A multi-candidate Tory leadership race from another era

50 years ago the Tories selected Robert Stanfield from a large roster of candidates to replace John Diefenbaker. Stanfield went on to lose to Pierre Trudeau

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ToriesTORONTO, Ont., April 20, 2017 /Troy Media/ – I’m having a hard time developing any interest in the federal Conservative leadership campaign. It’s not that the candidates repel me. So far, they just bore me.

It was different 50 years ago. Then, I was keenly interested in the Tory leadership race that unseated John Diefenbaker.

It wasn’t a matter of being particularly well disposed towards the party. As someone just a couple of years out of university, I was still in thrall to the prevalent social democratic ethos and my default leaning was thus towards the Liberals. Indeed, I was perhaps more likely to vote New Democrat than Conservative.

However, I was new to Canada, fascinated by politics and this was my first leadership contest. And unlike such events in 1960s Ireland or the United Kingdom, Canadian leadership conventions had many of the razzle-dazzle trappings associated with the American process.

Diefenbaker had won three general elections and then lost two. While his 1958 triumph had been stunning in its dimensions – 208 seats out of 265 and almost 54 per cent of the popular vote – by the mid-1960s, it was clear that the party was unlikely to win again with him at the helm.

What had seemed charismatic and fiery in 1958 now came across as bombastic and mercurial. And in an age increasingly enamoured with image, Diefenbaker looked and sounded like a relic from a bygone time. So, thanks to the machinations of a party insider, Toronto journalist (and later advertising executive) Dalton Camp, a revolt ensued and a convention date was set for Sept. 9 1967.

The race attracted an array of candidates, including two premiers – Nova Scotia’s Robert Stanfield and Manitoba’s Duff Roblin – and six former federal cabinet ministers. Courting humiliation, Diefenbaker threw his hat into the ring, albeit at virtually the last moment and ostensibly motivated by a desire to oppose the party’s emerging Deux Nations policy. The concept of formally recognizing Quebec’s “distinct society” was already deeply polarizing.

Courtesy of former cabinet minister George Hees, the race even had a touch of glamour. Known by the sobriquet Gorgeous George, the moustachioed Hees had the playboy aura of a faded 1930s-40s Hollywood star. He’d also been an accomplished athlete, playing three seasons with the Toronto Argonauts and winning the Grey Cup in 1938.

If I had a personal favourite, it would have been British Columbia’s Davie Fulton. A Roman Catholic in what was often seen as a Protestant party, Fulton had served as minister of Justice and minister of Public Works in Diefenbaker cabinets. At 51-years-old, he was in his political prime and perhaps this was his moment.

Looking back at the candidate roster, it’s interesting to note the prevalence of Red Tories. My guess is that this was a function of Canada’s mid-1960s social and fiscal circumstances. Taken together, they tended to boost the party’s Red Tory wing.

On the social side, legislation governing divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality – some of it dating back to the 1890s – was widely perceived as antiquated and in need of reform. And because there was no appreciation of just how far some of those changes would ultimately go, public opinion was in the honeymoon stage.

Canada’s fiscal situation was also hospitable to Red Tories. Including all three levels of government, public expenditure had increased from 22.1 per cent of the economy in 1950 to 29.7 per cent in 1960. That was still a long way short of the 47.4 per cent that it reached in 1986. So new programs and initiatives still seemed very feasible. If there was a perceived need for ambitious government, the fiscal running room was there to finance it.

With 11 candidates to choose from, Sept. 9’s first ballot saw Stanfield comfortably leading the pack, followed by Roblin, Fulton, Hees and Diefenbaker. However, it quickly became clear that only two – Stanfield and Roblin – had any growth capacity.

By the fourth ballot, Roblin had almost cut Stanfield’s lead in half. But it was too little, too late. When the fifth ballot reduced the field to just the pair, Stanfield went over the top.

And the Tories felt good about themselves as their convention wrapped up late that September evening. Stanfield, they thought, might well lead them back to power.

But then came Pierre Trudeau and Trudeaumania. In the end, Stanfield may have proved too dull for Canadian voters but Trudeau certainly was not boring.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. Pat is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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