Two years ago this month, Canada's Tories were swept to power with a lopsided majority in an election that marked the end of two decades of almost continuous Liberal rule. Much of this triumph could be attributed to an Irishman oozing with charm, optimism and a vision of Canada that promised a less confrontational atmosphere between the federal government and the provinces.
As the ruling Progressive Conservative government enters the second half of its mandate, the polls suggest, however, that there has been an enormous
shift in public opinion.Of course, there are at least two years to run before the next general election, and two years is a long time in politics.
Though for the moment the polls foreshadow a Liberal minority government, they also show little popular support for Liberal leader John Turner.
Are Canadians being unnecessarily cranky when things are really not going that badly?
What is sure is that rarely in Canada's political history have there been two successive majority governments.
Much is demanded of Canadian prime ministers in a country with such a widely dispersed population and sharply defined regional feelings. Like citizens in other countries, Canadians want strong leaders. Former Prime Minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau was perceived to be a strong leader by voters of all political stripes, though many found him arrogant.
Mr. Mulroney's authority has been eroded most, it seems, not by a series of scandals that weakened the Cabinet, but by loose statements or what is known as the Irish propensity for blarney. A good example was his risky assertion the other day that in the next election the Tories would increase their following in Quebec, where the Liberals traditionally reign supreme.
The more Mr. Mulroney has seeks to be conciliatory and reassuring, the more people suspect there's something else (or nothing!) under the facade. The lesson here appears to be to turn off the charm and reveal a mean streak.
Critics of Mr. Mulroney also consider he has failed to be sufficiently clear about his vision of Canada, despite the successful efforts thus far in healing the wounds in federal-provincial relations.
But there's no doubt that Mr. Mulroney, a bilingual Quebecer, believes ardently in a united Canada that respects regional aspirations and allows a bicultural society to flourish.
Looking back at the government's record since September 1984, there are quite a few positive items.
The national energy policy was revised in a manner that has appeased the producing provinces. Unfortunately, the evolution of world oil prices has drastically reduced the benefits of this policy.
A more accommodating approach to foreign investors, through a sweeping overhaul of legislation and of the screening process, has been a popular initiative.
On the economic front, interest rates, inflation and unemployment have all fallen substantially in the past two years. The Canadian economy has rebounded
And through tax increases and applying the axe on federal spending, Finance Minister Michael Wilson seems to have stemmed the rising deficits inherited from preceding governments.
For the next two years, Tory strategists are pinning re-election hopes on three main issues: tax reform; persuading Quebec to change its mind on a constitutional accord endorsed by the other provinces in 1981; and a free trade agreement with the United States.
Success with two of the issues hinges on forces the government cannot control. Only on tax reform (inspired partly by similar moves in Washington) do the Tories control their destiny. A more simplified and equitable tax system in Canada would clearly win many votes.
With a pro-independence government no longer in power in Quebec City, the prospects have improved for bringing Quebec into the new Canadian constitution. Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa has set five conditions, ranging
from greater control over immigration to a Quebec veto over future constitutional amendments.
There is no immediate urgency to getting Quebec's agreement, but that could change quickly if a free trade pact were struck with Washington and it needed some form of provincial ratification.
Preliminary discussions, meanwhile, for a U.S.-Canada free trade agreement will soon terminate, prior to formal negotiations expected to begin late this fall.
This exercise has already shown itself to be fraught with obstacles on both sides of the border, as protectionist pressures in Congress especially have fueled tensions and certain tariff measures.
The decision awaited in October of the U.S. Commerce Department on whether Canada unfairly subsidizes its lumber through low stumpage fees charged by the provinces could have an important bearing on the free trade project.
There are indications that the Tory government is setting up potential fallback positions in order to scale down expectations on the free trade front. One possibility would be to limit the agreement to the government procurement sector.
Summing up, on free trade and other main issues on the agenda, Mr. Mulroney is taking major gambles. If astutely handled, they should help to create an image of a leader willing to take risks. The next fight at the poll booths is not yet lost for the Tories.