Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney finally came out of the political back rooms last week and moved to front and centre stage in his first campaign for public office. Mulroney, Tory leader for a month, moved one step closer to his first parliamentary seat when he was nominated—uncontested—for the Aug. 29 federal byelection in Central Nova, a sprawling, economically depressed riding of 64,000 residents in northeastern Nova Scotia. The nomination meeting was more like a coronation before 3,000 jubilant supporters who packed into the Trenton hockey arena, and Mulroney was clearly the centrepiece in a showcase ceremony of party
unity, complete with banners and posters. Adding to the heady atmosphere, 19 MPs from six provinces, 22 provincial MLAs and former party leader Robert Stanfield turned out for the occasion. And even the recently deposed leader Joe Clark declared that he will campaign for Mulroney in the riding. Mulroney confidently launched his halfhour speech with a jest: “It’s nice to be back in my home town of Trenton,” he said in a direct reference to the fact that he had parachuted into the safe Tory riding.
The Conservatives have held the constituency for 26 uninterrupted years— the last 12 under Elmer MacKay, who resigned on June 15 to make way for Mulroney. As a result, the new leader’s prediction of “a superb victory” seemed to be a safe projection, even though
polls show local voters tend to favor the man over the party.
In fact, in a recent poll that cut across the riding’s heavily industrialized core and more diverse fishing, forestry and farming regions, Toronto pollster Curtin Count found that 43.4 per cent of the people intending to vote Tory would switch to Liberal if MacKay went over to that party. Mulroney is trying to make the most of that impressive loyalty by being seen everywhere with MacKay. He also appointed MacKay, a New Glasgow lawyer, to be his senior adviser, then quipped, “This constituency will get two [MPs] for the price of one.”
That confidence is well founded, and
it appears that Mulroney will be able to skate through the next month and a half without being forced to take many policy stands. Trying to pin the elegant Tory down will be Liberal Alvin Sinclair, a mild-mannered, 51-year-old high school principal from New Glasgow, who lost to MacKay by 4,485 votes in the 1980 general election, his only other political foray.
In stark contrast to the outpourings of the Tory team spirit on Tuesday night, the Liberal nomination meeting the night before attracted a low-key audience of 700. The only national figures who attended were the ubiquitous party president, Iona Campagnolo, and former party president Senator Alasdair Graham. Sinclair said that he will try to cash in on local resentment against “this man from Quebec” who has “no
knowledge of local issues.” But Sinclair has promised there will be no mudslinging and that the main issue will be jobs, particularly in the industrial areas in which the unemployment rate has been running as high as 60 per cent.
The NDP also nominated a candidate with little promise of success. Rev. Roy DeMarsh, a 61-year-old retired United Church clergyman, entered the fray with the genteel view that “win or lose, one never loses if one speaks to the issues.” In his case the issues will be the full NDP menu: the gradual decline in medical care—primarily cutbacks in hospital services and the threatened introduction of user fees; unemployment; and the dangers of nuclear annihilation. “These are all life and death issues,” he declared.
For his part, Mulroney acknowledged local problems by stressing that he too would focus on “jobs, jobs and jobs.” Still, he will attempt to appeal to a national constituency as well, in preparation for the next general election. In his speech Mulroney quickly attacked Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (“there’s a beaut”) and the “divisive and incompetent” Liberals whom he promised to drive from office. But the new leader has yet to enunciate any specific positions that he will take into the national campaign. However, his federal election campaign team is taking shape. Mulroney recently asked party stalwart Finlay MacDonald, a senior adviser in Clark’s office, to head a transition committee that would plan the PC takeover of power if the party wins the next federal election, due within 18 months. Because Mulroney has already promised that he will fight the election from a seat in his home province of Quebec, the 50,000 eligible voters in Central Nova know that theirs will not be the home riding of the next prime minister.
But Mulroney is not a stranger to the area. The new leader, who rented a home near New Glasgow last week, lived in Nova Scotia 25 years ago, as a student at Halifax’s Dalhousie University and before that at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, in an adjacent federal riding. Recently, while he was president of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada, the native of Baie Comeau, Que., ran a spectacularly successful fund-raising campaign for St. F-X, collecting $4 million more than the $7 million target. But it is Sinclair, the Liberal candidate, not Mulroney, who still wears his black-and-gold alumni “X” ring from that school.
Whatever the outcome, Canadians for the first time will get a foretaste of the seat-seeking Mulroney as he sets out to prove the claim that he made at the Ottawa convention—that he will learn his political craft on the job.
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