Waiting for an election

BRUCE WALLACE July 25 1988

Waiting for an election

BRUCE WALLACE July 25 1988

Waiting for an election


The popcorn machine that sits on a desk in Senator Alasdair Graham’s corner office in Parliament’s East Block building was a gift from a political rival. Last August, when Graham was appointed co-chairman of the federal Liberal party’s election campaign, Senator Norman Atkins, his Conservative party counterpart, sent him the corn popper along with a card that read “When the going gets tough, I find that popcorn helps the day go better.” Now, as Graham prepares to enter his 12th national campaign, he may develop a taste for popcorn.

A Gallup poll released on July 14 showed that the Tories have pulled close to the Liberals, largely because the Mulroney government has markedly improved its standing in Quebec.

Last week, the Tories continued to push their legislative program through the House of Commons in anticipation of an election call. But for the Liberals, the sobering poll results raised questions about the party’s readiness to fight a campaign. There were signs last week that the Liberals have internal divisions in two critical regions: Quebec, where the party was still searching for a way to counter the Tory challenge, and Toronto, where messy fights have broken out between candidates seeking party nominations.

The Gallup poll clearly alarmed many Liberals. Said Liberal MP Sergio Marchi: “Mulroney has never had a better sixmonth period, and the poll has to make him eager to call an election.” Conducted between July 6 and 9, the poll—which has a four-percentage-point margin of error—placed the Liberals first with 37 per cent of decided voters, the Tories second with 35 per cent and the New Democrats trailing with 27 per cent (the June Gallup: Liberals—39, Conservatives—31, ndp—29). But most damaging to the Liberals were the poll results in Quebec, where the Tories moved up 20 points to 42 per cent, compared with a 13-point Liberal decline to 37 per cent. For Turner, the damage could not

have come at a more critical time. Last

April, he stood firm in the face of a rebellion against his leadership by 22 unhappy caucus members. Since then, he has tried to focus the party’s attention on the impending election. Last week, he made a rousing speech to a special caucus, which included many newly nominated party candidates.

But Turner also chose the caucus meeting to signal a willingness to take on Quebec’s Liberal Premier Robert

Bourassa, a Mulroney ally. The alliance paid dividends for Mulroney in June, when Bourassa’s provincial electoral machine helped Tory cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard win a key byelection in the Quebec riding of Lac St-Jean. And Bourassa has declared his support for Mulroney’s free trade deal, which Turner opposes.

In the past, Turner had played down his differences with Bourassa. But last week, many federal Liberals appeared eager to fire up that cold war. Said Ontario Liberal MP John Nunziata: “Too much has been done to appease Bourassa. He is a fair-weather Liberal.” But

other Liberals cautioned against a struggle with Bourassa. Among them: André Ouellet, the Trudeau-era cabinet minister who has battled Bourassa and is aware of the premier’s current popularity in Quebec. Last week, Ouellet privately advised Turner against engaging Bourassa. As well, chief Quebec Liberal fund raiser Tommy D’Errico told Maclean’s, “If Turner wants a fight, he will get one.”

Ouellet’s influence in Turner’s inner councils has clearly risen. Although many Turner loyalists suspected Ouellet of engineering the April coup attempt, Turner subsequently appointed him cochairman of the national campaign strategy team with Graham. Since then, Ouellet has consolidated his power, holding strategy meetings with Graham and other key planners at his house in Ottawa. Ouellet insists on approving every detail of the campaign strategy.

Meanwhile, the Liberals also encountered more adverse publicity about hotly contested nomination meetings in the Toronto area. The most recent incident came in the aftermath of the nomination battle in the Mississauga East riding. Albina Guarnieri, a former aide to Toronto Mayor Arthur Eggleton, defeated insurance broker Armindo Silva by 71 votes on May 15. Silva appealed the outcome s to a party arbitration board, 1 which upheld the result. But the I executive of the party’s Ontario wing reversed that decision on July 9 and ordered a new nomination meeting.

Last week, Guarnieri took her case to Turner and the Liberal caucus in Ottawa. According to Guarnieri, Turner approached her during a barbecue he was holding for caucus members at his Stornoway residence and warned her repeatedly, “Don’t embarrass the leader.” Publicly, the Liberal leader told reporters that the nomination battles were a sign of the party’s popularity. “People want to be nominated for the Liberal party,” said Turner. “They want to become members of Parliament.”

But the hostility of some Toronto campaigns—with the losers in several

cases refusing to support the victor— has upset some Toronto Liberals. Said Martin Shulman, president of the York North riding association: “It is embarrassing to be a Liberal. I think that Turner has lost control and that the party is losing control. And I think that is finally reflected in the polls.”

Unhappy Toronto-area Liberals have directed much of their ill will at Elvio Del Zotto, the federal party’s Ontario president. Critics charged that Del Zotto

is interfering with riding nominations. Said Shulman: “It appears that preference is being given to certain candidates.” Added Andrew Telegdi, a member of the Waterloo riding executive: “The whole thing about John Turner returning the party to the grassroots is a joke.” Del Zotto could not be reached for comment last week.

Still, Del Zotto has broad expertise in fund-raising that the financially beleaguered Liberal party desperately needs.

That skill will be demonstrated on July 25, when a birthday party for Del Zotto—who will turn 54—is expected to raise money to help pay the Liberal party’s $6.2-million debt. Last week, organizers had already raised $300,000 by selling 200 tickets at $1,500 each to attend a formal birthday dinner at Del Zotto’s home in Toronto’s exclusive Bridle Path neighborhood. The evening will feature entertainment by comedian Rich Little, who, said Del Zotto’s executive assistant, Kate McCready, “does a pretty decent imitation of Brian Mulroney.” For his part, Mulroney was doing a good imitation of a prime minister preparing to call an election. At week’s end, the powerful 17-member Priorities and Planning Committee withdrew to the federal government’s retreat at Meech Lake, Que., outside Ottawa, to assess its pre-election legislative strategy. Earlier in the week, the Tories used their House majority to pass legislation streamlining the refugee application process and introduced the Emergencies Act, which will reform the controversial War Measures Act. Health and Welfare Minister Jake Epp also announced that the government would add $1 billion to the $3 billion previously committed to its day care program. But the Tories backed away from a potentially divisive debate over abortion until the government could draft an amendment that would appease the party’s vocal prolife faction. The early July heat wave had passed, but last week’s poll—and the continuing strategic planning—kept the political atmosphere hot.