• U.S.

Canada: Charisma Is Not Enough

5 minute read
Peter Stoler/Ottawa

Lac Meech, a finger-like lake set in the evergreen-forested hills of Quebec’s Gatineau Park, has long been a mecca for canoeists, campers, fishermen and skiers. But it was not the area’s scenic beauty that last week drew Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and key members of his Progressive Conservative Cabinet to the government-owned retreat on the lake’s snow-covered shore. Faced with Parliament’s return from Christmas recess this week and with a host of problems awaiting action, Mulroney and his advisers had driven the half-hour north from Ottawa for an agonizing reappraisal of where the government was, where it should go and even, as it began its second full year in office, who would make the journey.

Although the Conservatives won the election in September 1984 with the biggest parliamentary majority in Canadian history (211 of 282 seats), Mulroney’s government has seemed for much of the past year like a hiker lost in the north woods, a tenderfoot wandering through the wilds of Canadian politics with little sense of direction.

Now, polls suggest, Canadians who were willing to take a wait-and-see attitude after Mulroney’s early mistakes are becoming impatient and increasingly question whether their Prime Minister can lead the country ably. According to a poll last month in Maclean’s, a Canadian newsweekly, only 37% are satisfied with the Prime Minister’s performance, vs. nearly 60% a year earlier, when he had been in office only three months. “The biggest challenge facing the government is classical leadership, to define where the government wants to go,” says Allan Gregg, whose Decima Research, Ltd., conducted the Maclean’s poll.

Part of Mulroney’s problem is that he raised high expectations. A mellifluous speaker and charismatic campaigner, he convinced Canadians that some painful belt tightening would eventually improve an economy plagued by double-digit unemployment and a rapidly rising deficit. He also promised to sell off unprofitable government-owned businesses or crown corporations. But Mulroney’s performance has not matched his rhetoric, and his government has been characterized by indecision and some easily avoidable scandals.

The waffling became evident as early as March, when Mulroney returned from his meeting with President Reagan in Quebec City with little more on the highly sensitive acid rain issue than U.S. promises to study the already overstudied problem. Then in June, Ottawa backed away from its plan to reduce Canada’s federal deficit by changing the indexation of old-age pensions. In August, many Canadians were offended when Ottawa failed to take the initiative in protesting the passage of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage, which Canada claims as a territorial waterway.

The first of several scandals occurred when Defense Minister Robert Coates was forced to resign after an Ottawa newspaper revealed that he had visited a West German strip club during a tour of NATO installations and shared a drink with a woman who described herself as an “exotic dancer.” Fisheries Minister John Fraser resigned early last September in the furor that followed a television program’s disclosure that he had allowed tainted tuna to be sold to Canadian consumers. And a few days later, Communications Minister Marcel Masse had to leave the Cabinet (he has since returned) while the Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigated alleged irregularities in campaign spending.

Loud outcries greeted Mulroney’s decision last month to sell De Havilland Aircraft of Canada, Ltd., the unprofitable manufacturer of the Dash-8 commuter aircraft, to the Boeing company. Workers and leaders of both opposition parties would have preferred to see the government find a Canadian buyer for the company. Quebecers protested when the government allowed Ultramar, a British owned oil firm, to close down a Montreal refinery. Suzanne Blais-Grenier, who had already been demoted from her post as Environment Minister, used the controversy as an excuse to resign.

Similar expressions of disappointment greeted last week’s announcement that a U.S.-Canadian team studying acid rain would recommend a $5 billion program to develop new technology but would do nothing in the meantime to reduce acid emissions from industrial polluters across the border, primarily in the Ohio Valley.

Mulroney candidly acknowledges his problems. Recalling the string of scandals that beset him last September, he said recently, “If I had my druthers, I’d outlaw Septembers in the future.” But the Prime Minister, who noted in a year-end interview that more than 400,000 new jobs have been created in Canada since he took office, has also complained that many of his government’s accomplishments have been ignored. “It’s much easier for the media to talk about tainted tuna than it is about job creation,” he said.

Mulroney’s lament is understandable. Though the Canadian dollar took a battering last week, falling to its lowest level ever (71¢), the economy has been growing faster over the past year (4.1%) than that of any other country except Japan. Despite 10% unemployment, the majority of Canadians continue to live well. Mulroney can also take some credit for the spirit of reconciliation that has seemed to be overcoming Canada’s traditional sectionalism.

In an effort to bring his government back on course, Mulroney is expected to reshuffle some Cabinet jobs. To replace Blais-Grenier and to continue to assure French-speaking Canadians that their voices are heard at Cabinet sessions, he will probably give at least one more important portfolio to a French speaker. He intends moreover to sell off other unprofitable government corporations, even if such sales cause some local and, he hopes, temporary unemployment.

The Prime Minister will continue pushing for a free-trade agreement with the U.S. despite opposition from Canadians who fear that free trade could compromise their country’s cultural sovereignty by allowing big U.S. companies to gobble up Canadian book publishing and broadcasting. Mulroney’s most urgent task, though, will be to convince his countrymen that he and his colleagues emerged from Lac Meech last week carrying a compass. –By Peter Stoler/Ottawa

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com