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A Conservative ahead of his time

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With the passing of Sterling Lyon, Manitobans lost one of this province's most dynamic and memorable political figures. Whether staring down opponents amid heated constitutional debates, or facing down fiscal crises amid a global recession, Lyon's vision of smaller government based on the traditions of parliamentary democracy was as clear as it was controversial. His commitment to these principles earned him the respect of allies and opponents alike, and even in defeat, helped carry his party to a level of success few leaders have ever equalled.

Lyon's legacy extends well beyond his four-year term in the premier's office. While criticized at the time, his positions on the Constitution and fiscal restraint have gained widespread support among Canadians across the political spectrum. In many ways, this made Sterling Lyon a conservative ahead of his time.

Having served in several positions in Duff Roblin's various cabinets, Lyon reached the premier's office in 1977 -- amid one of the most tumultuous periods in Canadian history. As fortune would have it, Lyon assumed chair of the Council of Premiers from the summer of 1980 until the summer of 1981. The position gave him a platform from which to espouse his views about Canadian democracy, as the premiers and prime minister negotiated the patriation of the Canadian Constitution. With attempts to secure provincial agreement unsuccessful, the federal government decided to proceed with a unilateral package that included a charter of rights. Lyon was an implacable opponent of Trudeau's proposal, referring to the charter as "an alien and unnecessary United States-style innovation that is incompatible with our traditions of parliamentary sovereignty" in which the rights of individual citizens are protected through responsible government and legislative supremacy.

In appearing to oppose the notion of protecting human rights, Lyon's stance was maligned as dogmatically conservative. Yet, his reasoned defence of the legislature as the ultimate protector of Canadian rights and freedoms received support among those who feared the effects of an active, unelected judiciary.

Indeed, Lyon's concerns about the impact of the charter on legislatures can in some ways be seen as prophetic. While debate exists over the ultimate impact of the trend, there can be no doubt that the charter has emboldened the judiciary at the expense of Canadian legislatures. And few would know better than Lyon, himself. The former premier would go on to serve on the Manitoba Court of Appeal until his mandatory retirement in 2002. There is some irony in the fact that one of the leading critics of the charter ended his public career as one of its interpreters, but Lyon served admirably in this role.

At home, the policy priorities of the Lyon government were clear. Before deficits and debts were perceived as problematic by most politicians, Lyon identified them as an issue requiring immediate attention. The premier viewed two priorities for his government -- one economic, focusing on expenditure control, and the other on modernizing social programs. In his words, his government wanted to "combat dependency" while arresting the growth of government. In this sense, Lyon served at the vanguard of the "New Right," introducing the world to concepts like "acute, protracted restraint" years before Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Brian Mulroney echoed similar prescriptions.

Unfortunately for the premier, the Canadian economic situation worsened. High inflation and interest rates presented his government with difficult challenges, and compound interest made it virtually impossible for him to balance his budget. Moreover, the long-term nature of his objectives remained out of sync with the short-term electoral goals of his party.

For this, as usual, Lyon accepted full responsibility: "You cannot... be all things to all people and still be a person of principle. If that means you cannot win a succession of elections... that does not bother me." In the end, despite descriptions of his government as "disastrous," Lyon won 44 per cent of the vote in 1981. Since that time, even in victory, no Progressive Conservative party leader has matched that level of support.

His personal style was combative and his rhetoric was stark, making Lyon a polarizing figure, to be certain. With Lyon at the helm, the 1977 and 1981 election campaigns remain among the most ideologically charged affairs in Manitoba history, a highly partisan atmosphere that carried over into the divisive debates over bilingualism.

Yet, in an era when Canadians believe that politicians will do or say anything to get elected, one can almost feel nostalgic for the Lyon approach. As the Ottawa Citizen wrote at the time of his appointment to the Manitoba Court of Appeal in 1986, "while he made enemies during his political career, the old-world manner he showed in person and his unflinching adherence to his principles -- even when they proved unpopular -- earned him many loyal friends and supporters."

Political reporter Clair Hoy captures this mood when he suggests, "I admire politicians who stand for something beyond getting elected. Most people do. I'd rather go with Sterling Lyon. You know where he stands." This seems a fitting epitaph to the Lyon era.

Jared Wesley is an assistant professor of

political studies, University of Manitoba. David Stewart is professor and head of the department of political science, University of Calgary. Parts of this piece appear in their chapter in Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries (Barry Ferguson and Robert Wardhaugh, eds., Canadian Plains Research Press, 2010).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2010 A14

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