Kim Campbell’s descent into a political hell

Peter C. Newman October 25 1993

Kim Campbell’s descent into a political hell

Peter C. Newman October 25 1993

Kim Campbell’s descent into a political hell



As the days drop away and the campaign narrows down to deciding whether Lucien Bouchard or Preston Manning will lead Her Majesty’s Disloyal Opposition, the most tragic story emerging from this astonishing election is Kim Campbell’s fall from grace.

She went into the campaign with a commanding lead in the polls; only six weeks later, she is running a poor fourth in terms of likely number of seats, facing defeat in her home province and trouble in her own riding. Her slide has been blamed on the burden of the Brian Mulroney legacy, on having recruited sixth-rate advisers, and on being forced to seek votes in a time of fiscal restraint. These are valid points, but they don’t add up to the fact that her run for office has been the clumsiest effort since Joe Clark’s comic trip around the world. He subsequently made it; she won’t even come close.

Her descent to the political hell of leading her party backwards from holding power to becoming a parliamentary rump, has mainly been due to her transformation on the campaign trail. The self-described wood nymph I interviewed earlier this year was sparkling with wit and personal electricity. You could light a small city with her. This is in sad contrast to the programmed, petulant puppet who has been on show across the hustings for the past few weeks. Her current schoolmarmish disposition and dehydrated demeanor wouldn’t earn her admission to a Texas line dance, much less light her way to 24 Sussex Drive.

The enduring mystery of her downfall is why Campbell allowed it to happen. It was all so unnecessary. For example, her biggest problem has been the absence of positive policies. Yet a workable platform was placed at her disposal by the departing prime minister. Before he left office, Mulroney had a throne speech written for a possible new session of Parliament that was based on position papers from key government departments.

Her campaign has been the clumsiest since Joe Clark’s comic trip around the world. He made it; she won’t even come close.

The proposed measures were carefully geared to avoid any negative impact on the federal treasury. The centrepiece of the new proposals was a detailed plan to drop most existing federally funded social welfare measures and to replace them with a complicated guaranteed annual wage package. By using negative income tax forms filed annually, families whose income fell below a predetermined level would receive funds from Ottawa; those above the line would pay. While the transition away from universality to such a new approach would be politically difficult, it would eventually transfer more funds to those who need the most help.

At the beginning of September, Campbell had the highest approval rating of any Canadian political leader in three decades. After that, it was downhill all the way. She set the dominant tone of the campaign on the day she called the election by musing about a jobless economic recovery and holding out little hope of reducing unemployment in the 1990s. (Paradoxically, the federal finance department issued a little-noted study the same day predicting that the number of Canadian jobless will drop substantially in the last half of the decade.) On the first day of the actual

campaign, speaking in Perth, Ont., she reiterated her pessimistic forecast, and the next morning she acknowledged that she was planning to cut social programs, but by not providing details made the whole welfare net appear to be up for grabs.

At this point, she started to feud with her accompanying media corps, withdrawing into a noncommunicative cocoon and telling one reporter who asked why she wasn’t offering Canadians some hope that he needed a hearing aid. Her credibility kept crumbling. She went on endlessly about the deficit being a time bomb she vowed to defuse, but by simultaneously pledging not to increase taxes or specifying any social program cuts, her promises rang hollow.

What she was telling voters, in effect, was, “Trust me,” and that’s the one thing Canadians in this troubled autumn of 1993 are not prepared to do.

In addition to projecting no vision of the future (except the gloomy notion that nothing would improve), Campbell made another mistake by the campaign’s third week in spending most of her stage time attacking Jean Chrétien’s job-creation program. That helped switch public attention and eventually the election’s momentum to the Liberals.

But Campbell’s greatest single gaffe occurred at St. Bruno, Que., when she tried to deflect questions about her intentions of reorganizing social programs by pointing out that an election campaign was no time “to get involved in very, very serious issues.” Then, just to make sure that her extraordinary statement would be noticed, she went on to emphasize that elections are “the worst possible time to have that kind of dialogue because it takes longer than 47 days to tackle an issue that’s that serious.”

And so it went.

It was appropriately symbolic that when she climbed into an aircraft flight simulator in a Montreal factory, Campbell said to herself, loud enough to be overheard, “I haven’t crashed yet, but I have no idea where I’m going.”

All through the campaign, she was haunted by her party’s slogan: “It’s time”—the silliest motto since the 1972 election, when Pierre Trudeau found himself trying to win votes under the equally meaningless banner that proclaimed: “The land is strong.”

Campbell is intelligent, but not shrewd. She seems also to be all but unconscious of how sophisticated so-called ordinary voters have become. Most important of all, because she only joined the Progressive Conservative Party in 1988, she has little inside knowledge of how the Tory organization works. She commands little loyalty and has yet to earn the right to be followed.

It was in Kelowna, B.C., that Kim Campbell unknowingly made the campaign’s most prescient prediction. She had been joking about how she was working hard to stay on as prime minister, because “if I get thrown out of office, I’m not sure I can get a job.”

Every day, it sounds less and less like a joke.