‘Thirst for power’: How the Trudeau Liberals contested an early election… in 1974

The Tories felt it was their year. But they hadn’t reckoned with a reinvigorated Pierre Trudeau — or with how Robert Stanfield played football
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Sep 20, 2021
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife, Margaret, in Ottawa on July 9, 1974. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

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A prime minister named Trudeau. A Liberal minority government propped up by the NDP. An election called two years after the previous one. A campaign whose necessity was questioned by the public and the media. 

While that could serve as a general description of either the 1974 federal election or the 2021 contest, the issues facing the country during those campaigns were very different — as were the conditions that sent voters to the polls.

As inflation rose in the months following the 1972 election, NDP leader David Lewis feared its effects would harm his party and considered forcing an election. At the party’s 1973 convention, Lewis gave notice that his support for Pierre Trudeau’s government wouldn’t last much longer and would require further concessions on economic policy. Few delegates took him seriously. Lewis made several attempts to pull the plug, but the Liberals frequently accepted NDP demands to prolong the government’s existence.

The Liberals were waiting for the right moment to engineer the government’s defeat. To avoid a repeat of their disastrous 1972 campaign, they established their own ad agency, Red Leaf Communications, and assembled a campaign team led by Keith Davey and Jim Coutts. They felt that, while polling showed Trudeau’s popularity was climbing back near the numbers seen during “Trudeaumania” in 1968, public opinion could always shift: energy prices, inflation, and unemployment were rising, meaning it would probably be better to hold an election sooner rather than later. 

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three seated men in suits
New Democratic Leader David Lewis (left) with NDP Oshawa–Whitby member Ed Broadbent and NDP House Leader Stanley Knowles on May 7, 1974. (Chuck Mitchell/CP)

The opportunity came during preparations for the 1974 federal budget. Trudeau later admitted that he, finance minister John Turner, and veteran MP Alan MacEachen had devised a budget that would offend the opposition. When Lewis reviewed it, he discovered that the NDP’s demands — which ranged from significant increases in corporate taxes to a two-price system for commodities such as gas and lumber — were not included. 

When the budget was debated on May 7, 1974, Trudeau gave a two-hour speech that blasted the opposition. While he accused Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield of being friendly with oil companies, much of his outrage was directed at Lewis. “David, the daisy, picking his petals one by one,” Trudeau said mockingly. “Will we have an election; will we not have an election.” Social Credit leader Real Caouette told Parliament that some of Lewis’s constituents in the Toronto-area riding of York South, which generally supported the NDP, had told him they’d vote against Lewis if an election were to occurr. 

The budget debate also marked two-year-old Justin Trudeau’s House of Commons debut. According to the Canadian Press, the future prime minister “showed up in short pants and squirmed beside his mother in a gallery seat. At one point, he attempted to tune in an earphone to hear what his father was saying on the floor below.”

man and woman holding a young boy's hands
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau leaves the Commons with his wife,
Margaret, and son Justin on  May 7, 1974. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

By the end of the night, the government had been defeated, and the election was on. Early polling showed the public liked elements of the rejected budget, such as personal-tax reductions, corporate-tax increases, and higher interest rates on savings bonds. 

The Progressive Conservatives, who’d come so close to victory in 1972, felt they could capitalize on public fears concerning inflation. Stanfield wasn’t as charismatic as Trudeau, but his quiet, dignified (if sometimes bumbling) manner might, they thought, comfort voters in troubling times. Much of the press lined up behind Stanfield, who won endorsements from all three Toronto daily newspapers. In Ontario, the campaign had full backing from premier William Davis, and several star candidates — including former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin (who ran in Peterborough), Imperial Oil executive Ronald Ritchie (Algoma), and CBC journalist Ron Collister (York–Scarborough) — were parachuted into ridings. The PC platform focused on a proposal to combat inflation by imposing price and wage controls. 

Controls proved to be a disaster on the campaign trail. The public wasn’t convinced they were a good solution, especially as the Tories added qualifications as the campaign wore on — they pledged to respect union contracts with escalation clauses, for example, and to exempt produce from price controls. Party headquarters provided few details about how the controls policy would work, leaving local candidates adrift. By the end of May, Stanfield was downplaying the impact of the policy. Trudeau ridiculed the confusion, declaring that Stanfield was “a proven disaster looking for someplace to happen.” Controls inspired one of Trudeau’s best insults of the campaign: “Zap! You’re frozen!” 

And then there was the football incident.

May 30 was a long day for Stanfield. Over the course of 20 hours, he made stops across the country. While waiting for his plane to refuel in North Bay, Stanfield tossed around a football with the media accompanying him. Although photos were taken of Stanfield making perfect throws, the one (taken by Canadian Press photographer Doug Ball) that made front pages across the country the next day showed him dropping the ball, an agonized expression on his face. It reinforced the image of Stanfield as a bumbling old man. The captions were not complimentary. “It appears that this football is too hot for Conservative leader Robert Stanfield to handle,” joked the Globe and Mail. The Ottawa Journal thought he displayed “a classic lack of gridiron form.” 

man in collared shirt and tie fumbles a football
Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield grimaces as he drops a football while campaigning in North Bay on May 30, 1974. (Doug Ball/CP) 

That wasn’t the last unflattering picture of Stanfield to be published. There was the shot of him wearing his pants tucked into cowboy boots. And the one of him wearing a Liberal sticker on his back (the result of a Woodstock schoolboy playing a prank). 

Toward the end of the campaign, the PCs used former PM John Diefenbaker on the campaign trail. While his appearances drew appreciative crowds, he was a loose cannon and prone to contradicting party policy, arguing, for example, that wages shouldn’t be frozen. The star candidates in Ontario didn’t fare well; Roblin wound up warring with the Peterborough Examiner — over his candidacy and a public inquiry held in Manitoba over his involvement in a pulp-and-paper project — and couldn’t shake the feeling that he had been parachuted in over worthy potential local candidates.

The New Democrats were in a tough position. By focusing their attacks on the PC proposals for wage controls, they did Trudeau’s work for him. They were also blamed for having brought down the government and forcing the country to endure an election. While polling initially showed them with their usual level of support, it fell as the campaign wore on. Speeches tested in southern Ontario attacking developers and business conglomerates flopped. The Liberals reminded voters that the NDP’s defeat of the budget had deprived them of tax relief. As historian Desmond Morton observed, “Lewis and his advisors forgot that few Canadians had followed the parliamentary game and that dissolution had not seemed to them inevitable or improper.” Ontario campaign head Gordon Vichert had a realistic view of their chances. “Let’s face it,” he told the Toronto Star. “The great majority of the ridings in Ontario are in outer darkness for us.” The party tried to have a little fun by naming its chartered plane “Daisy I.”

The Liberal campaign was much stronger. Trudeau avoided the media as much as possible, skipping settings such as call-in radio shows where his temper had flared during the previous campaign. Public appearances were made under controlled, favourable circumstances; he declined to participate in a televised leaders’ debate. Photo ops — Trudeau executing trampoline flips or rescuing a bird from a swimming pool — worked to his advantage. Reporters felt manipulated by the campaign. One Toronto Star editorial grumbled that “seldom had any Canadian leader so fully evaded critical examination of his election proposals in the media and relied so much on the stage-managed announcement, the organized meeting, and the few words here and there at campaign stops.”

While he had found the idea of highlighting his young family on the campaign trail offensive during the 1972 campaign, they become one of his greatest assets, softening his aloof, arrogant public image. Margaret Trudeau, who insisted on campaigning, humanized the prime minister: he was a husband and father and a shy, loving man in private. In impromptu speeches, she praised the virtues of the party’s family friendly programs. “I think you are running one hell of a campaign,” Power Corporation executive Paul Desmarais wrote in a letter to Trudeau during the last week of the campaign. “Margaret’s smile is a knockout. Millions of Canadians would rather look at her than any of our odd collection of Canadian politicians” 

The main issue of the campaign was no longer inflation — it was leadership. As the Liberals attacked Stanfield and the PCs, they introduced policies on a near-daily basis, leaving the press and the opposition parties little time to digest one before the next one had been announced. Their promised grants for new homeowners and investment in public transit. Inspired by Margaret, Trudeau gave stronger off-the cuff speeches defending the party’s track record and the defeated budget; Stanfield’s talks were written in advance by the campaign team, meaning he had little chance to react to sudden developments. In rural areas, especially in Ontario, the party’s weapon was Minister of Agriculture Eugene Whelan, who was in demand as a speaker who could level with farmers. 

four photos of man with a football
More photos of Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield playing football while campaigning in North Bay on May 30, 1974. (Doug Ball/CP) 

Overall, as Trudeau biographer John English observed, the public saw “a transformed leader, one whose speeches brimmed with emotion, wit, sarcasm, eloquence, and a welcome thirst for power. The insouciant, even lacklustre Trudeau who had feigned disregard for political emotion was buried in the rubble of that previous campaign.” 

The transformation worked: on July 8, the Liberals won a majority. In Ontario, they came away with 55 seats; the PCs earned 25, and the NDP, 8. Stanfield blamed the party’s weak performance on voters’ desire for a majority government and on Whelan’s successful campaigning in traditionally Tory rural areas. The star candidates were among the casualties. Some campaign workers took the party’s collapse worse than others — in the Oakville headquarters of defeated Halton incumbent Terry O’Connor, the Georgetown Herald observed a “bitter and perhaps drunk” worker angrily tearing a tally sheet from the wall, splashing liquor on those nearby in the process. Another worker growled to reporters, “You’re just rubbing salt in the wounds.”

As Real Caouette had predicted, Lewis lost York South, falling to Liberal Ursula Appolloni, whose husband had lost to the NDP leader in 1972. His son Stephen, then Ontario’s provincial NDP leader, felt it was “a profoundly unfair blow to deal to a man who had contributed so much to Canada. It seems to me that when a man has immersed himself in public life as he has, a defeat like this hurts.” Lewis said he didn’t regret having brought the government down, although he had sensed that the decision had annoyed voters. Many morning-after analyses accurately predicted that re-elected Oshawa–Whitby MP Ed Broadbent would succeed Lewis as party leader.

The next few years proved rocky for many involved in the campaign. Margaret Trudeau realized that her husband would remain in politics for years to come; that contributed to the strains that would end their marriage. Lewis had secretly dealt with leukemia during the campaign and remained quiet about his illness until his death in 1981. The new government reversed its stance on price and wage controls, implementing them in the fall of 1975. Stanfield later admitted, after Trudeau had gone ahead with them, that controls were “a stupid issue for us to get into because we ended up having to define it rather than being able to attack the government.”

Stanfield remained PC leader until he was succeeded by Joe Clark in 1976. During his farewell address, he criticized party members for wanting to fight rather than win elections: “Why do we try to polarize a society that is already taut with tension and confrontation?” 

Sources: The Big Red Machine by Stephen Clarkson (Toronto: UBC Press, 2005); Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau 1968-2000 by John English (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2009); Dynasties and Interludes by Lawrence Leduc, Jon H. Pammett, Judith I. McKenzie, and Andre Turcotte (Toronto: Dundurn, 2010); Scrum Wars: The Prime Ministers and the Media by Allan Levine (Toronto: Dundurn, 1993); The New Democrats 1961-1986: The Politics of Change by Desmond Morton (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1986); Blue Thunder by Bob Plamondon (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2009); the July 10, 1974, edition of the Georgetown Herald; the May 8, 1974, May 31, 1974, and June 12, 1974, editions of the Globe and Mail; the July 22, 1974, edition of Newsweek; the July 9, 1974, edition of the Ottawa Citizen; the May 31, 1974, edition of the Ottawa Journal; and the May 11, 1974, May 31, 1974, and June 25, 1974, editions of the Toronto Star.

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