COLUMN

A spat fit for Dief the Chief

Allan Fotheringham September 29 1986
COLUMN

A spat fit for Dief the Chief

Allan Fotheringham September 29 1986

A spat fit for Dief the Chief

COLUMN

Allan Fotheringham

When he became Prime Minister in 1957, John Diefenbaker carefully chose the office he wanted on Parliament Hill. Once settled in, he invited in a friend one day, beckoned him to the window and pointed across the wide parliamentary lawn. “See,” he chortled in glee, “I’m looking down on them!” The visitor looked across the lawn to see “them”— the paranoid Dief’s term for all those who sat in the venerable Rideau Club just across Wellington Street. “Them,” for the prairie populist, were all is enemies, the rich, the businessmen, the Ottawa Establishment figures who had scorned him in their thick leather chairs over the scotch and soda. And now he could peer down on them in contempt.

The old Chief, who never forgot and never forgave, was chortling again last week from the height of his magnificent bronze statue unveiled on a rise on that same lawn. Down below him on Parliament Hill was more Tory carnage-scrapping and fighting and bickering and petty slights and foul curses. All because of the day that was designed to turn Ottawa’s attention to him once more, however briefly. He would have loved it.

Ottawa in the last half of September is about at its best, a narrow window of opportunity between the heat and the cold. The leaves are turning yellow and orange, and the color is enhanced by the rich red claret oozing from the wounds of the Conservative faithful as they delight the headline writers by bashing and thrashing each other over someone who has been dead for almost a decade. Even in his grave, he reduced the party to the level of his own era— ever fractious, conniving, suspicious, feuding, charges followed by countercharges.

The Conservative government is in serious trouble in the polls. Brian Mulroney is hammered at every turn. Mike Wilson says that, whoops, he made a $2.5-billion error in the budget, but his solution to it is neither to raise taxes

nor slash government spending. The Liberals are doing their own internecine thing, nibbling at the heels of John Turner, to the greater good of Keith Davey’s book sales. So, in all this, what do the Tories do? Right. Get into a public scrap over the Man from Prince Albert, who split the party while living and now embarrasses it even while dead.

A lot of time is consumed arranging any commemorative event in the capital (as witness the current state of the Ottawa airport, the slowest-moving construction project since the Pyra-

mids). The whole idea of the Diefenbaker statue ceremony was meant to coincide with his birthday (he would have been 91). It’s not too hard to figure out that birthdays don’t change, that the ceremonies for the Chief could have been anticipated and planned months—if not years—up the road. Leo Mol, the Ukrainian-born Winnipeg sculptor who captured perfectly the mock-serious stern gaze of the man, surely took that long. But could the Tories get their act together in the run-up? Of course not.

Mulroney, just weeks before the event he was to preside over, appointed the Typhoid Mary of the party, Dalton Camp, to a fancy post, the job description of which can be best described as the party’s Thor Heyerdahl (as opposed to Mr. Davey’s previous role as chief officer of the Titanic). Newspaper recycling myth has Camp as a Brutus who did in the heroic Dief; in fact, all he did was to assert the democratic right of a party to review its leader-

ship—a principle all three parties now accept without question.

Perhaps it was the addition of Camp to the confused Tory mix in the Prime Minister’s Office that set the Dief loyalists into action. Like Custer, they go down to the last man. So the party brass, including many who helped overthrow him (Mulroney, Flora MacDonald, now-Senator Lowell Murray, now-Senator Norm Atkins) were arranging an official wine-and-cheese party for the dear, departed man after the unveiling. So the bitter loyalists would mount their own dinner to his memory— carefully excluding Mulroney and Camp from the invitation list.

Here we had the perfect Ottawa scenario. The PM in some trouble over his confusing statements on drugs and free trade on a Western Canadian tour. Wilson about to make a major economic speech before all the money spinners of Toronto. Turner supposedly reeling before book seller Brutus Davey. And the press gleefully waiting to count how many bodies show up at g the official Dief tribute evening, run by those who threw him out, as opposed to the relics and the Custers who do their last stand.

In the end, of course, clout prevails. After a considerable uproar, Dief loyI alists’ dinner is cancelled. A miffed Mulroney, after unveiling the old guy, mixed with the official guests over the wine and cheese and left after an hour without delivering his advertised speech.

To help things along, a shrewd Toronto publisher (where all those fat-cat Dief enemies came from) scheduled a book launch party immediately after the unveiling for the tome of Sean O’Sullivan, who adored Dief at age 12, became his surrogate son, was at 20 the youngest MP and now as a Roman Catholic priest has produced a book so honest that everything Camp and Mulroney ever said about the man’s meanness seems true.

O’Sullivan, by the way, delivered the invocation at the ceremony, a new breakthrough in book promotion. Dief must have been the only man in history to dance on his own grave.

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.