The Tories’ powerful finale

Malcolm Gray September 10 1984

The Tories’ powerful finale

Malcolm Gray September 10 1984

The Tories’ powerful finale

Malcolm Gray

In the closing days of Canada’s summer election campaign, the struggle for power seemed—improbably—to be focused on a squabble over figures written on the wind: the cost of the principal contenders’ election promises. Opposition Leader Brian Mulroney’s long-promised disclosure of his cost estimates came just one week before the election. The timing was an attempt to minimize the political risk for a party and a leader on the brink of power. And the accuracy of Mulroney’s figures became the final issue of the campaign. For Prime Minister John Turner, with his party trailing in the polls and personal defeat looming in his own riding of Vancouver Quadra, the Tory estimates offered a last, desperate chance to convince voters that they could not afford a Mulroney government. Still, Mulroney countered Turner’s argument by cleverly mixing hard numbers, estimating that his policies will cost $4.3 billion over the next 2V2 years, with vague forecasts of increased federal revenues to pay for his programs.

A frustrated Turner described Mulroney’s projections as a “snow job and a political peep show” while denying a Tory countercharge that he had been spendthrift with his pledges. Because all parties routinely inflate the costs of their opponents’ promises and minimize their own, Canadians went to the polls uncertain how either major party would reduce a federal deficit forecast to reach $29.6 billion this year.

In the last days of the campaign both the Liberals and the New Democratic Party concentrated their fire on Mulroney, tacitly acknowledging that the Tories would likely form the next government. In the Liberal camp the malaise was such that Transport Minister Lloyd Axworthy, in a surprisingly candid interview, admitted that the party had probably erred in calling an election so soon after the June leadership convention and in failing to properly present Turner to voters as the leader of a transformed party. To overcome the Conservatives’ claim that it was time for a change of government, noted Axworthy, “we had to show that we really had made a change, and I think the national campaign hasn’t totally reflected that.”

On Mulroney’s campaign jet the mood was dramatically different. Aides were in a relaxed and buoyant mood, and the

party leader occasionally doodled the names of potential cabinet ministers on a yellow legal pad, carefully hiding them from public view. And not only Turner worried about a big Tory victory. NDP Leader Edward Broadbent fought gamely to retain the 31 seats his party held at the dissolution of Parliament in the face of predictions that his party would be weakened as voters swung to the Tories.

For his part, Mulroney did his best to

avoid any last-minute stumbles when he made his carefully orchestrated appearances—and he delivered his costs speech before a sympathetic audience at a joint luncheon of the Empire and Canadian clubs in Toronto. His aides had indicated earlier that Mulroney would provide vague and general estimates, a prediction that was partially confirmed when the Tory leader assured his 1,200 listeners that his pledges would not increase the size of the federal deficit. Declared Mulroney: “We plan to

finance these investments through a reduction in government overhead expenses, program reallocation and tax reform.”

After his speech, Mulroney’s advisers refused to say which programs would be cut, adding that the Tories expected tax revenues to increase as the economy improved under their guidance. Mulroney then offered a few specifics, saying that the Tories would spend between

$300 and $500 million on their promises for the remainder of the current fiscal year, largely to cover the start-up costs of a youth employment program and provide relief for Prairie farmers, whose crops have been damaged by a summer-long drought. A further $1.7 billion in new spending would be needed for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 1985, with $2.1 billion added in 1986 to a federal budget that currently stands at $96.9 billion. The Tory promises included more money for defence spending

($400 million during the next two fiscal years), increased health and welfare payments to the provinces ($100 million) and assistance to Canadian veterans and their spouses ($22 million).

Still, the speech and the background papers that accompanied it failed to include price tags for other promises, an omission that Turner and retiring Finance Minister Marc Lalonde quickly seized upon by supplying their own cost calculations. Lalonde, for one, charged that Mulroney’s figures were at least $20 billion short of what his programs would actually cost. But on a swing through Quebec, a confident Mulroney dismissed Lalonde’s bookkeeping.

Mulroney had good reason for high spirits in his native province: the final Gallup poll, released Saturday, showed that the Tories were leading the Liberals in Quebec and were about to make their best showing in the province since former prime minister John Diefenbaker won 50 out of 75 seats there in 1958. The Tory leader even predicted that External Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien and Labor Minister André Ouellet would be among the prominent Liberals swept away. Earlier in the week 250 Quebecers endured a two-hour delay and waited until midnight to greet Mulroney’s plane at Mont-Joli airport, near Rimouski in the Gaspé peninsula. There, and at every other campaign stop, Mulroney had a standard greeting: “The election is not over, not by a long shot. We still have a lot of work to do.”

In the meantime, Turner sharpened his attacks on Mulroney as Liberals across the country—including Turner —openly discussed his future and the future of the party. In Quadra, where two polls published last week showed Turner running behind Tory incumbent William Clarke, Turner’s workers

mailed out 10,000 copies of a letter urging voters to send him to Ottawa, even if the voters believed the" Liberals were going to lose the election. “If the Conservatives win,” the letter said, in part, “the power will remain where it has always been—in Quebec and Ontario. It then becomes doubly important that we have John Turner to represent us in Parliament.” Turner himself was more blunt. On Wednesday, talking to reporters in an interview aboard his campaign plane en route from Vancouver to Toronto, he declared: “If we lose the election, then I will continue to lead the party.”

The last Gallup poll, taken Aug. 28-29, surveyed 2,078 eligible voters across Canada. It found the Conservatives leading in all regions of the country, with 50 per cent of decided voters favor-

ing the Tories, to 28 per cent who supported the Liberals and 19 per cent who backed the NDP. Three per cent of committed voters liked other parties, and only 10 per cent of the voters questioned had not yet made up their minds. The Tories were on the verge of a triumph comparable to that of 1958, when the Conservatives won 208 of 265 seats and Turner could only look to the example of the late Lester Pearson, who lost his first election as Liberal leader but persevered and became Prime Minister five years later. He also seemed certain that he could retain the confidence of the Liberal parliamentary caucus and squelch any call for a leadership convention at the party’s next general convention, probably in the spring of 1986.

At the same time, however, some Chrétien supporters began to suggest openly that Turner’s chief rival in the Liberal leadership race would be willing to take over control of the party. When the 57-day campaign began, Turner and the Liberals enjoyed a healthy 10-percentage-point lead over the Tories in terms of popular support, according to a Thompson Lightstone & Co. Ltd. poll. When he decided to run in Vancouver Quadra on July 16, Turner, his party and many voters lauded his choice as a bold and symbolic step toward a revival of Liberal fortunes in the West. At the time, few noted that Turner’s nomination meeting was held in Sir Charles Tupper elementary school, named for the man who had the shortest term in office of all Canadian Prime Ministers—69 days in 1896. In the final days of the 1984 election, Turner seemed to be on the brink of his name being linked with Tupper’s forever.

With Carol Goar on the Mulroney tour, Terry Hargreaves on the Turner tour and Susan Riley on the Broadbent tour.