Fights of Our Lives

by John Duffy
ISBN: 0006391508

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A Review of: Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership, and the Making of Canada
by John Pepall

John Duffy's Fights of Our Lives are five general elections that he claims have shaped Canada. They are actually eight elections as he pairs the elections of 1925 and 1926, 1957 and 1958, and 1979 and 1980. The other two are the election of 1896 and the "Free Trade" election of 1988. Only the last looks like an election that decided a major issue. And perhaps it did not. Duffy reports that 40% of Canadians told pollsters that John Turner would sign the Free Trade Agreement if elected. They may have been right.
Reviewers have quibbled over Duffy's choice of elections. As he gives summary accounts of the thirty-four elections since Confederation excepting Jean Chrtien's three victories, and sets the political context, his choice of elections doesn't matter. Smartly produced, Fights of Our Lives is a kind of illustrated political history of Canada.
The emphasis is on the strategy and techniques of elections. Duffy is a lobbyist who is an occasional Liberal operative with a deep attachment to Paul Martin. He combines a worldly wise cynicism about the political game with a childish idealism. For Duffy, whatever the machinations and lies that decided elections, all is for the best in the best of all possible Canadas.
By Duffy's account, in the 19th century most voters were what would today be called "tribal" Tories or "tribal" Grits attached to parties by religious, racial or class interests and unlikely to change vote from one election to another. The swing vote was small. The millions of Canadians who voted for Mulroney's Tories in 1984, and anyone but in 1993, would have been unthinkable; the early party machines existed simply to see that known Conservatives and Liberals got out and voted.
But perhaps Canadians just consistently found Sir John A.'s the best government on offer from 1867 to 1891, pausing to teach him a lesson in 1874 after the Canadian Pacific Scandal. Many of the same voters who returned 52 Tories out of 92 Ontario seats in the Dominion election of February 22, 1887 had returned 64 Liberals to only 26 Tories in the provincial election of December 28, 1886. They must have been equally content with Sir Oliver Mowat's Grits while he was Premier from 1872 to 1896. With governments smaller, less active and less intrusive in the 19th century, voters may not have seen any reason to switch votes between elections, while being perfectly prepared to do so.
Duffy's first election is the Liberal win in 1896. Macdonald had died in 1891 after his last, comfortable, victory that year, and the Tories had in Sir Charles Tupper their fourth leader in five years. The big issue of the day was the Manitoba Schools Question. The Manitoba Act, 1870, by which the Province of Manitoba had been created, had guaranteed the continuation of existing Catholic schools. The Liberal government of Manitoba had abolished them. Court proceedings that went all the way to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had held that it was up to Ottawa to override the provincial government. Manitoba's Premier, Frank Greenway, remained obdurate in the face of Ottawa's attempts to negotiate a compromise. The Tories, by Duffy's account practically a branch of the Orange Order, had steeled themselves to pass remedial legislation to protect the Catholic schools in the face of an upsurge of anti-Catholic and anti-French agitation. Laurier would have none of it. He said he would solve the problem by taking the "sunny way", implying that a Liberal Prime Minister could do a deal with a Liberal Premier that had eluded the Tories. Laurier calculated he could count on the support of Quebec for a native son and safely woo the Protestant vote. He was right. Laurier won and was Prime Minister for 15 years. The Liberals have governed Canada for 76 of the last 107 years.
Duffy analyses each of his elections employing the analogy of football plays with droll drawings to outline each play. For 1896 he has Laurier playing the "Quebec bridge", holding a divided country together, while Tupper is playing a "Double tribal whipsaw", stirring up hatred between English and French in the hope of undermining a moderate and statesmanlike Laurier. This is close to the exact opposite of the truth. Duffy greatly exaggerates the threat to Confederation presented by the Manitoba Schools Question and passes over the fact that Laurier made common cause with the anti-Catholic and anti-French tendencies championed by D'Alton McCarthy, whom he was ready to take into his cabinet when McCarthy died in 1898.
The year 1896 was the year of the Liberals' original sin. The "sunny way" was tantamount to a lie. Laurier sold out Manitoba's Catholics for power. In doing so he did not bridge the sectarian divide that was at the root of the Manitoba Schools Question. He levered it. He played to Protestant fears of clerical rule by exaggerating the power of the clergy and the courage of his defiance of them. What Duffy sees as a brave liberal stand-persuading English-Canadian Protestants that a French-Canadian Roman Catholic was not a tool of the bishops-in fact played to Protestant paranoia, encouraging their suspicions that the Roman Catholic clergy were an interfering menace. As Laurier knew, the Catholic Ultramontane clergy were on the defensive. But they were useful bogeymen.
Duffy jumps forward almost thirty years from 1896 to the elections of 1925 and 1926 in a bizarre and reverently Liberal chapter. After World War I, agrarian and populist parties sprang up in Ontario and the West sending 65 Progressives to Ottawa in 1921, the second largest party after Mackenzie King's Liberals. In the way that the PCs in the 1990s hoped Reform/Alliance would collapse, the Progressives did collapse, and in 1925, 116 Tories, 99 Liberals and 24 Progressives were elected. King decided to cling to power and had scraped through for eight months when in late June his government faced censure in the House of Commons over a customs scandal. Rather than face defeat, King asked the Governor General, Lord Byng, for a dissolution of Parliament and an election. Byng refused and called on Arthur Meighen, the Tory leader, to form a government. No serious constitutional scholar doubts that Byng was right to refuse King. Whether Meighen was wise to accept his invitation to form a government is another question, but, as he had won the most seats in the election only eight months before, it seemed a reasonable thing to do. Meighen formed a government but in less than a week was defeated on a specious Liberal procedural motion which divided the undisciplined Progressives and passed on the vote of one Progressive MP who had breached a pairing agreement wherein he had agreed not to vote in order to allow a fellow Progressive who supported Meighen to be absent.
In the campaign that followed, King ranted on about Byng's refusal to dissolve Parliament and pretended that it reduced Canada to colonial status. His whole campaign was one long lie and Duffy admits as much. He nevertheless claims that the election marked a turning point in Canada's relations with Britain and constitutional development-thus buying King's lie. In fact, Canada's full independence was sealed by the Imperial Conference of 1926 and Byng was acting in accordance with its principles in refusing to refer his decision to London as King had urged him to do. King then alleged interference from Downing Street. As for the role of the Governor General, there is no reason to suppose he or she would act differently today, if a similar situation arose, and quite rightly. But King had gone further in his reliance on political mendacity than Laurier in 1896 and succeeded, and mendacity has been part of Liberal politics ever since.
Duffy's perspective on each election is that of the political strategist. These are a strange breed, who often pop up in the media, as Duffy himself does, but do their work in the backrooms. For the political strategist the winning of elections is something that is largely indifferent to the character of candidates, the merits of their policies or the honesty of their advocacy. It is a question of polls and positioning, image and message. The strategist thinks he knows what makes people vote and can tell the politician what to do and say and where to go to make people vote for him. There are no hard standards by which political strategists are judged. For them defeat is the fault of politicians who fail to take their advice. Thus, according to Duffy, Trudeau lost the election of 1979 because he insisted on preaching about national unity and a new constitution against the advice of his strategists, who wanted him to show concern for bread-and-butter issues. But Trudeau was never interested in bread-and-butter issues and after 10 years the voters knew that. Joe Clark demonstrated his incompetence in nine months as PM, and Trudeau would have won the 1980 election whatever he said.
Duffy rates Clark an astute political strategist, suggesting he would have gone down as one of the greats if he had stayed in the backrooms. Nothing in Canadian politics could be more patent than Clark's stupidity. He is at it again, boycotting the new Conservative Party. But if in Hollywood you are only as good as your last movie the political strategist is always as good as his one victory. So Clark won the Tory leadership in 1976, by astuteness according to Duffy. In reality the fractious party could not settle on any of the candidates with more character and history and had to settle on Joe Who.
Duffy's strategist's perspective leads to overanalysis of elections. Debates and ads and speeches and posters that most people never paid any attention to are carefully assessed for impact. He knows his stuff. The story of recent campaigns may awake nostalgia in some readers and earlier campaigns have antiquarian interest. But elections are won and lost on the character of candidates as demonstrated before campaigns begin-on what they have done and what people believe they will do based on much more than campaign promises. Campaigns reflect rather than shape public opinion, which is founded on everything from elementary school indoctrination to Hollywood movies.
Duffy's third featured electoral battle is Diefenbaker's two-stage triumph of 1957 and 1958. It was what he calls a "populist rush", which amounts to no more than saying that Dief was more popular than the elderly and arrogant Liberals who had been in power for 22 years. Dief's campaigns did make a difference. Even as a figure of fun in the 1960s he was able to keep Pearson from getting a majority. But Dief's melodramatic oratory was about the farthest thing imaginable from the strategy and image that Duffy and his colleagues consider crucial in a campaign.
The 1979 and 1980 elections do not seem particularly interesting. Perhaps for Duffy just the idea that the legendary Trudeau could be defeated seems extraordinary. But after the Trudeaumania election of 1968, another "populist rush", Trudeau was never a particularly popular politician. The Tories beat him in English Canada in every election. Quebec kept him in power, giving him 74 of its 75 seats, more than half his caucus, in 1980.
Quebec is a black hole in Duffy's analysis. It sends squadrons of Liberals to Ottawa in most elections and then surprises with 50 Tories in 1958, explained as simply backing a winner. Mulroney's Quebec strength, it is darkly suggested, grew from wooing separatists, the same separatists, presumably, who voted overwhelmingly for Trudeau in 1980.
The 1988 election was the most dramatic in living memory but it is doubtful whether election strategy and tactics made much difference to the result. Free trade was simply viewed by many voters as a good and timely policy. It was bound to provoke emotional opposition but it drew support across party lines.

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