Smiling confidently for the television cameras, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney gave every appearance of being ready for a fight. “Believe me, I know how to engage in political battle,” he said at a news conference in Saskatoon last week during his first swing through the West to promote the Yes side in the Oct. 26 constitutional referendum. As if to prove the point, the scrappy political veteran fired off one of the most memorable lines of the campaign so far when asked about the impact on the referendum of his by-now legendary unpopularity.
“Mother Teresa not being available,” he gibed, “I volunteered.”
It was a classic Mulroney rejoinder—and it quickly defused a potentially embarrassing question. But the truth of the matter is that the Yes organizers are deeply worried about the effect of the Prime Minister’s perennially low approval ratings on the drive to win ratification of the Aug. 28 Charlottetown constitutional accord. As a result, Mulroney has adopted a restrained, almost defensive posture. Far from engaging in a “political battle,” the Prime Minister seems to have accepted his role as a lesser player in the unity fight—deferring to others just as he allowed Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark to take centre stage during the seemingly endless months of federal-provincial negotiations earlier this year.
Mulroney’s advisers have tried many times in the past to temper his partisan instincts and tendency towards rhetorical excess—habits that serve to reinforce voters’ doubts about his credibility. In the 1988 election, the Conservatives organized a tightly scripted campaign that was intended to minimize the chances of a mistake—in effect, to save Brian Mulroney from himself. They abandoned that tactic only after the Liberals galvanized public opposition to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. With the Conservatives sinking fast, the Prime Minister went on the offensive, accusing his opponents of spreading “deception, distortion and deceit.”
This time, senior Conservatives say that
But just as important as the contents of Mulroney’s speeches was what they omitted. He made no direct references in his speeches in English Canada to the agreement’s concessions to Quebec, which include the definition of the province as a “distinct society” and a guarantee that Quebec will permanently control 25 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister also avoided any mention of Q the proposal to create an Q elected, equal Senate, per§ haps because polls suggest “ that many Westerners regard the new chamber as ineffective. Those two provisions are at the heart of the Charlottetown agreement—and yet Mulroney’s advisers have concluded that, in most parts of the country, they are better left unmentioned.
they want to avoid direct attacks by the Prime Minister against his opponents. They point out that there is a risk of public backlash against the accord if Mulroney is perceived to be using hard-sell tactics to promote it. That fear was underscored by the presence at Mulroney’s stops in Vancouver, Saskatoon and London,
Ont., last week of small groups of angry protesters. Although the demonstrators carried signs denouncing the constitutional agreement, many said that their biggest concern was that Mulroney is in favor of it. Said one middleaged woman in London, who declined to give her name: “If Brian likes it, it’s got to be bad for the country.”
In fact, organizers of the Yes campaign say that one of their objectives is to discourage Canadians from viewing the Charlottetown accord as “Mulroney’s deal.” To that end, Mulroney was careful not to claim even a modest share of personal credit for the constitutional agreement. And at most of his events, he appeared alongside one or more of the pact’s other signatories. In Vancouver, he took part in a native land-claims ceremony with B.C. Pre-
mier Michael Harcourt and Assembly of First Nations leader Ovide Mercredi. In Saskatoon a day later, he attended three separate events with Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow. And in Sept-Iles, Que., Mulroney joined Premier Robert Bourassa at the official opening of a huge, new $ 1.4-billion aluminum smelter, built with more than $125 million in federal subsidies.
Mulroney also appears determined to avoid drawing attention to elements of the accord that might prove divisive. Instead, many of his statements in Ontario and the West last week focused on an issue that, in English Canada at least, is perceived as a winner: aboriginal selfgovernment. His goal is to convince Canadians that a vote against the accord is a vote against native rights. “Do you want to say no to justice for aboriginal peoples?” he demanded when a young man in Vancouver told him that he was going to vote No. “I don’t think so.” Similarly, Mulroney’s visit to Quebec’s economically depressed North Shore was meant to address an issue that is of widespread concern in that province: the economic consequences of separation.
Many of Mulroney’s statements in support of the accord, in fact, were perfunctory and lacking in flourish. The strategy, clearly, is to allow the Prime Minister to travel the high road while others—cabinet ministers, business leaders and other prominent Yes supporters— play a more aggressive role in promoting the agreement. The paradox is that Mulroney, who has spent much of his time as Prime Minister trying to achieve constitutional reform, now lacks the credibility to sell it.
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