MARY JANIGAN October 24 1988



MARY JANIGAN October 24 1988




It was a tough audience, made up mainly of members of the Toronto business community—most of whom favor the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement. But at last

week’s Liberal party fund-raising dinner, John Turner appeared unintimidated and undeterred. The Liberal leader declared that they must vote against the Conservative government—and the free trade accord—in the Nov. 21 election if they care about the future of Canada. In impassioned language, in the cavernous Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Turner said that Canada would sacrifice its energy, its investment policy, its capital markets and its regional development programs if it accepts the current free trade deal. “The business of business is money and the bottom line.That I respect,” he told his 4,000 listeners. “The business of politics is people. This debate goes further than the economy.” His audience responded with respectful, although subdued, applause. In fact, the issue of free trade, complicated and divisive, dominated the agenda of all three party leaders last week, in the second week of the seven-week campaign.

For Turner, opposition to the trade agreement is the central plank in his platform. Defeating it has become, for him, a passionate crusade for the future of the nation. But a succession of internal party disputes appeared to damage Turner’s image as a competent leader—and to hinder the effectiveness of his drive. For Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, free trade became the prime example of his party’s competence, the key to prosperity and social justice. The Prime Minister delivered that message in tightly controlled environments, behind a protective screen of Mounties, to avoid the possibility of a mistake that could

jeopardize his comfortable lead in the polls. For New Democratic Party Leader Edward Broadbent, fighting to cement the second-place standing that he has achieved in some polls, the agreement became the prime example of a Conservative broken promise.

Broadbent pointed out that Mulroney opposed free trade during the 1983 Conservative leadership race. With that theme, in speech after speech, Broadbent said that free trade would destroy social programs and damage industries such as Canadian wineries—institutions that Mulroney once pledged to preserve. But NDP strategists acknowledged last week that Broadbent would have to be more aggressive in order to engage Mulroney in a potentially damaging exchange.

The most intense discussion last week

centred on the effect of free trade upon the nation’s social safety net. Broadbent raised the issue on Oct. 4 in Edmonton, when he charged that free trade would undermine medicare, opening the door to U.S. management firms in search of profits in the health care industry. The claim had an immediate effect: within hours, David Worthy, for one, the Conservative candidate in the B.C. riding of Cariboo Chilcotin, told Maclean ’s that he had received calls from six worried pensioners.

Mulroney appeared to increase—rather than alleviate—that fear for a time last week when he refused to discuss his plans for senior citizens' pensions in a Financial Times interview. “There will be lots of time for that in the future,” he said. In response, Turner told senior citizens in a Toronto suburb that Mul-

roney might stop increasing their pensions in line with cost-of-living increases. Finance Minister Michael Wilson tried to do that in his 1985 budget but he abandoned his attempt in the face of widespread opposition.

In the resulting confusion, many voters seemed to be concerned that free trade might cut into the social safety net. In Hamilton, Wayne Thomson, for one, a shipper at the Glendale Spinning Mills, said that government leaflets on free trade simply did not answer his

questions. He added, “It would certainly concern me if it affected our social programs, because we have the best system in the world.” The Conservatives acted swiftly to try to remove the concerns. Mulroney told a Cape Breton, N.S., rally, “As long as I am prime minister, social benefits will be improved, not diminished.” Late last week, he added, “The free trade agreement fully protects and preserves all of our existing social programs—and it places no restrictions whatsoever on our ability to improve them.” Despite the controversy, the Conservatives largely stuck to their script: the party is best able to manage change—and the free trade agreement is a good example of skilful management of economic change. At a luncheon in Toronto, Mulroney stressed that the free trade agreement “offers all regions of Canada the chance to grow and prosper.” In Saint John, N.B., at a board of trade luncheon, he said that free trade would also produce more jobs. He added, “The best social policy in the world is a job.”

Conservative strategists

say they are convinced that those constant, controlled speeches are working. Planners told Maclean 'slast week that Mulroney has obtained as much media exposure as the other two leaders—but that the exposure was wellstaged and controlled. Moreover, those insiders say that their low-key campaign provided a difficult target for the opposition. Because there were few new Conservative policies to attack, they claimed, the Liberals and the New Democrats were forced to reveal their own platforms to generate headlines. The Prime Minister, in turn, can

now criticize those policies during the televised debates. Said Conservative campaign chairman Senator Norman Atkins: “We are not worried at all. There will be no significant change in our strategy. Our support is very firm: it came to us over a long haul with a lot of bucks.”

But the controlled Tory campaign itself became the centre of controversy because of attempts to shield Mulroney from ever-present demonstrators. In Toronto, several protesters from the Canadian Peace Pledge Campaign disrupted a Conservative rally when they demonstrated against the Tories’ commitment to buy an $8-billion fleet of nuclear submarines. When they chanted “Stop the subs,” RCMP officers dragged two protesters outside, knocked them to the ground and searched them. Then Metropolitan Toronto police held them in custody for a short time for breach of the peace—although no charges were laid. When asked in St. Boniface, Man., about the arrests, Turner said: “What a risk: ask the Prime Minister a question and you may get arrested; vote for him and you may end up being an American.”

But Turner had problems of his own, and they diminished the effect of days of arduous, often superb campaigning. On Oct. 13, Liberal pollster Martin Goldfarb and Liberal policy architect Thomas Axworthy charged in a new book that “the Liberal party is not identified in the voter’s mind with any distinctive policy.” The two men hastily explained that their book, Marching to a Different Drummer, was written last spring—and that they no longer endorsed that conclusion. But, according to senior strategists, the damage was already done: voters would likely view the book as further evidence that Turner could not manage his own party and that he was not competent.

Clearly distressed, the opposition leader kept fighting. In Fredericton, he charged that free trade could undermine Canada’s regional development progams because the United States contends that they constitute unfair trade subsidies. In Sydney, N.S., he abandoned a prepared speech on regional development, substituting an electrifying denunciation of free trade. “Our Prime Minister has been

acting as headwaiter at the White House,” he shouted.

At the same time, the Liberals’ chief financial officer, Michael Robinson, told Maclean ’s that a four-year-old direct-mail program raised $200,000 last week—twice the previous weekly record. Maclean ’s has also learned that Ontario Industry Minister Monte Kwinter and Ontario Premier David Peterson intend to

charge that the Tory government is shifting defence contract work from Ontario to Quebec. In particular, they will cite the award of contracts for Radarsat—a project to build a $725-mülion remote-sensing satellite, due for launch in 1994—to Quebec. Those claims could weaken the Conservative vote in Ontario. Party officials also say that they are pleased with the Liberals’ first TV ads: in one, an actor playing Mulroney kicks a football marked “The Middle Class” against a wall, while an announcer lists Tory policies such as higher personal income taxes that hit middleincome earners. Liberal strategists say that the ads make their point effectively without being nasty.

Meanwhile, the NDP coast-

ed through last week, waging a competent and confident campaign that caused little controversy. Indeed, NDP planners told Maclean’s that they will have to become more aggressive in order to force Mulroney to address their issues. As a result, NDP researchers are now concentrating upon the social and economic

consequences of free trade, looking for factories that might be closed and for socialbenefit packages that might disappear. Said deputy campaign director Robin Sears: “We discovered that the way to get people to respond to this issue was to make it real in terms of their lives. No one goes out to buy a tariff barrier in their Friday night shopping—but a lot of Canadians believe that medicare is a

crucial component of what makes them distinctively Canadian.”

Last week, Broadbent made a tentative effort to employ those themes. In Welland, Ont., in the heart of Canada’s wine industry, he told 300 cheering supporters that the free trade agreement is a betrayal of Canada’s grape

growers. In Windsor, Ont., near the auto plants, he told 400 supporters that the free trade agreement threatened the job security of local autoworkers. Nicholas Carian, a 61-yearold insurance agent, said that he was pleased with the speech. He declared, “tí the deal goes through, I will tear up my Canadian citizenship card.”

For the voters, the free trade deal has

clearly become the major issue of the campaign. On Sept. 17, the Gallup poll reported that 77 per cent of Canadians felt that they did not have sufficient information to assess the agreement. On Oct. 3, Gallup reported that 59 per cent of Canadians selected free trade as the main election issue. Last week, in an Environics poll, 44 per cent of Canadians said that they supported free trade, an increase of seven percentage points from last June. The Conservatives say that they are hoping that over the next five weeks, the opposition will not be able to sustain the effectiveness of exploiting the negative aspects of the treaty. Said one senior Conservative: “We are fine. But the sooner this election is over, the better.” It is a senti-

ment that his opponents, still looking for blood, clearly do not share.