CANADA

GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT

MULRONEY GOES ON THE ROAD, TALKING TO THE LOCAL MEDIA TO SHORE UP TORY SUPPORT

ROSS LAVER February 26 1990
CANADA

GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT

MULRONEY GOES ON THE ROAD, TALKING TO THE LOCAL MEDIA TO SHORE UP TORY SUPPORT

ROSS LAVER February 26 1990

GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT

CANADA

MULRONEY GOES ON THE ROAD, TALKING TO THE LOCAL MEDIA TO SHORE UP TORY SUPPORT

The whirlwind visit had all of the trappings of a day on the campaign trail: a staged encounter with a mob of flag-waving schoolchildren, interviews with the politician and his wife at the town’s only television station and, in the evening, a speech to the local Chamber of Commerce. But if Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s eight-hour visit to Brandon, Man., last week was meant to shore up support for his government in the Conservative heartland of southwestern Manitoba, there was little evidence that it had succeeded. Instead, hundreds of placard-carrying demonstrators stood for two hours in the -23°C cold for a chance to jeer Mulroney when he arrived at a suburban motel for a $30-a-plate dinner with about 450 traditional Tories. Subdued but apparently unshaken, Mulroney acknowledged in his speech that many of his policies—especially the planned seven-per-cent Goods and Services Tax —

were highly unpopular. But he added: “We will take it on the chin if we have to, not because it is popular but because it is right.” Mulroney’s speech in Brandon last week, following a similar one in the southwestern Ontario city of Kitchener the week before,

marked the opening stages of a carefully planned but decidedly risky exercise in public relations by the beleaguered federal Tories. For at least the next five months—and perhaps until the end of the year—the Prime Minister is planning to spend an average of one day a week outside of Ottawa, travelling with his wife, Mila, and a clutch of aides to cities and towns across the country.

According to senior Tories, the strategy is partly designed to ensure that Mul^ roney remains in the media 2 spotlight throughout the long g campaign leading up to the 5 Liberal leadership conven| tion in Calgary in June. But g influential advisers to the 2 Prime Minister also acknowl5 edge that the road trips are meant to reassure grassroots Tories, many of whom are uncomfortable with the government’s current agenda. “I get phone calls all the time from friends in the party who want to make sure that we know what the hell we are doing,” said one senior Tory. “Mulroney knows that his first priority right now is to keep the troops in line. To do that, he has to show them that he is not afraid to stand up in public and defend his own policies.”

Mulroney’s task is likely to become even more difficult with the release this week of the 1990-1991 federal budget. In part because of spiralling interest payments on the national debt, Finance Minister Michael Wilson faced the task of cutting spending or increasing taxes by a total of $3 billion just to meet the projected federal deficit of $28.5 billion. But Wilson’s room for manoeuvring is severely limited. Even some of his colleagues on the Conservative benches have declared openly that they will not support any significant increase in taxes. “People in Alberta will not accept more tax hikes,” said Barbara (Bobby) Sparrow, MP for Calgary Southwest and chairman of Alberta’s 24-member Tory caucus. “The message is that spending must be cut.”

Given those restraints, most Conservatives say that there is little the government can do in the near future to improve its image. According to the most recent Gallup poll, released late last month, the Tories have sunk to third place nationally, with the support of 22 per cent of decided voters—the same level the party hit at its previous low point, in February, 1987. Still four months away from choosing a new leader, the Liberals are ahead with 48 per cent, while the New Democratic Party under new leader Audrey McLaughlin is second with 23 per cent. “There is an incredible sense of resignation in the Prime Minister’s Office,” said one Conservative strategist. “Nobody really likes what is happening, but nobody has any better ideas. All we can do is try to explain what it is that we are trying to do, and hope that people understand.” Mulroney’s advisers clearly believe that he can do that most effectively by getting out of Ottawa. They complain that the national media often ignore what the Prime Minister says in the nation’s capital, not because reporters are hostile to the Tories but because the main issues before the government—including the GST, the deficit and the proposed Meech Lake constitutional amendment—are not new. But the same television networks and newspapers routinely send correspondents to cover Mul-

roney whenever he goes on the road. Said one adviser: “It sounds crazy, I know, but the press gallery actually seems to pay more attention to what he says when he travels than when he stays at home. On top of that, we get coverage in the local media, which you cannot do if you stay in Ottawa.”

Mulroney is not the first prime minister to discover the advantages of leaving the capital. In the late 1970s, then-Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made frequent trips outside Ottawa. Unlike the more aloof Trudeau, however,

Mulroney clearly enjoys wading through the crowds and signing autographs. “He seems more comfortable dealing with people in their own communities,” said Alberta Tory MP Lee Richardson, who served as Mulroney’s tour director from 1984 to 1987. “The video image of him seems cool, but in person he and Mrs. Mulroney both come across as warm and generous.”

Mulroney’s staff is also adept at organizing his road trips and visits to small towns for maximum effect. Weeks

before his arrival in Brandon last week, PMO officials had arranged for the Prime Minister to speak at a dinner sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce, an organization that includes many active Tories. Later, when a group opposed to the GST bought up close to a quarter of the tickets to the event, chamber president Donald Penny, a Tory supporter, demanded that all but 24 of the tickets the group had purchased be returned and distributed to other area residents. The speech itself was delivered before the meal, to make sure that it ended in time for the nightly newscasts in Central Canada. And most of the protesters were kept

outside in the bitter cold, held back by barricades and about 50 uniformed members of the RCMP, some brought in from Winnipeg.

Earlier in the day, Mulroney met privately with the editorial board of the daily Brandon Sun. He and Mila also gave separate interviews to CKX TV, the local CBC affiliate. Said Stuart Craig, the station’s president and general manager: “Somebody from Ottawa just phoned up a couple of weeks ago and asked if we would be interested in talking to the Prime Minister. I was very excited. I think it is great that he decided to come here.” Craig added that he was happy to give Mulroney a chance to outline his reasons for introducing the GST. “I do not think people would be protesting so much if they understood how the tax will work,” Craig said. “It is our job to help get that message across.”

Mulroney’s own message is a simple one: in effect, he seems to be telling Canadians that he does not care whether he is popular as long as he is respected for his willingness to take tough decisions. “If you want to be popular, it is a very simple proposition,” he told his Brandon audience. “But you will not like what you see in the public accounts three years from now.” Later, he brushed aside a local reporter’s suggestion that his government’s low standing in the polls spelled difficulty for the Tories. “Nobody is in difficulty 3V2 years before the next election,” he said.

Despite that, Mulroney did not appear to win many converts to his tax-reform proposals in Brandon. Nor did he manage to convince many of his listeners of the need for the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Signed in 1987, the pact will expire on June 23 unless it is ratified by the legislatures of all 10 provinces. The governments of Manitoba and New Brunswick, the two provinces that have withheld ratification, oppose it—and Newfoundland has threatened to rescind its ratification unless changes are made. Privately, one senior federal Tory told Maclean ’s that Ottawa has still not given up hope of convincing Manitoba’s Tory Premier Gary Filmon—who heads a minority government—to call a snap election this spring. If he won a majority, the official said, the premier would then be in a position to strike a deal with Ottawa in an effort to salvage Meech Lake. But Filmon’s own advisers curtly dismiss such suggestions. They add that Filmon is tentatively planning a fall electon, and will not be influenced by Ottawa. Said one aide to the premier: “Filmon has not wanted to say that Meech is dead, but the optimism that existed a few months ago has dwindled.”

But even with such problems, most federal Tories insist that there is little reason for them to worry about the government’s unpopularity. “We were at 20 per cent in the polls in 1987, and yet we still managed to win a second majority [in November, 1988],” noted Mississauga MP Donald Blenkarn, chairman of the Commons finance committee. “After you have been through rough times once or twice, you do not get spooked when it happens again.” Said Brandon MP Lee Clark: “If there was an election tomorrow most of us would lose our seats. But at least we cannot be accused of governing by opinion polls.”

In Brandon last week, Mulroney sounded a similar note of determination. At one point, he joked that the ranks of his supporters had been reduced to his “immediate family” even before he introduced legislation to implement the GST. But privately, some senior Tories expressed concern that the government’s faith in its own ability to recover from the slump may be unfounded. “The view in the PMO is that they have everything under control,” said an adviser who speaks frequently with the Prime Minister. “They forget that, after a while, these things take on a life of their own. What we need are some new initiatives to show that we care about people as well as balance sheets.” Still, only a minority of influential Tories appear to doubt the wisdom of the current strategy. And Mulroney himself seems resolved to hold his course for now, regardless of the effect on his government’s popularity.

ROSS LAVER in Brandon