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The Dissolution of the Coalition: Roblin's Rise to Leadership

by David McCormick

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 28, 1971-72 Season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

This online version was prepared using Optical Character Recognition software so that spelling and punctuation errors may have occurred inadvertently. If you find any such errors, please inform us, indicating the document name and error.

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As 1949 began, all seemed well with Manitoba's eight year old coalition government. However, the stormy legislative session of that year left an irreparable schism in the Liberal-Progressive coalition with the Manitoba Conservatives. In the 1949 election Duff Roblin, then the secretary-treasurer for the family owned automobile dealership was elected as an anti-coalition Conservative. Over the next five years Roblin established himself s the leading critic of the Government and became the exponent for a style of government very different from that of the conservative farmer government which had controlled the Manitoba legislature for thirty years. In 1949 Roblin's dissent from the Campbell government's policies seemed out of step with opinion in his own party and in the province as a whole.

In 1940 Premier John Bracken came close to achieving his goal of non-partisan government for Manitoba by the formation of an all party coalition with representation in the Cabinet from the Conservative, CCF, and Social Credit groups as well as from Bracken's own Liberal-Progressive Party. The CCF withdrew from the coalition in 1942. The Liberal-Progressives and the Conservatives remained content with the arrangement apart from the dissent of the parties' youth wings. The 1949 session of the Legislature was a watershed for the coalition. While the issues of daylight saving time and coloured margarine divided the house on urban-rural lines, the strain on the Liberal-Conservative partnership was brought about by legislation on the marketing of coarse grains and the redistribution of electoral boundaries. By the close of the session four Conservatives and two Liberals had withdrawn from the coalition. However, the Campbell government was still firmly in control with the support of twenty-six Liberal-Progressives, nine Conservatives and two Social Crediters against ten CCF members, five independent Conservatives, two Independent members and the lone Communist, Mr. Kardash.

The low level of provincial government services was the focus of the opposition attack. The conditions and teaching standards in Manitoba schools, the poor quality of the province's roads and limited health care facilities were the issues constantly raised. The Government response was always the same: that the administration was spending the maximum possible consistent with its policy of rapid retirement of the provincial debt.

At their 1949 convention Manitoba Liberals endorsed the coalition once again but by the narrowest margin ever, 418-261. Following rumours of internal dissension the Conservative party executive declared its intention to support party leader Errick Willis and the position of the 1948 convention endorsing coalition for the 1949 election. However, Conservative unity was lost with the formation of the Manitoba Democratic Movement, an anti-coalition pressure group headed by a Conservative businessman, George V. Hastings and the maverick Conservative MLA Jack McDowell.

Hastings and McDowell believed that the status of official Opposition gave the CCF a better chance at power. In Saskatchewan the CCF was in power; in Ontario they had made an excellent showing. The Manitoba party had deemed it necessary to expel two MLA's, Berry Richards and Gilbcrt Donelayko for refusing to endorse the Marshall Plan. In the early cold war period Winnipeg businessmen felt uneasy. The Manitoba Democratic Movement was supported financially by McDowell and by breweries and other business interests. Its objectives were conservative: economy in provincial administration, close scrutiny of new spending proposals and a reduction in the size of the Legislature and Cabinet to save money.

The election was called for October. There was no doubt about the outcome. Twenty of the seats went to the coalition by acclamation. Electoral boundaries had been gerrymandered at the 1949 session to aid the coalition at the polls. The Winnipeg Tribune reported that "No election in the province's eighty year history has been duller." In the four member constituency of Winnipeg South the race was distinguished by the candidacy of Duff Roblin running as an anti-coalitionist Conservative. Roblin was a telling critic of both the government record and the coalition arrangement. On the latter question he agreed on the principle of parliamentary government and avoided any criticism of Conservative leader Errick Willis. As the grandson of the last Conservative premier, Roblin's party credentials were beyond question. He was uniquely suited to the task of rallying anti-coalitionist Conservatives.

When the votes were tallied, Roblin had narrowly won a seat in Winnipeg South. In the province as a whole the anti-coalition vote was up, but the government had been sustained. Liberals and coalition Independents captured thirty-two seats, significant because it meant the government could survive without the support of Conservative MLA's. Anti-coalitionist feeling was building in both parties: among Liberal-Progressives because of their increased strength and because young members identified more closely with the federal Liberals, among Conservatives because, as the minor partner in the coalition, the party was losing ground throughout the province.

The 1950 legislative session passed quietly. The government's modest program was highlighted by the continuation of rural electrification and a new anti-grasshopper program. Early in the session the new member for Winnipeg South established himself as a leading critic of the Cabinet and the coalition. He enjoyed a favourable press and was much in demand for speaking engagements. However, it was the 1950 flood that gave the greatest boost to Roblin's cause, the restoration of party government in Manitoba.

Shortly after prorogation the magnitude of the flood threat became clear. Morris MLA Harry Shewman repeatedly urged the premier to declare an emergency situation so that federal aid might be obtained. On April 28th Errick Willis who was Mr. Campbell's municipal affairs minister said the floods were "in every sense an emergency." However, the premier stalled, leaving the municipalities to face the rising waters without aid. Dyking and relief efforts lacking co-ordination. When Campbell finally acted to declare a national emergency it was too late to prevent political repercussions. Even the Winnipeg Free Press, which consistently supported coalition, declared that the mishandling of the flood crisis demonstrated the need for an alternative to the government in power. Premier Campbell compounded his problem when he balked at paying compensation for flood damage once the rivers were within their banks. By the time the premier gave in on the question Roblin and CCF leader Lloyd Stinson had been very effective in using the issue against the government.

Over the years Manitobans had grown accustomed to governments that in word and deed decried any leadership responsibility. Successive Manitoba governments had seen their role as strictly administrative. If the public had failed to see the inadequacy of the coalition arrangement in the years that Manitoba had slowly fallen behind other provinces in education, health services, highways and municipal financing, the flood threat brought home to them, at least briefly, that more was required of government than Mr. Campbell was offering.

The unpopularity of Mr. Campbell at the time of the flood cast doubt on the verdict of the Conservative party on the coalition question. The party convention was scheduled to take place in Brandon in October. The retirement of John Bracken from federal politics and the death of the Conservative attorney-general James McLenaghen had dimmed the prospects for coalition supporters in the Conservative party. On August 9th Errick Willis stole the initiative from the Conservative anti-coalitionists by announcing his resignation from the Cabinet. The party president, R. D. Guy was quick to announce his support for Willis and in the weeks that followed the only voices heard in favour of maintaining the coalition were those of the other Conservative cabinet members, Charles Greenlay and W. C. Miller.

At the Conservatives' Brandon Convention withdrawal from coalition was approved with only sixteen dissenting votes. On the leadership vote Errick Willis was re-elected by 188 to 45 over George Hastings the cofounder of the Manitoba Democratic Movement. An effort to draft Roblin failed when he declined the nomination declaring that Mr. Willis should have the chance to lead the party outside coalition.

Premier Campbell did not accept the idea that party politics was now re-established in Manitoba. He held to the view that his Government should carry on its mandate for nonpartisan, administrative government conferred in the 1949 election. This view did not win unanimous support at the Liberal-Progressives' 1951 annual meeting. However, the premier forestalled a split by saying that it ought to be left to individual constituencies to decide whether a coalition candidate should be nominated for the next election. Premier Campbell was certain that the coalition principle still had the support of Manitobans. He believed that the party that ended the arrangement would suffer for it.

In the 1951 session of the Legislature effective leadership of the Conservative group fell to Roblin. Willis had never been regarded as an energetic minister and his leadership was less than vigorous. It was Roblin who set the tone for Opposition criticisms of power policy, schools and university financing, provincial-municipal relations, and health care. The result of the new party alignment was legislation on rent control and increased grants for rural school districts. Neither question had been in the Government's plans when the session opened. Opposition criticism had forced action. Inside the Legislature and out Conservatives sensed their fortunes were improving. Walter Dinsdale and Gordon Churchill won federal seats in by-elections in Winnipeg and Brandon and in 1952 R. O. Lissaman won the Brandon seat for the Tories in a provincial by-election.

The 1952 Throne Speech reflected even more than the one before it the pressure the Government felt from the opposition. Increased spending was promised in health and education. The departure from old policies was more apparent than real. When details were provided, it was clear the increased spending was made possible by larger revenues from Ottawa under the tax rental agreements. The question of hydro reorganization took up much of the time in city and provincial politics. Rejection by city voters of a provincial power monopoly (Plan C) left Premier Campbell without a policy. A special session of the legislature was called for July, 1952. However, the Government had formulated no new policy. The members had been called together simply to approve construction of a new power plant on the Winnipeg River and to hear experts detail the alternatives open to the province in the wake of the rejection of Plan "C".

The fall of 1952 was marked by a round of nomination meetings in anticipation of a 1953 election. At the start of the 1953 session the Government announced a 3.7 million dollar increase in municipal grants. However, the opposition parties were not left without issues. Roblin and CCF leader Lloyd Stinson led opposition attacks on the gerrymandering of election boundaries and the continuing ban on coloured margarine. Both these issues were popular with the press and were important in the extensive coverage given Roblin. The old issues involving provincial spending and the low level of services were given another airing. Provincial Treasurer Ron Turner's response to the opposition was to say that he would be satisfied to let the voters decide the soundness of the government's financial management. The stage was set for the first election since the dissolution of the coalition.

Roblin had won renomination in Winnipeg South in mid March. Also nominated by the Conservatives were Maude McCreery, a Winnipeg alderman, and former civil service commissioner Gurney Evans, a longtime friend of Roblin whom Roblin had persuaded to run. The Liberals nominated Ron Turner and George MacLeod, a former Winnipeg alderman. J. S. McDiarmid had retired from politics to become lieutenant governor. The CCF nominees were Lloyd Stinson and A. Montague Israels.

The Conservatives were unable to nominate a full slate of candidates. Among the thirty-eight Tories nominated special attention was paid to J. Arthur Ross, MP for Souris who re-entered provincial politics and to John Thompson of Virden, a well known lawyer who was seen as a strong candidate. In Winnipeg Roblin and Evans were the most widely publicized candidates. A closed door meeting held at Portage la Prairie in early May had produced the Conservatives' thirty-eight point platform. The Tory promises were drawn from the preceding years' criticisms of Premier Campbell's parsimony. On the emerging issue of liquor law reform the Tories promised no more than a full enquiry.

Premier Campbell at first dismissed the Opposition campaign as "bribery with your own money" and termed the election a contest "between achievements and promises." The premier later produced a platform of his own covering rural education, industrial incentives in rural Manitoba, a commitment to improve diagnostic facilities and a crop insurance program. There was nothing in the platform for Winnipeg voters. There was no mention of the redistribution issue on which both the Conservatives and the CCF had committed themselves to the establishment of an independent commission. Like the Conservatives the Liberals avoided any commitment on the margarine issue.

The CCF was unable to mount a strong campaign. Only twenty-five candidates were nominated; only five were elected. The party failed to win a seat outside Winnipeg while losing one in St. Boniface and in Winnipeg Centre. The CCF was under constant attack from the Winnipeg Free Press for its advocacy of a provincial hospital insurance plan.

The unique feature of the 1953 campaign was the attempt by Social Credit organizers from Alberta and British Columbia to repeat what had been achieved in the coast province the previous year. Forty-four candidates were nominated. On voting day they managed to win twelve per cent of the popular vote but only two seats, Minnedosa and Dauphin. Social Credit candidates ran up respectable totals west of the Red River. East of the river they were generally weaker although they showed disproportionate strength in French and Mennonite areas.

The Conservatives made an overall gain of three in the balloting. Hank Scott, a Winnipeg alderman won in Winnipeg Centre and Gurney Evans was successful in Winnipeg South. Roblin was elected with a greatly increased vote. The increase in Conservative strength from nine to twelve was not sufficient to silence opposition to the leadership of Errick Willis.

On October 2, 1953 Willis informed the press he had asked the party executive to call a leadership convention for the coming year. He said he felt the party should review the leadership after every unsuccessful election campaign. He added that he would stand for the leadership once again. The party executive later announced that the convention would be held in June. George Muir, the party president told reporters he expected Duff Roblin and J. Arthur Ross to be candidates.

Roblin opened his campaign in a December speech to the Conservative club. In a wide ranging critique of the party leadership federally and provincially he advocated better candidate recruitment, stronger organization and more broadly based financing. The speech coming only four months after the federal election received national attention. In Winnipeg the Tribune lauded Roblin's analysis while the Free Press wryly asked "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?" In a New Year's Day speech to the Conservative Club Errick Willis said the increase from nine to twelve in the Tory caucus was evidence that party fortunes were on the rise under his leadership. It was a poor performance. From the start, the incumbent looked like the underdog in the leadership race.

The 1954 session of the Legislature was the shortest and quietest in over a decade. The Government's program was non-controversial. The energy of the official Opposition was channeled into the leadership contest. The press had anticipated a "sideshow" on the Conservative benches as the leadership candidates competed for public attention but the Tory caucus worked to maintain a united front in the house.

The principal commitment of the Government at the 1954 session was to launch a thorough enquiry into the province's liquor laws. Uncertain of the public mood on the issue, the opposition went along with the proposal. The exception was the Independent member for Winnipeg Centre, Stephen Juba. Liberalized liquor laws had been his platform in 1953 and once in the Legislature he advocated action without delay. Old issues dominated the rest of the session. Lloyd Stinson raised the redistribution question. M. A. Gray made his annual plea on behalf of old age pensioners. Roblin talked about education, provincial-municipal relations, and industrial development. The Conservatives were anxious to see the session ended so their leadership campaign could begin in earnest. When prorogation finally came, Ross and Roblin hurried from the chamber to give statements announcing their candidacy to the press.

Tory solidarity did not long survive prorogation. There were rumours that a secret caucus had been called to inform Willis he had the support of only two MLA's, Jack McDowell and A. W. Harrison. Another rumour had it that there was an alliance between Ross and Roblin to defeat Willis, another that Ross and his supporters were prepared to bolt the party should he lose. The leadership contest grew more acrimonious as the convention date approached. Matters reached a climax at a Brandon meeting where MLA Reg Lissaman stunned the audience by giving complete details of a Conservative caucus held in the fall of 1953 at which the majority of MLA's demanded a leadership convention. According to Lissaman, Willis wanted to postpone the convention two years but the caucus pressured him into requesting that it be summoned in June. Lissaman's disclosure was a complete contradiction of what Willis had told the press the previous October. Throughout the campaign as well he had claimed credit for taking the initiative in summoning the convention. Willis jumped to his feet to deny Lissaman's statement but when Lissaman called upon Ross and Roblin they corroborated his version of events. The next day Jack McDowell declared the campaign to be "worse than the McCarthy hearings in Washington." He went to Willis's defence claiming Willis had proposed the June date. Rumours began circulating that the party was certain to split and later that a dark horse candidate was going to make a last minute entry. All this was uncommon excitement in Manitoba politics. In subsequent meetings the candidates assured audiences of the party's solidarity. The meetings became so dull that the campaign concluded in East Kildonan before an audience of seventeen a full week before the convention.

As the convention opened on June 15th at the Royal Alexandra Hotel, the press predicted a close three way fight. Lobbying was intense. There were Willis buttons, Roblin matches and a good supply of free punch. Ross came to the convention unprepared for this style in politics and he lost ground from the time the campaign moved into the city. Special attention was paid to the guest speaker, national party president George Hecs. Supporters of one of the candidates whisked him from the airport to a hotel room where they tried to persuade him to indicate his support for their man. Hees insisted on remaining neutral though the press regarded him as favouring Roblin.

Winnipeg mayor Garnet Coulter had hardly concluded his welcoming remarks when the first dispute erupted. The session was punctuated by angry exchanges between rival camps, procedural wrangles and rumours of shifts in support. Nominations and candidates' speeches were heard the first day. Lobbying continued throughout the night. In the morning delegates were seen sprawled over arm chairs and sofas in the hotel lobby. Newspapers reported the heady events of the previous day and concluded that there was a discernible shift to Roblin. Ross had told reporters he had been approached by a group of prominent Conservatives to lead a new party should Willis be re-elected. However, he indicated his resolve to stay with the party.

The balloting proceeded slowly amid more rumours of walk-outs, secret alliances and new parties in the making. The count showed Willis in the lead:

Willis

118

Roblin

114

Ross

55

Before the second ballot many Ross supporters donned Roblin badges and the result was as Willis expected:

Roblin

160

Willis

123

Roblin's victory marked the only time a Winnipeg man had won provincial party leadership. Paradoxically his support in the leadership vote was rural based:

Urban
votes

Rural
votes

Roblin

15

99

Ross

7

48

Willis

51

67

With the election of Roblin to the leadership the Conservative party seemed to have come a great distance since the coalition days. In fact the party had changed very little. Aside from its effect on parliamentary practice, the liability of the coalition government had been that provincial services had been allowed to slide to an intolerably low level as the provincial debt was retired at an excessive rate. However, it was not the condition of the province's schools and hospitals that caused the coalition to crumble. It was the fear of deeply partisan Tories that their party was slowly fading away under the coalition arrangement. Roblin, by his vigorous oratory and his obvious potential as a winning politician must be credited with helping to end the coalition, but his view that it had to be ended to establish a satisfactory standard in provincial services was not shared by the majority of Manitoba Conservatives. They were satisfied with the status quo. No metamorphosis had taken place in the Conservative party. Roblin was the obvious choice on the basis of his age and his proven ability. His name gave him credentials as a Conservative that were beyond question, whatever policies he advocated. Duff Roblin was to succeed in making over the province, but he had no such impression on his own party. That was demonstrated in the selection of his successor.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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