CANADA

GRIM TIDINGS

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 6 1993
CANADA

GRIM TIDINGS

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 6 1993

GRIM TIDINGS

CANADA

For a federal party that hopes to be re-elected on the strength of its han dling of the econo my, last week was

far from auspicious. In Ottawa, the Conference Board of Canada cautioned that the country is “adrift in a listless recovery” that will likely improve only slightly in 1994. Quebec’s largest business group, the Conseil du Patronat (Council of Employers), then issued a report putting the province’s true unemployment rate—the total of those receiving unemployment insurance or other social benefits—at 22.6 per cent, or more than 850,000 people. Meanwhile, a Statistics Canada study revealed that in 1991, the most recent year for which it has figures, more than a third of all two-parent families in the country received unemployment insurance benefits. As if to underscore the political message behind those dismal figures, The Toronto Star published the findings of the government’s own poll of Canadians, conducted in April. The bad news for Conservatives: only two per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that the government has an economic plan that is working.

When the Conservatives began plotting their election campaign a year ago, their expectations were much more rosy. By mid-

1993, party supporters believed, Canada would be showing obvious signs of recovery from the three-year-old recession—and grateful voters would give credit to the Tories and their free-market policies. Instead, on the eve of the campaign, the economy is still sluggish, particularly in the two most vote-rich provinces, Quebec and Ontario. Small wonder, then, that Prime Minister Kim Campbell visited Toronto last week to offer solace to an audience of potential supporters and business leaders. But in a speech that broke little new ground, even her words of comfort were couched in caution. Said Campbell: ‘There are new industries and firms being created by the hundreds, but that renewal and growth will take time.” More to the point, she promised no tax increases, and repeated her commitment to erase the federal deficit, now $35.5 billion, within five years.

Now that the long phoney war preceding the campaign is drawing to a close, each of the federal parties is feeling pressure to offer more specific economic remedies. ‘The issues of this election are the economy and jobs,” says Industry and Science Minister Jean Charest, who will be the Tories’ most active spokesman in Quebec. “And that’s the case everywhere in Canada, whether we’re talking about Rimouski or Red Deer.” So far, though, the Liberals have been faster off the mark. Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien said in midAugust that his party would help small businesses by easing credit and creating an investment fund for leading-edge companies in such fields as medical research and computer software development. The Liberal leader has also promised to “kick-start the economy” with a massive spending program to improve roads, bridges, sewers and other public facilities.

Chrétien’s announcements illustrate a key difference between the two parties: the Liberals say that government intervention is essential to an economic recovery, while the Tories insist that the economy will rebound properly only if left alone. Both parties argue their case strongly—but the Tories must contend with the fact that a hands-off approach is harder to sell to voters. Campbell’s Toronto

■ speech, for one, was sprinkled with I shopworn phrases: the importance £ of “getting the basics right,” of I spending money “more smartly” and “ of “building partnerships” with business, labor and other levels of government. She offered little in the way of new programs—and even fewer commitments on funding for them.

Despite those shortcomings, the Tories insist that their approach will find favor with the public. Voters, they say, are suspicious of anyone who appears to be offering easy answers to complex problems. “Canadians are really quite uncomfortable with the old shibboleths, the one-sentence answers,” said International Trade Minister Tom Hockin. “They find you more credible if you talk about six medium-to-small things that speak to the problems where they live.” Privately, however, some Tory workers who have canvassed door-to-door for the party question the wisdom of that strategy. They say that voters are looking for specific proposals to create jobs—and that the lack of such initiatives by the government is a cause for complaint.

In fact, the Conservative electoral program under Kim Campbell is almost indistinguishable from the one that existed when Brian Mulroney led the party. The broad strokes of the economic policies that Campbell announced in Toronto were originally contained in a throne speech prepared for Mulroney earlier this year, before he made public his decision to resign. The throne speech, which was never used, also included the basic elements of a law-and-order speech that Campbell is scheduled to deliver in Edmonton this week. One senior Tory organizer concedes that Mulroney and his advisers were responsible for “about 80 per cent” of the party’s current election platform. “We believe,” the organizer said, “that people may dislike the man, but not the policies.”

For much the same reason, the devotion that many Tories used to profess towards Mulroney has become the love that dares not speak its name. Last fall, when Ottawa was rife with speculation about Mulroney’s future, most of his key ministers—including Campbell—publicly implored him to lead them into the next election. But since the start of the leadership campaign in March, Campbell and other senior Tories have rarely even mentioned Mulroney by name. Asked about him last week, Campbell replied tersely: ‘The campaign is about the future.”

THE TOBIES WEBE BANKING ON A STB BECOVEBY, BUT IT HAS NOT HAPPENED

Lacking any significant new policies with which to dazzle voters, the Conservatives seem to be taking a leaf from their counterparts in Britain and the United States. In both countries, fiscally conservative governments fought elections recently in which they tried to turn the national debate away from the problems of unemployment and slow growth, and towards their rivals’ fitness to govern. Both Prime Minister John Major and then-President George Bush sought to portray their opponents as tax-and-spend liberals whose policies would damage the economy. In the end, Bush lost while Major won—in large measure because of his success in distancing himself from a powerful and deeply unpopular predecessor, Margaret Thatcher.

The Tories will also focus on an area in which they now score significantly better than any of the other parties. “The issue of this election is leadership,” was a comment that became a mantra among Tories at the close of a two-day caucus meeting in Ottawa last week. In separate interviews, Public Security Minister Doug Lewis and Torontoarea backbencher Donald Blenkarn each employed the phrase. Campaign co-chairman John Tory used the same words in a meeting with reporters.

But the party’s strategy of building the campaign around Campbell has its risks. Since winning the leadership in June, she has benefited from generally positive media coverage—which is unlikely to carry over into the actual campaign. Some of that coverage has focused on the perception of her as a young leader, even though, at 46, she is older than either Mulroney and Joe Clark when they became leader. The oft-repeated anecdote about her fondness for dancing the twist—which has not been in vogue since the early 1960s—is cited, remarkably, as evidence of youthfulness. In fact, it probably says more about the greying members of the Ottawa press gallery than about Campbell herself.

Inevitably, such gentle coverage generates a backlash. Last week, several francophone media outlets in Quebec took aim at Campbell’s ability to speak French. Meanwhile, Liberal government operations critic Don Boudria generated headlines with his estimate that Campbell’s pre-campaign travels over the past few weeks have cost Canadian taxpayers $1.4 million.

Tories concede that Boudria’s criticism is starting to have an effect. And some strategists wonder whether Campbell has the patience and stamina to cope with a grueling 47-day campaign. “Mulroney never complained because he loved to campaign,” a senior Campbell adviser recalled. “Other politicians say, ‘You’ll kill me with this schedule,’ and she’s a bit like that.” The folksy image she has worked hard to fashion over the summer also shows signs of fraying. In her Toronto speech, she used the economists’ term “consumer durables” several times to refer to such commonplace items as washing machines and dryers. Significantly, Tory insiders say that Campbell’s popularity appears to have peaked. Recent polls for the party indicate that the Tories still trail the Liberals by at least a half dozen percentage points in the key battleground of Ontario.

At the same time, the level of declared Liberal voters shows no sign of increasing, and public doubts about Chrétien persist. That still leaves a clear opening for other parties—primarily the New Democrats, the Bloc Québécois and Reform—which may benefit from the increased exposure afforded by an election campaign. The problem for each is that the electorate appears disenchanted even before the race has begun. “It is not a happy place for anyone from any party out there,” said a Tory MP who has already begun campaigning in Quebec. The campaign will give all candidates the stage they have been seeking, but there is no guarantee that the audience will be appreciative—or even attentive.

ANTONY WILSON-SMITH

with LUKE FISHER in Ottawa and MARYJANIGAN and BRUCE WALLACE in Toronto