CANADA

A calculated risk

Enduring abuse, Mulroney plays for time

BRUCE WALLACE November 19 1990
CANADA

A calculated risk

Enduring abuse, Mulroney plays for time

BRUCE WALLACE November 19 1990

A calculated risk

Enduring abuse, Mulroney plays for time

In Toronto, students threw wet macaroni at him. In Edmonton, posters warned, “Brian Mulroney is coming to Alberta. Stop him.” And across the country, polls continued to show that Mulroney remained the most unpopular prime minister in the 50-year history of Canadian polling. But now, because of a departure in strategy by the Prime Minister’s Office, Mulroney is gauging that mood firsthand. In recent forays across the nation from Saint John, N.B., to Vancouver, the Tory leader has faced protesters in the streets and critical callers on hotline shows. Observed Edmonton Tory MP James Edwards: “Mulroney has become the lightning rod for all the unpopular stuff going on in the country, from Iraq to Oka and the GST.” But saddled with unpopular policies and faced with growing economic gloom, increasingly desperate Tories said Mulroney had little choice but to face his critics head on. Said one friend: “It is just a day-byday approach to trying to keep the country together.”

Whether Mulroney can ease the strains on the country’s fabric—and improve his own political standing along the way—remains unclear. For one thing, the Tories have only a sketchy long-term strategy for political recovery. They are hindered by a deadlock in constitutional negotiations _ and distracted by the daily fight in the j±j Senate over the proposed Goods and Services Tax. The deficit-ridden government is also unable to appease « critics with new spending programs.

In fact, Ottawa was rife last week with rumors that the government was on the brink of announcing across-theboard cuts in the public service.

But Mulroney’s road show is partly designed to address the growing populist mood of the country, which manifests itself in vocal criticism of big government and conventional politicians. The recently announced Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, which will hold public hearings across Canada, was one clear indication that the government is heeding criticisms over the closed-door deal-making process that led to the now-scuttled Meech Lake accord. As well, Mulroney has departed from his customarily studied and often pedantic speaking manner in favor of a more informal and selfdeprecating tone. At a fund-raising dinner with Toronto Tories last week, the Prime Minister said, “No one foolishly goes out to look for a program to make himself unpopular, although if you want one, I got one.”

So far, Mulroney’s heightened accessibility

has met with mixed success. On radio and television hotlines and in front of carefully selected crowds, Mulroney defended his government’s policies in a relaxed and confident style. Most appearances also attracted protesters who shouted insults and taunted Mulroney to resign. But the protests were not as angry as some Tories had initially feared. At Toronto’s York University, chanting students threw paper balls. When Mulroney arrived to deliver a speech at a Toronto hotel last week, some

protesters spat at his limousine. But the crowd of roughly 100 quickly dispersed as soon as the television cameras left.

Some analysts said that Mulroney could benefit from encountering his critics outside Ottawa. Said Michael Adams of the Torontobased Environics Research Group: “By going out there, Mulroney allows people to let off steam. He will not benefit at the polls tomorrow, but he may be earning grudging, subconscious approval from voters for having paid his dues by facing them head on.”

But simply taking the blame is not likely to reverse Mulroney’s sliding fortunes on its own. For one thing, while the Prime Minister can be an arresting performer when he is less-rehearsed in his statements, he is also prone to making mistakes. Speaking to Quebec Tories in Mont Ste-Anne on Nov. 3, Mulroney cautioned that constitutional adventurism might

carry a big economic price. But in doing so, he invoked the spectre of Quebecers’ losing their pensions, which recalled the economic threats made by Ottawa during the campaign for the 1980 Referendum. The Quebec media harshly condemned Mulroney for using the sensitive phrase. But as constitutional battles heat up in the coming months, Mulroney is unlikely to be able to avoid touching on delicate topics. “This is not going to be a polite debate,” said one government adviser.

And despite the appointment of the Citizens’ Forum, much of that debate is still likely to be conducted in the warrens of Ottawa. According to his advisers, Mulroney will rely on a second, more traditional constitutional commission for advice on how to handle the forum’s recommendations. Among the key tasks that will face the still-unnamed commissioners: finding a way to escape the political straitjacket of the cur-

rent amending formula, which requires unanimous consent by Ottawa and the provinces for constitutional reforms.

But if that approach effectively leaves the forum’s recommendations subject to a panel of experts, it may merely reinforce public alienation-—and frustrate Mulroney’s attempts at a political renaissance. Said Bruce MacDonald, a Toronto advertising executive who helped choreograph the Ontario New Democratic Party’s stunning election win last September: “The public is looking for politicians who are less packaged. But, whether it is justified or not, the perception is that everything Mulroney says has a hidden angle. And that credibility gap is hard to overcome.” For Mulroney, the success of any new approach may ultimately rest with whether Canadians are still willing to listen.

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa