FEBRUARY 21, 1980
From Trudeau to Clark to Trudeau
AN ADDRESS BY Geoffrey Stevens, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, THE GLOBE AND MAIL
CHAIRMAN The President, John A. MacNaughton
Ladies and gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: The high percentage turnout for the election completed earlier this week demonstrated once again that, for many Canadians, politics is at least as popular a sport as hockey. But for most of us, politics and government is an armchair sport; we send others on to the playing field and follow their activities from the comfort of our own homes, with help from the members of the Fifth Estate who chronicle their exploits for us.
Amongst the small number of political journalists who have developed national reputations for their insights and writing skills the name of today's guest of honour, Geoffrey Stevens, comes quickly to mind as one of the most prominent. For many Canadians his daily column on page six of The Globe and Mail is an indispensable part of breakfast, as necessary to the start of the day as a shower and a cup of coffee.
Mr. Stevens' byline has appeared in The Globe and Mail, with one brief interruption, since he first joined the paper in 1962. Since that time he has worked his way journalistically upward through Canada's three levels of government. He has served The Globe and Mail as part of the Toronto City Hall Bureau, as Bureau Chief at Queen's Park and as Ottawa Columnist and Associate Editor. He is known to millions by his writings and today presents an opportunity for members of the Empire Club to put a face to the name we know so well.
Pulitzer Prize winning writer Theodore H. White, in his book In Search of History, described the work of a journalist with the following words:
What a reporter like me could see was only what a man in a small boat can see of the ocean--ripples or whitecaps or great breakers, the surface as the wind moves it, not the powerful tides nor, underneath them, the irresistible sea currents.
History is all those things--waves, tides and currents--and like the sea, no matter how tranquil the surface, it is never still. A sequence of events is like a series of waves, one crest following upon another; and the trick, for statesman and reporter alike, is to tell which crest is a surge of the tide and which a mere accident of the wind.
In the last twelve months Pierre Trudeau and Joe Clark, each in his turn, has ridden the tide, both its ebb and its flow. In each case, and as well for the last eighteen years, Geoffrey Stevens has been there to help his readers know better the mood of Canadians, the issues of government and the personalities and qualities of our political leaders.
With the elections of May 22, 1979 and February 18, 1980 still fresh in our minds, we are fortunate to have Mr. Stevens with us today to present his analysis of the period of history which, for some, has just been completed, and which for others, was just a beginning.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Ottawa Columnist and Associate Editor of The Globe and Mail, Geoffrey Stevens.
Ladies and gentlemen: Let me begin by saying I consider it an honour to be addressing the Empire Club today. It's both an honour--and, in my somewhat prejudiced view, a reward. This is not the first time I have been to a luncheon of The Empire Club of Canada. I have been here many times. Often, I have been perched in the balcony of the Canadian Room, taking feverish notes while some notable or other has dispensed noon-hour wisdom to your members. I have rarely missed a meeting when a national political leader has spoken to you during an election campaign. Mind you, during the electoral hostilities which terminated three days ago, I did not have the opportunity to hear Pierre Trudeau address you. But I understand that Mr. Trudeau, alone among the leaders, did not agree to address you. Now, I don't know why he didn't come. But I could venture a guess and, if I'm right, Mr. Trudeau's absence reflects no discredit at all on the Empire Club. Mr. Trudeau was also supposed to appear on the CTV interview show, Question Period. However, he cancelled out at the last minute--after being informed, I am told, that I would be one of the panelists. So, if the fear that I, a humble and harmless journalist, might be lurking in the audience was in any way responsible for the non-appearance of the former Prime Minister-elect, I offer my earnest apologies.
Joe Clark and Ed Broadbent were somewhat more courageous--or more desperate. Both of them appeared before the 1980 rerun of the annual Canadian federal general election--with me in the audience. Well, in the audience, sort of. When Prime Minister Clark spoke here a week ago, I was standing at the back, leaning against the wall of the Canadian Room. When Mr. Broadbent was here, I had to sit on the floor, there being no wall space left to lean on. How I coveted the chairs you were sitting on that day. How I am enjoying myself today. It is a quadruple honour. Not only is it the first time I have been invited to address the Empire Club, it is the first time I have been invited to the head table, it is the first time I have been offered food. Not only is it the first time I have been offered food, it's the first time I've been permitted to sit down. From the bottom of my very weary legs, I thank you.
I probably shouldn't mention this, but I do notice that the room in which we are assembled today is, shall we say, somewhat smaller than the Canadian Room, the room you use when you have an interesting speaker. Please don't get me wrong. That's not a complaint. I can remember, back in 1960 or 1961, leading the debating team of the University of Western Ontario to Ithaca, N.Y, for a challenge debate against Cornell University, the Ivy League champions. My team-mates and I knew the moment we arrived on campus that it was not going to be a vintage evening. Right across the street from the small hall where the debate was to be held was a very large auditorium. It was jammed with students. There were loudspeakers set up so that the overflow outside could hear the address by one of the most sought-after speakers of the day--Senator William Fulbright. We went into the debate and it was even worse than we feared. The entire audience consisted of three people, co-eds, the girlfriends of the three debaters on the Cornell team. To cut a painful story short, the University of Western Ontario lost that debate--by a vote of three to zero. I have often wondered whether it was because of my lack of appeal to the opposite sex or my lack of ability as a public speaker. From subsequent experiences over the years, I have concluded it could have been either--or, more likely, both.
At any rate, I stand before you, twenty years later, an exhausted, forty-year-old cynic. I have just emerged from two months of the most depressing, most frustrating, most disturbing election campaign I have been involved in covering since my first, in 1962. That I happen to disagree with the result is neither here nor there. What disturbs me, profoundly, is the process by which that result was obtained.
Through no fault of yours and not too much fault, I hope, of mine, the title which I gave this speech many weeks ago turns out to be somewhat misleading. We can take out the question mark now--"From Trudeau to Clark to Trudeau." I cannot, however, talk to you in any intelligent way about some of the things I had hoped to talk about--the new government, what it will be like and how it will attempt to address the very real, very urgent problems that face the nation today and can reasonably be expected to arise in the next few months and years.
Prime Minister Clark and Mr. Broadbent did, I think, try to set out what they stood for, and where they want to go, in their speeches to you at the Empire Club. Mr. Broadbent's was the best that he made during the campaign--or, at least, the best one I heard him make. Mr. Clark's was, for him, a superior effort. There were a few minutes at the start of his speech when I though he was going to lapse into eloquence.
But not once during the campaign did Mr. Trudeau make a speech, anywhere, that came close to the ones made here by his opponents. I can't tell you where Mr. Trudeau wants to take this country in the next three or four years. I can't tell you because I don't know. And I don't know because Mr. Trudeau didn't say. He told us we don't have to worry about interest rates, that they will come down. How are they going to be brought down? "By the return of sound Liberal economic policies," Mr. Trudeau said. What those policies might be and how they might differ from his previous and presumably "sound" economic policies, which were not conspicuously successful in keeping interest rates down, I don't know. Mr. Trudeau didn't say. On energy pricing, he did say that the Liberals would not introduce the eighteen-cent increase in the excise tax on transportation fuels because the Liberals would not be proceeding with the Tories' mortgage-interest, property-tax credit scheme. I'm inclined to agree that this scheme ought not to be proceeded with, but it strikes me that the tax credit would have cost about $1.5 billion less this year than the oil subsidies for Eastern Canada. Where, if not from the excise tax, Mr. Trudeau is going to get the money for the oil subsidies, which are going to keep increasing dramatically as long as the world price keeps climbing, he didn't say.
He did say that a Liberal government would increase the domestic crude oil by less than the $4.00 per barrel--or fourteen cents a gallon--negotiated by Joe Clark and Peter Lougheed. He didn't say how much of an increase he had in mind or how he was going to get Premier Lougheed to accept it. If the new government acts like a gasoline station, I suppose we could see an increase of $3.99.9 a barrel this year. But I don't know, and neither, obviously, does Mr. Lougheed. Yesterday, however, he made this statement: "As far as we're concerned, we're not prepared to accept net benefits on an overall basis any less than the arrangement we were just about to conclude with the former Conservative government." Those words, "net benefits on an overall basis," are probably the clue. Mr. Trudeau may be able to negotiate an increase of, -say, $3.50 a barrel for 1980, instead of $4.00, by granting a somewhat larger increase in subsequent years--say, $5.00 or $5.50 or $6.00 instead of the $4.50 proposed by the Clark government. But we don't know because Mr. Trudeau got through the campaign without saying.
Finally, to cut my lament short, Mr. Trudeau went through the entire campaign without saying anything significant about Quebec and the referendum. National unity is the subject closest to his heart--the subject he turned to in the closing days of the 1979 campaign when he realized the election was lost, anyway. For Pierre Trudeau to fight an entire election without talking about national unity is like a clergyman getting through a Sunday service without mentioning God, the church or the collection to be taken after the sermon.
But I didn't come here to refight the election, to protest the outcome or to demand a recount. But I am concerned and it's a concern I share with other journalists. My colleague and friend, Richard Gwyn of the Toronto Star, wrestled with himself in the later stages of the campaign. He said he wanted to write a column saying: "You people out there, why are you so stupid? Joe Clark isn't the nerd in this election. You, the public, are the nerds. Don't you see what is going on? Can't you see that the Liberals are stealing the election?" I don't know whether, in fact, he ever did write that piece. I sympathized with him but I didn't think it would do any good. A journalist who sets out to insult his readers runs the risk of finding himself without any readers.
My feeling was that the public was looking for a free ride, an escape from reality--the hard reality of higher energy prices and dwindling supplies. The Conservatives were stuck with an unpopular budget. The Liberals weren't. They could criticize Mr. Clark and the budget. They didn't set out Liberal alternatives because they didn't have to in order to win. In politics, the ballot box is the bottom line and, by that standard, the Liberal campaign was a success. How the public will react when it finds it can't change reality by changing governments is a problem the Liberals will have to worry about before long. For the moment, they have a virtually blank cheque. Because he revealed so little of his intentions during the campaign, Mr. Trudeau can pursue almost any course he wishes, do almost anything he wants, in the next few years. I wish I knew whether his course will turn out to be for the better or for the worse for Canada.
I am not very optimistic about this, but I do hope that the new government, with its unfettered mandate, will take a hard look at the way elections are conducted in this country and the thoroughly debilitating effects modern election campaigns are having on our political process.
My thoughts go back to last Saturday when I was in a small town in Quebec, having lunch with Marcel Masse, who at one time was Minister of Inter-Governmental Affairs in the Union Nationale government in Quebec. Mr. Masse was on a suicide mission, running for the Conservatives in the riding of Labelle. I asked him how the campaign was going and I was startled by his vehemence. "How should I know?" he said. "I'm just a local candidate. I'm irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the image of the leader, the national campaign, the national issues and the national media coverage. I've always been a constituency guy, but there's no role for me any more."
Marcel Masse was dead right. By some sort of perverse genius, we have picked up the worst, or most inappropriate, aspects of American presidential politics and married them to an incompatible parliamentary system. The strength of the parliamentary system is the direct connection between the constituency and the executive. A minister is not only responsible to Parliament; he is accountable to his own constituents. He knows that if he comes up with bad policies, even if he gets them through Parliament, he still has to get them past his constituents or he will end up as an unemployed former MP--or, I suppose, a senator.
That's the theory. In practice, individual accountability to one's constituents has become largely meaningless. The way Joe Clark walks or what Pierre Trudeau shouts at a heckler is far more crucial to the election or re-election of a local candidate than the campaign the candidate wages or the work he may have done, as a Member of Parliament, over the preceding three or four years. Obviously, an exceptional candidate--a David Crombie or a Michael Wilson in Toronto or a Lloyd Axworthy in Winnipeg -can make a difference, but the average candidate would be spending his time equally usefully sitting on a beach in Florida for the campaign. Most MPs won't admit it because all of them like to think they got elected by dint of hard work or personal appeal. The backroom boys, however, say that the party, its policies and its organization count for about half of a candidate's support and that leadership or the image of leadership counts for about half. The average candidate is worth somewhere between three and five per cent. For proof of this proposition one need look no further than the disappearance of the entire Social Credit caucus, the most constituency-oriented Members of Parliament, or the defeat in Prince Edward Island of David MacDonald, who was as good an MP as I've come across in fifteen years in Ottawa.
Maybe I'm being naive or hopelessly idealistic but I think a Member of Parliament, your representative and mine, should be worth more than three per cent or five per cent in the political equation. In part, it's obvious self-interest. If we don't elect good members, we won't get good government.
We may get good government from the sort of election campaign we have just witnessed, but if we do it is, I submit, the result of good luck rather than the product of a well-functioning system. I've already told you--and have probably inflamed the Liberals in the audience--what I think of the campaign waged by Pierre Trudeau, the latter-day Lazarus whom Keith Davey, Jim Coutts and Marty Goldfarb have raised from the political grave. Political resurrections are not unknown in this country. Both Sir John A. Macdonald and William Lyon Mackenzie King managed it. But never has a leader managed to do it by admitting so little about his former policies and talking so little about his future policies--by pretending, for all practical purposes, that he had never been Prime Minister before.
This election was a triumph of image over reality. Mr. Trudeau did not win it, Mr. Clark lost it. He maintains he lost it because of his image and I would find it very hard to dispute his diagnosis. His government made some mistakes. It introduced an unpopular budget. It stumbled into a parliamentary defeat it could have avoided. But the mistakes were not outrageous ones. They were no greater than the mistakes in the early days of the first Pearson administration; many of you, I am sure, will recall Walter Gordon's first budget. The mistakes made by the Clark government were no more than one would reasonably expect from an inexperienced group of ministers taking office after their party had been in opposition for sixteen years.
Mistakes didn't kill Joe Clark. But what the mistakes did was to reinforce the image of incompetence. Mr. Clark was seen as a man who walked funny, who talked funny, who waved his hands funny--a man who couldn't cross the street without losing his suitcase or walking into a bayonet. The image, of course, predated this election. It was there in the 1979 election but Mr. Clark won despite it because Mr. Trudeau's negative image was even stronger. This time, Mr. Trudeau, by keeping himself under tight control, by not exposing himself to critical scrutiny, by keeping his appearances to an allowable minimum, was able to satisfy the voters--east of Manitoba, that is--that he was no longer the man they used to love to hate. Mr. Clark had no such luck. He was saddled with an albatross--a negative image which had been reinforced or confirmed during his eight months in office.
I can get as annoyed as Richard Gwyn does with the public for failing to see that the way a man looks or walks has nothing whatsoever to do with his ability to govern a country. But to blame the people is to evade responsibility and to avoid the real problem--the need to change the system.
The responsibility starts with the news media. We may not have created the image in the first place, but we nurtured and fed it. In particular, I blame television. Television is both the most compelling, the most believable and the most superficial medium. Television is the perfect vehicle for reinforcing images, for showing people the way other people have been conditioned to expect them to look and to act. It is a terrible vehicle for contradicting conventional wisdom, for revealing how people think and what they believe.
Because television is the most powerful, most compelling medium, all parties geared their campaigns to exploiting it. The Liberals were distinguished from their opponents only in the degree of their success. The leaders moved about the country from one staged event to the next, each event only serving to provide a fresh backdrop for the television cameras. For all the difference it would have made, they could have stayed in a television studio in Ottawa and made their set little speeches in front of a screen on which could have been flashed scenes of Moncton or Moose Jaw.
It is a truism that television brings individuals and communities closer together, that it breaks down boundaries of geography, language and race. Its impact on the Vietnam War was immense because for the first time death--American deaths, Vietnamese deaths--were brought, in living colour, into the homes of the American people.
But in situations where ideas, not physical action, are in conflict, television can have the opposite effect. It can set people further apart. Politicians on the television screen are more remote than politicians used to be when they stood on the back platform of a train or walked down Main Street, shaking hands and chatting. Thanks to television, more voters today have an opportunity to see national leaders. But, also thanks to television and television-oriented campaigns, they have less opportunity to see a leader in person, to touch him, talk to him, question him, to appraise his demeanour, to assess his credibility--in short, to form a personal impression of him.
Instead, it is the remote, impersonal impression of the television camera and producer- the image-that the voter is left with. Most voters accept the image uncritically. Television, and this is both the power and the danger of the medium, seems so believable. The viewer labours under the misapprehension that what he sees on television is more reliable, more truthful than what he reads in the newspaper. He believes he is hearing and seeing what the politician is actually saying, without the intermediary or filter of a reporter and editor. It's simply not true. The thirty-second clip he sees on television at eleven o'clock probably came from a speech that was at least thirty minutes long and, in all likelihood, it wasn't the most significant thirty seconds. They were the thirty seconds that the television reporter wanted to illustrate the point he, the reporter, was anxious to make. And most of the time, the viewer doesn't even get thirty seconds of the leader. How many times have you turned on the television set and seen a leader talking inaudibly in the background while, in the foreground, the television reporter reads the script he had written hours before the leader even stood up to make the speech the reporter is commenting on?
To go back to Marcel Masse's point, there is almost no room for the local candidate in a national television campaign. When a leader comes to his riding, the candidate may, if he's lucky, get to introduce him. But the introduction won't get on television. Most of the time, the candidate's only function is to smile and to applaud and to stay out of the line of the cameras. The local electors can see the irrelevance of their candidate. They know his name is only on the ballot as the vehicle by which they can vote, or not vote, for his party and his leader.
There's not much we can do about television coverage of campaigns. But we can do something about the worst exploitation of television by the political managers and manipulators. I'm talking about those objectionable television commercials which seek to build up one leader by tearing down his opponents. Under the Election Expenses Act of 1974, every broadcaster in the country was required to make six and a half hours of air time available for sale to the national political parties. To make it possible for all parties to exploit this powerful medium, half of the cost of purchasing air time is paid by the national treasury--by the taxpayer. This compensation provision made it possible for the Liberals and Conservatives in 1980 to spend roughly $2 million apiece, just under one-half of their total election expenditures, on radio and television time. The New Democrats were not all that far behind.
In retrospect, I think these provisions in the Election Expenses Act were a mistake. I would suggest that paid radio and television time be eliminated, that it be made illegal for broadcasters to sell or political parties to purchase air time. In its place, I would require every broadcaster to make available, as a condition of licence, a generous amount of free time, to be allocated among the parties by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. Further, I suggest that free time be made available in segments no shorter than five minutes, to force the parties and the leaders to talk to voters intelligently, to address themselves to issues, rather than, as at present, to air slick, superficial spot commercials which tell us nothing about a party's policies and virtually nothing about its own leader's abilities, but a great deal about what's wrong, or alleged to be wrong, with the other fellows.
To complete my package of television-campaign reforms, I would propose that the Broadcasting Act and the Canada Elections Act be amended to provide that networks set aside, say, two hours in the final two weeks of the campaign for a television debate among the leaders of any political party which obtained more than fifteen per cent of the popular vote in the previous federal election. It would be extremely difficult, politically, for a leader to refuse to debate if it were written in law.
Let me turn briefly to another problem mentioned by Marcel Masse--public opinion polls. I don't agree with opinion researchers that the polls do not influence voter behaviour. Most politicians don't agree with that either. I believe that in places where partisanship is not deeply imbedded, in Southern Ontario, for example, the polls have a profound influence. Particularly in an election where voters are anxious for political stability and a respite from more elections, they are apt to swing to the party they believe is going to win nationally. I think this happened in Toronto, in Ontario, on Monday.
There would be no great objection if the polls were accurate. But some of them are wildly wrong. The Liberals took almost eleven percentage points more of the popular vote across the country than the Conservatives did on Monday. This spread was accurately forecast by the CTV network in its final pre-election poll broadcast last weekend. CTV put the gap at ten points, which was certainly well within the legitimate range of error. But the Gallup Poll, also published last weekend, put the spread at twenty points. Their figures were outside the range of error of plus or minus four points claimed by the Gallup organization.
There were other, worse, offenders and you are all aware of some of them. We've never had as many polls as we had in this election. Polling had become the latest fad. A few years ago, thanks to Woodward and Bernstein, every kid who knew how to operate a tape recorder thought he could be a journalist. Today, everyone who has access to pencil and paper thinks he can be a pollster. We've got community colleges taking what purport to be scientific voter-intention polls. They are nothing of the sort, but they find their way into print and onto the air waves. The Globe and Mail, I'm embarrassed to say, published one of these college "polls" in the final stages of the campaign. I venture to predict that by the time the next election comes along, we'll have kids in public schools taking polls--and being taken seriously. Unless something is done. But what to do? The taking and publishing of political polls has been banned in British Columbia during provincial elections. I don't like that answer. It interferes with freedom of expression and freedom of the press. I don't, for example, want anyone telling me I can't go out and knock on doors, as I did in this campaign in Halifax, Peterborough and Toronto, and that I can't report what I hear. I think I'm responsible enough to put the responses in context and not to claim they mean more than they do.
Better than outlawing polls, I think, would be self-regulation of the polling industry. In Ontario, we have such professional regulatory bodies as the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Law Society of Upper Canada to regulate the medical and legal professions. I see no reason why we could not have, recognized in federal law, a National Polling Council. The industry would choose its own representatives. They would draw up, and publish, standards for sampling, questioning and weighting the results. No one would be forced to join the Council, but if he didn't his work would not bear the sanction--the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, if you like -of his profession or industry. This way, at least the public and the press would know whether it was dealing with a relatively reliable or probably unreliable polling outfit and could assess its findings accordingly.
Finally, let me turn to one further problem in our political system as it has evolved--the disappearance of the truly national political party. The Conservatives are reduced to just one seat out of seventy-five in Quebec. The Liberals have just two of seventy-seven west of Ontario and none of sixty-three west of Manitoba. The situation is more than unhealthy. It increases regional tensions. It strains the unity of the country. It threatens the fabric of Confederation.
I have always been an opponent of proportional representation--of any of those schemes to award seats in Parliament on the basis of popular vote, rather than on constituency results. I think it is important that MPs and ministers have constituents to whom they are accountable. It helps keep them honest. I've also argued that the real problem is not with the system, but with the political parties, that the Conservatives could win seats in Quebec if they would only get their act together. And that the Liberals could win in the west if only they would make the effort to understand western Canadians.
I'm not so sure any longer. I'm not sure the country can afford to wait while the Conservatives do something in Quebec--assuming it's possible--and the Liberals put their house in order in the west. Going back a couple of years, the Liberals and Conservatives proposed variations of Senate reform that would, in their view, have reduced the regional distortions in the House of Commons by strengthening the regional role of the Upper House. But that's not good enough. The west and Quebec need to be where the action and power is--in the Commons. Any attempt to increase the power of the Upper House, to make it equal in fact (as well as in constitutional theory) with the Lower House would be a prescription for rivalry, stalemate and legislative disaster.
I prefer the approach advocated by the New Democratic Party. The Commons could be increased by a hundred seats. These seats would be awarded to each party on the basis of its national popular vote and could be used to add members from whatever region or regions it chose. With Monday's results, the Liberals would get forty-four proportional representation members. They could, if they wished, use all forty-four seats for representatives from Western Canada. The Conservatives would get thirty-three and they could all be from Quebec. The New Democrats would get twenty and they might like to appoint some members from Quebec, the Atlantic Provinces, Northern Ontario and Alberta, all areas where they were shut out on Monday.
In summary, eliminate political advertising on radio and television. Make free time available in segments at least five minutes long. Institutionalize a national leaders' debate. Establish voluntary, but public, standards for opinion polling. Introduce a modified form of proportional representation.
These suggestions are not a cure-all. But I think they would make federal elections more enlightening and more reflective of reality and less of cracked-mirror imagery. They would ease the worst regional imbalances in Parliament. I am not optimistic that my proposals will be accepted. Ed Broadbent once called me a radical traditionalist, and I suspect these suggestions are too radical and not sufficiently traditional for the incoming government which, after all, won with the system as it is. But I think these ideas are worthy of consideration.
The thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. Stevens by Joseph H. Potts, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.