Next year, or the year after, there will be a federal election in Canada, and it will be all about free trade. With that election campaign, all hell will break loose; the voters will be so pumped up about free trade that the leaders’ haircuts may not be important, and it may not even matter if one of them clears his throat a couple of times in the big TV debate.
You would not have predicted that a couple of months ago. Many possibilities were more distinct than that of Brian Mulroney calling a federal election on the free trade issue. Free trade was dead. The negotiations were going nowhere, and politicians such as Ontario’s Premier David Peterson were finding that the road to political success led right across Brian Mulroney’s back.
Peterson’s election was the first in which Canadians were given the opportunity to endorse free trade by voting Conservative. In record numbers, Ontario voters declined to do so. Free trade was dead. A few politicians liked it, along with some economists, businessmen and academics, but the cultural community hated it, and free trade was failing to catch the imagination of the ordinary people who were promised they would benefit from it.
Under those circumstances, you would not catch Brian Mulroney calling a federal election on free trade. Aside from a lack of public enthusiasm about free trade, the timing was not right either: selling free trade as the key to prosperity was not going to work too well if many of the voters were already experiencing prosperity without it. Furthermore, the unpopularity of Mulroney’s party may have rubbed off on Mulroney’s favorite cause.
Experts sat down to write learned articles to the effect that free trade was dead. When they looked up, they noticed that the Mulroneyites had negotiated a free trade agreement. This caused the experts to revise their thinking to an extent. It also made the free trade election a more likely event.
Suddenly free trade was real, suddenly the opposition redoubled its outrage and demanded a federal election on the subject, and immediately after that the first opinion poll appeared, showiner that the people of Canada also favored an election on the subject, and that, by the way, they were pretty evenly divided on the issue.
That same poll, an Angus Reid job
taken early in October, showed the Conservatives on the upswing, although still behind the deadlocked Liberals and NDP. Thus was the stage set for the Canadian general election of 1988 or 1989. It will be a doozer, if you will pardon the political science terminology.
An election that is actually about something will take some getting used to. However, you need not worry too much about being overwhelmed by specifics, such as whether it makes sense to hitch ourselves even more closely to an economy as confused as the American one. As in all federal elections, troublesome facts will disappear. The details of the free trade agreement will not be debated. The election will be fought on emotion. The debate will be about symbols.
An early shot in the symbol wars was fired the other day by Pat Carney, the federal international trade minister, who asked, “Are we going to main-
The voters will be so pumped up about free trade that the leaders' haircuts may not even be that important
tain ostrich feathers and buggy whips even if they’re not wearing hats or driving buggies?”
Carney may have been saying this to make a fashion statement, or she may have been trying to tell us that ostriches do not drive buggies. More likely, however, she was telling us that opponents of free trade are in the horseand-buggy age.
There will be many such symbols. In getting ourselves election-ready, it is time to get acquainted with some of them. While the pro-free-traders may attach the ostrich feather symbol to their opponents, they use another symbol for their own cause. That symbol is money. That is what free trade will bring, according to them: money and lots of it. Money has always been a fairly powerful symbol, and it will be an even stronger one if the Mulroneyites can somehow engineer a major recession between now and election day—1988 or 1989, depending on how long it takes. When people are prosperous, they are inclined to opt for the status quo. They become more adventurous the less prosperous they are. So
if you see the Mulroney government enacting measures that look as if they are designed to discourage prosperity, you will know what it is all about.
Money as symbol will also show up in discussions of consumer goods. Free trade, it will be argued, will bring about a veritable Big Rock Candy Mountain of cheapo consumer items flowing across the border, if a mountain can indeed flow, and who is to say it can’t, especially during the 1988 (or 1989) election.
Against such a powerful symbol as money, what can the anti-free-traders, the Turners and Broadbents of this world, put up? The loon, is the answer. As well as being on the new dollar, the loon is on the lakes of the nation, where the canoes paddle, a symbol of the slower, more peaceful, more deliberate Canadian way of doing things.
The Canadian way of doing things, it will be argued, will vanish when free trade makes us all into pseudo-Americans. Fast lanes will crisscross the country, the habitat of the loon will be paved over, the loon’s call will be replaced by a more up-to-date sound—the wail of the police siren. When the loon goes, so will go other things that make us different from, and better than, the Americans. These include: medicare, the CBC, Stratford, linguistic equality and gun control. Each will go the way of the Foreign Investment Review Agency, an early martyr in the free trade wars.
For many Canadians, the loon is an attractive symbol, particularly when an eagle is the alternative. But for many other Canadians, the loon is outdated, particularly for the 21st century. For them, the 21st century is the most powerful symbol of all. Free trade will bring us into it. We will become, it is claimed, more efficient, more prosperous, more competitive, more modern, more confident, more of a mover-and-shaker in the world, instead of being some slow-moving and half-frozen backwater with an inferiority complex to boot.
The fear of not being up-to-date is part of that Canadian inferiority complex. So far it has brought us the domed stadium. Next it may take us out of ostrich feathers and, perhaps, even the canoe. By the 22nd century we could be trying to get back to where we are now, but that is for another election. With any luck, there will still be Canadian voters.
Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen
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