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Bob or Pierre-Does it matter « Douglas Fisher



Bob or Pierre-Does it matter

The brutal question is floating again with brooders on partisan politics. It’s because the Trudeau government seems safe from a defeat and a subsequent election, at least until the early spring.

The question is about Robert Stanfield. Is he incompetent as the leader of an official Opposition?

Doubts about party leaders are always a staple of Ottawa political conversations. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s a heart attack away? The question about Mr. Stanfield was first posed firmly in February, 1968 when he seemed to dribble away an initiative created by an unexpected defeat of the Pearson government in the House.

It disappeared last October when the Stanfield Conservatives did much better than expected, missing government and the largest total of members in the house by a few hundred votes in a few ridings.

It is my understanding that in the late spring Mr. Stanfield himself canvassed with a few close associates whether a successor might move the party further, faster. He did not do this to smoke out dissidents or to spark loyalty and confidence. He’s not that self-regarding a man.

After some brief toying with alternatives – basically, Peter Lougheed and Claude Wagner – the canvass was dropped. The alternatives seemed no better and the timing problems were bad.

The resurfacing doubts occur even to Liberals and New Democrats. One Liberal with l0 years in the House and six in the ministry summed it nicely for me the other day: “We’re fortunate Stanfield is such a nice guy, so slow on the take, so short on nastiness. What we need to be sensitive about is the NDP distaste for an election. Right? We mustn’t drive them into the box where they must vote with the Tories on a confidence motion.’

Not a marriage

A short summation of NDP attitudes might begin with approval of the acuteness in Jean Marchand’s remarks about the so-called Liberal-NDP alliance. It’s not a marriage. The uncomfortable alliance will sunder as soon as either party sees advantage in the sundering.

Mr. Stanfield and the Conservatives figure high in NDP calculations of the alliance. So long as he fails to come on strongly, personally or in policy terms, their consciences and their “black or white” choice are rather easy.

Conservatives tend to divert from a critical examination of Mr. Stanfield with the Dalton Camp appreciation made several years ago, or they fail to realize or don’t want to consider the limp or lightweight or fragmented impression they give as a party and as a

For example, the other day Eldon Woolliams, the veteran Tory MP from Calgary, reiterated the Camp judgment to me in this form: “Bob will make a wonderful Prime Minister. Once in he’ll be there for a long time. He’ll be much better at governing than in opposition.”

Less vulnerable

Of course, Mr. Stanfield’s potential as Prime Minister may never be realized. There has been a government to defeat since last January. Despite an indifferent, if not shaky, performance, it seems less vulnerable now than it was then.

It is on this matter of Mr. Stanfield as a fine Prime Minister that my doubts are growing. Such doubts do not arise from any warmth towards, or cherishing of, the
present government nor from any expectation that Mr. Stanfield should be as leader of the official Opposition what his talents and personality preclude – that is, a dexterous knifer, a master of ridicule and the clever obstructions such as the Liberals, with Pickersgill, Martin, and Chevrier, demonstrated in 1962 and 1963 when they destroyed the Diefenbaker minority government.

Ask this question:What differences would there really be in Ottawa if the Liberals and Conservatives switched chairs?

The longer one knows federal Ottawa the more one appreciates the stability and power of the permanent administration.

Mere cosmetics

In fairness and in candor the case seems there that a change to a Stanfield government would be mere cosmetics, that almost immediately the new government would be McCarthy’s to the continuing administrations Edgar Bergens.

The Conservatives in opposition remain a party with three different economic spokesmen. The rather excellent, individual capacities of the caucus as constituency zealots, continue strongly and, in doing so, accentuate the incoherence and contradictions implicit in all the diversity of the country.

In the summer recess it was not just most of the cabinet who “flaked out”. So did the official opposition.

It’s warming to forecast that a man will be a great Prime Minister. The best augury for it would be strong indications that the man with the potential was both clear and precise about what he was going to do with the power, and much more explicit than he has been about the major figures in his cast who will execute the designs.

At this time, a change in government seems more like musical chairs. At least, the Liberals, after l0 years in power, have some internal critics of the inertia and blandness of the continuing administration.