CANADA

TIGHTLY WRAPPED

THE PM’S AIDES ARE KEEPING HIM AWAY FROM MEDIA AND ON THE MOVE TO AVOID THE UNPREDICTABLE

ROSS LAVER October 17 1988
CANADA

TIGHTLY WRAPPED

THE PM’S AIDES ARE KEEPING HIM AWAY FROM MEDIA AND ON THE MOVE TO AVOID THE UNPREDICTABLE

ROSS LAVER October 17 1988

TIGHTLY WRAPPED

CANADA

Political veterans call the strategy “low-bridging the leader.” In everyday language, it means keeping the candidate’s profile low to minimize the chances of making a

costly mistake. Former Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau followed that advice in his successful bid to regain the Prime Minister’s Office in 1980, running what became known as the “peek-a-boo” campaign. And last week, as the country launched into its 34th federal election campaign, Conservative organizers appeared to be following a similar strategy in their efforts to return Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to power. Setting a hurried pace, Mulroney’s chartered Air Canada 727 jetliner touched down in six provinces in as many days. But at most of his stops, Mulroney avoided impromptu encounters and stuck carefully to his script, while his campaign entourage sought to ensure that reporters and camera crews were kept at a safe distance. Complained Robin Sears, deputy director of the rival New Demo-

THE PM’S AIDES ARE KEEPING HIM AWAY FROM MEDIA AND ON THE MOVE TO AVOID THE UNPREDICTABLE

cratic Party campaign: “The Tory road show represents the Americanization of Canadian politics. What we are getting is the White House on tour.” Although Mulroney’s tightly organized campaign style drew criticism, it prevented him from committing any embarrassing errors— in contrast to Liberal Leader John Turner’s more

open style. Early in the week, an executive member of a Liberal riding association in Toronto confronted Turner on an open-line radio program to complain about party disunity. A day later, Turner held a news conference in Montreal to unveil his party’s policy on day care, but had to admit that he had no idea of its cost. NDP Leader Edward Broadbent, meanwhile, kicked off his campaign with a coast-tocoast swing that included visits to Quebec and Alberta—two provinces that have never elected New Democrat MPs. Conscious of photo opportunities, Broadbent called for a ban on community mailboxes while he stood in a new Winnipeg subdivision. Overall, Broadbent’s performance heartened NDP organizers but failed to dent the Conservative juggernaut. The first round of opinion polls in the campaign showed Mulroney with a healthy lead. A Gallup survey for The Toronto Star gave the Conservatives the support of 43 per cent of decided voters, up six percentage points in a month. The Liberals were second with 33 per cent, and the NDP had 22 per cent. A subse-

quent Angus Reid Associates poll for Southam News put the Tories at 45 per cent, with the NDP at 27 per cent and the Liberals at 26 per cent. Said pollster Angus Reid: “It is the Tories’ [election] to lose, but only if they make major blunders.”

To minimize that possibility—and recalling Turner’s collapse from an 11-point lead a month before the beginning of the 1984 election—Conservative organizers kept Mulroney on a tight schedule, with no major policy announcements and few opportunities for spontaneity. On Monday, the Prime Minister toured a Canadian-owned factory in Georgetown, Ont., that makes moulds for plastic parts, urging workers to support his government’s free trade agreement with the United States. But the Tories were clearly annoyed when some reporters began interviewing the firm’s employees, some of whom expressed the fear that they could lose their jobs under free trade.

At several subsequent events in the West, Mulroney’s handlers kept journalists behind white plastic chains in an apparent effort to

prevent them from mixing with the crowds. “We do not want chaos around the Prime Minister,” explained Marc Lortie, Mulroney’s press secretary. “He wants to meet the voters but he can’t do that unless we impose discipline.” Privately, however, another senior Tory gave another reason for keeping the press at a distance: journalists, he said, had a “vested interest” in trying to narrow the Conservatives’ lead so that the election would become a closer race.

Unlike Mulroney, Turner ran a relatively freewheeling campaign, gambling that the risks inherent in such an approach would be offset by the increased exposure it would attract. But it soon became apparent that the party was not as well-prepared for the campaign as it could have been. In Toronto, the

Liberal leader announced a $1.65-billion program to encourage housing construction and provide tax credits for homeowners and tenants who need them. But when he tried to follow up with a major announcement on day care, he had to concede that he was unsure how much parents would receive or how much the program would cost. Said Turner: “I can’t put a dollar figure on it.” On Saturday, the Liberals said that the program would cost $10.1 billion over seven years.

The impression that the Liberal campaign was off to a shaky start was reinforced when former Liberal cabinet minister Anthony Abbott declared that he planned to run for the Tories in Toronto because he disagreed with the Liberal party’s stand against free trade. Another former colleague of Turner’s, veteran Northern Ontario MP Keith Penner, said that he was retiring from federal politics because he did not “relish the thought of another four years in opposition.”

Despite those setbacks, Turner himself appeared to be in good spirits. One of his stron-

gest performances came during an attack on the free trade deal at the opening of his Vancouver Quadra riding association headquarters. With his wife, Geills, and daughter, Elizabeth, beside him, Turner called Mulroney a coward for running a carefully stage-managed campaign and refusing to participate in question-and-answer sessions with voters. “They have got him all wrapped up,” the Liberal leader said of the Prime Minister’s advisers. “I invite him to come out of the cage and meet the Canadian people.”

Broadbent took up the same theme during a visit to Victoria, accusing Mulroney of trying to avoid questions about his policies “like the plague.” Later, during a flight from Winnipeg to Toronto, he told Maclean’s that the Prime Minister “has an obligation to participate in public debate, and there is no way to do that other than through the media.” Still, at week’s end, the New Democrats

were at odds with the Liberals and Conservatives over an NDP proposal to hold at least two televised 90-minute debates in each official language during the campaign—one on general issues, including free trade, and another on women’s issues. The Liberals and Tories were pressing for a single three-hour debate in each language but disagreed on how much of that time should be devoted to free trade. Negotiations among the three parties and the television networks were set to resume this week. Regardless of the outcome, the negotiations were no more acrimonious than the campaign itself.

ROSS LAVER

MARC CLARK

HILARY MACKENZIE

BRUCE WALLACE