AS CANADIAN Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau seeks his fourth term in office in the first federal campaign in five years, the outcome of the May 22 election is uncertain. However, one thing is apparent: Trudeau faces the challenge of his political career--and he has not had an easy time the last few campaigns. If he can weather this tempest, the accomplishments of his ten years in office will pale by comparison.
In 1968, Trudeau convincingly won the Liberal Party leadership and proceeded to sweep the country in dynamic fashion. The Canadian media coined the phrase "Trudeaumania" to describe the prevalent attitude at the polls. Four years later, Trudeau's charisma failed to affect as many voters; seemingly unconvinced by the party's slogan, "The land is strong," the electorate gave Trudeau a tenuous minority government after the majority mandate of '68. Predictably, the weakened government fell in 1974, and things looked grim for the Liberals heading into the July election.
But Trudeau is a superb campaigner when he gears up. Canadians, often offended by his intellectual arrogance, were surprised when he singlehandedly turned around the country's mood from one of cynicism to one of confidence. The opposition and Progressive Conservative Party leader at the time was Robert Stanfield, a long-time member of Parliament from Eastern Canada. Stanfield's strategy rested upon a poorly-conceived, loosely-defined economic platform designed to control inflation. Stanfield said he planned to institute wage and price controls--but he didn't explain how he would implement them or how they would work. Trudeau hammered at Stanfield's equivocal policy, made leadership the key issue, and regained a majority government.
The Canadian media had no clever one-word explanations for the impeccably bilingual Montrealer's triumph. Yet he soon instituted wage and price controls and the Anti-Inflation Board after humiliating Stanfield on the very same issue. The romance ended abruptly. And Trudeau has been fighting for his political life ever since.
The Conservatives, deeply fragmented since the Liberals took power in 1962, realized it was time for a new attitude and a new look. Alberta's 36-year-old Joe Clark emerged from the bitterly contested 1976 convention, carrying the tattered Tory flag. For months, Clark was known as "Joe Who?" But despite early recognition and internal party problems, Clark's image has improved-steadily, and is touted as the man who can banish Trudeau.
That does not mean the Tories are flaunting Clark. In fact, they have strategically shoved him behind the scenes during the campaign. He does not appear on any of the Tory television ads, for example. So far, it has paid off--he has not yet made a blunder which Trudeau might capitalize on.
THE MEDIA labelled Trudeau a "gunslinger" in this campaign. The same renewed energy and vital charisma Trudeau has shown in previous elections is once again evident. At 60, the Prime Minister, who has a black belt in karate, is reaching back for that little extra that has made him the West's longest-established leader. But he faces a public, disillusioned by high unemployment and spiralling inflation, which charges him with failing to deal with his avowed priority when he took office ten years ago: keeping Canada together, or more accurately, placating Quebec.
Nowhere in the Western world is the tension between decentralized economic pursuits and the advantages of a strong federal government as evident as in Canada. Oil-rich Alberta, led by Conservative premier Peter Lougheed, is in the midst of a boom. The other Western provinces feel alienated by the distant Ottawa government. The Maritime provinces are locked into a vicious economic cycle, with unemployment as high as 20 per cent in some areas, and despite federal investment incentives, practically separatist government clamors for "sovereignty association," a euphemism for secession. If Quebec were to secede, the Maritimes would be cut off from the rest of Canada. A chain of seceding provinces is not unforeseeable, for while Quebec is an enigma, it is by no means an anomaly.
Quebec's chain-smoking premier, Rene Levesque, gained power in the late 1976, by deposing an anemic Liberal government with a stunning triumph. Levesque's separatist doctrine is the party's raison d'etre. He originally drafted the policy in his book, An Option for Quebec, soon after he left the Quebec Liberal Party in 1967. Only Trudeau's popularity in Quebec exceeds that of Levesque's. The Quebec leader has wisely chosen to keep a low profile during this federal campaign, secretly hoping for Trudeau's demise, while recognizing that support for Clark would label him a traiter in his home province. Trudeau, mean-while, has denied the right of Quebec to separate and refuses to negotiate sovereignty association. Clark has said he would negotiate. Levesque has pledged he would separate only with a majority vote on a referendum.
In a campaign where Canada's very future is at stake, Canadians don't even seem interested in the unity issue. The economy seems to be the overriding issue in the minds of most citizens. Trudeau has attempted to combine the unity issue with that of leadership, saying he is the only person capable of dealing with Levesque. Indeed, he is correct: negotiating with the separatists would lead to increased pressure from other quarters in Canada. Clark, who may not win any of the seventy-odd seats in Quebec (out of 264 total), would certainly not have a mandate from Quebec. And Levesque's most powerful argument would be implicit: if Canadians don't want Trudeau, then they don't care about Quebec either.
CLARK is extremely weak on other election issues, too. In one breath, he severely criticizes Trudeau for failing to control inflation, and in the next, promises to stimulate the economy. He has proposed a $2 billion income tax cut, which would almost certainly cause more inflation. He relies heavily on the economic theories of New York Republican congressman Jack Kemp's balanced budget, which Martin Feldstein, professor of Economics, has called something "politicians can digest in 30 seconds and talk about for months." Clark also said he would dissolve the nationally-owned corporation Petro-Canada, a concession to Lougheed, despite the fact that foreign multinationals control 95 per cent of petroleum sales. His promise ran into tough sledding, however, and he has weakly backed off.
So Trudeau continues to travel around the country, telling an unemployed man in British Columbia to "get off your ass and look for work," while Clark continues to hedge on crucial issues, a foreshadowing of disaster with his low-key, wavering approach to leadership. The large Liberal bloc in Quebec balances the traditional Tory strongholds in Western Canada. The election's most important province is Ontario, with Toronto the focus of attention. Last time around, the Liberals won 18 of 20 Toronto seats, but the Conservatives held an 11-point lead in the polls three weeks ago. Recent surveys, however, show the Liberals have narrowed the margin to five points, and the number of undecided voters has risen. Trudeau's campaign magic may yet sway the Canadian electorate to grant him four more years.
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