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Notes on the party leaders « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

Notes on the party leaders

Some Cabinet ministers are letting it be known in chats about the political situation that neither in the ministry nor in the caucus is there critical ferment on Mr. Tiudeau’s leadership of the Government and the Liberal party.

As one minister put it: “There’s 95 per cent backing for Mr. Trudeau.” Therefore, let there not be any speculation that the Liberal convention in September will have anything awkward or testy about the leadership.

Let me speculate despite such cautions. John Turner and his supporting enthusiasts would disclaim it at any public challenge, but their ambitions for the Liberal leadership and the Prime Minister’s office still exist. Though strong tactics are not pushed, a waiting, watching, planning strategy has been in play ever since the Turner people held together and ran a respectable third on the last ballot at the ’68convention.

The Liberal party constitution provides two means to check the party leadership. The one is an “accountability” session at which delegates can question the leader on how his leadership has met the needs and wishes of the party. In November, 1970, this session was rather tame. Certainly, Mr. Trudeau handled the questions, most of which were not pointed or difficult, with ease.

Clause 9-H of the Liberal constitution provides that a ballot shall be given each delegate to a federal convention to express a “yea” or “nay” as to whether a leadership convention shall be called.

Remember that this secret ballot at the l970 convention was used by 1,201 of the 1,649 registered delegates.

Just over 10 percent of the ballots, (i.e., 132 out of the 1,201voters) wanted a leadership convention.

November, 1970, was within a month of Mr. Trudeau’s apogee in his first term as Prime Minister. The heroic interpretation of his behaviour in the October crisis was still running strongly.

The piquancy of this constitutional vote in September arises from more than the interesting challenge it offers to Mr. Turner and his protagonists. Last fall, after the shock of the Federal election, a few voices – in the Liberal party for example, Ross Whicher, M.P. – talked openly about the need for a new leader, perhaps John Turner. The Prime Minister pointed out to press questioners the provisions in the Liberal constitution for
accountability and a leadership convention vote. He got into the “numbers” game with the reporters. What number of votes on the secret ballot would lead him to the conclusion that there was substantial discontent in the party with his leadership. He threw out the figure of 200.

There’s no doubt that the Turner forces could muster 200 votes, or more, quite easily in support of a leadership convention. The question is whether they can do it secretively enough – that is, without a concerted campaign – not to be seen as creating divisiveness at a time when survival in power dictates unity and loyalty.

Since last October the “new Trudeau” has emerged, so has the image of an embattled Minister of Finance. There’s not yet a Bensonian aura of failure around Mr. Turner. On the other hand, there’s been no imprint of any “success” label on him.

The Turner forces must be weighing the matter carefully. If Mr. Trudeau gets another vote of confidence like that of 1970 it takes away any edge of pressure on him. As well, it would indicate that no one else of immediate leadership merit is visible. It’s a delicate matter on which we won’t get a reading until the vote is announced at the convention.

David Lewis of the New Democrats also faces a national convention. In four weeks the NDP will gather at Vancouver. This is in the Barrett heartland. Mr. Barrett spoke last fall and reiterated a few weeks ago that he was not impressed with the leadership of any of the Federal parties, including his own.

Mr. Lewis and Mr. Barrett are far from buddies. Neither is Premier Schreyer of Manitoba an intimate of Mr. Lewis. Premier Blakeney of Saskatchewan is the only one of the three NDP premiers who has what one might call a close, working relationship with the Federal party leader. And Mr. Blakeney is not the one of the three who is much discussed in the party as a Federal leader to succeed Mr. Lewis.

Mr. Lewis’ major success since the October election (in which the bulk of the party thought he did fairly well) has simply been survival: Survival of this Parliament. Survival, plus the claims of achievement in shaping a number of legislative initiatives of the Trudeau government.

What he may well be faced with at the Vancouver convention is the question: “At what price survival in terms of both the party’s integrity and its program ideas?”
The NDP caucus performance in the House and its committees has been far from brilliant. Not one of the new MPs and few of the younger veterans has come on very strongly. Mr. Lewis has been almost the whole story.

The prime attacks of the caucus in Parliament and outside have been fixed on the Tories, not the Government. NDP prescriptions and ideas have been obscured
by the determination to show that the Tories don’t merit the right to govern. There hardly seems to be even a half-dozen Parliamentary vigilantes in the NDP caucus, probing and scathing the government across a range of activities. One honorable exception has been Tommy Douglas’ line on oil, gas and energy.

What is likely to bother the NDP delegates is not consideration at this stage of a replacement for the veteran leader, but when survival as a strategy should be dispensed with in favor of a harder, attacking line against the Government and much more pursuit of an NDP policy, particularly in economic fields.

Meanwhile the bizarre “booing” in the House of John Diefenbaker by the tough, emotional Stanfield loyalist, Peter Reilly, has given a credibility to the influence of
anti-Stanfield forces in the Parliamentary party (especially among the prairie MPs) which I sense they do not possess.

One must never discount in the Conservatives, as Jack Pickersgill has loved to point out, the consistent tradition of destroying the leader. But so many of the new MPs, the hope and the major talent grouping of the party, seem so respectful of Mr. Stanfield, it seems silly that a cabal, especially one anchored on the old Chief, would have even the flimsiest chance of anything more than a brief, harmful embarrassment of Mr. Stanfield.

Source: BY DOUGLAS FISHER, TORONTO SUN

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