CANADA

Facing the music

On recess, Tory MPs hear anger from voters

GLEN ALLEN January 14 1991
CANADA

Facing the music

On recess, Tory MPs hear anger from voters

GLEN ALLEN January 14 1991

Facing the music

CANADA

On recess, Tory MPs hear anger from voters

Some Conservative MPs are delaying or cancelling planned vacations in the sun in order to spend time with voters. Others are holding town-hall meetings and appearing on call-in radio and cable TV shows. Still others, like St. John's East's Ross Reid, who says that he intends "to spend two straight weeks in the car just going to homes and businesses." will turn UD on electors' door-

steps. But however they spend a New Year’s break that may extend until Feb.

18, the government party’s members are obeying a common imperative. They face a bitterly divided country preoccupied with an explosive combination of concerns, and their party now commands the declared support of only 14 per cent of Canadians. As a result, many Tory MPs say that their best hope for reelection is to devote more time and attention to the voters who sent them to Ottawa in the first place.

For most, the message from the grassroots is unsettling. From coastal villages to major urban centres, Canadians say that they are worried and angry about everything from taxation and the faltering economy to national unity, domestic crime and the looming possibility of war in the Persian Gulf. Those concerns were clearly evident in the results of the annual Maclean 's/Decima poll, published last week. It found that only 11 per cent of Canadians say that they are satisfied with the way government operates. Tory MPs say that an added worry is the heightened profile of small but influential regional parties—notably the western-based

Reform party and the Bloc Québécois—that are competing for traditional Conservative support. As well, many longtime Tory supporters express a visceral, personal dislike for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Said Beaver Lodge, Alta., farmer Herbert Wilcox: “It is a challenging time to be a Tory.”

Indeed, for many Conservatives, the New Year’s break is turning into a head-on confrontation with public anger. For his part, Torontoarea MP Patrick Boyer says that he has encoun-

tered a “mood of great fatigue and doubt.” He added, “People want answers.” And Drayton Valley, Alta., town councillor and Tory loyalist Natalie Gibson said of the government that she helped elect, “In the rush of running the country, people haven’t been consulted.” Traditional Tories are perhaps more dispirited than anyone. Said Donald Jenkins, president of New Brunswick’s Fundy/Royal riding

association: “Frankly, our workers don’t see all that much hope for the next election. They’re discouraged.” Added Halifax-area MP Howard Crosby: “Our first concern is winning back our own support. Polls show that people who consider themselves Progressive Conservatives are not supporting the party.”

In many PC riding associations across the country, local officials say that the party’s greatest challenge lies in showing that it can rescue the economy from the recession. Says

Joseph Stewart, a party organizer in New Glasgow, N.S.: “We’ve got to get the economy moving. MPs are going to hear that message loud and clear.” The concern is equally clear in the West. Pincher Creek, Alta., businesswoman and riding association director Carol Brown, for one, told Maclean’s: “The recession and interest rates have a lot of people upset. Things are at a standstill.”

At the same time, many Tory voters are telling their MPs that the government has failed to get control over its own economic programs. Noted Arnold Malone, MP for the Alberta riding of Crowfoot: “If I go into the coffee shop anywhere in Canada, the message I get is that there are all kinds of cuts we can make, that we have to operate more lean.” One local Tory who expressed that view is John Bergman,

pastor of Edmonton’s evangelical First Christian Church and a director of the PC North Edmonton riding association. Said Bergman: “I think people would accept tough measures if they saw leadership in spending in Ottawa.”

But concern about the state of government finances is proving to be a doubleedged sword. Recent rounds of federal spending cuts on such public services as the CBC and Via Rail, at a time when Canadian unity is threatened, have also fuelled complaints. And Tory attempts to broaden the base of government revenues by imposing the new Goods and Services Tax has been no more popular. As Pincher Creek’s Brown noted, “A lot of people are really upset about the GST.” Halton/Peel MP Garth Turner goes further still, suggesting that voters across the country may even be ripe for a tax revolt: “People are totally frustrated. They see taxes are going up—but so is the deficit.”

In addition, many MPs have encountered rising concern about the possibility of a war in the Gulf. Said Toronto’s Boyer, for one: “The overshadowing thing is what’s going to happen in the Gulf.

Other things fall into perspective if in two months the whole world is going to go sideways.”

Meanwhile, widespread worries about national unity have added another dimension to voter unhappiness. Says Edmonton-area MP Scott Thorkelson: “People are especially concerned about Canada and about the BélangerCampeau commission [on the future of Quebec]. This is a tumultuous time.” For his part, St. John’s lawyer and Tory supporter Cabot Martin predicted “total shock” in English Can-

ada following the Quebec commission’s report, expected by June. Added Martin: “How are you going to explain to English Canada the country they know is gone?”

Against the backdrop of those problems, Tories in Quebec and the West face the additional challenge of new parties with strong regional appeal. In Quebec, many Conservatives express concern that the pro-independence Bloc Québécois could severely erode their own support. Said St-Maurice MP Denis Pronovost: “Every moment of every day, people ask me why I don’t join the Bloc. People here are angry over everything that stands for the federal government.” One senior federal cabinet minister from Quebec even confided that “many of my friends wonder what I’m still doing in this party.”

In the sprawling riding of Gaspé, PC riding association president Stephen Tribble noted that the Tories’ attempts to rein in government spending by cutting local Radio-Canada television service may have contributed to voter dissatisfaction. The area’s MP, Charles-Eugène Marin, cancelled a customary southern winter holiday in order to spend the time going door-todoor to talk to constituents. Still, said Tribble, “There is a lot of support for the Bloc Québécois here.”

Western Tories encounter similar opinions about the Reform party. In

Alberta, says Robert Alexander, a -

Lethbridge accountant and PC riding association officer, “The Reform party would take 24 or 25 per cent of the vote if an election were held today.” Adds Walter McNary, a Tory farmer who is president of the Camrose, Alta., Chamber of Commerce: “We’ve had a lot of faithful supporters going over to the Reform party. People feel the government hasn’t been working in their favor. If the Conservatives don’t have some policies to counteract it, it will snowball in the next election.”

Indeed, the snowball may already be gathering speed. Former Tory Roy Rubuliak, a pastor at the evangelical Abbottsford Christian Assembly in Abbottsford, B.C., said: “I have let my membership go. And I’m leaning towards the Reform party.” Rubuliak said that he blames the GST, the government’s stacking of the Senate with Tory appointees and Tory legislation on abortion for his dissatisfaction. “They say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be, like it or not,’ ” he adds. “Mulroney has not taken time to spend on the grassroots.”

Rubuliak is not alone in blaming many of the party’s—and the country’s—woes on Mulroney. A spate of recent polls indicate that for many Canadians, the Prime Minister has become the emblem of the malaise gripping the country. Acknowledged Martin of St. John’s, for one: “The feeling out there is very negative, that’s true, but much of it is a personalized thing against the Prime Minister.”

Still, most Tories continue to insist that Mulroney does not deserve his negative characterization in the mind of much of the public. Indeed, none who were interviewed suggested that the time had come to replace Mulroney as

Conservative leader. For his part, John Abbass of Sydney, N.S., a former president of the Nova Scotia Conservative party, declared: “I stick up for Mulroney when people attack him and I am

quite confident in doing so. His unpopularity is fuelled by the media.”

In fact, many party loyalists say that public discontent with the government’s policies and its leader has been exacerbated by misunderstanding and a sensationhungry media. Declared Gabrielle Bertrand, MP for southern Quebec’s Brome/ Missisquoi riding: “I feel that people are not that well informed about many issues. The media has not been fair.” Declared St. John’s businessman and Tory riding association director Frank Dillon: “Of course you’re going to hear complaints. But somebody had to do these things. Somebody has to try and bring the deficit down.”

Even the much-reviled GST has its defenders among the Conservative rank and file. Said longtime party supporter Mary Rita O’Regan of Toronto, for one: “If you understand the GST, you realize this is a much fairer form of taxation. I feel this is one of the best things the government has done.” Added retired Alcan employee Tom Foxton of Sydenham, Ont.: “Overall, the tax measures are over-

due. We’re one of the last countries to go that route.”

That is a message that many Tory MPs will carry directly to their constituents in the next few weeks. And despite the sometimes harsh reception many Tories are getting in their ridings, the party seems intent upon expanding its contacts with individual voters. In fact, House Leader Harvie Andre has recommended a drastic reduction in the sitting time of the Commons to allow MPs either to spend an extra day each week in their ridings or one clear week every month at home. According to Andre, the proposed changes are in response to requests from constituents who complain that they “don’t have a chance to interact with their elected representatives.” Officials from other parties are expected to consult soon with Andre’s office about his proposals.

Clearly, many MPs would welcome the chance to spend additional time in their ridings. Said MP Boyer: “In Ottawa, we all bathe in the same bath water. But there is a country ticking away out there.” Added Edmonton’s Thorkelson: “It would be nice to be able to go over to people’s homes and have a cup of coffee or speak to service clubs. Politics is a two-way street. We have to listen a lot.” But, for an angry electorate seeking answers to Canada’s current woes, listening may not be enough.

GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa