Testing party power

MARY JANIGAN July 13 1987

Testing party power

MARY JANIGAN July 13 1987

Testing party power


While most Canadians enjoy the solaces of summer, the country’s leading politicians are waging three high-stakes political battles. Across the nation—in the rugged Yukon, in the Ontario steel city of Hamilton and in Newfoundland’s seaside capital of St. John’s—voters go to the polls in byelections on July 20 to fill vacancies in the House of Commons. All three parties have a chance to win in each riding. The Conservatives, trailing their Liberal and New Democratic Party opponents in the opinion polls, are least likely to triumph. The real drama centres on whether voters will turn to the Liberals or the New Democrats to express their discontent with the Tory government. Said political scientist Henry Jacek of Hamilton’s McMaster University: “These byelections are critical. If the NDP captures all three, it may be unstoppable.”

Indeed, the byelections will be verdicts on the performance of the government—and the opposition parties. The Conservatives say that they will not be surprised to

lose all three—even though they won in the Yukon and in St. John’s East in the 1984 election. As a senior Tory told Maclean's, “The expectations based on the polls are realistic—and the expectation is a classic protest vote.” He added that if the Conservatives win even one of the trio, “it would be a

fantastic sign that we are starting to come back.”

By contrast, the pressures on both opposition parties are enormous. Twice in the past two months national polls have put the NDP in first place for the first time ever. If the party does not keep its riding of Hamilton Mountain and add at least one seat, its rapid rise could stall. If it wins all three seats, the perennial underdog would become a serious contender to form the next government. Said one NDP official: “Everybody is feeling that we have got a good crack at one-two-three.”

The Liberals lost all three seats in 1984—but they came second in the Yukon and in St. John’s. If they cannot win at least one seat, many Liberals may blame their leader, John Turner. If they win two seats, Turner’s position—and the party’s revival—would seem assured. As a senior Liberal told Maclean's: “Right now, Liberals can view the high level of NDP support as a temporary blip. But if [the NDP] wins big, it won’t be a blip anymore.”

The Liberals are pinning most of their hopes on the Yukon, a sprawling riding of 14,600 voters scattered across nearly 200,000 square miles. For more than 29 years, the riding belonged to Conservative Erik Nielsen, a tight-lipped and ferociously partisan lawyer. In 1984, when fortune was with the Conservatives, he won more than 6,600 votes compared with the Liberals’ 2,500 and the NDP’s 1,900.

But Nielsen resigned last January to become president of the new National Transportation Agency. In hopes of replacing him, the Liberals nominated Donald Branigan, a 53-year-old physician who is also mayor of Whitehorse. The outspoken Branigan has a near-fanatical following of patients. But his blunt manners and endorsement of unorthodox holistic medical techniques have also offended some local Liberals— and embroiled him in a gruelling battle with the Yukon Medical Council, whose attempt to investigate Branigan’s practice was ordered dropped earlier this year by a Yukon court. Undeterred, Branigan has called for light industries to reduce the territory’s dependence on mining, tourism and government.

But Branigan is facing tough competition. The NDP candidate is Audrey McLaughlin, a 50-year-old consultant who is outspoken in her opposition to proposed constitutional changes that would require the unanimous assent of all 10 existing provinces before a territory could achieve provincial status. Antony Penikett, the leader of the Yukon’s NDP government, charged that provinces might threaten to exercise their veto unless they received federal favors. Two months ago he asked the Yukon Supreme Court to declare that the deal is

unconstitutional. That popular stand by a popular government has boosted McLaughlin’s candidacy.

The accord, in turn, has hurt Conservative David Leverton, a 31-year-old Whitehorse businessman. He argues that Penikett’s scenario is a “purely hypothetical situation.” Instead, he has emphasized the importance of settling land-claims negotiations with the territory’s 6,600 Indians. But, as a senior federal Tory told Maclean's: “We are not holding our breath in the hope we win.”

The Conservatives are also pessimistic about their chances in Hamilton Mountain. The riding has a history of belonging to no one and to no party. But it sent New Democrat Ian Deans to Ottawa in 1980 and again in 1984— with an 8,700-vote lead over his Tory opponent. After Deans resigned last August to become chairman of the Public Service Staff Relations Board, the NDP turned to former Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar. But Dewar is a parachute candidate in a riding that values roots. Said McMaster’s Jacek: “People

on the Mountain don’t like outsiders.”

Heartened by that NDP handicap, Liberal Elizabeth Phinney is running door-to-door, stressing her roots in the blue-collar riding. The 49-year-old real estate appraiser pledges to be “Hamilton’s voice in Ottawa, not Ottawa’s voice in Hamilton.” Meanwhile, Tory candidate Daniel MacDonald has faced pointed questions about the government’s record—and rounds of boos and catcalls at all-candidates meetings.

The Conservatives’ hopes are centred on St. John’s East, a riding that stretches from the Memorial University campus in St. John’s to such small fishing villages as Holyrood and Pouch Cove. Conservative James McGrath, a respected and principled MP, held the riding from 1957 until last September, when he became Newfoundland’s lieutenant governor. He coasted to victory in 1984, 25,000 votes ahead of the Liberals and 28,000 votes ahead of the NDP.

But times have changed. Now, the Conservative contender is Thomas

Hickey, a 54-year-old former provincial cabinet minister who is receiving a lot of help from high-ranking federal Tories. Last month Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced the creation of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency in St. John’s, then pointedly visited Hickey’s campaign headquarters. Later, at a campaign rally, Fisheries Minister Thomas Siddon announced that Ottawa would build two breakwaters for local fishing villages.

But the competition is stiff. The Liberals are fielding former provincial party leader Stephen Neary, a 62-yearold firebrand. In the best tradition of Newfoundland oratory, Neary has denounced the Conservatives for the high level of provincial unemployment, calling it “a national disgrace when Newfoundland should be the jewel in the crown of Canada.” The NDP candidate is Jack Harris, 38, a soft-spoken lawyer with a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

Federal strategists from all three parties privately concede that Harris has the best chance of winning. As a result, both Neary and Hickey have been attacking socialists. Declared Hickey: “Our way of life is being challenged.” Said Neary: “The NDP is not a Newfoundland party.” Harris retorts that his opponents are misrepresenting party positions.

An NDP victory in Newfoundland or the Yukon could signal a change in the nation’s voting habits. Aware of that possibility, Mulroney assailed NDP Leader Ed Broadbent last week as the “honorable leader of the socialist party”—and he criticized such NDP policies as withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Broadbent dismissed Mulroney’s attacks as “bizarre.” But his party increased its election preparation budget by 50 per cent last week. And Maclean’s has learned that senior NDP MPs have asked consultants for seminars on how to govern. The party’s dreams could fail —or flourish—when the voters deliver their verdicts on July 20.

-MARY JANIGAN with SHERRI AIKENHEAD in Hamilton, CY FOX in St. John’s, JIM BUTLER in Whitehorse and MICHAEL ROSE in Ottawa