Politics

THE TRUST FACTOR

PAUL GESSELL January 4 1988
Politics

THE TRUST FACTOR

PAUL GESSELL January 4 1988

THE TRUST FACTOR

Politics

After three years of Brian Mulroney the voters have hardened their hearts. The annual Maclean's/Decima Poll shows that many Canadians who were previously unsure of how to rate the Prime Minister’s performance are now willing to pass judgment—and most apparently do not like what they see. Mulroney’s approval rating, sinking steadily for the past two years, reached a new low this year. Most striking were the hostile and vitriolic comments that poll respondents volunteered when asked to assess Mulroney. Complaints centred more on his style, credibility and mannerisms than on his policies. Many respondents said that he should resign. Typical of Mulroney’s critics was poll respondent Ernest Mottishaw, a 78-year-old retired carpenter from Sidney, B.C. Said Mottishaw: “I’ve got one word for Mulroney—lousy.”

The poll shows that voters are increasingly polarized over Mulroney’s leadership, especially when asked to rate him on such critical issues as his credibility. More respondents in the 1987 poll were willing than in past polls to give him high marks for being open and straightforward. But an even larger percentage were willing to fail him on the trust factor. Despite increased antagonism toward Mulroney, the government’s approval rating was similar to that of 1986. Forty per cent graded the government at a mediocre C in the latest poll, compared with 44 per cent in 1986. But only 24 per cent of respondents picked the Conservatives as their favorite party, an eightpoint drop in a year. Dale Thomson, a political science professor at Montreal’s McGill University, said that Mulroney is responsible for the Tories’ popularity problems. Declared Thomson: “He is a real deficit for his party.” Poll respondents who declared themselves dissatisfied with Mulroney’s overall performance increased to 49 per cent from 42 per cent in 1986. Those expressing satisfaction decreased to 25 per cent from 30 per cent. Even among respondents who called themselves Conservatives, 26 per cent

said that they were dissatisfied with Mulroney. Forty-nine per cent of Tories said that they were satisfied and the remainder were undecided. Peter Aucoin, a political science professor at

Halifax’s Dalhousie University, said that people are simply losing respect for the Prime Minister. Declared Aucoin: “Once you become the butt of jokes, you’re in deep trouble.”

The harshest indictments of Mulroney emerged when respondents were asked to rate his credibility. Although the proportion of respondents who expressed satisfaction with the Prime Minister for being straightforward increased to 28 from 19 per cent, those who were dissatisfied on that basis rose by a greater margin, to 56 from 37 per cent in the year. Reflecting the polarization, those who were neutral or undecided shrank to 15 from 44 per cent. Poll respondent Guy LeBlanc, a 35-year-old chemical engineer from Carp, Ont., 25 km west of Ottawa, said that he voted Liberal in the 1984 election and now says that he is pleased that he did vote against Mulroney. Said LeBlanc: “I do not trust Brian Mulroney as a person.”

Respondents were most polarized when asked to rate Mulroney’s ability to foster national harmony. Those expressing dissatisfaction grew to 41 per cent from 15 per cent in the past two years. Those who said that they were satisfied also increased, but by a smaller margin, to 39 per cent from 31 per cent. The percentage of the undecided shrank to 19 from 53 per cent. Mulroney’s poor rating in that category occurred despite the fact that he managed to make a constitutional deal that satisfied Quebec and the other provinces. But many staunch federalists, like poll respondent Guy Rochon, 41, a Montreal laborer and father of two, said that Mulroney gave away too much to the provinces. Said Rochon: “He wanted to get Quebec into the Constitution so badly that he was ready to give his shirt, and I think he did.”

The most puzzling results occurred when respondents were asked to rate Mulroney’s handling of the economy. Fifty-two per cent expressed dissatisfaction, 17 per cent uncertainty and 31 per cent satisfaction. At the same time, 78 per cent of respondents said that they were satisfied with their per-

sonal economie situations. Howard Leeson, head of the political science department at the University of Regina, explained that apparent contradiction this way: “Obviously, people feel they are succeeding in spite of Mulroney, not because of him.”

The poll indicated that the Conservative government received a higher rating than did its leader. When asked to grade the government, a total of 58 per cent of respondents awarded it an A, B or C—compared with the 25 per cent who registered general satisfaction with Mulroney’s performance. Regionally, residents of Mulroney’s native Quebec were the biggest fans, with more than two out of three respondents there giving the government an A, B or C, and one in three expressing general satisfaction with Mulroney’s performance. British Columbians were the most hostile, with 56 per cent giving the government the top three grades but only one in four registering satisfaction with the Prime Minister.

Respondents were also asked to name the party that they “identify with most strongly.” Thirty-five per cent said the Liberals, 24 per cent the Conservatives and 22 per cent the NDP. Other opinion polls that asked respondents what party they would support if an election were held immediately have shown the NDP running first or at least a close second to the Liberals. The NDP’S high standing is linked to Mulroney’s credibility problem, says Leeson, a former deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs in Saskatchewan. He added: “I frankly see no other explanation for the rise of [NDP Leader] Ed Broadbent so dramatically, other than the fact that he is not perceived to be as guileful as Mulroney.” Comments from poll respondents such as John Kirk, a 57-year-old unem-

ployed laborer from Victoria, underlined Leeson’s comments. Said Kirk: “I’d like to see Ed Broadbent where Mulroney is today. He seems more honest to me and so does [Liberal Leader] John Turner.”

Many political scientists say that the Conservatives could still be re-

elected. But such academics as Dalhousie’s Aucoin say that “a political miracle” is needed for the Tories to recover. Aucoin says that the government must stress its record, rather than its leader. Many Conservatives

express similar opinions. Conservative MP Patrick Nowlan from Nova Scotia acknowledges that the government has an image problem. “We have to get our message out—and economically, it’s a good message,” Nowlan said. And instead of presenting the Conservatives as Mulroney’s party, more emphasis should be placed on the Tory team, he said. But the opposition parties are already planning election tactics to make Mulroney the No. 1 issue. As a result, the Liberals and New Democrats will spend the campaign talking about what many of them call the “Mulroney trade deal” with the United States, in the hope that the very mention of the Prime Minister’s name will taint the trade pact. Said Marion Dewar, former president of the NDP and now an MP for Hamilton Mountain: “People just don’t trust Mr. Mulroney.”

But like the academics, some opposition MPs say that it may be too soon to dismiss the Tories. “The situation is volatile,” said Liberal MP Roland de Corneille from Toronto. “We can’t assume the Tories are out of it.” Conservative party president William Jarvis pointed out that a year ago, many Tories were complaining to him about Mulroney’s style, even criticizing the half-glasses that he wears for reading. But lately, Jarvis added, people have stopped grumbling and are offering to help promote the government’s record. Added Ontario Tory Donald Blenkarn, MP for Mississauga South: “We have to persuade people he is more open, more confident and more capable than people think.” The poll results indicate that Blenkarn and other Conservatives have a major task ahead.

PAUL GESSELL

DAVID SEABROOK