Hugh Segal’s new job is not for the faint-of-heart. On Aug. 1, the 40year-old Toronto communications consultant and veteran political strategist will join Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s staff as a senior political adviser. His task: to rescue the Conservative government from the political basement and refurbish its image in time for the election that most analysts expect will be called before the end of next year. His new role is that of a political Mr. Fix-It on behalf of the Tories, one with counterparts in every party and government in the country. And seldom has the occupation presented greater challenges for its practitioners of every political stripe. With politicians in disrepute almost everywhere outside Quebec, the men and women who specialize in advising politicians on how to win are struggling to refine new strategies for the 1990s.
For most, the answer lies in turning the page decisively on the tactics of the decade past. “We’re seeing a transition in our politics,” said Segal, who was legislative assistant to former federal Tory leader Robert Stanfield from 1972 to 1973 and campaign secretary for Ontario’s so-called Big Blue Machine from 1975 to 1977. “Where people in the last decade valued winning at all costs—and winning on every issue—there is now a turning back to consensus-building,” Segal added in an interview last week. Remarked Liberal senator and party strategist Michael Kirby: “It is no longer possible to create political images that are false. You can’t do that anymore. It’s a non-starter.” Dispute: Some strategists dispute whether the new political environment in fact marks a dramatic change from voters’ underlying desires of the past. John Laschinger, for one, a Toronto strategist who has run 17 Tory leadership and election campaigns across Canada since he stepped down as director of the federal Conservatives in 1977, observed that politicians of the future will need “the thick skin of a rhinoceros, a sense of humor and a basic set of principles and values, good judgment and character and the ability to communicate.” He added: “Nothing changes. People are looking for good government.”
Still, most of the political advisers who spoke to Maclean ’s last week shared the perception of pollsters and academic analysts that Canadians have decisively—if not yet irreversibly— lost faith in their elected leaders. And most agreed that politicians must change their approach dramatically if they hope to regain their lost credibility.
As a result, politicians of all persuasions are
likely to hear much the same message from their aides and advisers in the months to come. Said Ross Fitzpatrick, a Vancouver businessman and adviser to Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien: “The public is looking for politicians who are forthright and prepared to face up to problems with courage—and without relying on polls.” Hershell Ezrin, principal secretary to then-Premier David Peterson of Ontario from 1985 to 1988 and now a senior vice-president of the Molson Cos. Ltd., suggested that voters
of the 1990s “are still going to put a premium on style, but it is a different style—one based on homebody-ness and common sense; the urban, successful style of the 1980s will be suspect.” At the same time, Tory Senator Norman Atkins, who was his party’s campaign chairman for the 1980 and 1984 elections, predicted that voters may be more willing to accept politicians who admit to making mistakes or changing their minds. Said Atkins: “I think that the public will not always expect leaders to be right—but it does expect them to be honest when they’re wrong. That is an adjustment.”
Several strategists pointed to figures as disparate as Ontario NDP Premier Bob Rae and Reform party Leader Preston Manning as models for the new politics. Rae, said Ottawa consultant Henry Comor, an adviser to John Turner when Turner was the federal Liberal leader, conveys an image of “naïveté” that works in his favor. Added Comor: “People say the guy may stumble a bit but he’s OK. He’s being truthful.” Ezrin, for his part, described Manning’s image as tailor-made for the sensibility of the new decade. Said Ezrin: “He seems honest and intelligent, but you wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by him. And you wouldn’t be embarrassed to introduce him to your neighbors as a friend.”
Crisis: Some veteran advisers asserted that the crisis of confidence in Canada’s politicians has more to do with voters than with those whom they elect. Former Conservative party president and veteran strategist Dalton Camp said that public cynicism towards elected officials “will never change until the public’s understanding of the office improves,” adding: “People have it in their heads that leaders are heroes and heroes are leaders.” Senator Keith Davey, an adviser to every Liberal prime minister since Lester Pearson, goes even further, saying that the problem is only “partly political.” Declared Davey: “The electorate is changing— and not for the better. It’s less wellinformed. It doesn’t spend much time reading and finds out about the world through television clips. The community is less well-educated.”
And a few political strategists acknowledge that they themselves may have contributed to the erosion in esteem for politics. Says Ottawa’s Comor of his profession: “It is true that it has a bad name right now.” But Comor adds that there is more to the role of advising elected leaders “than telling people what suits to wear and when to take their glasses off.” He says that “there will always be room for helping people to be open and truthful.” That is a goal that many voters would heartily endorse. Equally plainly, however, many voters are now skeptical about how sincerely the goal has been—or will be—pursued.
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