From the Liberal perspective, there were compelling reasons to believe that they would win another majority government. The leader, while old and presumably fighting his last campaign, was nevertheless respected and even loved as “Uncle Louis," the benevolent prime minister of a nation thriving in the aftermath of the Second World War. The economy was booming. The cabinet St Laurent had built included some of the strongest ministers and best minds ever assembled in Ottawa – C.D. Howe had his finger in every pie, but in reality was Minister of Trade and Commerce and of Defence Production; Paul Martin, Sr., was a highly respected Minister of National Health and Welfare; and Lester Pearson, on the verge of being awarded Canada’s first Nobel Peace Prize for his solution to the Suez crisis, was the Secretary of State for External Affairs. There were others, too, and they ran the Liberal party with a precision that comes only with years in office. There was nothing, surely, that would turn the voters away from the efficient, successful, managerial government of the Liberal Party under Louis St Laurent.
The Conservatives saw things differently. The business of government might have been dispatched with managerial efficiency, but it was also conducted with a degree of arrogance that the Conservatives were finding unbearable. They hoped the electorate would too. Debate over the building of an gas pipeline across Canada had been suspended by the imposition of “closure," a decidedly undemocratic and rarely used Parliamentary procedure. Conservatives across the country campaigned against the sense of entitlement with which the Liberals seemed to govern. They also drew attention to Liberal stinginess – in an era of economic prosperity, the Liberals had agreed only to a $6.00 increase to the existing Old Age Pension, prompting calls of “Six Buck Harris" in the direction of Finance Minister Walter Harris. From the Conservative perspective, these were issues that could be turned into campaign fodder in the spring of 1957. Whether or not they could be turned into gains in the House of Commons was another matter, however.
The new Progressive Conservative leader, John Diefenbaker, was the real unknown in the equation. Selected at a leadership convention the year before, Diefenbaker was by no means a unanimous choice. Frequently on the losing end of campaigns and leadership contests in the past, his win came as a surprise, and was secured with virtually no support from Quebec Conservatives. Because Quebec was viewed as one of the provinces where the party most needed to make gains, Diefenbaker’s selection was considered risky by many.
What no one had really taken into account was Diefenbaker’s powerful presence on the campaign trail. An indefatigable orator, he brought a vitality to the election that was missing on the Liberal side. On the advice of his somewhat obsequious aide Merril Menzies, Diefenbaker began to talk of a new national policy for Canada, based on a program of developing Canada’s north. Without much in the way of a formal platform, what Diefenbaker said on the hustings became the Conservative policy.
John Diefenbaker was a self-proclaimed underdog. The party campaigned under the slogan “It’s time for a Diefenbaker government," emphasizing the need for change after so many years of Liberal rule. But in 1957 more was needed to slay the Liberal Goliath than that – and fortunately, a more powerful weapon came in the shape of Ontario’s Big Blue Machine. A Conservative stronghold since 1943, Ontario’s premiers George Drew – coincidentally Diefenbaker’s unsuccessful predecessor as the leader of the national Progressive Conservatives – and Leslie Frost had built a powerful political organization in the province. After working reasonably satisfactorily with the Liberals in Ottawa for the better part of a decade, Frost had finally tired of the federal government’s position on tax-sharing and, hoping for better fiscal results from the Conservatives, agreed that it was, indeed, “time for a Diefenbaker government." Frost threw his considerable political weight into Diefenbaker’s campaign, and lent him the use of his own party machinery.
No one had predicted the results of the 1957 election, which saw 112 Conservatives elected – despite making little headway in Quebec, but thanks in large part to the support of Ontario. That left 105 Liberals, 25 CCFers, 19 Socreds and 4 Independents, and created Canada’s first postwar minority government. It was the least anticipated result of any Canadian federal election either before or since: the Conservatives were thrilled at the chance to govern, but the Liberals, facing defeat not only in the election but also individually for many of the most powerful ministers, were in a state of shock. That response was to have important implications for the next election.
The Liberals, stripped of power and their access to the civil servants who had helped them design policy, and having lost the cabinet ministers who in the past had kept them in touch with the mood of the country (though obviously not in 1957), tried to regroup. St Laurent retired, and was replaced as leader of the party by Lester Pearson, a boy wonder in the diplomatic field but one as yet unprepared for the prime minister’s chair. New policy advisers were quickly pulled together, but there was not nearly enough time for a complete rethinking of Liberal party policy. Rashly, Pearson took the first Parliamentary opportunity available to him to demand Diefenbaker’s resignation, giving Diefenbaker just the excuse he needed to call a snap election.
Once again, the campaign trail showed Diefenbaker to advantage. He had perfected his new national policy rhetoric, offering up a vision of “One Canada" for everyone, and a northern development policy built on “roads to resources." There were flaws in the scheme, and little of the new national policy would ever be fully realized, but it caught the imagination of the electorate in ways that Pearson’s rather inchoate “Plan" never did. The Liberals ran a disorganized campaign, offering increases to old social policies and the addition of new ones like health insurance, but the public was more inclined to give the Conservatives – who had already made immediate increases to old age pensions and mother’s allowances – a real chance to govern. In winning 208 seats in the election of 31 March 1958, the Conservatives secured the largest majority ever. It would be surpassed only by Mulroney’s staggering rise to power in 1984.
The players change, but the script is often the same. The 2006 federal election sees the Liberals – plagued by scandal that points to arrogance, and long in office – playing the role of modern-day St Laurent Liberals. This time, though, the Liberals are also the party whose minority government was prematurely terminated, placing them also in the role of 1958’s Diefenbaker Conservatives – forced to campaign too early, but winning a proper chance from the electorate to see what they can really do. That the Liberals of the 21st century parallel so easily both the Liberals and Conservatives of a half century ago says much about the reasons for their longevity despite the rapidly changing face of the Canadian political landscape.
P. E. Bryden is professor of history at the University of Victoria.