CAMPBELL’S WINNING WAYS TURNING THE TABLES FOR THE TORIES
MAKING STYLE AN ISSUE
CAMPBELL’S WINNING WAYS TURNING THE TABLES FOR THE TORIES
Try to picture Brian Mulroney acting this way. Imagine him poking fun at himself for having to retailor his suits to match an expanding waistline, as Kim Campbell did in Saskatoon recently when she referred to the troubles of getting “the prime ministerial bottom into the prime ministerial skirt.” Or think of Mulroney, in a television interview, broaching the subject of his sex life. Campbell did last week, laughingly telling Julie Snyder, the giddy, 25-yearold host of the popular Quebec talk show L’Enfer, c’est nous autres (Hell Is Us), that she never finds time to set aside in her daily schedule for “le hanky-panky.”
It is a seat-of-the-pants prime ministerial style: less bluster, sharper answers, a dash of selfdeprecating wit. ‘You have now,” said Carol Gran, a Vancouver businesswoman and Campbell friend, “a free spirit sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair.” And with that, the Tories may have suddenly discovered the answer to a question that has tormented them throughout this election year: how do we make Canadians forget that we are the party of Brian Mulroney? In a party almost bereft of new policy ideas and with little time to recast its image before the coming election—widely expected to be called around Labor Day (Sept. 6) for a late-October vote— there has been a rush to embrace Campbell’s personality as the building block of the fall campaign. “That quote about her bottom was great stuff,” said one Tory who worked closely with Mulroney throughout both his terms in office. “People see her as a real person, not just another transparent politician.”
It wasn’t always so. During the Conservative party’s four-month leadership campaign, Campbell’s frankness and spontaneity drove some of her backers to distraction and fed her opponents’ attempts to portray her as “unstable.” But Tories say that in subsequent focus groups, comments once regarded as horrendous political miscalculations are now viewed as the mettle of a leader willing to speak her mind. They cite, as one example, newfound support for Campbell’s description of politicians who refuse to take deficit reduction seriously as “enemies of Canada.” Now, they claim, voters say, “Right on!” Said one senior
Tory campaign adviser: “She makes her handlers initially wince when she fires off these one-liners, but voters are liking it.”
The conversion of internal party critics into enthusiastic Campbell fans has not been a political epiphany. It is based on Campbell’s steady rise in the polls since the June leadership convention: Tories say that internal surveys last week showed her party within a few points of Jean Chrétien’s Liberals, in line with the Angus Reid Group poll of Aug. 7, showing 39 per cent to 35 per cent in favor of the Liberals. That sudden rise has energized the senior workers in the party, 200 of whom gathered in Ottawa one day last week for campaign planning meetings and a photo opportunity with the Prime Minister. “The mood was combative and the feeling was that we’re right back in it,” said one party activist.
But Tory election planners say that they intend to add substance to the style with detailed policy announcements in the remaining weeks before the expected election call. In Campbell’s first month in office, advisers attempted to portray the new Prime Minister as a more vigorous defender of Canadian culture. To that end, they dropped hints that her government might stop charging the GST on Canadian books and magazines. Even a number of Tory MPs were doubtful about whether the plan would produce much of a political boost—and the opposition parties were simply disdainful of the government’s attempt to soften an unpopular tax. “Campbell was the one who warned us against charisma without substance,” said New Democrat MP David Barrett, referring to Campbell’s denunciation of William Vander Zalm during the 1986 B.C. Socred leadership race. “In her case, her handlers are trying to create some style, and so far we haven’t seen any substance.”
The lack of substantive new policies was evident last week in Quebec City, where Campbell and Premier Robert Bourassa announced an undertaking to allow Quebec to exclusively administer its own manpower retraining programs. Described by Campbell as a move to improve efficiency in government services, the deal was little more than an agreement in principle: most details are to be worked out later, presumably if the Tories win the election. But Campbell’s own Quebec caucus pressed her to make the offer as a signal that she was willing to deal with the province’s deep desire for changes in the way Canada operates.
Quebec Tories were less enamoured of another Campbell step last week: her decision to bar Quebec MPs facing criminal charges from running under the party banner in the next election. Many Quebec Tories were unhappy with the decision, particularly in the case of Beauce MP Gilles Bernier, an immensely popular member of the Quebec caucus who has been charged with fraud. But Campbell and her advisers see the issue of political ethics as another opportunity to distinguish themselves from Mulroney. To reinforce that image, Campbell was expected to deliver a speech in Vancouver this week calling for more accountability and integrity in government.
Still, the Tories are unlikely to stray far from their existing agenda of emphasizing job and trade expansion coupled with deficit reduction. It is the face of the party they want to change. “I’d like to see Kim surrounded by women at all her events,” said one male Tory adviser last week. “And I’d like to see her to be seen listening to people.” That political persona jibes with what the Tories are hearing from their focus groups about the kind of prime minister Canadians want to govern them— the traits most frequently mentioned are empathy, approachability, energy and enthusiasm.
But Campbell’s critics contend that her promise of a “new politics”—while employing snappy sound bites to attack sound-bite politics—rings hollow. ‘There are revealing flashes of temper, arrogance and superficiality,” said the NDP’s Barrett. B.C.’s political culture, which weaned both Campbell and Barrett, is rawer and less sophisticated than national politics, he said. “It is a political environment where anything goes against your enemy, and Campbell displays that with her trite answers and her self-righteousness.” But for the Tories, the signs of receptiveness to their leader’s snappy style offer the first crack in a once-impenetrable wall of voter antipathy.
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