CANADA

LOCAL ANXIETIES

AS HIS FEDERAL CAUCUS EMBRACES BRIAN MULRONEY, MANY GRASSROOTS TORIES SAY THAT HE SHOULD RESIGN

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 9 1992
CANADA

LOCAL ANXIETIES

AS HIS FEDERAL CAUCUS EMBRACES BRIAN MULRONEY, MANY GRASSROOTS TORIES SAY THAT HE SHOULD RESIGN

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 9 1992

LOCAL ANXIETIES

CANADA

AS HIS FEDERAL CAUCUS EMBRACES BRIAN MULRONEY, MANY GRASSROOTS TORIES SAY THAT HE SHOULD RESIGN

Once a week when Parliament is in session, the spare but spacious main-floor room in Parliament’s Centre Block takes on the air of a religious revival meeting. For about three hours, the 209 MPs and Senators in the Progressive Conservative caucus sit on straight-backed chairs—often spellbound, clapping and chanting in unison. The object of their attention, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, alternately chides and charms them in earthy and emotional fashion in both official languages. Since Mulroney won the Conservative leadership in 1983, those meetings have offered him a regular forum to heal old rifts—and avoid new ones. His performance, says one admiring MP, “is consistently the greatest show this side of Broadway.” And, as Mulroney demonstrated again last week during a special caucus meeting, it is remarkably unifying. Less than 72 hours after a stinging defeat, in the Oct. 26 constitutional referendum, raised doubts about Mulroney’s political future, the Prime Minister won a standing ovation when he told his MPs that he plans to lead them into the next election, which is almost certain to be held before November, 1993.

The enthusiastic applause for Mulroney was clearly intended to show that he enjoys the support of his caucus. But despite his insistence that he plans to run again, many Tories and other observers say that it is still possible that Mulroney will step down before the next election. In the short term, the Prime Minister clearly had little choice but to deflect any doubts about his leadership: among other concerns, the government wanted to present an image of stability to the international investors who underwrite much of the country’s $450 billion debt. And at home, anything less than a blunt reassertion of his plans to run again would shift attention from Ottawa’s efforts to stimulate the economy to speculation over a coming

leadership campaign. Said one senior Conservative cabinet minister: “The first thing he had to do after the referendum is show that it is he—and no one else—who will decide whether he goes or stays.”

Many of Mulroney’s friends, having watched him age dramatically during his eight years in power, say privately that the time has come for him to step down. At 53, he is still in good health and would have little trouble launching a new career. And his wife, Mila, is clearly tired of the demands that public life make on him and their family. Mulroney would almost certainly have to announce such a decision by the end of January in order to allow the party time to elect

a successor and to plan the next election.

In the meantime, Mulroney must confront some harsh political realities. For most of the past three years, the Conservatives have been in third place in national opinion polls, although recent surveys indicate they have moved slightly ahead of the NDP. Almost half of Mulroney’s 39-member cabinet, and as many as a third of all Tory MPs, have said that they will not run again or have not yet made a decision. Some of the undecided acknowledge that they are awaiting Mulroney’s decision before making up their minds—and are more likely to remain if he quits. One of the few MPs to openly question Mulroney’s plans, Stan Wilbee of British Columbia’s Delta riding, declared last week: “I would tell Mr. Mulroney, ‘You are going to have to seriously consider your future, the future of the party, and the future of the country.’ ”

In fact, interviews by Maclean ’s with more than 50 Tory riding association presidents after last week’s referendum revealed that many do not share their MPs’ enthusiasm for Mulroney. Some, like Alain Dagenais, president of eastern Ontario’s Glengarry/Prescott/

Russell riding association, were bluntly critical of the Prime Minister. “He is like a marionette,” said Dagenais, calling on Mulroney to step down. “You do not know what he believes in.” He added that the Tory leader has surrounded himself with advisers who filter out criticism from the party’s grassroots: “I’m pissed off, but they’ll never listen to us.” Others, such as Roger Zsiros, president of the Hamilton/Wentworth riding association, said that Mulroney should call a leadership review. Noted Zsiros: “He is not held in high regard, and with the failure of the accord, perhaps he should step aside.”

Many Tory riding association presidents cited the referendum loss as proof of Mulroney’s unpopularity. “Undoubtedly in this riding there is talk about leadership changes,” said

Natalie Gibson, president of Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark’s Alberta Yellowhead riding, where almost two-thirds of voters rejected the Charlottetown accord. “This was a vote against the Prime Minister and the premiers.” For his part, Kenneth Cleall, the party’s president in the riding of Edmonton Southwest, lamented: “I do not think Mulroney is doing anything wrong that he has to correct. I think that people just do not like him.” Added David Silver, Conservative party president in the B.C. riding of Fraser Valley West: “I would certainly think that Mr. Mulroney would have to reassess his future.” And Peter Cantíos, president of Ontario’s Lambton/Middlesex riding, said that Mulroney has to accept responsibility for his own low standing in the polls. “He’s the captain of the ship. You can’t go through years of unpopularity, and the slap in the face of the referendum, without an endorsement from the party.”

Mulroney and his strategists must decide how deeply that disaffection runs. During the referendum campaign, there were signs that Mulroney’s strong stand on behalf of the constitutional accord actually drove more Canadians to vote No than to support it. But according to a Maclean ’s/Decima poll taken on the day of the vote—and cited by Mulroney during last week’s caucus meeting—only eight per cent of No supporters outside Quebec said that they voted against the accord because of their opposition to Mulroney.

Despite their leader’s unpopularity, some Tories say that they can win reelection by presenting themselves as the party most capable of rebuilding the economy. In line with that message, the Conservatives plan several populist initiatives aimed at winning back supporters who have drifted to Preston Manning’s Reform Party of Canada. Among them: a proposal to “ eliminate many of Ottawa’s 32 minisz ters as part of a dramatic restructur£ ing of the federal government. Secre5 tary of State Robert de Cotret, who

prepared the cost-cutting plan, said that support within the party is so strong for such a measure that “four ministers even came in and said, ‘You can abolish my department.’ ” (He declined to name the ministers.)

But Mulroney must also consider the potential long-term damage to his party if he decides to remain as leader. If he stepped down before calling a vote his successor would have a chance to rebuild the party before facing the electorate. On the other hand, if Mulroney stays on and the party fails to recover, several likely leadership contenders—including Justice Minister Kim Campbell and External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall—would risk defeat in their own ridings. Others who would be under pressure to run for leader, should the Prime Minister step down, include Communications Minister Perrin Beatty, Environment Minister Jean Charest, former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed and Mulroney’s own chief of staff,

Hugh Segal, who is favored by some powerful Toronto Tories.

Another factor which could influence Mulroney’s decision is the likelihood of a Quebec provincial election next year. If the Parti Québécois won that election—and followed through on its pledge to call another referendum on sovereignty-association— some Tory strategists say that Mulroney could present himself to voters in the rest of the country as the man best able to defend the cause of federalism. In much the same manner,

Pierre Trudeau won re-election in February, 1980, three months before the first Quebec sovereignty referendum.

Quebec is also where Mulroney’s hold over his party is easily the strongest. Before the 1984 election, the Tories had just a single seat in that province. The party now holds 56 Quebec ridings—and most of those MPs feel a fierce personal allegiance to Mulroney. Said Labor Minister Marcel Danis, a Clark supporter in the 1983 Conservative leadership convention: “The personal political

strength of the Prime Minister is the reason most of us got elected in the first place. We are not about to forget that.” As well, Quebec Tories know that a new party leader would almost certainly be a non-francophone from outside the province—and that could greatly diminish the party’s appeal there.

But Quebec is also Mulroney’s greatest threat. For one thing, his inability to come up

with a constitutional compromise acceptable to the province will help the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois. The Bloc, backed by the Parti Québécois, would capture the separatist vote in an election, while the Liberals and Tories would fight over the federalist vote.

Such considerations are clearly worrying many Tories. Harry Gregg, for one, president of the Torontoarea Mississauga South Conservative riding association and a veteran of Tory politics in three provinces, acknowledges that it “seems apparent that the Conservatives cannot win the next election with Brian Mulroney as leader.” But Gregg also cited another fear within the party: “I would like to see him replaced, but Mulroney can keep Quebec in the fold and that is the dilemma.”

Indeed, many MPs say that in Quebec Mulroney continues to be a definite asset. Declared Abitibi MP Guy Saint-Julien: “If there is one person who has really fought for Canada and for Quebec, it is the Prime Minister—much more so than we MPs.” Mulroney’s determination to battle for Quebec’s place in Canada is one of the reasons for his passion for politics. But in the uneasy constitutional truce that now prevails, he is in the position of an aging warrior: contemplating the consequences of past battles, and whether he has the en-

thusiasm and support to lead new ones.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with E. KAYE FULTON and LUKE FISHER in Ottawa, TOM FENNELL in Toronto, JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and BARRY CAME in Montreal

E. KAYE FULTON

LUKE FISHER

TOM FENNELL

JOHN HOWSE

BARRY CAME