The Prime Minister's message was blunt. Speaking privately to his Conservative caucus in Ottawa last week, Brian Mulroney outlined the structure and strategy of the “yes” campaign to win the Oct.
26 national referendum on constitutional reform. According to one participant, Mulroney warned that any attempt to take advantage of the process to score partisan points could imperil the cause. “This is not an election,” Mulroney declared. Still, the fight to win ratification of last month’s constitutional package will resemble an election campaign in several respects: there will be massive television and print advertising, broad media coverage—and most of the men and women who are organizing it are seasoned veterans of past federal and provincial political battles.
Indeed, when the government began to implement its referendum strategy early this month, one of the first appeals from the Prime Minister's Office went to Harry Near, the Conservatives’ general manager of operations in the 1984 and 1988 federal election campaigns. Near, who works between elections as an Ottawa-based energy consultant, will serve on the newly established Canada Committee Secretariat, the key group co-ordinating the efforts of a broad spectrum of national, provincial and local groups in the national campaign.
Representing the opposition parties
on the secretariat is current Liberal election campaign director Gordon Ashworth, as well as Les Campbell, chief of staff to NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin.
Each of those men will be able to draw on a wealth of political expertise as they attempt to sell the constitutional package that Mulroney, the 10 premiers, two territorial leaders and four native representatives forged in Charlottetown. Near, for one, is likely to seek communications advice from William Fox, Mulroney’s former press secretary and now Near’s partner in the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, an Ottawa lobbying firm. The Liberals, meanwhile, intend to enlist another Earnscliffe partner—Michael Robinson, a former federal Liberal finance director and Paul Martin’s campaign manager in the 1990 Liberal leadership campaign. But although political skills will clearly prove valuable in the battle to rally support for the constitutional package, Near insists that partisan loyalties will be put aside for the six-week campaign. “We should not be regarded as the voice of government,” said Near, 45. He added: “We are acting with, or on behalf of, people of all political affiliations who support this deal.”
Last week, as MPs overwhelmingly approved the referendum question—“Do you agree that
the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached on August 28, 1992?”—the “yes” campaign secretariat forged ahead with its plans. Its first
Provincial “yes” campaign committees will also be established, as well as an aboriginal committee and local riding committees; each of
task: to establish an overall national Canada Committee—and to persuade two prominent citizens to serve as co-chairmen. Among those being considered are former UN ambassador and Liberal party stalwart Yves Fortier and former Conservative Alberta premier Peter Lougheed. Derek Burney, Canada’s ambassador to the United States and Mulroney’s former chief of staff, is another candidate. the three major political parties will also set up “yes” campaign organizations. Links will be forged with business groups such as the Business Council on National Issues and grassroots groups like the Calgary-based Together for Canada Committee, of which Lougheed is honorary chairman.
In addition, Near and his colleagues are attempting to set up an advisory committee composed of former high-profile politicians from all parties. Among those who may be approached to take part: former federal Tory leader Robert Stanfield, former Ontario Conservative premier William Davis, former Sas-
katchewan NDP premier Allan Blakeney and Jack Pickersgill, who served as a cabinet minister under former Liberal prime ministers Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson.
But in Quebec, the federal “yes” campaign organizers are working primarily behind the scenes, deferring to Premier Robert Bourassa’s Liberal party machine. Under provincial legislation, Quebec has to hold its own referendum on Oct. 26, although Bourassa said last week that Quebecers will be asked the same question as other Canadians. Federal strategists say that Mulroney and his fellow Quebec Tory ministers and MPs will campaign actively for the “yes” side in their home province. But they add that involvement by politicians from other parts of the country would be seen as interference in Quebec affairs—and would only add fuel to the “no” campaign orchestrated by the Parti Québécois, dissident members of the provincial Liberal party’s youth wing and high-profile Quebecers such as Jean Campeau, on leave from his position as chairman of Domtar Inc. Said one source close to the Canada Committee Secretariat: “The best thing Ottawa can do is to leave the [Quebec] organization up to the people who know how to do it—and that means keeping themselves out.”
But the “yes” campaigns in Quebec and the rest of Canada will have at least one strategy element in common. Bourassa is expected to stress that a “yes” vote would bring years of constitutional debate to an end. Last week, he sounded that theme in the National Assembly, saying that while there will likely be future constitutional negotiations, approval of the Charlottetown package would create a climate of “political stability.” That will be an equally potent argument for the “yes” campaign in the rest of Canada, according to Catherine Barr, a political scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. Said Barr, who studies voter behavior and polling: “A strong element will be the message that we have got a lot of other things to do. They will say that if you vote ‘no,’ you are facing a number of years of further debate.”
Some observers say that the broadly based nature of the federal referendum campaign may prove to be highly effective. Says Sean Moore, former president of the Ottawa lobbying firm Public Affairs International: “This broadens the perception that there is wholesale support for this agreement.” Added Hershell Ezrin, who served as principal secretary to former Ontario Liberal premier David Peterson: “The key theme is inclusion. People have different ways of deciding whether they like something and they want to know what various people with different perspectives think about this.” Said Ezrin, now executive vice-president of a Toronto-based automotiverepair chain: “They ask, ‘What do people I respect feel about this?’ That is vital to how they make up their minds.”
Still, a resounding vote in support of the constitutional package would clearly benefit Mulroney’s Conservatives in the run-up to the next federal election, expected within a year. Some voters might conclude that the party deserved credit for having finally solved Canada’s constitutional riddle—although others would argue that Mulroney and his followers created the crisis in the first place. At the same time, a strong “yes” vote could undermine support for the Reform Party of Canada and the Bloc Québécois, both of which have eaten into Conservative strongholds and plan to campaign against the Charlottetown accord. But giving Mulroney and the Conservatives a political boost might well give pause to some Canadians preparing to mark their Oct. 26 referendum ballots.
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