The accusations were pointed reminders that when it comes to the free trade debate, emotion—not logic— often dominates. First, Canada’s chief trade negotiator, Simon Reisman, told a Toronto audience that critics of the Canada-United States trade agreement were using the same techniques that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels developed during the 1930s. At a conference organized by the respected Institute for Research on Public Policy, Reisman last week declared, “A great deal of what the opponents are engaging in is the ‘Big Lie.’ ” Then, International Trade Minister Pat Carney, at the same meeting, proclaimed that critics of the deal have a “myopic and insecure” vision of the nation. Said Carney: “The real nationalists are those who believe that Canada must be bold, not self-doubting.”
Those charges underlined the Conservative government’s formidable problems with its efforts to sell free trade as the nationwide campaign continued for a fourth week. Many senior Conservatives told Maclean ’s last week that the government has bungled its communications strategy from the first week, when Finance Minister Michael Wilson told U.S. businessmen that the opponents of free trade were “weak” and “dominated by fear.” They warned that the Conservatives will lose their best election issue if the debate continues to focus on insults or on the sensitive issue of sovereignty.
Instead, they said that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney must curb the flow of insults from proponents such as Carney and the irascible Reisman. Ministers should concentrate on the facts, calmly selling the economic benefits of free trade, such as more jóbs and lower consumer prices. As an Ottawa consultant with close ties to the Tories said: “If the government can keep the issue seen as essentially a trade and economic deal, it will win. The danger is to let it become an issue of political independence. We all know that issue can strike a chord.”
In response to that private advice, the government is changing its tactics. Conservatives said in interviews last week that officials in the PMO are churning out one-page fact sheets with
questions and answers on specific trade issues.
Those sheets are designed to help supporters of the deal promote free trade in communities across the nation.
The government has also formed two senior groups to handle the free trade debate: a 10member operations committee composed of ministerial aides and chaired by David Crapper, director of the Free Trade and Communications Group, and a 10member strategy panel that includes Carney, senior political advisers, and bureaucrats such as Gerald Shannon, deputy minister for international trade. That group is chaired by Mulroney’s powerful chief of staff,
At the suggestion of those committees, the government is seekingcommunity leaders from think-tanks, business, labor and the academic world who are willing and able to speak out in favor of the free trade agreement. Conservative officials acknowledged that Canadians will be swayed more readily by
arguments from people who are not connected with the government. As a senior Ottawa consultant with close Conservative ties told Maclean’s: “You’re going to see a lot more information on free trade. The strategy is to describe how each region and each province is going to benefit. And that information will come not just from ministers but from third parties who know a lot.”
The Conservative campaign drew increased urgency from public opinion samples released last week. A poll conducted by Environics Research Group Ltd. for Toronto’s Globe and Mail showed that support for the Conservative party did not increase in the days following the signing of the tentative
trade deal. According to the survey, conducted between Oct. 1 and Oct. 18, 38 per cent of decided voters backed the New Democrats, 35 per cent supported the Liberals—and just 24 per cent selected the Tories. Those results were virtually identical to Environics’ previous poll in June.
More ominously for the government, last week’s survey showed that support for free trade slumped to 49 per cent in early October from 56 per cent in June. Conservatives drew consolation from the fact that opposition to free trade remained unchanged at 34 per cent. The difference was in the undecided category, which rose to 17 per cent from 10.
Officials of all three federal parties
acknowledge that the number of Canadians opposed to free trade has remained stable because Liberal Leader John Turner and NDP Leader Ed Broadbent have also bungled the debate. Indeed, many opposition insiders now believe that Canadian voters want facts —not emotional arguments — from both the government and the opposition. One senior Liberal contends that John Turner’s approach—appeal-
ing to Canadian nationalism —is faulty. Instead, he argued that Turner, who last week promised to tear up the agreement if he wins the next election, should concentrate on the argument that Canada is pinning its hopes on a nation heading into economic decline. That approach was given credence by the recent crash on the New York Stock Exchange, which led to fears that the American financial system might drag the world into recession. Said the Liberal: “He should pound home an economic point, not an emotional one.”
A senior Conservative warned that his party will be in real trouble if the opposition sticks to the facts—and the Tories keep hurling emotional abuse.
“The opponents’ argument is off base because they are focusing on cultural sovereignty,” he said. “But they could show that 56 dairy workers in Quebec will lose their jobs under free trade. People understand that. So the government has to find some credible thirdparty voices who are going to make the benefits real and understandable.” Despite those prescriptions, it was difficult for free trade adversaries to
tone down the rhetoric. At a Toronto press conference two weeks ago, free trade supporter Thomas d’Aquino, president of the Business Council on National Issues, dismissed leading foes of the pact—whom he did not name— as “intellectual terrorists” who sold their position with fear instead of facts. In a later interview, NDP Leader Ed Broadbent retorted that businessmen should “get away from that kind of pejorative, silly put-down and talk about the substance of the issue.” As d’Aquino ruefully told Maclean’s last week, his charge, ironically, was contained in a statement calling for moderation. “The greatest danger now is the extremist position on either side,” he maintained. “It is very important
not to oversell this agreement—and it is very important not to damn it as a sellout of Canada. But even when you make appeals to pay attention to the facts, you risk charges of emotionalism.”
Opponents on either side of the issue were slow to learn d’Aquino’s hard lesson. Last week, during a special House of Commons debate on the trade deal, Carney said that the agreement would lower prices for consumers, claiming, “A Canadian earning $23,000 a year will have an extra $850 a year to spend.” But the minister also dismissed opponents as politicians “from the 19th century.” Later last week, as the Commons international trade committee held its first meeting to examine the agreement, Carney charged that her opponents did not want the facts because they preferred to spread false information. In the same vein, Jeff Rose, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, labelled the trade agreement as an “abject abandonment of national purpose” and a “gigantic lie.”
The discord also damaged relations among the premiers. Quebec’s Robert Bourassa charged in the Quebec national assembly last week that many Ontario opponents of free trade can afford to voice selfish objections to the agreement—because the Ontario economy is already healthy. And Alberta Premier Donald Getty, another avid supporter of free trade, vowed that his province “would never forget” if another province scuttled the deal.
In response, Ontario Premier David Peterson observed that “it is not in the interests of this country to draw this into a regional war.” But Liberal insiders noted that Peterson has restrained himself for a more practical reason: it would be difficult to mount a national campaign against the agreement, because only Prince Edward Island Premier Joseph Ghiz and Manitoba’s Howard Pawley share Peterson’s opposition to free trade. Nova Scotia’s John Buchanan, some Liberals claim, will also come out against the agreement. But even four provinces cannot muster the strength to win a national campaign. As an Ontario insider explained, “Ontario will be a participant, not the leader, of this debate.”
Many Conservatives argue that if they can control the free trade debate they can win the next election—despite current polls. They note that free trade is popular in the West and in Quebec. Even in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, more voters support the idea than oppose it: last week’s Environics poll put support for free trade in those regions at 45 per cent, the opposition at 39 per cent. A senior Tory noted that if those numbers were translated
into votes, “things look pretty goodin every province.”
Moreover, Conservatives predict that the NDP will suffer in the West because union leaders such as Robert White, the high-profile president of the Canadian Auto Workers, oppose the deal. As a senior Tory strategist declared: “The NDP is going to be seen as run by Big Labor—and that means Big Trouble.” In Quebec, Liberals too will suffer for their opposition to the deal, the Tories contend, because Bourassa supports it. As a result, another strategist said, the provincial Liberal organization might give tacit support to Conservative candidates in an election campaign.
Those rosy hopes could be dashed if Canadians do not vote according to their views on free trade. Indeed, some worried Conservatives noted last week that the Environics poll showed that 41 per cent of those who back the NDP and 48 per cent of Liberal voters supported free trade—despite their parties’ official stands. Speaking for that minority, an Ontario Tory strategist warned: “Free trade is not a basic criterion that people form their voting choice upon. So the notion of going to an election on this issue is crazy.”
Events in the United States could also erode Tory prospects. Although both governments are scheduled to sign the free trade agreement by Jan. 2, there is no deadline for when the White House must send enabling legislation to the U.S. Congress. Once the legislation is introduced, Congress has 90 working days to accept it—or reject it. Richard Anderson, executive vicepresident of Government Research Corp., a Canadian-owned consulting firm in Washington, pointed out that the administration and Congress, wary about Canadian opposition, could delay the U.S. legislation until the Canadian position is clearer. He warned: “Who wants to go through all of this agony if it is just going to be unwound?” A delay could push ratification by Congress into the summer or early fall of 1988. That, in turn, could delay a Canadian election call based on the treaty.
In the meantime, because the Canadian government clearly views free trade as its savior at the ballot box, the selling of the agreement has become at least as important as the signing of it. And the recent weeks of bungled charges and countercharges have profoundly rattled government partisans. As a senior Tory noted: “The government has not sold its case. I keep pleading, ‘Just send us the facts’ ” It is a request that the government is finally hastening to fulfil.
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