The signs of Liberal life in the West

ROSS LAVER August 29 1988

The signs of Liberal life in the West

ROSS LAVER August 29 1988

The signs of Liberal life in the West

A long with virtually every other Liberal in Western Canada, David Walker knows what it is like to labor in the political wilderness. A Winnipeg resident since 1974, Walker has campaigned for his party in that city in each of the past three federal elections. But the results were always disappointing.

Squeezed between the Conservatives on the right and the New Democratic Party on the left, the Liberals won only two seats in Manitoba in each of the 1979 and 1980 elections, then dropped to one seat in the Tory sweep of 1984. Undaunted,

Walker is now seeking his party’s nomination in Winnipeg-North Centre—an NDP stronghold that some independent analysts predict may soon be colored in Liberal red.

“In February, we had only 138 party members in the entire riding, but now we are up to 1,100,” said Walker, who teaches political science at the University of Winnipeg. “Liberals who used to see themselves as losers are suddenly feeling good about the party and they are working hard.”

For a party that was once perilously close to extinction in Western Canada, those sentiments might sound at best like wishful thinking, at worst, hopelessly out of touch with reality. But after more than 15 years of electoral drought on the Prairies and in British Columbia, there are signs that Liberal fortunes in the region are enjoying a modest revival. The party’s problem is that in many parts of the West, it lags so far behind the Tories and the NDP that even a sharp increase in the popular vote for the Liberals in the next election might not be enough to produce any new seats. For now, the party’s best prospects appear to be in Manitoba, where independent surveys suggest that it could win as many as four or five of the province’s 14 ridings. Said Winnipeg-based pollster Angus Reid: “Even the Tories I have talked to concede that the Liberals are in pretty solid shape in Winnipeg. But elsewhere in Western Canada, they are

going to find it a lot more difficult.” Such predictions do not bode well for party leader John Turner. During his race for the leadership in 1984, Turner spoke often about the need to recruit high-profile westerners and rebuild the party’s machinery in the region af-

ter years of neglect under former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. But only two Liberals were elected west of Ontario in that year’s election: Turner himself, who confounded the opinion polls by winning Vancouver’s Quadra

riding, and former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, who retained Winnipeg-Fort Garry.

Although Turner, 59, has visited the West no fewer than 51 times in the past four years, there is no established Liberal presence in the region. But perhaps more seriously, the Liberal party has yet to dispel the widespread perception among westerners that it is committed first and foremost to defending the interests of Ontario and Quebec, whatever the consequences may be for the West. In particular, voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan remain bitter about Trudeau’s National Energy Program, which sought to restrict foreign ownership of the energy industry while attempting to limit increases in the price paid by consumers for oil and natural gas. Other irritants include Trudeau’s support for metrication and official bilingualism—even though those policies have been upheld by Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Said University of Regina political scientist Raymond Sentes: “The Liberals in the West still have the problems of the previous era hung on them. ”

But although he has tried to revive his party’s fortunes in the West, Turner has also angered many of the region’s voters by promising to tear up the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, which seeks to eliminate trade barriers between the two countries within 10 years. Moreover, Turner’s announced intention to use the Liberaldominated Senate to block the trade bill until the Tories call an election could cost his party support in a region of the country where support for Senate reform is particularly strong. Said pollster Leslie Storey, president of

Vancouver-based United Communications Research Inc.: “Previous polls that we have done show that people in British Columbia consider the Senate an instrument of Eastern Canada.” And in Calgary, Liberal candidate

James Bennett, 35, said that he and other Alberta Liberals will almost certainly suffer because of Turner’s position. “We are definitely the ones furthest out on a limb and we will pay the highest price,” said Bennett, a financial planner who is contesting the Calgary North riding.

Another major problem for Turner is that several high-profile westerners who he had hoped would run for the party, including retired World Cup skier

Ken Read and former Vancouver Liberal MP Iona Campagnolo, declined the invitation. In fact, in most areas of the West, the Liberals will be fighting simply to hold on to what they have—even, according to some party insiders, in

Turner’s own Vancouver Quadra riding.

In Alberta, where the Liberals have not elected a single MP since 1968, the federal party’s membership has increased to 11,000 from 1,700 in early 1987—in part because of the excitement stirred by the current race for the provincial party leadership. But even that level of interest is unlikely to result in any significant gains. Said pollster Reid: “No matter how we look at it, Alberta looks pretty blue.” The Liberals also say that they are hoping to do well in at least two Saskatchewan ridings, Regina-Wascana and Prince Albert-Churchill River, which includes former Tory leader John Diefenbaker’s old riding.

That leaves Manitoba as the one western province in which the Liberals have a good chance of electing several new MPs. According to Reid, the party currently has the support of at least 40 per cent of decided voters in Winnipeg and could conceivably win as many as five seats. But Reid added that Turner himself does not appear to be a major factor bek hind the Liberals’ re2 surgence in Manitoba.

0 Instead, Turner can

1 thank the popularity of I provincial Liberal Lead| er Sharon Carstairs—a § backer of Jean Chrétien

during the leadership convention that elected Turner—as well as lingering resentment in the province over the Tories’ decision in 1986 to award a $1.2-billion aircraft-maintenance contract for the Armed Forces’ CF-18 fighters to Canadair Ltd. of Montreal rather than Bristol Aerospace Ltd. of Winnipeg. Last week, Mulroney provoked similar political criticism in Manitoba by promising federal support for an aluminum-smelter project in Quebec, although the Prime Minister later said that Ottawa would give equivalent treatment to a similar project in Manitoba.

Indeed, the one clear message emanating from Western Canada is that Turner’s frequent pledges to revitalize the party in that region have yet to bear much fruit. The Liberals may be on the upswing—but their progress is gradual and they still have a long way to go before they will pose a serious challenge to either the NDP or the Conservatives.

— ROSS LAVER with correspondents’ reports