COLUMN

The PM’s black, travelling cloud

The Prime Minister, like any great wine, does not usually travel well. And that is a great shame

STEWART MacLEOD September 4 1989
COLUMN

The PM’s black, travelling cloud

The Prime Minister, like any great wine, does not usually travel well. And that is a great shame

STEWART MacLEOD September 4 1989

The PM’s black, travelling cloud

COLUMN

The Prime Minister, like any great wine, does not usually travel well. And that is a great shame

STEWART MacLEOD

Just as John Turner had the smarts to call for the services of an image consultant, who, among other things, exorcised his staccato speaking style, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney should think about hiring perfection-abroad consultants.

No, we’re not talking about routine tourbooking agents. What our Prime Minister needs is a tactical team of travel overlords, some with political sense, some with common sense, some with a sixth sense, to tell him when it’s safe to leave Canada and how to perform on foreign soils.

You see, Mulroney is like a fine vintage Burgundy wine, the kind which inspires connoisseurs to say “hmmm” before offering such analytical assessments as “impertinent bouquet,” “impudent aftertaste” and “mischievous for palatial palates.”

Sorry for that early digression. But it’s a roundabout way of saying that the Prime Minister, like any great wine, doesn’t usually travel well. And it’s a great pity because, from the days when Mackenzie King first slumped down the gangplank from the Empress of Australia, foreign travel for prime ministers has always been a public-relations bonanza.

They went abroad to escape the political hassles at home; they went to be greeted on red carpets by heads of state; to be photographed with the Queen, the Pope, the New Zealand Dairy Princess. Their gleaming hosts would tell Canadian TV viewers that talks had been not only “frank, friendly and fruitful”—they’re always that—but also damned interesting.

Great for the folks back home. Their prime minister was knocking ’em dead, while saving the United Nations, the British monarchy and the odd Tibetan temple. Quick, name one occasion when a Canadian prime minister was even remotely embarrassed on foreign soil. Okay, if you want to be picky, we can go back

30 years and recall the time John Diefenbaker took his brother on a trip to Australia, where Field Marshal William Slim was governor general. “Hello there,” said Viscount Slim, as he extended a stiff hand to an unfamiliar Canadian. “I am Slim.”

“Hi, Slim,” was the friendly reply. “I am Elmer.” Dief, we’re told, winced.

But basically, these trips have been pure gold.

Golden, that is, until Brian Mulroney came along. And let’s hasten to add that it hasn’t always been his fault. Perhaps it seldom has.

True, the guy doesn’t have a comfortable stage presence, and his arms don’t seem to know what to do when he walks. He also has a disconcerting habit of pointing at nothing. He seems to be horning in on photographs, even when he’s not. But these are merely incidental performance-control problems.

Diefenbaker had an almost regal presence; Lester Pearson, with his innate modesty, wouldn’t be accused of homing in if he arrived by parachute. Pierre Trudeau could slide down monarchial banisters and win five new ridings. As prime minister, Joe Clark never had a problem—he probably got it out of his system when he was dodging stationary Canadian bay-

onets as opposition leader during his overreported Asian tour of 1979. John Turner wasn’t in office long enough to get a new passport.

No, the travails of prime ministerial travel started with B. Mulroney. Joe Bltsptek’s black cloud had to go somewhere.

Now, if we go back to 1986, no one could have predicted that, as our Prime Minister was exploring the far reaches of Asia, the Sinclair Stevens affair was going to splatter all over Parliament. And, night after night, when the national news should have been showing us a beaming Brian, sitting cross-legged sipping nonalcoholic sake, he was being badgered about booting Stevens out of cabinet. He could have had that crud back home.

Another thing: back in simpler times, travelling Canadian reporters wouldn’t have known what to ask the prime minister about domestic affairs. But now, we not only have those dastardly computers, there’s a new breed of quicheand-carrot correspondents who stay up all night, with Perrier, waiting for their cellular phones to ring. They used to party.

This frightening new system came into play again earlier this year in Senegal, when the Prime Minister wasn’t allowed to concentrate on the dugout-canoe builders, or bask in the glories of Canadian foreign aid. No, this time, the carrot crowd was back at it again, demanding to know all about the budget leaks, or, if you prefer, the Wilson waterfalls.

Then came the Paris extravaganza, and we’ll probably never know what meetings, if any, were scheduled, invented or cancelled. But the media conjecture about them didn’t help. Before that, of course, there was the British sideshow, preceded by the secondhand gift gaffe. Well, we can say gaffe because when a prime minister can’t produce an original present for France’s 200th birthday party, it scarcely qualifies him for coronation-type coverage. What we did was take down an original Riopelle, commissioned specially for Pearson Airport in Toronto, and give it to the French to hang in some obscure spot in their new Opera House. Guess we’re running out of retired RCMP horses.

Charles de Gaulle’s “ Vive le Quebec libre” might not have been the most appropriate gift for Canada’s 100th birthday, but it was original.

When Mulroney stopped in London to have a chat, or whatever, with Margaret Thatcher, what happened there was mind-boggling in its un-Britishness. Imagine the cheek of a senior British official telling Canadian reporters that “your prime minister is a public relations man. He wants to have his picture taken with THE prime minister [Margaret Thatcher] outside No. 10 [Downing St.]. Nothing else matters.”

Wow! Coming from the British, that hurt! A precedent of preposterous proportions. Never even tested on an Argentine naval attaché.

For Mulroney, getting there is no longer half the fun. It’s the only fun. Little wonder that hunkering down at his Harrington Lake cottage looks so inviting.

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.

Stewart MacLeod is Ottawa columnist for Thomson News Service.