Countdown to an election

Susan Riley July 16 1984

Countdown to an election

Susan Riley July 16 1984

Countdown to an election


Susan Riley

A late-summer election showdown between Prime Minister John Turner and Conservative leader Brian Mulroney seemed inevitable. All signs last week indicated that Turner, who won the Liberal party leadership on June 16, had decided to move immediately to seek a mandate of his own. To that end, Turner flew to London on Friday morning to meet Queen Elizabeth lí and discuss postponing her long-scheduled 13-day visit to Canada later this month. As the Prime Minister departed on a government Challenger jet, he had already received a buoyant political report: the latest Gallup poll, taken just after he won the leadership, showed that the Liberals had an 11-percentagepoint lead over the Conservatives, enough to win a new parliamentary majority. The implications of his brief trip to London were that Canadians would likely be voting no later than early September. Declared one cabinet minister: “Unless something drastic changes between now and next week, I would bet the mortgage it will be Sept. 4.” Pressure to call an election has been mounting steadily since Turner took

over from Pierre Trudeau. When the new cabinet was sworn in on June 30, Indian Affairs Minister Douglas Frith estimated that 75 per cent of his colleagues wanted a summer election. The latest Gallup results, showing that the Liberals have the support of 49 per cent of committed voters, compared to 38 for the Conservatives and a 21-year low of 11 per cent for the New Democrats, reinforced their conviction. The Liberals cited Turner’s “take-charge performance” during his first week in office as heartening, and they contended that the public had grown increasingly disenchanted with Mulroney. Indeed, it appeared that Turner had more misgivings than his advisers about the wisdom of an early election. But by week’s end, as a key Liberal committee met in Ottawa to plan a 50-day-long national campaign, most of Turner’s doubts had been dispelled. Declared one Quebec MP: “If he waits until fall and we lose, he will be severely blamed. There is terrible pressure on him to go early.”

For their part, the Conservatives, who watched with concern as their once seemingly insurmountable lead in popularity eroded, insisted that they were ready to fight and to win. Said Mul-

roney: “We’ll catch up.” But the Liberals traditionlly do well in summer elections and Turner’s strategists contended that a summer vote would minimize the danger of a severe economic downturn influencing the voters.

Turner has yet to settle into the spacious East Block office recently vacated by Pierre Trudeau, and last week he was running the country from a hotel room—a $420-per-night, fourth-floor suite in Ottawa’s venerable Château Laurier. With telephone messages stuck in picture frames and his daily itinerary clipped to a lampshade, Turner worked at a standard hotel table, clearing off state papers occasionally for hurried meals. When he left the hotel to stroll to meetings on nearby Parliament Hill, he appeared very much like a campaigning politician, greeting passersby and shaking hands. But through much of the week Turner continued to deny that he was going to London or that an election was imminent. One day before his jet departed for England, Turner told reporters, “You can fly wherever you want on the weekend, but my plans are Canadian.”

Accompanying him to England were his wife, Geills, and a small entourage

made up of secretary Rusty Anderson; Gordon Osbaldeston, clerk of the Privy Council; Robert Fowler, assistant secretary to the cabinet on foreign and defence policy; and Turner’s principal secretary, Vancouver lawyer John Swift. An advance party that included press aide Dennis Baxter and appointments secretary Paul Rouleau flew to London a day earlier. Until the last moment, Turner aides said that he had talked to the Queen shortly after he was sworn in as Prime Minister. But that conversation was brief and innocuous, little more than an exchange of greetings, his aides insisted, adding that they did not discuss the election or the royal tour.

But both subjects dominated the weekend discussions after the Queen cut short a holiday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland to meet Turner over dinner Saturday at Windsor Castle, just west of London. Earlier, the Prime Minister had informal talks with his British counterpart,

Margaret Thatcher, at Chequers, her country residence. A spokesman at the Canadian delegation headquarters at Claridge’s hotel in central London said that Turner’s two meetings

were “the full extent of his schedule. There is not time to see anyone else.” Then the Turner party returned to Ottawa to prepare for a full cabinet meeting Monday, a news conference—and a possible election call.

The Tories have been pressing for an election for more than a year, since Mulroney’s own leadership triumph. But their fortunes have been sagging ever since last September, when a Gallup poll gave them a 62-per-cent rating, compared to 23 per cent for the Trudeau Liberals. The Conservatives have already chosen candidates in 222 of 282 federal ridings, and last week party officials in Ottawa sent them looseleaf policy booklets for use in the coming campaign. The Conservatives continue to insist that they have more money and a better organization than the Liberals, but the new Gallup showed that the Liberals have the support of two-thirds of decided voters in Quebec, half in Ontario and onethird in the West. Mulroney won the Tory leadership at least partly because he pledged to

0 loosen the Liberals’ hold on Quebec voters. Last 5 weekend at least some

1 Conservatives speculat-

ed that the chance may have been lost. But Mulroney, emerging from a western policy session (page 14), said that the Liberal surge in the Gallup was a result of the publicity arising from their leadership convention. Declared Mulroney: “Hang on to your hats. You’re going to see a campaign like you haven’t seen in 25 years.”

For months, Mulroney’s Tories have attacked the government for mishandling the economy. Indeed, Turner’s willingness last week to consider a summer election followed an unsettling economic briefing earlier by Finance Minister Marc Lalonde. The outlook, Lalonde told him, is primarily bad. He told Turner that the economy was slowing down and that the falling dollar would soon be worth less than 75 cents (U.S.). The only bright note: Lalonde predicted that the economy would continue to expand and reach a 4.4per-cent rate of growth this year. But Turner, who devoted last Wednesday’s cabinet meeting to economic affairs, told reporters what Trudeau had been telling them for years: that Canada’s dollar and interest rates were subject to decisions made in Washington. Fluctuations, Turner said, “are more accurately a reflection of American economic conditions.”

Turner asked small groups of civil servants to form task forces, headed by ministers, to study interest rates, the dollar and unemployment and report back to the powerful priorities and planning committee of the cabinet this week with specific proposals. One senior bureaucrat noted, “We have been given one week to find jobs for 500,000 people without spending an extra cent of government money.” Among ideas under consideration: the establishment of a national apprenticeship program to pay young people while they train for jobs in Canadian manufacturing and business. But, because of the likelihood of a summer election, any new economic ideas were likely to become planks in the Liberal platform rather than government policy.

Even though Turner was in London, the Liberals’ influential platform committee—the 60 MPs, cabinet ministers and key party members who meet to discuss long-term policy—held an election planning session on Friday and Saturday, in Ottawa. Declared Ontario MP Maurice Foster of Algoma: “The first priority is to clearly decide what kind of an arrangement can be worked out with Her Majesty.” The Queen’s schedule called for her to visit New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba from July 14 to July 27, but Buckingham Palace said last month that she would not visit Canada during an election campaign. Even before Turner flew to London, his aides and palace officials had tried—and ap-

parently failed—to find alternatives to the Queen’s July visit. One suggestion was that the Queen Mother come in her place. Another suggestion: that the Queen’s visit be postponed until October. While the Ottawa-London discussions continued, some Liberals complained that by scheduling a royal visit in midsummer and a tour by Pope John Paul II from Sept. 9 to Sept. 20, Trudeau left Turner little manoeuvring room.

Turner’s flight to London overshadowed a longer journey by External Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien, who began a 12-day Asian tour on Friday. Chrétien, who is still recovering from his gruelling leadership bid, was reluctant to begin travelling. Said Chrétien: “Personally, it is not the best thing after a long leadership campaign for me to go on a trip right now. And besides, I’ve been to Japan many times.” But Turner asked his deputy to hold discussions with Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe before proceeding to Indonesia, where Chrétien will attend a foreign ministers’ conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While in Jakarta, Chrétien was expected to meet privately with U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. Declared Chrétien: “It is my duty to go. If there is an election, that still gives me plenty of time to get involved.”

Earlier in the week a moving van was parked outside 24 Sussex Drive, a signal that Trudeau and his three sons, Justin, 12, Sacha, 10, and Michel, 8, were about

to leave the prime ministerial residence for a new home in Montreal. They moved last Wednesday. Trudeau left with yet another honor: the Queen named him a member of Britain’s distinguished Order of the Companions of Honour, founded in 1917 to “recognize conspicuous national service.”

Trudeau, in turn, left his successor a controversial political testament—a list of Trudeau loyalists to be given patronage rewards under Turner’s administration. Under the terms of a written agreement between Trudeau and the Prime Minister, former agriculture minister Eugene Whelan is expected to become the Canadian representative to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Similarly, onetime labor minister Bryce Mackasey confirmed that Turner will appoint him Canada’s ambassador to Portugal. The 62-yearold Mackasey, MP for the Ontario riding of Lincoln, said last week that his qualifications for the position included the 20 visits he has made to Portugal on government business and vacations. Indeed, Mackasey has been rewarded by Trudeau before. In 1979 he was chairman of Air Canada for seven months, before the short-lived Tory administration fired him from the $100,000-a-year job. Last year a Montreal sessions court exonerated Mackasey of charges that he had acted improperly as a paid lobbyist for a Montreal machine tooling firm while sitting as an MP. Mackasey is still bitter about the media coverage of the

case, and last week he declared that accepting a diplomatic post would be “the safest way to get my family out of the fishbowl.”

Turner has pledged to honor a long list of Trudeau’s patronage wishes. But Mackasey, for one, will hold his post at the government’s pleasure, which means that he has no lasting job security. A Tory win in the next election—or a Turner administration with a fresh mandate—could easily cost Trudeau patronage recipients their appointments. Among others awaiting their rewards: Quebec MP Tom Lefebvre, an obscure party whip for seven years, who is expected to go to the Senate; Rod Blaker (Lachine), a 47-year-old former broadcaster, who is expected to get a five-year appointment to the Labour Adjustment Review Board; and Rosaire Gendron (Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup), 63, who is expected to get a 10-year appointment to either the pension board or the tariff board. There are also rewards in store for such veteran Trudeau loyalists as former cabinet minister Jean-Luc Pepin, now recovering in an Ottawa hospital from heart surgery. Indeed, former Liberal whip Charles Turner (London East), who always referred to Trudeau as The Boss, was so certain he would receive an appointment that he openly criticized the new Prime Minister’s cabinet-making skills. The former whip said that Youth and Sport Minister Jean Lapierre (page 42) and Douglas Frith should not be ministers because “they have not earned their keep as MPS.”

But patronage, and the criticism it generated, amounted to only a minor worry for Turner last week. The election timing decision was a paramount concern. Liberal party insiders freely admitted that the Tories are better financed and better organized. As well, the Liberals’ strength in the polls is largely based on their overwhelming lead in Quebec. In English Canada both parties expect the next election to be almost a dead heat. Many Liberals argued last week that Turner will win only if he presents a clear alternative to Mulroney, which means putting forward specific policies instead of simply engaging in partisan rhetoric. Said James Peterson, Liberal MP for the Toronto-area riding of Willowdale and one of Turner’s closest friends: “Canadians want alternatives, even if it means we make mistakes. We have to be bold, innovative and creative.” For Turner, who won the leadership by remaining vague on all the major issues, such an approach would represent a radical shift in political style and personal preference. But the cautious corporate lawyer, on the brink of the biggest gamble of his political life, may have no choice.

— With John Hay and Mary Janigan in Ottawa and Tim Heald in London