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.
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.
John 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.
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 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: