In Ottawa it was the talk of lunch tables and cocktail parties. When Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau stayed home for two days with flu, it was presumed to be the reason. A top campaign strategist called it “the X factor.” The cause of the kerfuffle: the peregrinations of Margaret Trudeau who last week, appropriately, turned up in Walt Disney’s Florida fantasy world.*
True to the form he has exhibited since the couple’s separation in 1977, Trudeau publicly exhibited no sign that he was perturbed about the doings and sayings of his erstwhile mate. In the Commons he attacked Opposition leader Joe Clark with rare vigor on energy policy. That same night, bestowing kisses on guitarist Liona Boyd and plaudits all around, he appeared front and centre in Toronto at the annual Juno awards for music —and grabbed eight golden minutes of live CBCTV time just before the nightly news to promote his government’s policies on Canadian content.
In presenting the Hall of Fame award to country-singer Hank Snow, and by bathing in the glazed glitter of the new stars, Trudeau managed a subliminal seduction of music fans that spanned generations and was worth 10 appearances in the Commons question period. Joe Clark should have asked for equal time.
Privately, though, Trudeau’s handlers are worried about the unseen, personal toll that the Margaret factor may have in the midst of an election campaign. As one sympathetic veteran of past political wars puts it: “Let’s say he goes to his room for 30 minutes to rest up for a big speech in Kitchener and reads in the Record news of Margaret’s latest zany sayings. He knows when he goes downstairs to face the crowd that
*After Maclean’s declared lust week that Mrs. Trudeau had confided to a friend in 1977 that she had had a “romantic liaison” with Senator Edward Kennedy, a spokesman for the prime minister’s estranged wife called the report “absolutely absurd.” A Kennedy spokesman used the phrase “absolute rubbish. ”
all 2,500 have read the very same story.” While the X factor is not the only reason, concern about a deflated Trudeau out on the stump at the same time that Margaret is on tour promoting her upcoming book Beyond Reason is one reason why some Liberal back-room heavies are now urging Trudeau to postpone the election until June. Noting the serialization of the book in newspapers which starts next week, one senior adviser observes: “I’d prefer to have that as history before we call the election.” Trudeau, of course, is the final master of the timing, but he will have to play arbiter between top advisers who have been split into doves and hawks. Senator Keith Davey, the campaign cochairman with Justice Minister Marc Lalonde, is the leading exponent of a June election (the 18th is his personal favorite date) because Canadians tend to be in a better mood in the summer. Davey also has the party’s latest polls which suggest that the Liberals are behind in suburban Toronto and that prospects are dicey for such Ontario ministers as Hugh Faulkner, Norm Cafik, Barney Danson, Alastair Gillespie and Tony Abbott.
In contrast, ministers such as Allan MacEachen in Nova Scotia, Don Jamieson in Newfoundland and the Quebec contingent want to go as soon as possible, arguing that they can offset losses in Ontario with gains in the east. This is a view supported by Trudeau’s chief of staff, Jim Coutts. With that array of conflicting advice, the decision likely will be determined largely by the way Trudeau feels in his gut.
There was a hint in Vancouver two weeks ago that the Margaret issue will follow him around the campaign trail even if the PM doesn’t allow it to get under his thick skin. On the way into a meeting with University of British Columbia students, Trudeau was attempting to explain his policies on marijuana when a 40-year-old proponent of pot shot back, “Yeah, but I don’t have the RCMP to bring me incense in my room — like Margaret.”
Margaret aside, all parties are expecting a particularly nasty campaign. A further indication came last week when the Conservatives, upon hearing that Trudeau planned a major speech in the House, tried to stall proceedings with procedural hijinks. One of those resulted in a one-day expulsion of the Tories’ nettlesome Trudeau critic, Tom Cossitt, who broke the rules of the club by accusing Trudeau of lying about his expense accounts, that is, not answering Cossitt’s questions about $86,000 of Trudeau’s office spending.
The Conservatives also hit out at the Liberals over the government’s position on the 30-year-old Arab economic boycott of Israel. In an open pitch for Jewish votes, Clark demanded that the government press on with its boycott bill and said the Tories wanted to toughen it up (the legislation would force companies pressured to join the boycott to report to Ottawa). But curiously, when the Liberals proposed, with agreement from Conservative House Leader Walter Baker, to dispose of the legislation in one day, Edmonton Tory MP William Skoreyko, abetted by Independent Leonard Jones, refused the required unanimous consent, delaying the debate.
What touched the matter off was a statement by Trade Minister Jack Horner that legislation in Ontario, more stringent than Ottawa’s proposal, is “costing us trade” and that Queen’s
Park is playing politics. Horner may have had his eye on $644 million worth of exports to Arab nations last year, vs. $81 million to Israel, but Toronto Liberals who need Jewish votes and who believe that Horner will lose his Alberta seat anyway descended on the trade minister at caucus to berate him.
The fractiousness was a familiar scene on Parliament Hill, where the parties have been on election-alert now for almost two years. The animus is heightened, of course, as Trudeau dallies and his government scrambles to rule with a rapidly ebbing mandate.
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