AT A RECORD LOW IN THE POLLS, THE MULRONEY TORIES PLOT A SCENARIO FOR WINNING THE NEXT ELECTION
A COMEBACK PLAN
AT A RECORD LOW IN THE POLLS, THE MULRONEY TORIES PLOT A SCENARIO FOR WINNING THE NEXT ELECTION
As a lifelong member of the federal Conservative party, Joseph Stewart says that he knows better than most Canadians that politics can be a nerve-racking pursuit. Stewart, 53, a pizzeria owner in New Glasgow, N.S., recalled that he was overjoyed when the Tories won the 1984 general election after two nearly unbroken decades in opposition. Despondency followed when the party sank to third place in the opinion polls during 1987. Then, he was relieved when it captured a second successive majority in 1988. More recently, Tory popularity has nosedived again: a Gallup survey released April 19 gave the party a mere 16 per cent of decided voters, the lowest standing for a governing party since polling began in Canada almost half a century ago. Even so, Stewart said that he has faith in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s ability to engineer a comeback. “If it were not for the experience of the first term, I would be damned worried,” said Stewart, who joined the party when he was 14. “But our leader can put up a great fight when he has to, and I have no doubt that he will do it again.” Remarkably, Stewart’s sense of optimism appears to be widely shared among Tory loyalists, despite the party’s record unpopularity among Canadians at large. Indeed, political analysts say it is significant that only two Tory MPs—Albertans David Kilgour and Alex Kindy, both of whom were expelled from the parliamentary caucus April 11—have broken ranks over the government’s policies. At the same time, virtually no one in the party has suggested, even privately, that Mulroney should step down. Declared George Perlin, a political historian at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.: “There is a remarkable degree of unity among Tories. The feeling is that their policies were decided collectively, and collectively they take responsibility for those decisions.”
Moreover, even many prominent Liberals acknowledge that the opposition party’s current lead in the polls is no guarantee of electoral success. “I do not think anybody underestimates the ability of Brian Mulroney and his colleagues to mount a good campaign,” said Patrick Lavelle, Ontario campaign co-chairman for Liberal leadership hopeful Jean Chrétien. “They are well financed, and they have the resources of government. And they have two years to get their act together.”
Still, accomplishing that task will be difficult—as even many Tories readily admit. Both
major policy thrusts of the party’s second term—the proposed Meech Lake constitutional accord, which may collapse if it is not ratified by the June 23 deadline, and the seven-percent Goods and Services Tax (GST), which is scheduled to go into effect next Jan. 1—are highly controversial, and they are likely to remain so. In addition, some grassroots Tories claim openly that the government has done a poor job of promoting its policies to the public. “The policies themselves are basically sound,” declared Allan Farmer, the party’s vice-president for Nova Scotia. “But whether the imple-
mentation and the communication are good enough is another question.” He added, “I believe in what Mulroney is trying to do for the country but, unless we can demonstrate positive results, we are going to be voted out of office pretty fast.”
To reassure local party members, Tory officials in Ottawa have spent much of the past few months attempting to shore up morale. Last week, the party flew 20 of its regional field organizers to Ottawa for four days of meetings with senior strategists and policy advisers, and
an inspirational encounter with Mulroney himself. “Sure, they have a hard time defending the government with the coffee-shop crowd in their home towns, but they are hanging in there,” said Marjory LeBreton, Mulroney’s deputy chief of staff. “Our organizers tell us things are tough for the party,” she added, “but they have not lost confidence. They realize that we are doing exactly what they have been asking us to do for many years.”
Despite that, most Tories acknowledge the party’s current situation will almost certainly get worse before it gets better. And the Liber-
als, who already enjoy 49-per-cent support in the Gallup poll, will likely rise even higher as a result of their party’s televised leadership convention in Calgary in late June. “There is a kind of fortress mentality in the Prime Minister’s Office,” said one influential adviser to Mulroney. “What else can they do? The attitude is, ‘Let’s hunker down until June and hope that things do not get much worse.’ ”
Meanwhile, Tory strategists are actively planning the party’s revival. In the political back rooms, key advisers and senior ministers
are drawing up an array of new policy initiatives that will, Tory loyalists contend, set the stage for a recovery. In that, the Tories are following a time-honored political maxim: devote the early part of the term to unpopular measures, then switch to more popular initiatives during the run-up to the next electoral test. “The next election is not going to be fought on the GST, Meech Lake, free trade or any of those issues,” said Grant Jane way, an executive member of the Conservative riding association in Algoma, Ont. “The party is going to clear all of the contentious issues off the boards before the next election.” For the most part, the government has been successful in keeping its future policy agenda under wraps. But key elements of it are already visible. In March, Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard issued a 30-page discussion paper, entitled The Green Plan. He said that the proposals represented the first step in a sweeping five-year program to make Canada “the world’s most environmentally friendly country.” This summer, Bouchard will tour the country to consult with environmental groups, industries and private citizens. Then, the minister plans to table an environmental action plan in October. According to Bouchard, the document will
commit the government to specific measures to clean up toxic waste, protect the atmosphere, encourage recycling and reduce the amount of unnecessary packaging.
But ecological considerations are not the only forces propelling Bouchard’s plan. Privately, the Tories say that they intend to make the environment the centrepiece of their policy agenda during the second half of the government’s mandate. Private polls conducted for the party, one key Ottawa adviser told Maclean ’s, show that Canadians now put little stock in government promises to protect the envi-
ronment. “In the future,” he added, “any politician who is not on the leading edge of the environment issue will be taking his life in his hands.” Indeed, political concerns have already played an important role in setting the timetable for Bouchard’s initiative. The minister originally undertook to bring forward his action plan this spring. But government strategists decided to delay its publication until the fall, in part because of disagreements within the cabinet over its contents, but also because they did not want its release to be overshadowed by parliamentary debate on the GST. Said one senior bureaucrat: “Why waste a big-ticket item like the environment so early in the mandate?”
In contrast to the budgetcutting, tax-raising initiatives that have dominated the agenda so far, most of what the party introduces in the second half of the term will be in the area of social policy. Along with the environment, officials say privately that they will stress education as another prime focus of government policy in the next two years. They point out that members of the babyboom generation are now in their prime child-raising years, and that public concern about deteriorating educational standards is widespread. At the same time, the fact that education is constitutionally an area of exclusive provincial jurisdiction will make it easier for Ottawa to duck calls for increased federal spending. Instead, the government plans to announce a series of national education standards, while taking steps to encourage increased investment by industry in research and development.
Last week, Mulroney himself attempted to draw attention to the new Tory focus on education when he chaired a round-table discussion on the subject by a group of students and teachers in Toronto. Later,
he told an audience of Ontario -
teachers, gathered in the same city for an academic awards ceremony, that he was disturbed by a recent survey suggesting that 17 per cent of high-school graduates are functionally illiterate. For his part, Health Minister Perrin Beatty has said that a new national day care program will be in place before the next election—replacing a five-year, $6.4-billion proposal that was shelved last year on the grounds of budgetary restraint.
Another likely cornerstone of Tory policy is Senate reform. In the four western provinces, in particular, Tory MPs are under increasing pressure from constituents to support the socalled Triple E Senate proposal—political shorthand for an upper chamber that is elected,
has equal representation from each province and effective powers to introduce and amend federal legislation. Because such a proposal has drawn opposition from Ontario and Quebec, whose large populations allow them to dominate Parliament, the government has yet to stake out its own position on the issue. But, by putting forward their own proposals for Senate reform, the Tories say that they hope to attract western voters who have deserted the government in favor of the Calgary-based Reform Party of Canada—which supports a Triple E Senate while opposing Meech Lake and the GST—back into the Conservative fold.
It is clearly a high-risk strategy. For one
thing, the government will have to find some way out of the current constitutional deadlock, which threatens to extend well beyond June 23 if Meech Lake fails. If the accord is not ratified by that deadline, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa has vowed to boycott any future constitutional negotiations—including talks on the Senate. In strict constitutional terms, Quebec’s absence from the table would not prevent the other nine provinces and Ottawa from agreeing on a formula for Senate reform. But Mulroney himself has ruled out further constitutional talks without Quebec’s participation. “It would not be impossible to start the process of Senate reform without Meech Lake, but it would be impossible to get
any sort of agreement,” a senior adviser said.
But perhaps the biggest risk facing the Tories is the current economic slowdown. Two months ago, the government predicted that economic growth would come to a standstill during the first half of this year, then start to rebound in late 1990. But, last week, a key economic adviser to the Prime Minister told Maclean’s that high interest rates are likely to postpone the recovery. In addition, some analysts say a failure to resolve the Meech Lake impasse could frighten away foreign investors, weakening the value of the dollar and forcing rates even higher (page 40). Said Winnipeg pollster Angus Reid: “If consumer confidence is as low in 1992 as it is now, Mr. Mulroney and his party will be dead meat. But if he stands firm and things improve, he can claim some of the credit.”
For the moment, the Tories’ problems appear to far outnumber their advantages. But the party is well ahead of its opponents in one key area: political organization. Said Perlin: “Unquestionably, the Tories have put in place the most extensive, sophisticated and wellfinanced political operation this country has ever seen.” Already, the party has begun to redesign its campaign organization for the next election, drawing on advice from a highpowered committee that includes Toronto organizer John Tory, B.C. adviser Patrick Kinsella and Ottawa communications consultant William Fox. By contrast, said Lavelle, the Liberals will have to construct their campaign organization from the ground up after the June leadership convention. “The Liberal party is in grim shape,” Lavelle added. “The first order of business is to g rebuild the party.”
The Tories are also counting on Mulroney himself. Most diehard Conservatives say that he is the party’s most important asset. “I don’t think an Irish
heart exists that would not be affected by those polls,” said Terance McCann, a friend of Mulroney’s from university days, and now mayor of Pembroke, Ont. “But, damn it, he is one hardworking son of a bitch. He goes to bed every night feeling that if he wants something bad enough, he can overcome any problem.” In fact, McCann said that he has little doubt that Mulroney intends to run for a third successive term. “He is 51, in good health and he is consumed by the job. And there is nothing he loves better than a good challenge.” Mulroney will likely have plenty of them in the months ahead.
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