Almost from the moment he moved into his corner office on the second floor of Ottawa’s Langevin Block, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney managed his government on a permanent election footing. He made his intentions clear in the advice he gave his ministers after the swearing-in of his first cabinet. Declared Mulroney: “The next election begins today.”
As a pragmatist, critics say, Mulroney set out not to lead public opinion but to follow it. His more ideological supporters on Bay Street and in the business world might have wanted him to slash the federal deficit, reduce social spending, cut taxes and privatize large chunks of state-owned industry. But with rare exceptions, Mulroney has resisted such pressure. Instead of altering the fundamental direction of government policy—in economic terms, a cautious blend of free markets and state interventionism—Mulroney sensed that what was needed was a change in the style of government: conciliation rather than confrontation.
Still, the voters who elected Mulroney in 1984 had what many Parliament Hill analysts regarded as excessive expectations of the new government. As one scandal followed another, Mulroney’s approval ratings dropped like a stone—reaching a low of 17 per cent in March, 1987. Since then, the Tories have climbed back into the lead in national polls, raising the possibility that Mulroney could become the first Tory prime minister since Sir John A. Macdonald in 1891 to win two successive majorities. But if he fails, Mulroney could face the same internal opposition that ultimately defeated predecessors Joe Clark in 1980 and John Diefenbaker in 1963. Unlike them, Mulroney is not a career politi~ cian, and few of those who know him expect f that he would remain as leader for long.
In fact, Mulroney’s own party represented one of the biggest hurdles to his electoral ambitions. In his race for the Conservative leadership in 1983, Mulroney astutely portrayed himself as the champion of large and small business and the ideological right. He promised to rein in government spending, unleash the private sector and reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy by handing out “pink slips and running shoes.”
But by the time he came to face the voters
in a general election, the Tory leader had undergone a transformation: the new buzz words were consultation, consensus and pragmatism. Occasionally, the right wingers in the Tory caucus complained about his centrist positions, but Mulroney had a quick reply. “This is the way to win,” he once told caucus members when defending his strong stand in favor of bilingualism. “And I don’t know about you guys, but that’s where I’m going.”
In much the same way, the Brian Mulroney who appears nightly on the television screen, deep-voiced and expensively tailored, is a different man from the Brian Mulroney who tours the bingo halls and hockey rinks of small-town Canada, kissing babies and pumping hands. It is there, not in the House, that Mulroney seems most at home. “A lot of
Tories who voted for Brian in 1983 didn’t know what they were getting,” said a Quebec lawyer who is a close friend of Mulroney’s. “They thought he was a slick, rightwing businessman. He’s not. He can adopt that persona when it’s expedient, but the real Mulroney is a lot more streetwise.”
But political instincts and a warm personal touch do not by themselves produce successful prime ministers. Mulroney learned that lesson during the first two years of his term, a period marred by a series of ministerial resignations, the tuna scandal, bank failures, high-profile patronage appointments and blunders in the Prime Minister’s Office. Since then, his supporters argue, Mulroney has grown in the job. His office now functions more smoothly, the worst excesses of patronage have been checked and, by and large, his government sets its own agenda rather than being forced onto the defensive by crises.
For all that, Mulroney’s critics—and even some of his friends—say that he has failed to communicate a sense of vision for Canada, that in his desire to be liked he has tried too hard to be all things to all people. Ontario Premier David Peterson, for one, said that Mulroney is “great fun, the kind of guy you
would want with you if you were marooned on a desert island,” but that he “doesn’t have a lot of intellectual depth.” To win a second term, Mulroney may have to convince voters that he is a leader with a clear vision of the nation’s future.
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