In everything but name, it was an election campaign tour. On a gruelling three-day swing through Atlantic Canada and into his Quebec riding of Manicouagan last week, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney entered a tumultuous evening event with loudspeakers blaring the hit song Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now. His wife, Mila, toured a Nova Scotia hospital and a home for the elderly. A video crew hired by the Conservative party captured tour highlights for possible use in campaign advertisements. And behind the scenes, slick advance teams carefully encouraged proponents of Mulroney’s free trade agreement to speak out—and coaxed opponents of government policies to keep quiet. Obviously delighted by the success of his team, an exuberant Mulroney told 250 supporters in New Glasgow, N.S., “With a reception like this, I think it’s just about time we called an election.”
That first brush with election fever touched all three parties last week. Technically, Mulroney could wait until the fall of 1989 to go to the polls. But Conservative insiders are tentatively planning for an election in the fall of 1988—if the party improves its thirdplace standing in the polls. At the same time, senior Conservatives have concluded that they lag in the polls because the voters distrust Mulroney. As a result, while the opposition Liberals and New Democrats polished their policies and their organizations last week, the Tories undertook to persuade the public that Mulroney is trustworthy. In a tacit acknowledgment of the problem, Conservative president William Jarvis declared: “Voter intention is driven more by attitudes toward the leader than it is by issues. I wish it were not. I wish we could discover a leader who was perfect.”
Mulroney’s image difficulties have created formidable political problems for his party. Since last spring the government has introduced the Meech Lake agreement to amend the Constitution, tax reform proposals to reduce rates for most taxpayers, activist measures such as a bill to control pornography—and a sweeping free trade agreement with the United States. Traditionally, a government receives a high approval rating for hard work and vision, even if many voters do not agree with individual policies.
Instead, in a Gallup poll released on Nov. 12, 40 per cent of decided voters supported the Liberals, 33 per cent supported the NDP and only 25 per cent said that they would vote for the Tories. That number was virtually unchanged from the party’s standing last spring. To strengthen the party’s image, the Conservatives discussed enlisting star candidates, such as Canadian ambassador to France Lucien Bouchard, to run in Montreal and elsewhere. They also pointed out that they had increased two points in the polls since October while the NDP had dropped five points. Declared Jarvis: “If we can keep gaining two or three points every month, then the trend line is good.”
But the Tories’ private concerns remained. Because many voters appear not to trust Mulroney, they apparently do not believe his claim that the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement is a good deal for Canada. That attitude is troublesome for the Conservatives because the accord will be a central part of the
next election campaign. Said a senior Tory: “As people decide about the agreement, it will come down to, ‘Whom do you trust?’ ”
Both opposition parties plan to exploit both Mulroney’s lack of personal popularity and concerns about the trade accord. Liberal Leader John Turner now refers to the trade agreement as the “Mulroney trade deal.” Similarly, NDP president Johanna den Hertog said in an interview that her party plans to emphasize the principle of fairness, the “Mulroney trade deal” and the need for integrity in government. “There is no question that the quality of leadership has become an issue,” she said.
Aware of those strategies, senior Conservatives have designed some tough new offensives. They have already concluded that they cannot hide Mulroney: he has become the central issue of the current political debate. Instead, they intend to send the Prime Minister across the country for downto-earth meetings with hundreds of voters. Officials are also considering plans to launch a party membership drive as a rationale for some of those trips. And they are studying recommendations that the party buy television time so that Mulroney can express regrets for past mistakes—and ask for renewed trust. Said one leading Tory: “If the Canadian people saw that, they would give him another chance.”
Last week’s tour through Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Manicouagan reflected those strategies. At stop after stop, Mulroney mingled with friendly crowds supplied with signs, balloons and buttons. He made vague apologies
for mistakes of the past. As he told 500 students at East Pictou Central High School, “There is nowhere one goes to learn how to be Prime Minister.” But Mulroney also recited exhaustive lists of his government’s achievements, adding that scandals of the past were “trivial” when compared with them.
His advance team even defused potential confrontations. In New Glasgow, a small group of demonstrators from the nearby HawkerSiddeley rail car plant, which has laid off nearly 1,600 workers because of reduced sales, claimed that their union leaders had discouraged protests because they might jeopardize their chances for securing federal aid. Indeed, Mulroney announced a federalprovincial plan for a $15-million retirement fund for workers aged 55 to 65. But some demonstrators remained skeptical. Said James MacNeil, a welder who is now unemployed after 37 years at the plant: “I’m here because I’m not as gullible as the rest of them.” Later, in Sept-îles, Que., where 7,000 people protested their region’s economic woes last month, Mayor Jean-Marc Dion urged voters to repress their wrath. He said that angry demonstrations could hurt the city’s appeal for help. Charged city councillor Raymond Nepveu: “The mayor was lulled to sleep by vague promises from Mulroney.”
While the Tories practised their new tactics, the Liberals and New Democrats struggled to put their electoral machines into gear. For the Liberals, the biggest problem was a lack of money: within the past few months party officials have imposed budget cuts of 20 per cent on federal headquarters in Ottawa and on federal party organizations in such provinces as Ontario and British Columbia. Last month the federal Liberal party in Ontario fired four field workers because of budget restrictions. A week later party officials decided to make other economies—and rehired the four workers.
In Ottawa, Turner replaced his Toronto media consultant, Gabor Apor, with another Toronto expert, Henry Comor. Insiders said that Comor is already coaching the Liberal leader in preparation for a televised election debate. Meanwhile, the party is holding what it calls “founding meetings” to create new riding associations wherever electoral boundaries will be changed under a redistribution plan scheduled to go into effect next July.
The NDP’S chief challenge is that it must fight a broader campaign than ever before. In 1984 the party concentrated its resources in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and southern Ontario. In the next election, it cannot afford to ignore any region— because it could win seats everywhere. The party has already held workshops to train party workers in most regions of the country. But even with a $6-million budget, the demands of running a national campaign may strain party resources to the limit.
In the meantime, Mulroney may have come closest to capturing the exhilarated mood that gripped the three parties last week. In his fiery speech to New Glasgow supporters, the Prime Minister addressed a warning to Turner and Broadbent. “Hang onto your hats,” he crowed. “I tell you, we’re going to give you the ride of your life.”
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