government. With that advice, the Liberals have been attacking the Conservatives for proposals to modify universal social welfare programs, disparities among the provinces in access to education and health care, opening up to foreign ownership and freer trade with the United States, and for its inclination to secrecy.

Although Turner has insisted that the Liberals will not use their 72 members in the 104-member Senate to block Tory legislation, the Liberal senators have been flexing their muscles. Two weeks ago, with the consent of Liberals in the Commons, they delayed a Tory bill to authorize almost $20 billion in federal borrowing. The senators argued that the Tories have no right to borrow money for the fiscal year starting April 1 before the spending estimates for 1985-86 or a budget have been presented. “We are not going to block but we are going to enhance legislation,” vows Senator Kirby. “If that means that legislation is a little slower, so be it.”

Daunting: Meanwhile, beyond Parliament Hill, there are erratic signs of new life in provincial Liberal parties—a process which the federal Liberals are trying to encourage because they are convinced that the party must be rebuilt from the ground up. It is a daunting project when there is no Liberal government in the country. In British Columbia, where the party holds not a single seat in the legislature, provincial Leader Art Lee is racing to organize for an election expected next year. Party members feel that, given the polarized nature of B.C. politics between Social Credit and the NDP, there is room in the centre if Lee can revive the frail party machine. In Alberta—where Liberals have not held a legislature seat since 1969—Leader Nick Taylor is fending off pressure to resign from a reform wing that argues that the party needs new blood. But Taylor is optimistic—citing a recent 25per-cent increase in provincial party membership—although the current total is only about 8,000. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, despite membership increases and better financial health, par-

ty prospects remain bleak. In Ontario, Liberal Leader David Peterson hopes to siphon off votes from Tories disaffected by the right-wing tendencies of new Premier Frank Miller. “Miller’s Ontario excludes women, youth, ethnics, tenants and other important minorities,” argues Liberal campaign chairman Ross McGregor. “The middle of the ideological spectrum is open.”

Image: That guarded optimism also prevails across Eastern Canada. In Quebec, although the once-fabled federal Liberal organization is fragmented, Liberals hope that leader and former premier Robert Bourassa will defeat Premier René Lévesque in the election expected within a year. Although Bourassa is close to Mulroney, the mere presence of a Liberal government—anywhere—will help the party image. Meanwhile, senior Liberals are trying to reconcile Trudeau and Turner as a means of removing the massive divisions in Quebec.

In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick the Liberals are looking for new leaders. And although hopes are not high in either province, leadership contests always raise the party’s profile. In Prince Edward Island, Liberal Leader Joe Ghiz says that the federal Tories are offending the electorate with such policies as a recent decision to charge potato growers for product inspections. And in New-

foundland, Leader Leo Barry—a former Tory cabinet minister—is trying to capitalize on substantial dissatisfaction with Premier Brian Peckford.

Roots: For the Liberals, the provincial roll call still represents a dismal decline from the glory days of 15 years ago, when Trudeaumania was alive in the land and six of the 10 premiers were party members. But the Liberals have deep roots in Canadian history. The first Liberal Prime Minister, Alexander Mackenzie, took office in 1873. And the ideas of small-1 liberalism—moderate and middle of the road—run strong in the Canadian psyche. Pollster Reid, who worked for the Liberals during the 1984 election, says that when he asked Canadians last fall if they considered themselves to be liberals, conservatives or social democrats, 52 per cent said liberals. “Liberalism is alive and well and perhaps on a growth plan in Canada,” Reid concludes. For Turner and his battered party, the difficult challenge will be to turn those closet sympathizers into card-carrying disciples.

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