The warning sign for pro-lifers came early.
Three days before the Federal Liberal policy convention opened in Hull, Quebec on Thursday, February 20, the Ottawa Citizen blew the whistle on the efforts of pro-life Liberals to restore their political party.
Under the heading “Battle shapes up over abortion,” the Citizen noted that “A pro-life faction within the Liberal Party will mount an offensive against abortion at the party convention in Hull later this week.”
“Known as Liberals for Life, it has secured delegate status for many of its members and will field a slate of candidates for most, if not all, the party executive positions to be voted on Sunday.
“York MP John Nunziata has charged that members of the group a subverting the democratic process in the party and using the pro-life issue to further their own political ambitions.”
The groundwork having been laid, party brass moved quickly.
Party brass in control
On opening day party leader Jean Chretien accused Liberals for Life of “hijacking” the party. He demanded the “cleansing of the party” from “instant Liberals” and “single interest groups.” It is, he said, necessary for the party’s integrity. He won a standing ovation from the 650 delegates present.
Later on, delegates gave a new national Committee – to be appointed by Chretien – carte blanche to set new rules for nominations riding by riding.
MP Brian Tobin, Chretien’s right-hand man for the coming federal election, explained to reporters that the move represents “a massive shift of power” from riding associations to the national leader and the national campaign committee (Globe, February 21).
(The Committee went to work at once. By March 15 they had decreed that Pat Lavelle should run in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore. They raised individual and family memberships immediately to $25.00 from $5.00, to discourage pro-life Liberal Dan McCash from gathering support for the nomination there).
The national media loved the Liberal punch-out.
“Chretien bars party hijackers,” shouted the front-page headline in next days’ Vancouver Sun (February 21). “Liberals crack down on abuses,” said the Toronto Globe and Mail, “Chretien takes aim at fake Grits,” reported the Ottawa Sun.
Only one journalist, Peter Stockland of the Ottawa Sun (“True Democracy cannot be selective,” February 22), saw through it all, in the name of ‘democracy,’ he wrote, Liberals for Life are to be silenced.
They organize, pay their memberships, work on committees, pay their fees and convention costs ($750 for the one in Hull), participate in riding associations, and what do they get for a response at the party’s policy convention in Hull, Quebec, Mr. Stockland asked? – abuse, insults, ridicule and outright hypocrisy.
He could have added that these people are not fake Grits, but most of them are long-time Liberals – many of them Catholics – who are fed up with the pro-abortion policies foisted on the party when it was hijacked by Pierre Trudeau in 1968.
Keeping track of Liberals for Life was a group of high profile Liberals: Chretien’s chief of staff, Jean Pelletier; principal secretary Eddie Goldenburg; Newfoundland MP Brian Tobin, in charge of election strategy; Toronto MP Sergio Marchi, caucus chairman; and veteran back-room boy Gordon Ashworth.
There was also Chaviva Hosek, top policy advisor to Chretien and co-chair of the election platform committee; and veteran Keith Davey, in charge of finding “suitable” candidates.
Mr. Davey stated that pro-lifers give the party a bad reputation.
These pro-abortion organizers were ably assisted in squelching pro-life activity by Hamilton MP and Deputy Leaders, Sheila Copps, Toronto MP John Nunziata, Halifax MP Mary Clancy, Manitoba MP David Dingwall – “Well, that sure puts a nail right through the pro-lifers doesn’t it,” – Dingwall and others.
A flyer, at first unsigned, but later type-signed by Sheila Copps appeared on the convention tables. It listed the names of ten pro-life Liberals who were running for executive positions and urged delegates not to vote for them as they had been identified as belonging to a “single issue” group.
All of them were defeated.
A priority resolution from Saskatchewan calling for the protection of the unborn child was deliberately relegated from plenary session to workshop, where long discussions on other matters and procedural stalling prevented it from coming to the floor.
In order to prevent any further discussion of abortion, the executive then introduced two emergency resolutions that, according to the rules, had to be debated first.
With 700 delegates, press and volunteers cramped into a small room, time had to be taken to remove dividers so as to enlarge the room. Amendments to policies were put forward and the same group of 25 plus delegates voted to debate every single issue. It became obvious that the party did not want to get to the abortion issue.
Pro-abortion resolution approved
The stalling did not prevent a pro-abortion resolution from reaching the floor. MP Mary Clancy spoke to it with fervor.
In order to give the appearance of some fairness, Sheila Copps introduced a motion to table all pro-abortion and pro-life resolutions, but the tactic failed when the chair ruled her motion out of order.
Thus, the policy workshop affirmed Jean Chretien’s pro-abortion position with a vote of 418 to 256 in favour of unrestricted violence against the unborn.
The resolution was not forwarded to the plenary session.
Because of the strength of the pro-life group – roughly one-sixth of the delegates – Chretien felt it wise on Saturday, February 22, to make some kind of gesture.
But he couldn’t or wouldn’t do this without first setting the argument on its head.
“In a pluralistic society like ours none of us can impose his own morality on others,” Chretien said to loud sustained applause.
“I respect you and I’ll never shut you down…,” he stated, but if the issue comes back, “I’ll give MPs the freedom to vote according to their consciences.” (Chretien rebuffs right-to-life backers in emotional debate,” Toronto Star, February 23.)
In other words, according to Chretien the killing of the unborn is just a private matter to which you may or may not object according to personal liking. It was what most Liberals wanted to hear.
If the party leaders and the executive have their way, then – and it certainly looks as if they will – the Liberal party will remain closed to pro-life influence. Yet pro-lifers provided the only interesting and lively group in a party which as suffered from chronic fatigue now for many years…
Could it be that the end of the Liberal party is in sight?