It made for less than rivetting television, and Doris Anderson, the former Chatelaine editor and author, thought that Prime Minister John Turner came across like “a jock at a tea party.” Even so, Turner’s performance in last week’s televised debate on women’s issues may have given the Liberal leader a badly needed boost in his uphill battle with Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney in the campaign for the Sept.
4 federal election. But a Gallup poll, taken Aug. 9th to 11th and released last week, indicated that the Tories were now the choice of no fewer than 46 per cent of those polled, while only 32 per cent backed the Liberals. And an impressive 18 per cent supported the NDP.
In the debate, the New Democrats’ Edward Broadbent was widely judged the winner for his handling of the issues. But in his response to the most fundamental issue raised by the panel of women who grilled the leaders—“Why should we trust you now?”—Turner’s appearance of awkward sincerity seemed to give him the edge. Campaigning in Broadbent’s Oshawa riding the next day, Turner tried to underline the point. Said he: “This election is about trust. I’ve got lots of faults, lots of weaknesses. But I believe I can be honest.”
If the debate enabled Turner to look credible on women’s issues, that could help to repair the damage done by the
Liberal leader’s weak performance in recent weeks— and in two previous television debates in July when the three leaders addressed general campaign issues. A Gallup poll taken after those debates, also released last week, indicated that Mulroney has narrowed the gap among voters asked to state which man would make the best prime minister. Turner was favored by 33 per cent (compared to 39 per cent in June), while Mulroney stood at 29 per cent (22) and Broadbent at 15 per cent (10).
Yet even as he sought to shift the campaign emphasis toward credibility and away from competence—the area in which he has suffered because of miscues and factual errors—Turner was not above taking liberties with history. During the debate and in speeches the next day, Turner cited a 1982 Conservative party questionnaire which he claimed showed that “75 per cent of Tories are against affirmative action for women.” In fact, the Tories surveyed at a party conference had rejected proposals for mandatory affirmative action that would force employers to hire and promote women —a position that Turner himself reiterated last week.
The debate on women’s issues —marred by network sound problems —came in a week in which the momentum of the campaign seemed to slow perceptibly. For his part, Turner began the week by rejecting growing pressure from some key members of the Liberal
party to declare Canada’s support for a world freeze on nuclear arms production—and then went on to reveal that he has been pursuing the peace initiative launched by his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau, by writing to world leaders, including Soviet Communist Party leader Konstantin Chernenko.
Earlier, when party president Iona Campagnolo, Transport Minister Lloyd Axworthy and other party luminaries came out in favor of the freeze, there was speculation that the way was being prepared for Turner to announce that Canada would adopt that policy. But after talks with dissenting Liberals and with officials of the external affairs department—which tends to oppose unilateral initiatives by Canada that might offend its allies—Turner released a statement that Canada could not adopt such a position without damaging the Western alliance. “We cannot, in effect,” declared Turner, “simply go it alone and walk away from NATO allies.” Canada, he added, has been helping to develop the technology needed to monitor the growth of nuclear weaponry, but its greatest contribution would be to “continue to press within our alliance and in contacts with members of the opposing alliance for more discussion, less ideology and real progress in reducing the threat to us all.”
By coincidence, Turner’s rejection of a proposal with vote-winning potential was partially offset when aides to United Nations Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar revealed in New York that Turner had written to the UN leader to enlist his aid in continuing Trudeau’s attempt to bring about a summit conference of the major nuclear powers. Later in Winnipeg, Turner—who at one point had to make himself heard over the chanting of peace protesters—revealed that he had written to Chernenko to pledge Canada’s commitment to world peace. He noted as well that he hopes to meet soon with President Ronald Reagan to discuss various subjects, including nuclear disarmament. Turner also announced that 70-year-old George Ignatieff, chancellor of the University of Toronto and a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, would succeed Alan Beasley as Canada’s ambassador-atlarge and adviser to the government on disarmament.
Broadbent campaigned in Windsor and St. Catharines, Ont., promising a minimum income tax for Canadians earning over $50,000 a year and increased Canadian content in foreign cars. Mulroney visited Toronto to address Young Conservatives, which he managed to do before ominous storm clouds erupted. Later, campaigning in the traditionally Liberal Quebec stronghold of St-Jean, he told 3,000 people—the largest crowd mustered by any party in the province so far in the campaign—that he would end federal-provincial squabbling and co-operate with the duly-elected government of Quebec to try to end unemployment, especially among young people. Mulroney’s words won the approval of Quebec’s Parti Québécois Premier René Lévesque, who noted that Mulroney’s speech should serve as a guideline for all federal politicians.
In the debate on women’s issues, all three leaders pledged to take steps to remove the economic and social inequalities facing women, but Broadbent won most points for his articulate grasp of the issues. But of the two leaders who have a chance of forming the next government, Turner scored by making more detailed promises to women and by attaching dollar figures to some of them. He promised $9.7 million next year to help women who want to take training courses and he suggested increasing the maximum deduction for child care to $12,000 from $8,000. In his closing statement, Turner also attacked Mulroney directly by noting that during his 10 months in the House of Commons, the Tory leader had asked only 39 questions —and “none of them was about women’s concerns.”
While Turner frequently took refuge in generalities—promising to make a number of different issues his “top priority” in government—Mulroney did so even more often. There was laughter and a hiss from the audience in the
Canadian Room at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel when Mulroney proclaimed his sincerity. “There is something about Mulroney, some smoothness, that women just don’t trust,” said Patricia Bird, a Toronto women’s employment counsellor who watched the debate at the Royal York. As Nancy Smith, an Ottawa alderman, noted, women watching the debate “seemed to regard Turner with humor, Mulroney with skepticism and Broadbent with respect.”
While all three leaders promised action in the key areas of pensions for women outside the labor force and in ensuring equal pay for work of equal value—mainly by more rigorous enforcement of existing rules in the federal civil service—Turner earned marks
not only for his assurances, but for his improved understanding of the issues involved. All three leaders pledged specific action in the key areas that concern women. Repeating an earlier promise Mulroney said that, if elected, his government would institute pensions for homemakers. But Turner stayed uncommitted on the proposal, claiming that Mulroney’s reform would cost taxpayers as much as $900 million a year. For his part, Broadbent promised to spend $50 million on shelters for battered wives and $300 million for improved day care services.
In the highly emotional area of abortion, Broadbent appeared to go the furthest in advocating increased freedom of choice for women. Mulroney, who is known to oppose changing the existing law, was not asked to discuss the issue because of the debate’s rigid format. But
Turner won approval from women who want current practices reformed by arguing that provincial governments should ensure that legal abortions are equally available to all women. Declared Judy Rebbick of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics: “[Turner] is the first Prime Minister to promise equal access to abortion across the country.” At another point, Broadbent backed Mulroney into a corner on the matter of incentives for women to start small businesses. The NDP leader asked Mulroney pointedly whether he would change the Bank Act to make sure women get equal access to credit. Mulroney—to a chorus of groans and boos from the audience—answered that he would rely on persuasion.
If the leaders’ messages to women were sometimes vague, the medium was worse. The four TV networks that jointly broadcast the debate—CBC, Radio-Canada, CTV and Global—were deluged by complaints about the poor quality of the French-English translation and the background noise that sometimes drowned out the speakers.
Though the debate left many women unclear about exactly what legislation Turner and Mulroney would introduce, Chaviva Hosek, president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, which organized the affair, was satisfied that it constituted “a large step forward in political terms for the women of Canada. I have never seen political leaders so well briefed.”
With Susan Riley on the Turner tour, Terry Hargreaves on the Mulroney tour and Karen Nicholson in Ottawa.
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