Battling for political power is, to men and women of a certain temperament, a higher kind of professional hockey: it gives broader scope both for out-witting and for roughing-up opponents.
Elections are indeed battles of parties for power. It is not for nothing that they are called campaigns. The eight- week winter campaign that concluded on January 23 was the longest and most gruelling since 1984. The public inter- est, however, lies in what quality of government follows. Of that the attack electioneering of the warriors tells little. Their necessary but slight indications of positive intent are muddied. What the politicians propose, with varying degrees of realism and sincerity, has scant relation to what they dispose in office.
The history offered in this article tells, in contrast, of ineffective campaigning leading to promised, purposeful government. It concludes, happily, with a two-year period when the governing was particularly better than the elec- tioneering had foreshadowed. It may therefore provide some counter to the despair engendered by the miserable hostilities of the election recently ended.
My direct experience of the varying connections between campaigning and governing comes from the years for which Lester B. Pearson led the federal Liberal Party. They provide no lessons in how to win elections. We were not good at it. In 10 years we fought four elections. The first, in 1958, was a disas- ter. The second, in 1962, produced big gains but fell short of victory. The third was against a Diefenbaker government that had fallen apart; anything near an effective campaign would have produced a clear win, not the minority government of 1963. The fourth election, in 1965, should not have been called at all. Canadians responded appropriately: the minority government continued.
Not only did the Liberals under Pearson fail to gain any deci- sive advantage over other parties, they also had few allies among provincial governments. Quebec, the only substantial one, was an awkward friend. Even more difficult to handle was the deep ideological divide within the federal Liberal Party itself.
Yet, as is widely agreed, the 1963-68 government was one of the best Canada has ever had. Certainly it did more, to more public benefit, than any other, Liberal or Conservative, since the end of the Second World War. And a Policy Options survey of 30 public policy experts in 2003 assessed Pearson, who never won a majority government, as the best prime minister of the previous half century.
The achievement was made possible chiefly by the cir- cumstances of the times, but also by the consistent substance of the three campaigns that Pearson fought as leader of the opposi- tion. It was substance that expressed his personality. But that alone would not have secured the firmness of party purpose that held through the adversi- ties of opposition and government. It held because Pearson had embedded it, in a party being reborn, during the first few weeks of his leadership, dur- ing the most searing adversities of all: those of the 1958 election.
In 1957 Liberals had been in office for 22 years. For 12 years Canadians had enjoyed improving prosperity as never before. The cabinet grew to feel com- placently entitled to power. The opposi- tion grew so desperate that it called on the ”œProgressive” in its Conservative designation, took a Prairie maverick as its leader, and jumped briefly to the left of the government of contentment.
In his first round Diefenbaker only narrowly defeated ”œUncle Louis” St- Laurent. But he shattered the Liberal Party. It had been so long the govern- ment that the exercise of power had become its engine. Out of office, it was hollow at the centre. It had to be restored by new people, most of them political amateurs with their way to find.
”œMike” Pearson ”” as he was then known to his friends and associates ”” had always been in government, as official or minister, never in opposi- tion and only peripherally in political combat. In 1957 he would have liked to leave it, for the UN or some other place in the international arena where his great prestige was cemented by the Nobel Peace prize. But St-Laurent was exhausted, and the most politically powerful of his ministers, C.D. Howe and Walter Harris most notably, had gone down to personal defeat in the election. ”œSo,” as Mike ruefully put it to me and no doubt other friends, ”œI’ll have to stay here and work to rebuild the party; even Maryon [his wife, who despised politics] accepts that.”
To stay was to become leader. True, there was an aspirant, Paul Martin Sr., with far more political experience. For some, that was what mattered. One eminent friend protested that by supporting Pearson I was helping to take an innocent to slaughter: Diefenbaker would slice him to pieces. There were times when that assess- ment came to look correct. Mike could seem mesmerized by Diefenbaker, unable to cope with his disregard for fact and logic. Martin would have competed on more level ground.
As a contestant for the leadership, however, he was suddenly last year’s man. Too openly for too long, he had been driven by ambition to be prime minister, to lead the party as it had been. That was not the party after defeat. The spirit of the party that was to be reborn was epitomized in the amateurish modesty of Pearson’s lead- ership campaign: it cost $3,000. No Liberal could then have imagined that there would be, under the next Paul Martin, a convention where millions of dollars diverted from corporate prof- its had killed leadership competition and the only strong advocacy of policy was provided by an imported rock star.
The 1958 convention was followed by crushing defeat. But it also led, within a few weeks, to setting the Liberal Party on a determined course that held through both five years of opposition and five years of constructive govern- ment. Ironically, the immediacy of the determination was the unintended con- sequence of the machinations of two political warriors par excellence, Jack Pickersgill, and John Diefenbaker, who had been the master tactician of the St- Laurent government. An incidental side- effect was to move me into close association with Pearson.
Diefenbaker had arranged that the first business of Parliament after the Liberal convention would be an occasion for the oppo- sition to move no-confidence in the government. That such a motion should pass, forcing an election, was the last thing the Liberals or the smaller parties (then CCF and Social Credit) wanted. The public mood was to give Diefenbaker the chance to show what he could do; an early election would move his minority government to a good majority. But the new Liberal leader, fresh from the brave rhetoric of the party convention, would be seen in the media as a cowardly weak- ling if he threw aside parliamentary convention by failing to move no-confidence.
Pearson, worried about what to do, first did what was natural to him. The evening before the convention began, he discussed the problem with some friends: Walter Gordon, Bob Fowler, Maurice Lamontagne and me. None of us had parliamentary or even party experience, but our opinion was strong and unanimous. An initial appearance of weakness would be far less damaging than a plainly phony pretence of forc- ing an election. Pearson concurred, and I agreed to put a summary of the argument on paper for him.
In essence, it was that the middle of a winter of rising unemployment was not the time to plunge the coun- try into an election. The immediate public interest was government action, not talk. The spring would be time enough to pass judgment on it.
A speech along such lines would have been attacked as feeble. It would have had the simple merit of honesty. Later, however, with the convention in progress, Mike Pearson drew me hur- riedly aside: ”œJack (Pickersgill) has come up with a different idea about what to do on Monday. It sounds to me too clever by half. But we’ll have to talk about it.” In the bustle of the con- vention, we did not. I was back at home when I heard in horror that no- confidence had been moved in a novel way. The motion was that the govern- ment should resign forthwith, making way for the lately defeated Liberals to return without an election. It con- trived to be at once preposterously arrogant and a pathetically empty ges- ture, obviously designed not to win the support of other parties necessary for its passage. Diefenbaker poured out the withering contempt it deserved.
A few days later Pearson visited me at home in Winnipeg. ”œI don’t know if I’ll ever be any good as a party leader,” he began, ”œbut certainly no one ever started anything by making a bigger mistake.” After the convention he had felt obliged to consult the party elders, such as St-Laurent and Howe, and they had agreed with Pickersgill’s proposed motion. He had taken the advice of experience over that of his amateur friends.
The error, he continued, would certainly be exploited. An election would be called almost at once. When it was, he would have to take a short holiday to build his strength for the campaign. In that interval would I go to Ottawa to prepare, with the help of Lamontagne and a couple of other friends if I wished, an election plat- form reflecting the spirit of the con- vention’s resolutions?
I was being asked to undertake an exercise in irrelevancy. Liberal policy would now get almost no attention. The only election uncertainty would be the size of Diefenbaker’s majority. But the appeal of a friend in such distress could not be refused. And there would be other elections. A policy plat- form irrelevant now might be impor- tant in pointing future strategy.
Underlying the Pickersgill folly, as I saw it, was the warrior’s view of poli- tics. It did not suit Pearson. While he could be sharply critical of people in private, neither by temperament nor by diplomatic experience was he suit- ed to denunciatory exchanges in pub- lic. Diefenbaker could indeed slaughter him. There was, however, a deeper reason that joined Pearson to his close associates. We saw democratic politics as the public choice of public policies. The electorate should have clear knowledge of what a party intended to do if entrusted with office.
The urgent need in February 1958 was to stimulate the economy, to combat rising unemployment. The quickest and fairest way to do it was to reduce the personal tax on lower incomes. The proposed campaign platform detailed appropriate cuts.
With the help of John Deutsch (who had moved from the Finance depart- ment to the University of British Columbia) it specified the costs to the Treasury both of the tax cuts and of other programs, such as encouraging people to complete secondary school by extending family allowances from age 16 to age 18.
Mike returned from his brief holi- day to review the proposals, was well satisfied, and telephoned their essence to major candidates. The response was generally good, but in the evening he called me in some distress. Senator John Connolly, who was to be campaign chairman, was very much opposed. The three of us must talk at once.
The proposed statement emphasized that the program was ”œprecise and practical,” so that a Liberal government would be ”œbound, if the Canadian people elected it to office on March 31, to do all that is set out here.” Connolly disliked some of the content but concentrated his criticism on the very idea of making such commitments. It was not how government should operate. It was not how successful politicians like Mackenzie King had done things. There were already good grounds for attacking Diefenbaker. We should concentrate on those. If we had to have some new policies, certainly they should not be put out as a package at the beginning of the campaign but suggested one at a time and towards the end, when there would be less scope for dispute.
I made the obvious replies, while Pearson listened. When he eventually intervened, it was to say that he agreed with me. He could not have been firmer. The campaign program as writ- ten would be released the next day. Connolly loyally accepted.
At the time I did not appreciate the full significance of the incident. Similar arguments were to be repeated many times, among various people in various circumstances, over the five years of opposition. In form the dis- pute was about tactics. The real issue was deeper.
The Liberal Party of Canada held office for most of the 20th century because it then successfully contained two parties in one. For many of its supporters it was the government party, capable of undertaking change when clearly necessary but chiefly motivated to run the public business as it was. Many other Liberals, how- ever, were reformers. Mackenzie King famously characterized CCFers of his day as Liberals in a hurry. It would have been equally apposite to say, especially in the 1960s, that many Liberals were social democrats waiting for their moment. They wanted an activist government pressing toward a more equal society at a pace that could be fitted in with other public requirements.
The relative strengths of these right-hand and left-hand parties shift- ed with circumstances. In 1958 most of the right-handers were in shock or in hibernation. When they returned in force it was too late for counter- reformation. Throughout the 10 years to 1968, in opposition and in govern- ment, the left-hand party stayed most- ly on top. Pearson had given it a decisive advantage in the darkest days of February 1958.
He was not content with the initial campaign statement, concentrated on immediate policy. The convention’s pol- icy resolutions had expressed the spirit of a contemporary liberalism. It should be given definition in an outline of longer-term measures. Such a document would be both a resource for candidates in the current campaign and a base for future policy. I returned to Winnipeg to draft ”œThe Pearson Plan” with the help particularly of Jean Edmonds, later a dis- tinguished public servant, and subse- quently flew to Sakatoon to meet Mike on his wearying campaign trail. We reviewed the draft in a long night ses- sion, made some amendments, and ordered the result to be reproduced and distributed. Liberal Party head- quarters were too little organ- ized to do the job well, and the document was anyway remark- able at the time only for its insignificance. The Liberal cam- paign hardly existed in the hur- ricane of enthusiasm for Diefenbaker.
Yet by fostering such a poli- cy outline even in his first, desperate weeks as leader, Pearson shaped what was to be. The 1958 ”œplan” contained, in embryo at least, almost all of the measures by which the gov- ernment of 1963-68 transformed Canada. It was, of course, only a start- ing point for all the program develop- ment of the next five years. But the direction was set. The Liberal Party that had been broken in 1957 was restored by putting policy first. Its discussion rekindled involvement, attracted new people, and built interest and enthusi- asm. Those were the driving forces. Organization, the building of campaign machinery and tactics followed. The crucial event was the Policy Rally of January 1961, when 1,800 people came together for three days to formulate res- olutions on what a new Liberal govern- ment would do in almost every area of public affairs. Never before or since has there been such an effectively participatory process in a federal political party.
In this process the reformers thrived. While the right-handers revived, they remained at a critical dis- advantage. Progressive policies had been set out with unusual precision from the start of Pearson’s leadership. Unless the contrarians broke ranks, they could not declare themselves to be against such policies in principle. Their reservations had to be presented as merely tactical. And as such they rang increasingly hol- low, as the Diefenbaker government stumbled and the public mood became increasingly receptive to change.
I was never sure how much deliber- ate forethought had gone into Mike’s early creation of this decisive advantage for the reformers within the party, but certainly that was the effect. The 1958 debate with Connolly was renewed with Pickersgill, Sharp and others. Pearson worried, listened, soothed the critics, sometimes waffled and delayed, but did not change direction.
My role, as a friend who spent some evenings and occasional days on policy discussions and program development, became easier in 1959, after leaving editorship in Winnipeg and moving to business in Montreal. But the thinness of regular personnel on the spot in Ottawa became increas- ingly troublesome as the 1962 election approached. Financial sacrifice apart, I had doubts about becoming an official in a party that before 1958 I had often criticized. Yet in the fall of 1961 the call to full involvement became irresistible.
In the elections of June 1962 and April 1963, Liberals said what they would do as a government more definitely and firmly than any party before or since. Few if any parties have ever fielded such an array of talent among their candi- dates. But on the other side was Diefenbaker, the great campaigner. In small groups Pearson was a superb per- suader. On the stump and on television he was too uncomfortable to be consis- tently convincing. Even so, against any other Conservative leader since Macdonald, against Bennett or Drew, Stanfield or even Mulroney, he would probably have done well enough to win in 1962, certainly to get a majority in 1963. But Diefenbaker was for him an alien with whom he could never cope.
Pearson’s grasp of government, how- ever, outweighed his lack of a majority. The day after the vote in 1963, two weeks before the new cabinet was assembled, he had me start work on the detailed order- ing of priorities. Though he charmed his cabinet, though he chaired it with great skill, he did not have easy colleagues. Walter Gordon, who should have been his strongest supporter, was much impaired by the rashness of his first budget. Some ministers saw minority sta- tus as an excuse for delaying or dropping contentious items of promised policy. Pearson worried, sometimes hesitated, but came down for what he had said his government would do. All the major items in the Liberal program were enact- ed, sometimes with fumbles on the way but also with significant improvements and some important additions.
Lack of a majority was, however, hard on an activist government. The uncertainties frayed ministerial nerves, breeding mistakes and confusion, allowing malfeasances to go uncorrect- ed long enough to gain the character of scandal. By the end of 1964, thanks particularly to the tumultuous frustra- tion of the flag debate, most ministers had come to see escape in an election, convincing themselves that the gov- ernment’s achievements would be rewarded with a majority.
In January 1965, I felt driven to head a memorandum on the coming year, ”œStrategy for Government: NOT Election Strategy.” It urged the prime minister to put his foot down, to stop the swelling talk of calling an election soon. His response was: ”œI agree with the ideas and tactics of this memo and will make the position clear…”
But not clear enough. Perhaps he as well as I were slow to understand the severity of the problem of democratic politics with which this article began. It is too fostering of the warrior spirit. The virus is readily transmitted. Many people, driven initially by public pur- pose, come to want above all to win, to triumph over the enemy, to gain or to hold power. Pearson was far from suc- cumbing, but in 1965 he was very tired, not forceful enough to suppress the insistent warriors. Expectations of an election continued to rise to the point where surrendering to it came to seem the lesser evil even to Pearson.
The consequence was a last cam- paign, for which he had no heart. The supposed strategy ”” emphasizing what the government had done and would go on to do ”” was drowned in attacking Diefenbaker and pleading to be given a majority. The response, in most of the country, was reduced Liberal support. The government sur- vived, thanks only to gains in Quebec.
It survived, however, not only in power but in purpose. It would not have done so if there had been no commission on bilingualism and biculturalism. Strong men in Quebec were able now to feel confident of coming to Ottawa as equals or more in power. Pearson was therefore able to recruit for the 1965 election Jean Marchand and his sidekick (initially), Trudeau. They fully made up for the weakening otherwise of the cabinet.
Without them a government rebuffed in its claim to a majority, and with a prime minister now tired beyond his 67 years, would not have sustained its creativity. In fact, thanks primarily to Marchand, it did so. Its achievement through its whole five years, through two Parliaments of minorities, was unique.
These reflections may therefore end as they began. In public affairs the con- nection of causes and consequences is not easily foreseen, least of all by fren- zied polling. None of Pearson’s election campaigns was strong. The last was not only misjudged but discreditable for its warring style. But from it, as from the 1963 campaign, the outcome was cred- itable indeed. The recent weeks have not inspired optimism, but perhaps they should not engender despair for the unity and good governance of Canada.