Playing For Keeps: The Making Of The Prime Minister, 1988

by Graham Fraser
491 pages,
ISBN: 0771032080

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Blowing Up The Bridge
by Geoffrey Stevens

PLAYING FOR KEEPS: THE MAKING OF THE PRIME MINISTER, 1988 by Graham Fraser, McClelland & Stewart, 491 pages, $28.95 cloth, (ISBN 0 7710 3208 0) ON THE day that Brian Mulroney called the 1988 federal general election, his Progressive Conservatives enjoyed the support of 43 per cent of the Canadian electorate, according to an internal party poll. On election day, 51 days later, the Tories won their second consecutive majority government -- with 43 per cent of the vote. But don't be misled. Don't conclude that nothing changed, that nothing happened in those 51 days between October I and November 21, 1988. Everything happened. Everything changed, and changed again. The shifts and twists, rises and falls in the fortunes of the three national parties and their leaders in this pivotal election are painstakingly traced and documented in Playing for Keeps, a fine book by Graham Fraser, Ottawa bureau chief of the Globe and Mail. The election of 1988 produced excitement as the momentum changed and changed back again. It produced drama with a television debate that actually altered the course of the campaign and nearly altered its outcome. It produced intrigue as each of the three parties experienced internal dissension, notably the Liberals who had to weather a mid-campaign coup attempt against their leader, John Turner. And, astonishingly, it produced actual substance: a real issue, the free trade deal with the United States, with genuine implications for the future of the country. (Ironically, although the polls showed that Canadians opposed the free trade agreement by a two-to-one margin, the one party that supported the deal won the election -- suggesting that issues that dominate campaigns do not necessarily decide elections.) For better or worse, the 1988 election also produced a new level of sophistication in the use of public-opinion polling to identify issues, refine policy, formulate strategy, and develop television commercials that would, in the new jargon, "move the numbers." "Moving the numbers" became the Conservatives' desperate objective following the television debate in which Turner outduelled Mulroney on free trade. Allan Gregg, their pollster, told them: "The bridge which joins the growing fear of free trade ... and the growing support for the Liberal Party, is the credibility of John Turner. People feel he really believes what he is saying." Thus, "blowing up the bridge" became the Tory strategy -- with TV commercials that attacked Turner's credibility. The ads worked, the bridge blew up, the numbers moved, Mulroney won. All of this, and more, is captured faithfully, vividly, and intelligently in Playing for Keeps. Fraser draws on confidential polls and internal memos as well as firsthand observation and extensive interviews. Although well-written, the book displays the haste of its preparation. It is longer than it needs to be and is confusing at times when the author recrosses his own tracks as he circles from party to party and from backroom to public arena. Fluently bilingual, Fraser was author of the 1984 book, PQ: Rene Levesque and the Parti Quebecois in Power. His understanding of Quebec politics shines through again in Playing for Keeps. He makes the point that because many English-language journalists covering the 1988 election spoke little or no French, they could not understand what was really happening in Quebec. As a result, they seriously underestimated Mulroney. Fraser does not make that mistake. "Mulroney," he writes, ... succeeded in turning the Parti Quebecois formula of sovereignty-association ... upside down.... With the Free Trade Agreement, he was offering Quebec the ideal of economic independence; with Meech Lake, he was offering a political association with the rest of Canada. It was a powerful symbolic combination ... It was so powerful that Mulroney was able to recreate the old electoral coalition of French-speaking Quebeckers and affluent English- Canadians, mainly of British origin, that won the 1911 reciprocity election for Robert Borden's Conservatives. The irony is that in 1911 the coalition was on the other side of the issue, fighting, successfully, to prevent freer trade with the Americans. Playing for Keeps is a reporter's book. It is long on fact and rich in detail, but short on impression and opinion. To a fault, Fraser is gentle to personalities and evenhanded in his interpretation. There are points where the context begs for the author to express an opinion. What does he really think of Mulroney, Turner, and Ed Broadbent? Wasn't he even a bit appalled by some of the campaign tactics? Has he no judgement to offer on the journalistic ethics of the CBC's devastating, and misleading, report on the revolt against Turner's leadership? Is he really as sanguine as he seems about the breathtaking hypocrisy of the Tories in renouncing most of their promises as soon as the election was won? Playing for Keeps is the best political book of the season. But it cries out for an infusion of outrage.

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