POLITICS

A government on trial

ROY MACGREGOR January 6 1986
POLITICS

A government on trial

ROY MACGREGOR January 6 1986

At about the halfway point of an unusual Canadian political year—at 10:45 a.m. on Friday, June 28, 1985, to be precise—Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sagged visibly during his final press conference before the summer break. He had been asked about an upcoming policy decision regarding free trade and, with an unexpected hint of bitterness, implied that it probably did not much matter what he did about anything. Canadians, the Prime Minister said, greet most matters with “an overwhelming degree of ambivalence. You’d get six of one, lose a half dozen of the other.” Six months later Mulroney’s measure of his electorate has turned out to be remarkably similar to the people’s measure of him. Canadians have had well over a year to pass judgment on the Mulroney government, but the one principal conclusion to be drawn from the political section of the annual Maclean’s/Decima Poll is that, as Decima senior research consultant Bruce Anderson concluded, “the jury is still out.” In terms of the Prime Minister’s performance, 37 per cent of Canadians said they were satisfied, 33 per cent said they were not—and the remaining 30 per cent had no conviction.

The fact that sympathy remains even slightly on the side of the Prime Minister is, according to one of Mulroney’s senior advisers, a “comforting” sign, considering that the poll was taken at the beginning of November. At the time, the Mulroney government was still reeling from a series of public opinion disasters that began with the controversial August voyage of the United States Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea through Canadian arctic waters and carried through the bank failures, the rancid tuna scandal and two cabinet resignations. Still, the adviser added: “It’s pretty bloody obvious that there’s going to have to be a bit more work done. The public tolerance for fumbles and dropped balls is not bottomless.”

Credibility: Where Mulroney does appear to have done well is in the public’s assessment of his work in two of the three priority areas that his new government specified in the throne speech of Nov. 5, 1984: national reconciliation and economic renewal. But one area in which he has fared poorly is the third leg of that stance—social justice. And he did not get high marks for public candor. Respondents were asked to compare his performance with that of previous Prime Ministers in four categories: job creation and improving the economy, helping the country work together, being open and straightforward with the public and protecting the poor and disadvantaged. He scored relatively well in the first two categories but relatively poorly in the others. Indeed, just 12 per cent of respondents perceive Mulroney as being a superior champion of the disadvantaged, while 31 per cent think he is worse than other Prime Ministers. And in terms of “being open and straightforward with the public,” one in three poll participants said he is less credible than his predecessors, and only one in five said he has more credibility.

Disappointments: Many of the Prime Minister’s difficulties can be traced directly to the sense of indecision that has plagued his office. Two years ago, before becoming leader of his party, Mulroney published a small booklet titled Where I Stand, in which he announced that, once government has spoken, “there can be no turning back, no exceptions and, in the face of resistance, no compromise.” That resolve died on June 27, the day the federal government backed away from its budget plan to eliminate automatic increases in old-age pensions pegged to the annual rate of inflation.

Indeed, throughout much of 1985 Mulroney was beset by resistance to his best intentions, with several potential government successes marred by an unexpected setback. In one case, the day after the signing of the Atlantic Accord on energy with Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford last February, the resignation of Defence Minister Robert Coates darkened the glow (Coates had visited a strip club in Lahr, West Germany, during a NATO tour in the fall of 1984).

The Prime Minister strove at every opportunity to detail his government’s successes—a Western Accord on energy, more than 300,000 new jobs created, interest rates and inflation down. But the disappointments continued. During the very week in September that his government tackled the arctic sovereignty issue with a strong statement on Northern Canadian claims and countered continuing patronage charges with strong conflict-of-interest guidelines, Mulroney was severely damaged by the resignations of Fisheries and Oceans Minister John Fraser over the tuna affair and Communications Minister Marcel Masse over allegations of campaign overspending.

Trouble: Approval for Mulroney’s performance remains highest in the Prairies (43 per cent compared to the national average of 37 per cent). He is almost as popular in his home province of Quebec and in the Atlantic region (41 per cent in each case). When the results are broken down by age and economic groups, the Prime Minister gets his best rating from those aged 18 to 24 (46 per cent) and the young, upwardly mobile professionals commonly known as “yuppies” (45 per cent). On the other hand, the Prime Minister did not do as well among older respondents. Among those aged 55 to 64, 47 per cent said they are dissatisfied with him, compared to a national average of 33 per cent. Among those actually retired, dissatisfaction runs at 41 per cent—evidence that suggests the June debate over pension increases may have badly harmed the government. Other segments showing relatively high dissatisfaction with his performance are the unemployed (40 per cent) and Ontario respondents as a whole (38 per cent).

Indeed, Ontario often surfaces in the poll as a potential Mulroney trouble spot. Respondents in the most populous province were more likely than those in other parts of Canada to say the Prime Minister had done worse than his predecessors in “taking steps to improve the economy and create jobs” (24 per cent compared to the national average of 19 per cent); worse at “being open and straightforward with the public” (45 per cent compared to the national average of 33 per cent); worse at protecting the disadvantaged and poor (36 per cent compared to 31 per cent); and worse at “helping the country work together” (18 per cent compared to 15 per cent). As well, Ontario residents were more likely than others to say that their expectations of political leadership in general had been lowered over the past several years. While a strong majority of Canadians (65 per cent) expressed no change, a small portion (14 per cent) claimed their expectations had risen and a larger number (22 per cent) said they had been lowered. In Ontario the last figure rose to 26 per cent. Said one Ontario respondent, Toronto salesman Donald Macintosh, 25: “Mulroney has got everything except ideas and fortitude.”

Still, the poll indicates that Mulroney has managed to impress as many Canadians as he has disappointed. Poll respondent Rachel Banville, for one, a 52-year-old chef from St-Aimé-des-Lacs, Que., is delighted with Mulroney’s performance and says she welcomes his leadership in moving toward such matters as free trade. “He’ll keep his promises later,” said Banville. “Right now he has got to establish his name and stabilize the government and build his team of ministers—there’s a lot of work for him to do.”

But the poll suggests that roughly a third of respondents do not feel strongly either way about Mulroney’s performance. Instead, they share the ambivalence of Robert Becker, a 36-year-old land surveyor from Bridgewater, N.S., who voted for Mulroney and now feels “slightly disappointed,” but is not ready to give up on him yet. “Nobody can live up to all they have promised,” said Becker. “My friends say they don’t trust him and he’s sleazy and a smoothy and I have always maintained that he was not.”

Wonders: In the poll the Prime Minister emerges a marginal winner in the fight to improve the economy and create jobs following the long recession of the first third of the decade (24 per cent said he was doing a better job than his predecessors; 19 per cent said it was worse). Groups more likely to say Mulroney was doing well in the economic area included men in general, respondents with a household income of more than $40,000, students and respondents aged 18 and 19, self-described yuppies and those who live on the Prairies. “He hasn’t worked wonders as far as economic renewal goes,” said Dorothy Préfontaine, a 32-year-old part-time store clerk in Prince Albert, Sask. “But I don’t think it’s possible to work wonders.” Still, the critics feel strongly about the government’s perceived faults. Said Jake Vobryk, a retired farmer from Myrnam, Alta.: “It doesn’t look like he’s helping the economy. I can’t see it. The big shots are doing fine, but the poor aren’t.”

Such sentiment shows up clearly in the Maclean's poll. While a majority of respondents (55 per cent) said that Mulroney is no better or worse than his predecessors in helping the poor and the disadvantaged, 31 per cent said he is doing a worse job while only 12 per cent credit him with doing a better job. Those whose rating of the Prime Minister exceeded the national average in the category included 18- and 19-year-olds, homemakers, urban dwellers and residents of the Prairies.

Lied: Much of Mulroney’s negative rating can probably be tied to the fallout from Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s May budget, with its increased revenues from personal income tax and decreased corporate tax take. More important, however, was the controversy caused by Wilson’s plan to eliminate guaranteed increases in old-age pensions according to the rate of inflation—and the government’s subsequent reversal. Arguably, Mulroney’s perceivable problems with credibility date from the moment 63-year-old pension campaigner Solange Denis of Ottawa confronted the Prime Minister on Parliament Hill on June 19 and angrily said, “You lied to us.” That incident, and the controversy over who knew what about both the tuna affair and the RCMP investigation of Marcel Masse, have combined to cause considerable damage to Mulroney. As Prince Albert’s Dorothy Préfontaine put it: “You just don’t know if Mulroney knows and doesn’t tell, or if he doesn’t know and somebody’s not telling him. Whatever it is, he’s the head honcho—he’s got to take the responsibility.”

What The Maclean’s/Decima Poll reveals is that 14 months after obtaining the largest majority in Canadian history, there are significant doubts about Mulroney’s personal credibility. Virtually half those polled (46 per cent) say he is no more or less candid than Prime Ministers before him, and one in five (20 per cent) actually believes he is more open and straightforward with the public. But slightly more respondents—one in three—say he is worse than his predecessors. Mulroney’s strongest believers were respondents from Quebec and the Prairies, those classified as yuppies and rural residents and those whose household incomes are between $10,000 and $19,999. The doubters included urban dwellers, those with household incomes of $30,000 or more and, significantly, respondents in Ontario—which sends almost a third of all MPs to Ottawa—where more than 45 per cent said Mulroney is not as credible as past Canadian leaders.

On the positive side for Mulroney, 52 per cent of those polled said that he has done the same job as his predecessors in “helping the country work together.” But 31 per cent give him better marks than past leaders, compared to just 15 per cent who rate him worse. The strongest endorsement on the point came from respondents on the Prairies (where 43 per cent say he is doing a better job), followed in order by those who attended university (40 per cent), people with household incomes of more than $40,000 (37 per cent), men (35 per cent) and yuppies (34 per cent). Those more likely to say he has been doing a worse job than his predecessors included respondents between the ages of 55 and 64 (27 per cent versus the national average of 15 per cent), the unemployed (26 per cent) and, once again, Ontario (18 per cent).

More generally, the poll revealed that a large majority (65 per cent) of respondents said that their expectations of what political leaders can accomplish have not changed over the past several years. Fourteen per cent said their expectations have been raised, while 22 per cent said they have been lowered. Those more likely to say “raised” include yuppies, Quebecers and those aged 20 to 24. Respondents from Ontario and those aged 30 to 39 were more likely to say “lowered.”

Change: Clearly, the poll revealed that opinion about the leadership of Brian Mulroney has not yet solidified. Many respondents, like Nova Scotia’s Becker, have delayed judgment. Becker is dismayed at the ineffectiveness of Canada Post—for which the government has direct responsibility—yet he refused to transfer this concern to the man many hold ultimately responsible, the Prime Minister. Said Becker: “It would take at least two terms of atrocious Conservative government to change my mind. A year and four months really isn’t nearly enough. As far as I’m concerned, he’s still got the benefit of the doubt.” But for others, patience is wearing thin. As one respondent, a federal civil servant who requested anonymity, told Maclean’s: “I voted Tory because I wanted change. I am willing to give them a chance, but he had better do something fast or it will be a one-time thing.” The jury is still out—but its decision will certainly be apparent at the next election, to be held by September, 1989.