Allan Levine: Canada's Stephen Harper Can Learn From Diefenbaker's 1957 Campaign

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Allan Levine is a Winnipeg-based writer and historian. His most recent book is The Devil in Babylon: Fear of Progress and the Birth of Modern Life.]

Across the country, voters had had enough. The Liberals had displayed an unacceptable arrogance - and for far too long. They had rammed through a controversial bill to build a pipeline; shown wanton disregard for taxpayers' money; and introduced a less than satisfactory budget. Their leader looked old and tired.
When Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent called an election in the spring of 1957, the Liberals had been in power since William Lyon Mackenzie King had defeated R.B. Bennett's Conservatives in 1935. They believed that they were the "natural governing party" and entitled to rule for as long as they deemed fit.

Sound familiar?

True, the Liberals did not have a minority government in 1957. Yet that same Liberal arrogance at the forefront of Canadian politics for the past 12 years under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin - not to mention the sponsorship scandal and the Liberal belief that they know how to spend taxpayers' money better than the citizens who earn it - is at the heart of the current election campaign.

Today's Liberals, however, have one thing going for them that their counterparts in 1957 did not: a Conservative leader who has yet to capture the imagination and trust of the voters.

As they embarked on the 1957 campaign, St. Laurent and the Liberals ignored two key factors: the public's demand for change and the persona of the new Conservative leader, John Diefenbaker.

It was not the Liberal decision to support an American-controlled company - it planned to build a pipeline for Alberta gas to be sent to Ontario consumers - that eventually cost the party victory in the June 10, 1957 election. Rather, it was because Liberals forgot the sacred public trust that is at the root of governing in Canada.

As prominent Ottawa journalist Blair Fraser wrote a few months before the vote, "Political historians may well conclude that the Liberals fell, not because of any one policy, and certainly not a pipeline policy of which the average voter knew little and cared less, but because they failed to observe the proper limits of power."

As for Diefenbaker, he was a charismatic force on the campaign trail.

Whereas, St. Laurent appeared weary and was portrayed as "yesterday's man," Diefenbaker, although he was 62 years old (St. Laurent was 75), seemed fresh and honest.

He railed against the Liberal "dictatorship" and the party's "mockery" of Parliament during the pipeline debate. More important, he had a vision about a "new national policy" and "one unhyphenated Canada" that would restore the country's sagging spirit.

Current Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is no Diefenbaker. He lacks Dief's passion and oratorical skills. But Harper can also learn a great deal from Diefenbaker's performance during the 1957 election.

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