Of all the Canadians from outside the Liberal party who watched the weekend leadership spectacular, none held as large a personal political stake in the outcome as Martin Brian Mulroney. A year ago the Progressive Conservatives, in the same steamy Ottawa Civic Centre, elevated the Baie Comeau, Que., native to the Tory leadership as Joe Clark’s successor. Since then, Muironey has worked to prepare himself and his often divided party for the next federal election without knowing—until John Turner’s moment of triumph on Saturday night—who his principal Liberal opponent would be.
That uncertainty was just one of the difficulties that Muironey faced in his first year as Opposition leader—a year in which the former Iron Ore Co. of Canada president not only had to learn the ways of Parliament but heal wounds that the party’s replacement of a failed leader had inflicted. At the same time, Muironey was forced to grapple with potentially explosive political issues, including the divisive controversy over Manitoba language rights early this year, which threatened to focus renewed attention on the Tories’ own divisions. For the most part, his handling of the challenges has been sufficiently assured and politically astute to support his own evaluation of his performance. “The Liberals thought they would clobber me in the Commons,” Muironey declared recently. “But I have done very well, thank you very much.”
‘Intrusion’: Still, the Tories passed the first anniversary of his leadership facing a deteriorating standing in the polls. The Tories slumped dramatically in the first Gallup poll taken after Pierre Trudeau announced his resignation on Feb. 29. And in the latest Gallup the Conservatives had the support of only 40 per cent of voters compared to 46 per cent for the Liberals. Perhaps even more alarming for Muironey was a survey published on the eve of the Liberal convention in the Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil. The survey showed that support for the Conservatives in Quebec—where the Tories only a few months ago had nurtured hopes of winning as many as 15 seats—had dwindled from a high of 36 per cent in February to 28 per cent in May. Over the same period Quebec support for the
Liberals rose to 61 per cent from 52 per cent. For his part, Muironey dismissed the Liberals’ new popularity as the short-term result of an “intrusion of an exceptional event—the resignation of Trudeau and the calling of a leadership convention.”
Last week, just as the Liberal leadership convention began, Muironey enjoyed one of his most impressive successes. He flew to St. John’s and negotiated a new offshore deal for Newfoundland which would give the prov-
ince more control and a larger share of future revenues than Ottawa now offers. After weeks of quiet negotiation Muironey and Premier Brian Peckford signed an agreement that would treat the oil-rich offshore, in principle, as though it were part of the mainland. If Muironey wins the next general election and the accord takes effect, it would represent a major breakthrough for Newfoundland by granting it the same development and resource rights that Alberta enjoys.
Looking forward to an election, the Conservatives have been concerned about the dangers of facing Turner. But after watching the leadership campaign they contended that Turner will be less of a threat than they had originally ex-
pected. According to Tory Senator Lowell Murray, a former Joe Clark strategist, Turner’s highly publicized campaign-trail errors made him appear less formidable. Said Murray: “Some guys were spooked by Turner but now they see after his goofs how vulnerable he is.” Added Conservative campaign chairman Norman Atkins: “Turner may have the party but Jean Chrétien has the most sympathy in the general public, and that may cause them [the Liberals] some problems.”
Despite the recent polls, the Tories still expect to make inroads in Quebec, largely because Muironey is a native Quebecer fluent in the French of working-class Québécois. And they discount Turner’s years as a lawyer and politician in Montreal. Said George MacLaren, a Tory organizer in the province’s Eastern Townships: “Down here Turner is looked upon as a Bay Street businessman, while Brian is one of their own.”
Anger: On the national level Muironey will face the electorate with a somewhat uneven record in his first year. Twice, the Liberals confronted the Conservative leader with delicate issues that posed special risks to Tory unity. In the first case Health Minister Monique
Bégin introduced the Canada Health Act to penalize provinces for allowing doctors to charge patients more than the amounts that medicare covers. Mulroney risked angering Tory provincial governments, which usually allow extra-billing, by supporting the act rather than provide the Liberals with a readymade election issue. His caucus unanimously backed his stand. In the second case he was less successful. When the Commons voted on an all-party resolution supporting entrenchment of French-language rights in Manitoba, three western Conservatives were conspicuously absent. At the same time, Winnipeg Tory MP Dan McKenzie fought to prevent the province’s NDP government from extending language rights. Finally, in a dramatic gesture Mulroney flew to Winnipeg and explained his position to a largely hostile audience. “You may disagree with me for having come down on one side of this issue,” he declared, “but you would have had no respect for me had I tried to come down on both sides at once.”
Disunity has haunted the Conservatives for years, and Mulroney has worked hard to reconcile
party members who supported rival candidates, including Joe Clark and Mulroney’s current finance critic, John Crosbie, at last year’s convention. The first 35-member shadow cabinet included 20 MPs who had supported Clark but only seven who had backed Mulroney. Other prominent Clark supporters such as Flora MacDonald, now vicechairman of the Tory caucus, have been given key party positions, and the Tories plan to use Clark as a VIP candidate in the coming election campaign. Despite Mulroney’s efforts to unite the party, a Tory insider admitted that “it is still an uneasy and fragile alliance that is carefully and skilfully managed by Mulroney.” Uneasy: Mulroney has only recently begun to outline specific Conservative policy positions. With the still-painful memory of the 1974 federal election—in which the Conservatives fought a losing campaign on their own policies rather than on the Trudeau government’s record—Mulroney decided early in his tenure to avoid precise policy commitments until an election is called. Now, he apparently is convinced that it is time for the party to
start unveiling general policy positions. These have included a pledge of increased government assistance for the private sector with revisions to the tax system, continued universality of social programs and a recognition that action is needed on such women’s issues as the affirmative action initiative. Still, some analysts say that the lack of even stronger policy thrusts could hurt the Tories.
The Conservatives have been preparing for the next election ever since Mulroney took over. According to Atkins, by the end of this month the Tories will have nominated 207 candidates for the 282-seat Commons, and more than 100 candidates have recently been attending three-day Conservative campaign and media training courses. At the same time, the Tories’ national campaign organization has been structured to provide for enough regional autonomy to ease concerns, particularly in the West, that the election will be directed from Toronto. Said Atkins: “You know there has been talk of a summer election. I just hope the Liberals do it.”
The Tories’ mood seems positive, yet there is an uneasy, anxious edge to their optimism because of the setbacks from the recent polls. But, said Atkins, “Mulroney has built within the party the psychology that it is a winner, that we can do it.” With a year of his own leadership behind him and a new Liberal leader in command, Mulroney will soon have the chance to prove it.
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