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Column: Parliament Hill

One expects the death of a man once prominent in national politics to bring forth positive references on his character and achievements.
Some skeptics, particularly younger ones ignorant of the politics of three decades ago, may wonder if Robert Stanfield, the former leader of the official Opposition (1967-76) was really so decent, reasonable and thoughtful as each obit and tribute has emphasized since his death at 89 last week.

He was. And few politicians have been so consistently fair. Plus, he was a remarkably witty fellow – sometimes droll, often satirical, almost always good-natured.

It’s regrettable the wonderful humour of Stanfield emerged so rarely during his public performances. Indeed, I had taken him as a serious but amiable politician, able, unlike Pierre Trudeau, to mock himself. Then I shared a long chore with him, drafting a paper on parliamentary reform several years after he left electoral politics, and discovered he was a closet comedian.

Oh, what a wit!

Belatedly, I wondered why he had so rarely unlimbered it to deflate the Liberal balloon on those occasions when it would have provided the edge needed to defeat the Grits. This was particularly so in early 1968 before Trudeaumania exploded.

At Christmas that year, Liberal PM Mike Pearson had called for an April leadership convention. Then, carelessly, he and a handful of aspirant successors were absent when his last budget came up for final passage.

Disaster struck. Pearson’s minority government had been defeated by the combined votes of the Tory, New Democratic and Social Credit parties.

It had been a vote of non-confidence in the government and it should have meant the dissolution of Parliament and an election. But to bring it about, the leader of the official Opposition needed to demand it (as most of his caucus wanted) and refuse to take part in further House proceedings.

Pearson scrambled home from a vacation in the sun. Mitchell Sharp, who’d been left in charge, was apologetic publicly, but also tried to downplay the significance of the defeat.
There was much confusion among journalists and political scientists on how this crisis should be resolved.

Suddenly, the crisis had an added dimension. Pearson discovered a monster monetary crash would result, accompanied by a disastrous fall in the Canadian dollar. For the common good, this crash must not happen. So Pearson put the looming scenario of economic doom for the nation before Stanfield.

Instead of insisting on going to the people, Stanfield was “reasonable and responsible,” as some Grits put it. He went along with a Liberal proposition which in effect (though not in form) looped around the lost, third reading vote on the budget, and asked for the continued confidence of the House in the government.

This time, the drove of Liberal absentees was back in place; further, some of the minority party MPs had thought long on their prospects in an immediate election and either missed the replay or voted in favour.

The Liberals were hugely relieved. Since then, many of them have been open in defining Stanfield as a responsible gentleman, not a mean-spirited self-glorifier like John Diefenbaker.

After the Pearson crew was certified by the House vote, interest swung to the Liberal leadership race, and it picked up speed, bringing to eminence Pierre Trudeau and a rare fervour for a politician across most of Canada. Today, he is the historically revered intellectual genius among our score of past prime ministers.

Three times Trudeau was to defeat Bob Stanfield and his Progressive Conservatives in elections – handily in 1968 while promising a “Just Society and participatory democracy,” then in a 1972 cliff-hanger by a mere two seats, and with a majority win of 18 seats in 1974 as Margaret held hands with him through the campaign, focusing voters’ attention on his strengths as a loving husband and caring dad.

After I spent some time with Stanfield after he resigned the Tory leadership, and began to realize his ready, easy, penetrating wit, I wondered aloud to him why had he so rarely shown his gift at satirical spoofing in that last, losing campaign of 1974?
Instead of the campaign’s critical focus being on his plan to use the federal power implicit in the Constitution’s “peace, order, and good government” clause to set up a system of wage and price controls to halter inflation, it might well have been turned into a rollicking commentary on the collapsed political marriage of Trudeau and David Lewis, leader of the NDP.

While their arrangement lasted, billions in taxation dollars were voted for purposes set by the NDP’s terms, and the sophisticated, cerebral prime minister in the years from 1968-72 became both demonstrably domestic and oh-so-accessible as a “regular guy” as he turned his government to the left to sustain his deal with Lewis for two years.

Stanfield shook his head at my wish that he had used his wit to affably mock Trudeau for his flip-flops, his spending binges and his discovery and cultivation of plain folk, thus putting the PM on the defensive while justifying his own plans for wage and price controls.
Yes, he admitted, there had been lots of material for hustings satire but the contest and its issues were too grave for spoofing and needling. It wasn’t his way.

One hopes some Stanfield biographers are already at work. So many, like Dalton Camp and Finlay Macdonald, who could tell Stanfield anecdotes and cite a lot of his one-liners, are already gone.

Now, a non-sequitur postscript about the decision of Ed Broadbent to stand for the NDP in the riding of Ottawa Centre, against Liberal Richard Mahoney, a lawyer who has been on the side of the new PM since the days he was known as Paul Martin Jr.

It seems to me Broadbent has a fair, rather than a good, or a great , chance of winning. A mediocre new Conservative party candidate would help him, and he should have canvassers by the hundreds, given his “good guy” image and the anger of federal union leaders at the wage and hiring freezes Martin installed last week.