CANADA

The debate over a fall vote

HILARY MACKENZIE June 27 1988
CANADA

The debate over a fall vote

HILARY MACKENZIE June 27 1988

The debate over a fall vote

CANADA

The statement seemed to startle even some of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s closest advisers. At a tribute to veteran Quebec MP Roch LaSalle in Ville des Laurentides last week, Mulroney lauded the former cabinet minister as “a deeply honorable man—a great Quebecer and a great Canadian.” With the RCMP currently conducting three separate investigations to determine whether LaSalle had any involvement in influence-peddling and land deals, the Prime Minister said that LaSalle was only guilty of fighting for his constituents.

Some senior Conservative strategists—none of whom would consent to be quoted by name—said that they were upset by Mulroney’s rhetoric. Added one: “He went too far.

I do not know why he would want to associate himself with those issues.”

Mulroney’s image problems have divided senior Conservatives on the issue of whether the Prime Minister should call an election this fall—which most political observers had been expecting—or wait until next spring. Two weeks ago, a Gallup poll pegged the Liberals at 39 per cent of decided voters, the Conservatives at 31 per cent and the New Democratic Party at 29 per cent. And while senior Tories admitted privately that voter dislike of Mulroney had hurt the party in the polls, they were also weighing the consequences of fighting an election on the precarious issue of free trade with the United States.

Most Tory advisers still seem to favor a fall election. They say that the

government can shift attention from Mulroney’s sagging popularity to the government’s accomplishments—particularly the free trade pact. But some of the same advisers say that a fall election is a “high risk” strategy. At the same time, other party insiders, citing the same risks, want to wait until next year. They say that once the free trade agreement is approved, it will put the government in a stronger position to win a majority.

Said one senior Tory: “There is no consensus.”

Still, all three parties are gearing for a fall election, even though Mulroney does not have to call a vote before the fall of 1989. The Conservatives have already nominated candidates for 131 of the 295 ridings and held an election-training seminar for all MPs. The NDP has nominated 123 candidates and it has been holding training sessions for 500 fieldworkers and candidates since last March. But the Liberals have

only nominated 55 candidates—many of them in hotly contested nomination battles that left riding associations divided—and their candidate-training classes have not yet started. The Liberals are probably in the worst position of the three parties to fight an election. Saddled with a $6.2-million debt, the party announced that it will try to raise money by asking the public for $500 donations. But local organizers, such as Martin Shulman, Liberal president in Ontario’s York North riding, say that they are not expecting a lot of help from the federal party. “If any training is provided, it will be pretty superficial,” Shulman said.

At the heart of the election speculation is the fate of free trade. The accord must pass the House of Commons and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate by Jan. 1 if it is to take effect. The bill is unlikely to receive approval in the U.S. House until August. In Ottawa, the Commons will likely begin debate this week on the free trade legislation that Trade Minister John Crosbie introduced last month.

The early election hawks in Mulroney’s circle of advisers, such as campaign chairman Senator Norman Atkins, say that the government should push the free trade bill through the House, limiting debate with closure— and promptly call a fall election. They argue that free trade is popular and will swing undecided voters behind the government. But it will also underline the differences between the government and its opposition: Liberal Leader John Turner has vowed to tear up the deal if elected, and the NDP policy is to renegotiate it.

But the doves among the Tory planners say that an early election is too dangerous a gamble. They say that the government needs an additional six months to sell its program, including free trade, tax reform and Meech Lake. Others warn that an early election would endanger the treaty itself, which took two years to negotiate and consumed hundreds of cabinet hours. Said one longtime Tory adviser: “The consequences of losing the deal in terms of Canada’s economy, our relationship with the United States and the credibility of the Tory party are enormous. It would take years to repair the damage.”

Despite the fact that both opposition parties trail the Conservatives in election preparation, their strategists say that they are confident they can fight a competent fall campaign. Key Liberals are embroiled in a heated argument about whether they should concentrate their campaign on free trade or the government’s overall record. But Liberal national campaign direc-

tor John Webster insisted that the party is “ahead of schedule on all fronts”—including platform preparation and advertising.

The uncertainty surrounding the election timing was not only a concern for politicians and party planners. Legislation now before the Commons that would make wide-ranging changes to Canada’s electoral regulations, including voter registration procedures, is creating problems for Elections Can-

ada, the federal office that supervises balloting. If that legislation passes, election officials said last week that it would take four months to make the required 170 regulatory changes.

As well, electoral redistribution, which takes effect on July 13, will change the boundaries of all but 13 of Canada’s existing 282 ridings and add another 13 new ridings to the mix. Until then, Chief Electoral Officer JeanMarc Hamel—who must appoint a new

chief returning officer in each redistributed riding—will not know which boundaries will be in effect for an election. Said Hamel: “It has been crazy. On July 14, I will breathe a very large sigh of relief.” But for the men and women holding or seeking those seats, the contest will just be starting.

HILARY MACKENZIE

PAUL KAIHLA

MARY JANIGAN

MARC CLARK