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Canadian pundits ponder Liberal leap in polls. `Phoenix-like ascension' said to be result of fear campaign on free trade issue

Political observers here are shaking their heads in astonishment at the latest reading of public opinion prior to the national election on Nov. 21. Canada's opposition Liberal Party has jumped from a 10-point lag a few weeks ago to a 12-point lead over Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative Party.

The survey, conducted by Gallup Canada for the Toronto Star and released yesterday, gave the Liberals 43 percent of the vote, the Conservatives 31 percent, and the New Democratic Party 22 percent. Some 10 percent of the 1,041 respondents were undecided.

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``The phoenix-like ascension of the Liberal Party, if sustained through election day, will certainly be recorded as one of the most astounding political rehabilitations in Canadian history,'' Gallup vice-president Lorne Bozinoff stated.

A Liberal spokesman says, ``Mr. Turner's message is getting across. Large numbers are agreeing with him on free trade.''

Charles McMillan, a former top political adviser to Mr. Mulroney, attributes the dramatic shift to two factors. First, in the televised debates between the three national party leaders late last month, the Liberal Party's John Turner suddenly was seen as a real alternative to Prime Minister Mulroney.

``It made him respectable,'' says Mr. McMillan, now a professor of administrative studies at York University here.

Second, the Liberals have exploited the latent Canadian fear of United States domination in their campaign against the free-trade deal signed by Mulroney and President Reagan last Jan. 2. The Liberals and the left-of-center New Democratic Party have said they would tear up the agreement should they come to power.

The two opposition leaders have charged that free trade would threaten Canada's social-security system, the national medicare plan, unemployment insurance, regional assistance measures, the nation's culture, and eventually, even its sovereignty.

Pointing to the campaign of fear used against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 US election, McMillan termed the fear technique ``the oldest game in politics.''

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Norman Webster, editor of the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, Canada's only national newspaper, terms the Liberal campaign against free trade ``one of fear and misinformation.''

McMillan says that the Conservative strategy had been to play down the free-trade deal, talking more about the competence of the Conservative government and economic prosperity.

This was a ``tactical mistake,'' McMillan says.

But with the success of the opposition attack on free trade, Mulroney last week came strongly to its defense. He charged the two opposition parties with ``propagating deception, distortion, and deceit'' in regard to free trade.

In turn, the Conservatives have begun to suggest that rejection of the free-trade deal would be extremely damaging to the Canadian economy. For example, Finance Minister Michael Wilson said it could lead to the US canceling a 1965 agreement with Canada allowing duty-free trade in motor vehicles and parts.

Robert White, leader of the Canadian Auto Workers Union and an opponent of the general free-trade deal, said it was ``absolute stupidity'' for Mr. Wilson to suggest such a possibility.

Nonpartisan experts hold it more likely that the US would seek revisions to the auto pact in its favor, rather than outright cancellation.

Also last week, Mulroney said the jobs of more than 2 million Canadians depend on the security provided by the free-trade agreement. He in turn was said to be ``fear-mongering.'' Various think tank economists would regard killing of the free-trade deal as ``unfortunate ... but not catastrophic,'' as one put it.

McMillan suggests that the new Liberal support is ``soft,'' that the strong Tory defense of free trade could reverse the polls.

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