Mulroney faces the West

Carol Goar May 30 1983

Mulroney faces the West

Carol Goar May 30 1983

Mulroney faces the West


Carol Goar

It was one of those embarrassing moments every politician fears, but Brian Mulroney emerged unscathed. He had just finished a rousing speech to 400 small-business men in Red Deer, Alta., last week, and they presented him with a cowboy hat. The hat was a beautiful $130 Calgary-made Smithfield Silver Belly with a red satin lining. But it was a size 7% and Mulroney wears a 9. He placed it on his head, but the hat sat high on his crown. Mulroney was visibly uncomfortable. He removed it quickly and waved it heartily in the air. But the locals were not fooled. Said Franklin Daines, owner of the westernwear shop that supplied the hat: “We gave you the biggest hat in town, but it’s too small. We like men with big heads,” he added helpfully. “It shows you’ve got lots of brains. But it doesn’t fit, does it?” The suave Montrealer took the hat and playfully put it on backwards. “It fits this way.” The crowd chuckled. The crisis turned into a good joke.

Later during a flight in an eight-seat Piper Cheyenne turboprop to Edmonton, Mulroney fingered the hat ruefully. “Maybe they can stretch it Brian,” consoled aide Michael McSweeney. But it was clear by the end of his three-day

swing through oil and cattle country that the West will have to stretch more than two sizes to accommodate Brian Mulroney, the candidate from Baie Comeau, Que.

The western tour came at a critical point in the Mulroney campaign. A poll conducted by the Carleton University School of Journalism for the Southam News service and Global Television showed that he was trailing Joe Clark by 16 points and that he had fewer second-ballot votes than third-place John Crosbie. The survey of 530 delegates gave Clark 35 per cent of committed first-ballot support, Mulroney 19 per cent and put John Crosbie close on his tail with about 14 per cent. All week Mulroney muttered angrily about the poll— the first widely circulated test of candidates’ strength—vowing to everyone in sight that “those Carleton journalism students are going to have cardiac arrest on

June 11.” But the news did force a change in tactics in the Mulroney campaign. He vowed to be on the evening television news every night between now and the convention. His workers also mailed out copies of his $6.95 book, Where I Stand, to every delegate. The 103-page book is a summary of his recent speeches on productivity, government spending, the Constitution, industrial strategy and the future of the Progressive Conservative party. And the candidate headed for vote-rich Ontario, whose 893 delegates are seen by many political analysts as the group that will decide the party’s next leader.

But first, Mulroney had to tie up loose ends in the rest of the country. Alberta proved one of the 44-year-old candidate’s toughest battlegrounds. The province has given the Tory leadership race both Joe Clark, with his pleas for moderation, and Peter

Pocklington, with his flamboyant freeenterprise gospel. It is the province where each candidate—with the exception of a defiant Michael Wilson—faces what has come to be known as an inquisition on western issues by Premier Peter Lougheed and his five-man interrogating committee of four cabinet ministers and one back-bencher. So far the Court of King Peter, as it is called by locals, has given the public no clues and few private hints of its thinking.

Alberta is aterritory where every visiting candidate can expect a warm official handshake, but few will get a firm commitment. The province’s 270 delegates are said by provincial Tory organizers to be split three ways: one-third are with Clark, onethird favor Pocklington and at least 80 to 100 delegates are still shopping.

Nowhere is western individualism more evident than in Red Deer, a no-frills city (population 48,500) midway between Calgary and Edmonton. This is the heart of western separatist country, just 81 km north of Didsbury, where the first western separatist, Gordon Kesler, was elected to the legislature. Red Deer was an ideal place to test Mulroney’s stock in the West. As the secondplace candidate with his most solid base of support in Quebec, his chances of winning the June 11 convention depend critically on his ability to pick up support in Ontario and the West. In his favor, Mulroney’s business background appeals to private-sector boosters. But working against Mulroney is the perception that he owes his wealth to central Canadian coffers.

Mulroney’s most visible mark as an easterner, his bilingualism, is, contrary to popular belief, one of his biggest assets in the West.

In every speech, no matter whether he is addressing delegates or a crowd of strangers, Mulroney includes at least a sentence or two in his impeccable French. “Our anti-French feeling is one of your eastern myths,” says Doris Christie, a hog farmer’s wife and alternate delegate from Red Deer. “We want a man who can unite East and West.”

Of more interest to his audiences was whether or not Mulroney was aware of the more subtle issues affecting westerners. “Do you understand the Crow rate?” one farmer asked belligerently. The candidate launched into an anecdote about how he had come to Western Canada at the age of 23 as a private secretary to then Agriculture Minister Alvin Hamilton. The artifically low

freight rate for Prairie grain, he said, “is not so much an economic issue as part of the social and political fabric of Western Canada.”

On energy policy, Mulroney said that Canadian oil prices should reflect international rates and should be kept high enough to make Canada’s energy sector self-sufficient. Mulroney added that he would work out the “parameters” of a new energy policy when he got to Ottawa. Several businessmen left the meeting grumbling that they wanted more than “parameters.”

At his best on the whistle-stop tour, Mulroney was the crowd pleasing spell-

binder, reminiscent of Maurice Duplessis or John Diefenbaker. At his worst, his jokes were greeted with sullen stares and his hearty hellos provoked suspicion. In the bustling northeastern town of Fort McMurray, for example, he stood behind the podium in a large room staring at about 20 local Tories, five of them delegates. His best lines were greeted with uneasy silence. The only applause came when the chairman urged the reluctant crowd to applaud.

In contrast, a meeting three hours later in Grande Prairie, close to the B.C.

border, was a model of small-town politics at its best. The questions were thoughtful, the jokes were applauded. Delegate Helen McClarty concluded that Mulroney has a “nice personality” and that she should rethink her commitment to Joe Clark.

Between the meetings, Mulroney hopped on the small plane, gulped coffee, smoked, read every newspaper clipping on his campaign and leaned back and told stories of the campaign trail from the Diefenbaker days. He never gets airsick. He never catnaps. He has barely touched a drink in three years. He has lost about 12 pounds since the campaign began two months ago. His wife, Mila, was with him constantly, mingling and greeting local Tories with a bubbly, unaffected charm that prompted Mulroney to comment only half in jest “she has more fans than I do.” The campaign strategy has been to talk directly to delegates and ignore the public and the media. Now—through the press and in his book—Mulroney hopes to convince delegates that he is more than pleasant company, more than a man with dozens of made-to-order policies but no overall vision.

But going into the final stretch he will also have to pay more attention to organization. Although Mulroney sings the praises of his decentralized machine, the lack of a clear game plan has its price. He arrived in Medicine Hat, for instance, after a 17-hour day last week to a dark, deserted airport. The local organizer did not show up. Mulroney took a cab to the local TraveLodge, only to find his room key was with an aide who could not be found. So the man who wants to be prime minister plunked himself down exhausted g on a sofa in the lobby and watched S a CTV newscast, waiting for an o item on his campaign.

Mulroney is a master of cute, quotable lines. Asked in Medicine Hat how he would get a seat in Parliament if he won the leadership, Mulroney said he would send his three children to picket the prime minister’s residence with placards reading CALL A BYELECTION, MY DADDY NEEDS A JOB. Asked in Grande Prairie what he thought of Senate reform, he quipped: “There are not many compelling reasons for keeping a highly paid retirement home for a bunch of Grits.” On one matter—the outcome of the convention—there are no jokes. “Of the two names on the final ballot, one is going to be the name of Martin Brian Mulroney from Baie Comeau, Que. I guarantee that.”