CANADA

THE HALO EFFECT

Distaste for the Mulroney years keeps the chretien government riding high in the polls after a year in office

WARREN CARAGATA November 7 1994
CANADA

THE HALO EFFECT

Distaste for the Mulroney years keeps the chretien government riding high in the polls after a year in office

WARREN CARAGATA November 7 1994

THE HALO EFFECT

CANADA

Distaste for the Mulroney years keeps the chretien government riding high in the polls after a year in office

WARREN CARAGATA

If anything could prove that a week is an eternity in politics, the events of the closing days of October did just that. As the week opened, Liberals could not prevent just a shade of smugness from flavoring their celebration of the first 12 months since the election that returned them to power and dispatched the Tories to an afterthought in the House of Commons. The direction of Canadian politics, the rhythms of fate itself, seemed to confirm Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s musings last year that Canadians were most content when Liberals were in charge. And as Chrétien looked back on his first year in office, enjoying an unprecedented honeymoon of public support, he pronounced himself as content as the voters seemed to be. “We have had a year without difficulties,” he boasted.

His best anniversary gift came with publication of On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years, by Maclean’s contributing editor Stevie Cameron. In its blistering detail of the excesses of Brian Mulroney and the previous Tory government, the book served to remind voters why they had delivered such a vengeful verdict against the Conservatives on Oct. 25, 1993, and enthusiastically

embraced Chrétien as Mulroney’s antithesis. Denounced by the Tories as untrue and unfair, On the Take was snapped up by the public, just as its effect was welcomed by the Liberals. Even Chrétien could not help but note that his emphasis on “honesty and integrity” had paid dividends. But by week’s end, as a defensive Chrétien turned aside calls for the resignation of Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy, the Opposition was wielding those words as weapons of attack.

Still, Dupuy did not resign, despite a rare co-ordinated attack from both the Reform party and the Bloc Québécois, and it was far from certain that the fuss over the minister’s letter on behalf of a constituent to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, which he oversees, would end the extended honeymoon between Chrétien and the voters. On March 15, Dupuy had written a letter to the CRTC asking the commission to give “due consideration” to an application for a Greek radio station by Konstantinos Daniilidis of Montreal, and asking to be kept informed of any developments. Chrétien refused demands for Dupuy’s resignation, saying: “The minister made an honest mistake.” But he came under further fire for discrepancies in his explanation of how he

cal life but it won’t be an obstacle to us,” he told Maclean’s. Copps said the book will confirm for Canadians that they made the right choice last year in dumping the Tories so hard: “But the indictment was delivered before the book came out so it won’t have any lasting impact.” And Cameron said that Tories, many of whom helped in her research, will find ways to put the Mulroney years behind them. “They’ll just write this off as a bad dream,” she said in an interview.

The picture Cameron paints of Mulroney is unflattering from the opening pages. She says he personally intervened in matters in which associates had an interest. In the proposed privatization of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, cancelled by the Liberals after the election, Cameron writes, officials were told that the prime minister was pushing a bid by Don Matthews, who had helped run Mulroney’s leadership campaign. The book also alleges that Mulroney did what he could to help construction magnate George Vari redevelop a hotel in Hungary, pressuring and threatening senior officials in an unsuccessful attempt to get financing from international development banks. And it includes allegations of corruption and ties between Tories and organized crime—but no suggestions or allegations tying Mulroney himself to criminal activities.

There is no doubt that the lingering odor from the Tory years has helped the Liberals, but it does not entirely explain their continuing popularity. The opposition insists that the government has accumulated political capital because it has refused to spend any of it making tough political decisions. Reform Leader Preston Manning last week called the past 12 months Chrétien’s wasted year. ‘The Liberals have done nothing with their mandate,” he declared.

To be sure, Chrétien’s government has made mistakes and missteps. Patronage has not disappeared, and some ministers, including Dupuy, have been prone to mishaps. In September, Chrétien was forced to back down on his refusal to pay Quebec’s costs for the 1992 constitutional referendum after the newly elected Parti Québécois government challenged him on the issue. So far, he has been the Teflon Prime Minister. LeBreton says that the lack of political sting from Reform, and Bloc’s narrow focus on Quebec issues, are a bonus for the Grits. “It’s not hard to score touchdowns when you are the only team on the field,” she remarked.

What really galls the Tories is that the Liberals are benefiting from an economic recovery that they say results from policies dating from the Mulroney years. Bricker agrees that the economy helps, but he said Chrétien and his sound political instincts deserve much of the credit. “He has an almost emotional connection with the public,” said the pollster. Unlike the gregarious Mulroney, who tried to defend every step his government made with exaggerated claims of its benefits, Chrétien has been much more low-key, rationing his public events and downplaying expectations. And problems, said Bricker, have not become scandals because Canadians have come to trust Chrétien’s government: “The only reason a scandal becomes a problem for a government is if people think this is emblematic of what these guys are really like.” Despite the mishaps of Michel Dupuy, that has not happened. Yet.

WARREN CARAGATA in Ottawa

handled the affair. On Thursday, he told the Commons that he had consulted his ethics counsellor, Howard Wilson, over Dupuy’s actions, but the next day admitted that only members of his staff had contacted Wilson. The Prime Minister’s explanation for not dealing with the matter personally: “I have a lot of work to do.”

Before that controversy erupted, though, the government was enjoying unprecedented popularity. A September Gallup poll put the Liberals’ approval rating at 60 per cent, the highest level the party has ever registered in Gallup’s 52-year history. And a survey by the Angus Reid Group taken in the same month found an approval rating for Chrétien of 71 per cent. One explanation for such numbers, said Darrell Bricker, a senior vice-president at Angus Reid, is that Canadians have still not put aside their distaste for the previous government. “They’re still revelling in the fact that it’s no longer Brian Mulroney,” he said. Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps described it as “the post-Tory halo effect.”

In case Canadians had started to forget the Tory years, Cameron’s book reminded them from every bookstore window. In downtown Ottawa, it became simply, The Book. At Books Canada on the Sparks Street mall, owner Jane Scott said she could not keep it in stock as couriers came in with purchase orders and people walked out with four or five copies. Even the RCMP bought a copy. Solicitor General Herb Gray confirmed that the force had a copy and was reviewing it, although the RCMP would not say why. Publisher Jan Walter of Macfarlane, Walter & Ross in Toronto said the initial printing of 20,000 copies was sold the first week. “It is our best-selling title in six years of operation,” she said.

Even Tories were buying, but few would admit that they liked what they read. Mulroney’s Toronto lawyer, Edgar Sexton, sent a letter to Cameron and her publisher specifically denying the book’s allegation that unnamed business executives set up a $4-million trust fund last year to cushion the former prime minister’s transition to private life. “We are advised,” Sexton wrote, “that this allegation is completely false and that such a fund does not exist and never has existed.” Sexton also said “it is impracticable to deal at this moment with the many allegations contained in news reports” about the book. Mulroney was in Brussels when the book came out, but returned to Canada briefly in mid-week. A secretary at Mulroney’s Montreal law office told Maclean’s he would not comment, and referred calls to Tory Senator Marjory LeBreton. LeBreton, who served as Mulroney’s appointments chief, called the book a rehash of previous allegations. “The prime minister worked damn hard, long hours, was a great leader,” she said. “He doesn’t deserve this.”

A key question for Conservatives was how much damage the book would do to the rebuilding effort led by leader Jean Charest. Surprisingly, perhaps, Charest, Copps and Cameron herself agreed that the damage will be minimal. Charest, who served as Mulroney’s environment minister, said the book will not have any lingering effect. “It’s part of politi-