30 years later: the election that shaped Canada in 1988

November 21st marks 30 years since the most consequential election in a generation – the 1988 federal election.   This rematch of 1984 was remarkable for its substance, its strategies, and its aftermath.

It demonstrated that campaigns matter, with huge momentum shifts and gutsy, dramatic performances by John Turner and Brian Mulroney. It was an election that pivoted on Canada’s image of itself in relation to the United States and drew 76% of voters to the polls. Not only did the election decide Canada’s course on free trade, it represented the climax of the Mulroney era. No Conservative government had won back-to-back majorities since John A. Macdonald in 1891. Despite this moment of triumph, five years later the Progressive Conservative Party would be a smoldering ruin, its grand coalition (Quebec-Alberta Bridge) ravaged by regional alienation and Quebec nationalism.

It was the first general election where I was able to take a peek in the campaign cockpit. It was an election I will never forget.

The Substance

Like no other campaign in the past 30 years, it revolved around one major issue- Free Trade. Canada had signed a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. At that time, there was a much stronger sense of Canadian economic nationalism than there is today.   Already a prominent issue, Free Trade dominated the agenda when Liberal leader John Turner instructed Liberal senators to block Free Trade legislation. The Liberals had a majority in the Senate. The Mulroney government was powerless to pass Free Trade without Senate approval. Turner had forced Free Trade as the defining issue of the election.

The other centerpiece of Mulroney’s agenda was the Meech Lake Accord. In 1987, Mulroney secured the approval of all ten premiers for a package of constitutional reforms that would bring Québec ‘into the Constitution’. The most contentious aspect was recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society”. Many critiques complained about its decentralizing power. It became a very controversial issue among elites (particularly liberal elites) and discontentment grew, especially in Western Canada.

The Strategies

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 10.56.10 AMJohn Duffy’s excellent book, Fights of Our Lives, outlines the political strategies used in the 1988 campaign – he named 1988 as one of the five top campaigns in Canadian history.

The Mulroney campaign started off in a bubble – a frontrunner campaign. After three years of scandal in his first term, Mulroney had righted the ship, in part because Free Trade provided him with a proof point of his leadership traits and economic agenda. The Liberals were internally divided and Ed Broadbent’s NDP were threatening to vault into second place. It seemed that Mulroney just had to play it safe, but that was hard to do in what was a seven-week campaign.

John Turner had his back to the wall. He had embraced the Free Trade issue and took some control of the agenda through the Senate gambit. He had public backing for his position: “Let the people decide”. However, by the time the election was called on October 1st, the Liberals were sagging in the polls. The Meech Lake Accord had badly divided them, while Free Trade also exposed a major rift. As Duffy writes, Turner supported Meech Lake for Quebec, and opposed Free Trade for English Canada. That was the bargain. In the first two weeks of the campaign, Peter Mansbridge breathlessly reported that there was a push within the Liberals to replace Turner mid-campaign with Jean Chrétien, his leadership rival. Turner stared them down and held on for the national TV debates taking place October 24 and 25.

NDP leader Ed Broadbent did not want a referendum on Free Trade. He wanted to talk about social issues and trust. He had successfully likened Mulroney and Turner as “Bay Street boys” in 1984, hurting Turner, and by 1988, there was also an aroma around Mulroney on trust. A Free Trade election would relegate Broadbent to the sidelines while Mulroney and Turner went mano a mano.

Meanwhile, out in the hinterland, Preston Manning was recruiting candidates and running a slate of candidates in Western Canada. He was gaining notice in church basements and in rural areas, but not seen as a major threat.

Mulroney, Turner, and Broadbent all supported Meech Lake. It did not become a vote-driving issue in the campaign.   This all-party consensus would have far-reaching implications after the election.

In 1988, campaigns could not advertise on TV until the time of the TV debates toward the end of October. The first few weeks were the ‘phony war’. It was the debates that changed everything, until they changed again.

John Turner limped into the debates looking like a political dead man – metaphorically and physically. He was fighting immense back pain. In the French debate, he exceeded expectations and brought some fight. Ed Broadbent, with limited French skills, was peripheral.

In the English debate, the fireworks came near the end. In 1984, Mulroney had destroyed Turner with a devastating attack on political patronage. In 1988, Turner assailed Mulroney on Free Trade, demonstrating considerable passion and conviction. As Duffy points out, Turner had been coached specifically on body language. While Mulroney returned Turner’s salvos, Turner was simply more convincing and authentic.

As has been the case with highly-charged leaders’ debates, the full impact is not known until days or even a week later. The same-night judging is conducted in a vacuum. It’s not until news clips have been repeated endlessly, and water cooler discussions take place, that momentum truly forms. Within a week, the Liberals were on a big-time roll, galloping into the lead. The PCs were on their heels. At this point, there were three weeks to go.

The Liberals also released one of the best TV ads ever produced in Canadian elections. It showed the Canada-US border being erased as part of Free Trade negotiations.

As a Young Liberal working in the trenches in BC, the sense of momentum was palpable. Excitement flowed through the campaign. For the first time since John Turner was elected leader in 1984, there were real grounds for optimism. Turner had been a major star as a cabinet minister, but after his retreat to law, he had not thus far returned to form as leader. The debate was a major turning point for him.

As Duffy chronicles, Mulroney held things together using his instincts while his strategists, like polling wizard Allan Gregg, crafted a new approach to deal with the Liberal insurgency. Ultimately, the PC campaign, which had lots of money, sent in the B52 bombers to pound the Liberal campaign, “bombing the bridge” of Turner’s credibility. The PCs had wisely agreed to TV debates well in advance of Election Day. This allowed them crucial time for a course correction. In provincial campaigns in BC in 1991 and 2013, and in Manitoba in 1988, TV debates that led to huge momentum changes occurred relatively close to voting and had big impacts. Mulroney’s forces turned back the Liberal tide.

The campaign saw a gutsy charge by Turner, taking his opponents by surprise with his passionate opposition to the Free Trade Agreement. It also saw a skillful counterattack by Mulroney in the final weeks, restoring the PC’s advantage. Both campaigns showed initiative and resolve. The Liberals, weakened by years of infighting and the disastrous 1984 campaign, simply did not have the wherewithal to win.

The Aftermath

Mulroney held Québec for which he had a clear proposition – pro-Meech Lake and pro-Free Trade. He held the West, which also embraced Free Trade. The Quebec-Alberta Bridge of 1984 was kept in tact, but would soon crumble.

Turner’s Liberals reclaimed some of their lost ground in English Canada, especially in Ontario. The Party, reduced to rubble in 1984, now had a much stronger caucus and a lot of new blood.  Turner left the Liberals in better shape then he found them in 1984.

The NDP had its best showing, in part because it did very well in British Columbia. Strategic voting against Free Trade in BC meant voting NDP instead of the Liberals. Overall, the results were a disappointment for Ed Broadbent in his fourth campaign as leader.

With a majority in hand, the Senate relented, and Free Trade was passed. In the 1990s, it would morph into NAFTA. As a national policy, it has stood the test of time.

The re-election of the Mulroney PCs also led to the introduction of the GST. The GST had as much or more to do with its ultimate demise than anything. But again, it’s a policy that has stood the test of time. No government will get rid of the GST.

Has there been an election since Confederation that led to two foundational blocks of our national economy like 1988?

Despite the all-party consensus over Meech Lake, the consensus would break down as new premiers were elected. Liberal Frank McKenna expressed his doubts. A minority government in Manitoba in 1988 forced PC Premier Gary Filmon to take hard line, in step with his opposition leader Liberal Sharon Carstairs. Then Clyde Wells was elected as Premier of Newfoundland, the staunchest critic among the premiers. Preston Manning and the Reform Party were a gathering storm in Western Canada. With Free Trade settled, westerners turned their attention to a constitutional deal that went against their grain.

In 1990, the Meech Lake Accord fell apart in a final desperate week to salvage it. Regional forces were unleashed that blew up the PC’s Quebec-Alberta Bridge. Brian Mulroney’s star recruit in Quebec in 1988, Lucien Bouchard, spectacularly resigned and formed the Bloc Quebecois, later leading the Oui forces in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Mulroney would try again in 1992 with the Charlottetown Accord which was put to national referendum. Everyone was in favour of it, except the people. Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Quebecois and Preston Manning’s Reform Party would be the 2nd and 3rd parties in the House of Commons after 1993.

Kim Campbell became the first female prime minister, and first home-grown British Columbian to be PM, and went down to a historically brutal defeat. A mere five years after its climactic victory, the PCs had virtually been wiped out, reduced to two seats. They would limp along until merging with the Reform Party’s successor, the Canadian Alliance. In effect, the Canadian Alliance conducted a reverse takeover of this venerable national party.

Jean Chrétien won the first of three successive majority governments, based largely on an Ontario vote split caused by Meech Lake and the GST.

The aftermath of 1988 also had a huge impact on Canada’s aboriginal peoples. As Meech Lake reached its final moment, Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper blocked approval in the Manitoba legislature.  Harper’s act of defiance put aboriginal issues front and centre on the constitutional agenda.

What If?

What would have happened if John Turner had won in 1988? He would have had a huge challenge holding his government together on Meech Lake.   Is it possible that Turner could have resolved the impasse with Liberal Premier Clyde Wells. Unlikely, but it’s possible. Mulroney was unsuccessful, but Turner would have had a shot.

Turner would have had a very difficult road ahead in re-negotiating or walking away from the Free Trade deal. He would have faced blistering opposition from the Canadian business community.

It’s unlikely the Liberals, given these challenges, would have had the courage to bring forward a value added tax, like the GST on the same timetable as the Mulroney government.

The PCs would not have been decimated in 1993. Had they lost in 1988, they would have had a strong opposition. Perhaps a new leader would have taken over, or Mulroney would have stayed to fight another day.

Would we have seen Jean Chrétien as prime minister?  Probably not.  He would have been on the outside looking in while Turner governed.

Campaigns matter. They change the course of our country, provinces, and communities. And no campaign in recent times changed the course of Canada like 1988.

For further reading:

Fights of Our Lives is an outstanding (and fun) analysis of election campaigns in Canada since Confederation. John Duffy pulled off an epic volume. My only complaint is that he hasn’t updated it!

Letting the People Decide. A scholarly analysis of the 1988 election by UBC Professor Richard Johnston and other academics. It takes a deep dive into (credible) polling data.

Elusive Destiny. Paul Litt’s book on John Turner’s political career. Strong recommendation.

And finally, my Poli Sci guru Prof. Ken Carty weighs in on the reading list:

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Electoral Reform: History tells us, be careful what you wish for

A coalition governed the province. Two parties shared power then devised a new voting system to suit their own interests. With it came unexpected consequences.

2018? Nope, it was 1952.

The Liberals and Conservatives had governed BC as a Coalition since the early years of World War II. By 1952, the Coalition was straining and ultimately fractured. Premier ‘Boss’ Johnson, a Liberal, fired his Finance Minister, Herbert Anscomb, the Leader of the Conservatives. Anscomb took his Conservative colleagues with him and departed the Coalition. Not long after, an election was called.

Prior to the election, the voting system was changed to single transferable ballot, also known as a preferential ballot. This is the same system that is used by political parties to choose local candidates and their leaders. It’s very simple – voters rank the candidates in order of preference. It assures that the winning candidate ultimately has at least 50% + 1 of eligible ballots in his or her riding.

The motive of the Coalition government was to block the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the NDP, from power. The assumption was that Liberals and Conservatives would be each other’s second choice.

They did not account for W.A.C. Bennett, a Conservative MLA who left that party to sit as an independent. After considering his options, Bennett decided to join the Social Credit Party, then a rag-tag group in BC, but growing rapidly as discontentment with the Coalition grew. The Socreds did not have any MLAs in BC, but they had been governing Alberta for over 15 years.

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“Love them apples” is what WAC probably said about the 1952 preferential ballot

Thus the two establishment parties – Liberals and Conservatives – were opposed by two populist parties – the CCF and Socreds, and it was the populist parties that would come out on top on Election Day: June 12, 1952.

On the first count, the CCF gained 30.78% of the vote, Socreds 27.2%, Liberals 23.46%, and Conservatives 16.84%. The CCF led on seat count with 21 seats, with the Socreds in second with 14 seats. The Legislature then had 48 seats.

Due to the new voting system, no MLA could be declared the victor unless he or she had a majority. The second count started three weeks after Election Day on July 3rd and the counting dragged on throughout the first half of July.

Had it been first-past-the-post, British Columbia would have most likely seen the first CCF government in its history in 1952 (Saskatchewan had a CCF government at the time). Clearly, with 21 of 48 seats, and a seven-seat gap over the Socreds, the CCF would have been asked to govern.

But the second and subsequent counts very much worked against the CCF. The CCF would drop from 21 seats to 18. The Socreds would rise from 14 seats on the first count to 19 seats by the end. The capper was that the Labour MLA from Fernie, Tom Uphill, expressed his preference for the Socreds, denying the CCF a de facto tie. The Coalition parties were probably aghast at these upstart parties contending for power.

The amazing thing about this situation is that the Social Credit did not even have a confirmed leader during the election. Their campaign was ‘led’ by an Albertan, Ernest Hansell, with Alberta Premier Ernest Manning having much influence over the BC wing. After the election was over, the leader was to be chosen by the new 19-member caucus.

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My name is Ernest Hansell and I am a footnote in BC history

On July 15th, when the final results were clear, the new Socred Caucus met at the Hotel Vancouver to choose the presumptive premier. Since there had been little by way of organization and no existing caucus, the new MLAs barely knew each other. Bennett, who was the best known and most strategic of the group, won with 14 of 19 votes.

It was no given that Bennett would be asked to form a government. After some deliberation, Lieutenant-Governor Clarence Wallace did invite Bennett to form a government on August 1st, 1952. This happened after the Chief Justice changed his mind about whether Wallace should call upon Bennett. (It was the original Matter of Confidence).

Less than one year later, Bennett’s government was defeated in the House, in a move that was stage-managed by Bennett himself.   The L-G again had to decide the fate of the government. Instead of inviting CCF leader Harold Winch to form a government, an opportunity that Winch strongly advocated for, he let the voters decide.

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CCF leader Harold Winch: “I wuz robbed!” is probably what he said about the 1952-53 period

Again with the single transferable ballot system, Bennett went on to win a majority government this time. After the 1953 election, the Socreds scrapped the system and went back to First-Past-the-Post, which has been the system ever since, and has been the only system ever used in federal elections in Canada.

The moral of the story: electoral reform can have unexpected consequences. Voters in 1952 could clearly see the self-serving motives behind the Coalition’s move to change the system. They punished those parties, with both establishment party leaders losing their seats. While the Coalition succeeded in keeping the CCF out of office, they unintentionally created a political dynasty, the Socreds, which would govern for 36 of the next 39 years.

(As a newly minted supporter of the Social Credit Party, W.A.C. Bennett claimed in the Legislature prior to the 1952 election that the Socreds would win the next election, and that the Liberals and Conservatives “won’t be back for fifty years”. It turns out he was right on the first, and eerily prescient on the second. It would take 49 years for a party called Liberal or Conservative to win another BC election – Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals in 2001.)

It is a little bit ironic, considering the ProRep referendum, that it was electoral reform that denied the NDP, er, the CCF, it’s first taste of power in 1952. They would have to wait 20 years until Dave Barrett was elected in 1972. Perhaps that’s why this electoral system,  used twice before in BC, and in selecting party leaders and local candidates, was not one of the three options put forward in this referendum. There might be too many bad memories attached to it.

But one thing that can be said for sure in BC:  changing the electoral system to suit your own interests has proven deadly for a government once before.

(I leaned heavily on Paddy Sherman’s Bennett, for a history of this period).

I was a Teenage Vote Splitter: Why I’m voting No to Proportional Representation

Once upon a time, I was a teenage vote-splitter.

I was that kid who nerded out on politics. I joined the Liberal Party at its nadir, when it had zero seats provincially in British Columbia. I could have joined one of the big parties, but I felt at home with the smaller, and not yet even fledgling Liberals.

I went to my first party convention in 1985. The leader of the BC Liberal Party was Art Lee, the first Chinese-Canadian leader in BC history. The BC Liberals were coming off an election where they received 3% of the vote and had no seats.

I worked hard for Art Lee. He came out to my high school, he appeared in the local parade. In fact, at that tender age of 16, I became the president of the Liberal association for the riding of Dewdney. I used to have great chats with the Social Credit MLA Austin Pelton. He would tell me, “I didn’t leave the Liberal Party, the Liberal Party left me.”

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Art Lee brought the BC Liberals to 7%

This was a refrain from many Liberals turned Socred who understood that a ‘coalition’ was the best way to win against the NDP. Notwithstanding Austy’s tutelage, I continued with the Liberals and we received 7% in the 1986 election and zero seats.

Art Lee moved on and we needed a new leader. Gordon Wilson volunteered and was acclaimed on Halloween day 1987. No seats, no money, and not much more than that. We encountered setback after setback. Yet, Wilson, and a core group, never stopped fighting and kept the party afloat. The Social Credit Party under Bill Vander Zalm was self-destructing and the NDP were, well, the NDP. Through my university years, I continued to hope for a Liberal breakthrough.

Gordon Wilson brought the Party to Official Opposition and 33% of the vote

In 1991, we ran (close to) a full slate of candidates and protested our way on to the Leaders’ Television debate. In one brief moment in that debate, Gordon Wilson crystallized the mood of the voters when, pointing at rival Social Credit and NDP leaders, he said, “Here’s a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia.” Wilson and the Liberals went from zero seats to form the Official Opposition and take 33% of the vote.

The BC Liberals would ultimately reshape itself into an electoral coalition that would win four majority governments from 2001 to 2013 and win a plurality of seats in 2017. We didn’t need proportional representation to succeed. We started with nothing. We did it by growing, inviting, including, and responding to the voters.

As you may have guessed, I’m voting to keep First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) and reject the cooked-up Proportional Representation (PR) scheme being pushed by the GreenDP.

Never once, when I was a teenage vote-splitter, did I feel the need to question the validity of first-past-the-post. It was frustrating, as a third party, to fight against the vote-splitting argument. However, we saw a pathway because we wanted to be a big-tent party. We worked hard. We earned it. We didn’t ask for political charity.

This is good for our electoral system. Unlike the United States, we have a dynamic party system. We are not bolted to a two-party dynamic that will never change. We have a tradition of protest parties that evolve into mainstream parties. We have also seen fit to relegate some parties to the dustbin of history.

This is good for change and renewal. Under FPTP, the BC Social Credit dropped from 36 years in power to a third-place finish in 1991 to virtual extinction. Had we had PR, the Socreds would likely still exist.

Gordon Campbell won the popular vote four times and had three successive majority governments

Maybe some would say, “Great!” But I would say that that party had its day, and it was time to start afresh with something modern. ‘Firing’ a political party introduces a different set of leaders and provides opportunity for young people and new voices.

Across Canada, what’s become of the Union Nationale, the United Farmers of Alberta, the Alberta Social Credit, and the Saskatchewan PCs? These once-dominant parties also went into a period of decay then disappearance. PR would have kept them on life support, delaying change and renewal.

Under FPTP in Canada, there is a natural evolution of protest parties too. When mainstream parties falter, upstart parties emerge. The Progressive Party fused with the Conservatives to form the Progressive Conservatives, a venerable national party for over half a century. When the Reform Party emerged due to western alienation and a post-GST populist uprising, it begat the Canadian Alliance, which joined forces with the PCs into today’s Conservative Party, which governed from 2006 to 2015. Again, this is dynamic activity that is responsive to voters’ desire for change. Our system allows for this fluidity and change.

FPTP is less forgiving to parties that won’t change, but rewards parties that do. Basically, in our system, to paraphrase Shawshank Redemption, “Parties get busy living, or get busy dying.”

With PR, we would see a stagnating stasis, with tired parties blocking real change, and fringe parties emboldened to chip away at the margins. In FPTP, political parties are always changing. Some die, some return and renew, others start small and go big. Look at Prince Edward Island – the Greens may form the next government. That’s happening under FPTP.

FPTP incents parties to stretch, grow, appeal to a wider audience, and build a bigger coalition. Isn’t this what we want – parties that are as reflective and as representative of as many voters as possible? To gain upwards of 40% of the vote is a major accomplishment that shows the breadth of a party’s support. We should want parties to be big. Why would we want small parties to be rewarded for taking a small sliver of the population? That does nothing to encourage common ground.

Governing means implementing change. Through our history, there have been many minority governments, especially at the federal level – in the past 60 years, Stephen Harper, Paul Martin, Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, and John Diefenbaker all led minority governments.  That takes place within FPTP and, usually, for a term or two, they govern. It’s good for the system that we have occasional minority governments. It’s part of the dynamism of our system. Ultimately, voters return to majority governments.

Majority governments, in a country as vast as ours (and a province as diverse as ours), allow governments to be decisive. Parties campaign on a platform, then are accountable for delivering results. They have a strong hand, but they are tempered by many factors such as public opinion, media scrutiny, internal pressures such as the government caucus – and the fact that some governments actually do listen.

In Canada, as in the UK and other Westminster systems, our government is accountable to parliament in the Legislature and in Question Period. Scrutiny at the provincial level in BC is much more intense than local government and more intense than corporate scrutiny. You are always being watched and held accountable. In the United States, there is no daily legislative scrutiny of the executive branch. Our system works better.

When majority governments are elected, a strong hand allows for transformative change. Look at Dave Barrett’s NDP government from 1972 to 1975. Would a minority government or PR government implemented the ALR or ICBC? Probably not.

Would a minority government or PR government have made the tough fiscal choices that Bill Bennett made in the early 1980s or Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark made?

Definitely not.

Too much horse-trading would result. The proof of the value of majority governments is when subsequent governments of a different stripe don’t change policies that they would not have otherwise brought in themselves.

Instead of constant deal-making, I would rather have strong governments, regardless of ideology, give it their best shot and be held accountable. The best policies will survive. The bad policies will be changed. Under PR, we will see half-measures and we will see a lack of firmness.

FPTP is not perfect. There are many flaws. I have seen them up close and personal.

We could make many changes that would improve our system in terms of how legislatures work, how caucuses operate, and how voices are heard that do not require PR.

The way to make these changes is through a public discussion and party reform, not through this sham process that will lack a legitimate outcome.

Compared to the Citizens’ Assembly process, the NDP-Green government should truly be ashamed of themselves with the PR referendum. Isn’t it interesting that the largest majority government in BC history – the Gordon Campbell government – delivered a much-lauded electoral reform process, while the current minority government delivered this?

As a teenage vote-splitter, I was told I would never make a difference. I worked on an impossible dream and, through commitment, hard work and a bit of luck, we succeeded. It was possible because our system enables both change and decisiveness.

Get rid of the old, bring in the new. Renew yourself or get retired. Let’s let the dreamers dream and continue to try – some will make it.

Christy Clark put her own stamp on the BC Liberals, earning her own mandate.  Established parties can renew. And renew again.

In my old age, I have fought off the vote-splitters. Push the mainstream parties to do better or perish. And let the little parties stay little until they get beyond their bubble and earn real power by appealing to a wider audience.

It would have been a real drag as a teenage vote-splitter, and a lot less exciting, if instead of sparking real change, all we had sparked was a minor tweak that led to the continuation of the status quo.

We don’t need an entrenched system as inflexible as the US system.

Instead of asking what works in theory, let’s appreciate what is working in practice. After all, we live in a pretty great country, and a pretty great province.

Don’t we?

(Published in the The Orca, November 3/ 2018)