Four years after Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives won the most seats in Canadian history, it was time for another election but this time, things would be somewhat different.
The 1988 election is notable for many reasons. It would be the last election for the Social Credit Party, which had existed since 1935, and it would be the first election for a new party that would morph into one of the most powerful parties in Parliament today.
In many ways this was a rematch of the previous election, which saw John Turner and the Liberals go up against Mulroney and his Conservatives. The two would go head-to-head once again but this time Turner would fare much better.
The 1988 election is often called the Free Trade Election because the issue of free trade with the United States dominated the campaigns. It had been roughly 70 years since free trade was last an election issue, with the Liberals supporting it and the Conservatives opposing it. This time around, the tables would be turned, and it would be the Conservatives pushing for free trade.
Going into the election, the Progressive Conservatives were dealing with several scandals and their popularity was beginning to fall. In fact, in March 1987, Mulroney’s approval rating would hit a low of 17 per cent.
The Liberals had spent the previous four years rebuilding the party, with Turner putting extra effort into building up the provincial wings of the party to make gains in anglophone provincial legislatures across the country. Even with the work to rebuild, the party was still heavily in debt and in disarray politically. Those who left Turner’s office in the high turnover rate would often talk to the press and talk about the many errors under Turner’s leadership.
Turner had passed a leadership review in 1986 with 76.3 per cent of delegates rejecting a leadership convention, but there was still a group who were looking to replace Turner with the much more popular Jean Chretien.
The Liberals would launch a campaign that featured a 40-point plan that put an emphasis on the free trade issue, with the goal of giving voters the view that the Liberals were the right government to lead the country. This included a $1.65 billion program to encourage housing construction. One item that did not go well on the platform was the election promise by Turner to allow abortions only up to 20th week of pregnancy. A leaked version of the plan caused such an uproar within the Liberal Party that there was a distinct possibility of an open revolt.
For Turner, the campaign was personal as well. Alasdair Graham, the National Campaign co-chair stated quote:
“He wants to avenge what happened to him in 1984.”
The Conservatives had used the previous four years to get ready for another election and their party was a well-oiled machine by this point. They would also alter tactics from 1984. The previous election, Mulroney made many appearances, had impromptu interviews, and flew across the country constantly. In 1988, the Conservatives chose to have Mulroney still travel, including touching down in six provinces in six days to start the campaign, but he made few impromptu encounters. Mulroney maintained a tight schedule with few opportunities for being spontaneous. At one point in October, Mulroney toured a plastics factory in Georgetown, Ontario. Mulroney told the workers to support his free trade agreement. Reporters then interviewed the employees, who said they were worried they would lose their jobs under free trade. At other events in the subsequent days, journalists were kept behind white plastic chains to prevent them from mixing with the crowds. Mulroney’s press secretary would state quote:
“He wants to meet the voters, but he can’t do that unless we impose discipline.”
Turner would attack this behaviour, calling Mulroney a coward and stating quote:
At the start of the campaign, the Liberals had their backs to the wall, polling in third place at 25 per cent, with the NDP at 29 per cent and the Conservatives at 42 per cent. For the Liberals, this time was described as a frenzied panic, and many did not believe that Turner could lead them to any sort of victory. One month before the election, things had not changed much. The Progressive Conservatives still polled at 39 to 42 per cent, while the Liberals were at 25 to 29 per cent.
The debate of 1984 had helped Mulroney defeat Turner and the Liberals and when 1988 came along, Mulroney was confident he could once again best Turner. While Turner had low polling numbers overall, once the main election issue began to transition towards free trade, Turner seemed to be reinvigorated.
A friend of Turner, Richard Alway, would state quote:
“He is convinced that free trade is the political issue of this generation and that he must be the person to lead the fight against the deal. I believe he thinks he has been chosen for this moment in history.”
During an interview with Macleans, Turner would say, quote:
“I think that Canada would be ill advised to become a junior partner in Fortress America. It has always been in Canada’s interest to seek a widening trading perspective globally.”
By the time the French debate came along, Turner was much more confident in French and to go against the fluently bilingual Mulroney. By the end of the debate, Quebec media stated that Turner had been the winner. The following night, the English debate was held, and Turner once again put out a strong performance over the free trade issue. In both debates, the consensus, about 46 per cent of respondents, was that Turner had won both debates and for the Liberals, there was new hope.
Former Member of Parliament, Jean Chretien, would also actively campaign for the Liberals, while giving hints of running for the leadership if Turner resigned down the road.
Mulroney would also attempt to attack Turner over the patronage issue again, but this time Turner turned it around on him.
Pollster Michael Adams would say quote:
“You promised to clean it up, and you didn’t clean it up.”
“Like everyone else, I thought the election had been decided. But there is a surprising degree of volatility among voters. Turner almost single-handedly has managed to turn this election on this issue, free trade.”
The push to make the free trade issue the main issue of the campaign worked. A poll done found that 63 per cent of respondents felt that free trade was the biggest issue. The next closest was Don’t Know at 15 per cent, and the environment at six per cent.
Mulroney would tell Maclean’s a week before the election, after he was asked if he regretted not explaining the free trade agreement better, quote:
Within days after the debates, the Liberals sat at 43 per cent, with the Conservatives at 31 per cent and the NDP at 22 per cent. A poll done regarding free trade found that 35 per cent supported it, while 54 per cent were against it.
Mulroney would say of the new polls, quote:
“I am confident that in the three weeks that remain, we will remain. There is no doubt, no doubt, in my mind.”
The Progressive Conservatives would then alter their strategy. They would use a strategy of bombing the bridge between those opposed to free trade and the Liberals, which was Turner’s credibility. They also put $6 million into pro-free trade ads to stop the momentum of the Liberals. This strategy would set a new standard for negative advertising. One ad showed the border of Canada being removed, stating, quote:
“John Turner says there is something in the Free Trade Agreement that threatens Canada’s sovereignty. That is a lie.”
A hand then puts the border back and a series of interviews with people claimed to be just on the street further poked at Turner’s weakness.
The attacks would get quite vicious from the Conservatives against Turner from this point on. On Nov. 16, Simon Reisman, the chief negotiator of the free trade pact for Canada, would call Turner a traitor, stating quote:
“I challenge him. I accuse him of being a traitor to Canada for the things he is saying.”
Turner would respond to this, stating quote:
“It’s obvious Mr. Mulroney and those who advocate the trade deal with the US have lost the battle and have lost the debate for the minds and hearts of Canadians and they are now rashly and desperately descending into personal attacks against me. I have never challenged the prime minister’s patriotism. I just challenged his bad judgement.”
While the Canada Elections Act only allowed political advertising in the last four weeks of a campaign, the formula for allocating time was based partially on political standings and the number of seats being contested. This gave the Progressive Conservatives a distinct advantage. The party received 195 minutes of paid air time, while the Liberals received 89 and the NDP had 67.
Turner would respond to the ads, stating quote:
“Every day, Brian Mulroney and his ministers become more shrill, more desperate. Every day they become more confused, more contradictory, more incapable of justifying to Canadians why Mr. Mulroney signed this miserable sellout of a trade deal.”
One changes this election would be the Federal Court of Canada clearing the way for 50,000 mentally disabled Canadians to receive the right to vote.
The shift in tactics by the Conservatives worked, as did the attack ads against Turner. Two days before the election, the Progressive Conservatives were at 41 per cent, while the Liberals were at 33 per cent.
In the Nov. 21, 1988, election, Mulroney, and the Progressive Conservatives would win 169 seats for another majority, but it was a drop of 34 seats. Turner would see the party’s fortunes rise with 45 seats gained to finish with 83.
The New Democratic Party, led for the last time by Ed Broadbent, reached a high-water mark that would not be achieved again for 25 years. His party hit 43 seats, a gain of 11 seats.
While the Conservatives had taken every province and territory in 1984, that would not be the case in 1988. While they took 46 seats in Ontario, the Liberals took 43 and the New Democrats took 10. Once again in Quebec, the Conservatives took most of the seats, with 63 to the 12 won by the Liberals. In Alberta, they took 25 of 26 seats. Those were the only provinces that went solidly for the Conservatives. While the party picked up several seats in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Maritimes, they were comparable to the seats taken by the Liberals or the New Democratic Party.
This majority win made Mulroney the most successful Conservative prime minister since Sir Robert Borden, and the first leader of any party to win back-to-back majorities since Louis St. Laurent in 1949 and 1953.
Upon his win, Mulroney would state, quote:
Turner would say in his speech, quote:
“I have promoted my vision of a strong, independent Canada, a Canada in charge of its own destiny. I have done so with all my vigor and all my strength. I have no regrets at all.”
The Green Party would take part in its second election but would win no seats, despite increasing its vote total by 50 per cent. While the Social Credit Party would never again take part in an election, this was the first election for the new Reform Party, which was formed out of Western Canada, made up mostly of former Progressive Conservative and Social Credit members. Led by Preston Manning, the son of Ernest Manning, former premier of Alberta, it won no seats but that would soon change for the party. Only four months later, Deborah Grey would win her seat in a by-election in Beaver River, Alberta.
Turner would leave politics in 1990, to be replaced by Jean Chretien, who would lead the party back to glory.
As for Mulroney, this would not only be his last election, but it would be the last time the Progressive Conservatives would ever win an election again. A lot would change by 1993, but for the party that had existed since the 1940s, this would be the last bit of glory it would ever see.
One last fact, this election would be the last time to date that the voter turnout would be above 70 per cent. It hit 75.3 per cent, while 1993 only reached 69.6 per cent.
Information from Dynasties and Interludes, Macleans, CBC, Wikipedia,