CANADA

COMPETITIVE AGENDAS

THE FEDERAL TORIES GRAPPLE WITH REVIVING THE ECONOMY AND THEIR OWN FORTUNES

BRUCE WALLACE August 5 1991
CANADA

COMPETITIVE AGENDAS

THE FEDERAL TORIES GRAPPLE WITH REVIVING THE ECONOMY AND THEIR OWN FORTUNES

BRUCE WALLACE August 5 1991

COMPETITIVE AGENDAS

CANADA

THE FEDERAL TORIES GRAPPLE WITH REVIVING THE ECONOMY AND THEIR OWN FORTUNES

In the two years since the Progressive Conservatives last gathered for a national convention, events have not been kind to the governing party. When they met in Ottawa in August, 1989, the mood was jocular as party members celebrated their second consecutive election victory the previous November. Since then, recession, constitutional crisis and a seemingly permanent residence below 20 per cent in public opinion polls have knocked much of the swagger out of their step. As a result, when party delegates meet in Toronto on Aug. 6 for a five-day national policy convention, they will be searching for a new and winning political formula. And few Tories harbor any illusion about how difficult the search may prove. One disgruntled senior Ontario Conservative, in fact, compared the chances of the party’s political revival to “hitting eight grand-slam home runs in the ninth inning.”

But the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is at least still holding the bat. And last week, it was swinging aggressively with a pair of strategically leaked policy discussion papers ostensibly aimed at restoring Canadian economic competitiveness—but plainly designed with the Tories’ future in mind, as well. One document examined the problems bedevilling Canadian industries; the other reasserted Ottawa’s desire to set national educational standards in order to improve the skills of Canadian workers. Both papers address issues that economists have described for years as urgently in need of attention. But the timing of

their unofficial release was clearly not coincidental. Together, the papers are part of what International Trade Minister Michael Wilson calls the government’s “Prosperity Initiative”—a program that delegates will have an opportunity to endorse at next week’s convention, and which is certain to form the key economic plank in the Conservatives’ next election platform. As well, both emerged on the heels of a rival economic analysis prepared by the opposition Liberals that harshly attacked Tory policy.

Among Conservative strategists and outside analysts alike, there was little doubt that the government’s new economic thrust was intended to appeal to audiences both inside the party and beyond it. Said independent pollster Donna Dasko of Toronto-based Environics Research Group: “The competitiveness issue plays to the core group of Tory voters.” At the same time, she added, “it is an upbeat concept with general appeal.” For his part, pollster Allan Gregg, president of Toronto’s Decima Research, which counts the Tories among its clients, said that the “first benefit” of the focus on prosperity “is that it corresponds with the public’s priorities.”

Declared Gregg: “You cannot get issues like national unity off the agenda, but this avoids the accusation that the government has a singleminded pursuit.”

Still, there was new evidence last week of the political challenge facing the Tories. In its most recent monthly survey of party standings, Gallup Canada Inc. reported that the Tories remained at 16-per-cent support among Canadians. The Liberals were in first place with 40 per cent, up eight points in the past three months. The NDP held 22per-cent support, while the Reform party had 13 and the Bloc Québécois seven per cent.

For their part, the Liberals attempted to widen their advantage last week by unleashing a blistering attack on the government’s economic management. In a 25-page document, the party accused the Tories of allowing 267,000 manufacturing jobs to disappear in Canada since the inception of free trade in January, 1989, and described the government’s monetary policy as “a dismal failure.” The report accused the Conservatives of neglecting what it described as the “knowledge infrastructure on which all competitive economies are based.” Declared the document: “[Tory] cuts to education, training, retraining, science, technology and basic research have taken from us the very tools we need to compete.”

The first resolution on the agenda of next week’s Tory convention seemed designed to respond directly to the Liberal broadside. It calls on Ottawa to foster a more competitive economy — an ço indication of the importance that the Tories place on Wil9 son’s Prosperity Initiative. I The catchall phrase encom| passes, among other things, z educational reform, a greater § emphasis on science and

technology, lower interprovincial trade barriers, more investment in high technology and an aggressive foreign trade strategy.

Most analysts agree that Canada needs to become more competitive. By most measures, Canada’s productivity did not grow as fast in the 1980s as did those of most of its trading partners. And economists caution that unless Canadian business and labor become more efficient, the prosperity that pays for national social programs will be increasingly undermined. Said Judith Maxwell, chairman of the Economic Council of Canada: “These issues are central to our long-term economic performance.”

The issue received a political boost when Mulroney shuffled Wilson from the finance portfolio to his present one last April. In the May speech from the throne, the government pledged new steps to make Canada more competitive. And in a speech in Toronto on June 24, Wilson warned that competitiveness was “no less vital to our survival as a nation” than a resolution of the constitutional crisis.

But competitiveness is an ill-defined concept that may prove difficult to explain—and slow to stir voters’ interest. Said Thomas d’Aquino, president of the Business Council on National Issues: “We are talking about changing the way we think and about shifting our way of seeing the world. It is a difficult concept to sell in a country which has so many phobias.”

Indeed, the Tories have already had a taste

of how resistant those entrenched views are to change. An earlier attempt to establish a national task force on education, which Mulroney first announced in 1989, failed because Quebec declined to participate, arguing that education was exclusively a provincial jurisdiction. Last week, in the second leaked document, titled “Learning Well . . . Living Well,” the Tories reasserted their intention to set national education targets, including a reduction of adult illiteracy by half during the decade. But said Douglas Wright, president of Ontario’s University of Waterloo and chairman of the earlier task force until its demise: “I am not terribly optimistic that people will seize upon the idea.” At the very least, last week’s timely leak of the two documents may attract greater public attention to the complex subject of national competitiveness. It is a debate that opposition Liberal trade critic Roy MacLaren, for one, dismisses as little more than a political trick. The Tories, said MacLaren, “feel the approach of an election, and they have got to give the appearance of great activity.” Still, the issue clearly has political appeal among Conservatives. Said one adviser to Wilson: “The issue is tomorrow’s jobs and, if properly packaged, that is a winner.” But the Tories may need more than one well-packaged issue if they are to become political winners once again.

BRUCE WALLACE

GLEN ALLEN