Every election is a contest between heritage and impulse, as the verities of the past compete with the risks of the future. But in the 11 hours that it took 13 million Canadians to cast their ballots last week, something very different happened. A nation that less than a decade ago had defeated a government for daring to impose a minor excise tax on gasoline audaciously opted for a revamped political order at home and a hazardous trading partnership abroad. We bestowed a revolutionary mandate on a prime minister who scarcely a year earlier seemed to have a permanent lease on the basement in popularity polls.
It felt more like a blitzkrieg than an election. Politicians stumped the land calling one another scumbags, traitors, liars and power-hungry rats.
With her customary penchant for understatement, the Liberals’ Sheila Copps compared the free trade debate to the War of 1812, trumpeting her call to arms: “We pushed back the Americans then and we’ll do it again!” Not to be outdone, Simon Reisman, the least diplomatic diplomat since Attila the Hun, replied in kind by suggesting the ultimate sacrifice: “I’m putting my reputation, which is considerable, on the line,” he told a Global Television interviewer, then looking the camera straight in its glassy eye, stoically added, “I’m putting my life on the line.”
That offer was mercifully never redeemed, but Ms. Copps escalated the discourse by insisting that the real victims of free trade would be the unborn. She claimed that once the agreement was signed, American lawyers would pour across the border searching for surrogate mothers whose wombs would be cheaper to rent because of medicare. Such weird outfits as BAD (Billiards Against the Deal), DAD (Dancing Against the Deal) and RAD (Rock Against the Deal) sprang up, and in
Vegreville, Alta., a farmer stomped an antifree-trade slogan into his stubbled wheat field in 250-foot-high letters. Possibly the most bizarre manifestation of the debate was an interview by The Ottawa Citizen’s Charles Gordon with his dog about the deal.
“How do you think it will be when we have free trade with the United States?”
That and all the other nonsense that went on helped mask the election’s radical impact. It was not, as it turned out, a referendum on free trade. Only two days before the ballots were counted, a Gallup poll that boasted the largest
sampling of any opinion survey documented that only 34 per cent of Canadians approved Ottawa’s trade initiative. That support translated into votes might have left the Tories with fewer than 50 seats in the election 48 hours later. The fact that Brian Mulroney ended the long night with a solid majority signified the real dimensions of his victory.
When he first won power in 1984, the boyo from Baie-Comeau could never be sure how many ballots were his own and what proportion
followed the delightful Canadian habit of automatically voting against incumbent governments—particularly in opposition to as unpopular a political meteor as Pierre Trudeau. But this time, Mulroney feels vindicated; for better or worse, the 1988 mandate is his and his alone. It was the most unexpected political renewal of the century.
Not only did he become the first PC leader to win a second straight majority since John A. Macdonald in 1891, but he squelched the NDP and hived the Liberals—who have held national office for 66 of the past 92 years—into marginal political rumps. In Quebec, which had been a Liberal plantation ever since Louis Riel was hanged by a Conservative prime minister, the Grits elected only a dozen, less than half of them French-speaking. Mulroney marched his party to a decisive victory even though, only a few months before, Canadians still ranked the Tories a poor third in their esteem. Somehow the thrill of the electoral battle, the passion of Mulroney’s message and the kamikaze proclivities of his opponents combined to mask the negative versions of the man.
Once dismissed as a lucky pragmatist with a 1,000-watt smile who longed to be loved, Mulroney has emerged as a shrewd and mature player on the Canadian as well as the international stage. The election results have endowed him with a sense of self-confidence—the purring posses-
0 sion of power that Mulroney
1 seldom enjoyed before. That, I in turn, is rooted in the fact u that most of the winning decisions in the choreography of this jazzy campaign were his
own. The first two judgments he made would turn out to be crucial.
Despite the intense pressure from most of his advisers to pull the plug right after the Toronto summit or in early September, Mulroney held off the election call so that he could spend the summer crisscrossing the country, sprinkling the favorable newsclips that gradually improved the perception of his government. When the campaign finally started on Oct. 1, it was Mulroney who resisted the advice
‘THE NATION AUDACIOUSLY OPTED FOR A HAZARDOUS TRADING PARTNERSHIP’
of his entourage by insisting the leaders’ television debate be held within the first 3V2 weeks of the campaign and that there be no separate debate on free trade. “If Turner shows up at the studio on time, the media will declare him the winner,” he told one of his aides.
Turner not only showed up on time but put on the most convincing performance of his political life. The Liberal leader’s Tarzan-like free trade policy (“Me tear up treaty”) acquired unexpected legitimacy when Mulroney downplayed the agreement by stressing it was only a document “cancelable on six months’ notice.” That slip reawakened the gridlock of distrust that had dogged the Tory leader during his initial mandate. Turner emerged from the television confrontations as a lively alternative, having successfully turned free trade from an economic issue to one with wider social and cultural implications.
Most of the seven million or so Canadians who watched the debates switched their allegiances overnight, placing the Liberals on top in what the pollsters reported was the most dramatic mid-election crossover ever recorded. Instead of panicking, Mulroney quietly shifted the nature of his campaign and the source of his advice. The veterans of Ontario’s Big Blue Machine, led by Senator Norman Atkins, remained in charge, but Mulroney began to listen more carefully to the thoughts of a confidential group of high-ranking Tories across the country who held daily conference calls under the direction of Fred Doucet, one of the Prime Minister’s most trusted friends and a former senior adviser.
It was Doucet, now an Ottawa management consultant, who synthesized the frequent musings of the telephone think-tank for the Prime Minister’s eyes only. This group included four former Tory premiers (Frank Moores of Newfoundland, Peter Lougheed of Alberta, Ontario’s Bill Davis and Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick); former Mulroney aides Ian Anderson, Bernard Roy and Jamie Burns; businessmen Joe Stewart (Halifax), Terry McCann (Renfrew, Ont.), John Bitove (Toronto) and Ken Waschuck (Regina); as well as Doug MacArthur, president of the Alberta Conservative party; Marcel Côté, former economic adviser to Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa; Walter Tedman, special assistant to Toronto Mayor Arthur Eggleton; and Gary Ouellet, an Ottawa consultant.
John Turner’s campaign began to fall apart in the last three weeks. He had the wittiest slogan (“Guts or Guccis”) and the most impassioned cause, but his crusade was too onedimensional to be sustained, so that he seemed to be giving solace to himself rather than his followers—a Don Quixote gathering wayward passions but little political clout. He had for so long been the keeper of corporate flames, the
fervent disciple of North American capitalism, that his attacks on big business left his listeners with a smudge of unresolved doubt about his convictions and intentions on all his pronouncements. In the end, John Turner, whose campaign rescued his honor, was defeated by only one man—himself.
Ed Broadbent’s valiant campaign was the most ironic of all, because it was both hopeless and required. He had to pretend he was fielding a national party, allocating a quarter of his budget and much of his time and energy to Quebec, because to draw back and limit his
campaign to the NDP’s 100 most-favored constituencies (as he had done in 1984) would have implied admitting that the party, which at one point topped 40 per cent in the polls, had not, after all, evolved under his leadership. It turned out, as many of his own supporters had feared, that the New Democrats were not so much a party seeking votes as the recipient of disillusioned votes looking for a temporary parking slot between elections. Broadbent was also dogged by his musings that Canadians would be better off with a two-party system—the Tories on the political right and himself on the opposite edge of the spectrum. That reverie served temporarily to boost the Liberal party as the best hope of stopping the free trade deal.
As the campaign wound toward its climax, Mulroney’s popularity soared, with the final pre-election surveys claiming that one-third of Canadians believed he would make the best prime minister. Only a quarter opted for Broadbent, while Turner trailed with 17 per cent. In that final hectic week, when he knew he was winning, Mulroney hit his stride. At a rally in Yarmouth, N.S., after former Tory leader Robert Stanfield endorsed him “warts and all,” Mulroney joked it was no wonder John Turner wanted to cancel the purchase of nuclear-powered submarines: “If you had been torpedoed as many times as he has, you wouldn’t like submarines either.” Then the Tory leader drafted a pretend text for what John Turner had really wanted Ronald Reagan to say in his trade speech: “Let’s win one for the Ripper”— and the audience lapped it up.
The most important battleground was Quebec, where only two elections ago the Liberals had won 74 of the province’s 75 seats and 54 Tories had lost their deposits. Mulroney played successfully to the fact that entrepreneurs are the new folk heroes of Quebec society—the high priests of the 1990s. And the entrepreneurs responded by holding a news conference at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, endorsing his initiatives. Turner’s and Broadbent’s support of the Meech Lake accord, which allowed Quebec to subscribe to the Canadian Constitution, counted for nothing as Mulroney rampaged across the province, enthusiastically backed by Robert Bourassa’s shock troops and party machine.
Quebec went massively Conservative on Nov. 21, with the Liberals reduced to their worst showing since Confederation. They even lost Outremont, a Montreal riding created in 1917 that had voted “Rouge” ever since. (On the day after the election, the Quebec premier signed an $8.5-billion hydropower export contract with New York state.)
On election night, Brian Mulroney relaxed at the Hotel Manoir in Baie-Comeau with his friends and family, more than content with his performance and the impressive stretch of his newly gained authority. While the Prime Minister earned his renewed mandate, free trade remains very much an unfinished transaction. & Canadians did, after all, take a leap of faith I through a window of opportunity, and none of ° us knows whether we’ll land right side up. The success or failure of free trade will ultimately be judged on how the agreement is implemented, rather than the treaty itself.
There is no doubt that the new government we blessed with the majority of our votes will now be held accountable for the cost side of free trade; the price of remaining Canadian is about to go up. But neither is there any doubt that it’s time for Brian Mulroney to give up his status as this country’s perennially underrated politician. The country he now leads is very different from the Canada he hesitantly began to govern four years ago. His destiny may or may not withstand the chill of history, but his private determination to leave politics in 1992 will allow him to undertake the kind of radical reforms a party leader panting for re-election can never dare attempt.
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