BOSTON — A GOVERNMENT plan to use hard-boiled tactics to sell Canadians a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - mainly by attacking its opponents - backfired this week.
Just as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's government was gearing up to convince skeptical Canadians that it was in their interest to join a $7 trillion North American market made up of 360 million consumers, embarrassing details of the government's NAFTA campaign surfaced in Maclean's, a Canadian news magazine.
Details of the government's bid to sell NAFTA were contained in the published transcript of tape recordings of an Aug. 26 conference call between top Conservative government officials, including those from the Ministry of Trade. During the call, prominent NAFTA opponents across the political spectrum were labeled elements of "the loony left" by government officials.
Beyond the short-term embarrassment of the "NAFTA tapes," as some are calling them, the revelations could help NAFTA opponents discredit Conservative efforts to get public approval for the deal prior to federal elections this spring, political observers say.
NAFTA is important, although it remains a distant second-place concern for most Canadians - well behind the government's drive to gain public approval in an Oct. 26 referendum for a national constitutional unity package to keep Quebec a part of Canada. Some trade officials referred to NAFTA as "a sleeping tiger," according to the transcript, one that might imperil a Conservative reelection bid.
James Ramsay, chief of staff to Trade Minister Michael Wilson, was quoted in the transcript affirming efforts to list and track opponents and their comments by computer to systematically stifle their arguments with quick rebuttals. In the transcript, he also refers to free-trade opponents as "that old left-wing, crypto-communist, anti-free trade, NDP-Liberal con group." The reference is to the Liberal and New Democratic parties, which are the Conservatives' opposition at the federal level. The Liberal Pa rty has not opposed NAFTA, but might favor renegotiating it; the NDP opposes it and the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement.
Besides targeting NAFTA opponents such as Canadian Labour Congress President Robert White and Council of Canadians chairwoman Maude Barlow, the transcript outraged opposition leaders with trade officials' references to the public as "empty heads to fill" with the pro-NAFTA message.
Liberal Member of Parliament Sheila Copps called the plan a "multi-million dollar smear campaign" and "McCarthyism," in comments during a House of Commons debate Monday.
A call for Mr. Ramsay's removal was refused by his boss, Mr. Wilson, who in Monday's heated question-and-answer session defended efforts to respond to NAFTA critics. He also called the transcript "a stolen document."
In the short run, the government is left in an awkward position, trying to mollify Liberal and NDP members of Parliament it has enlisted to help sell the constitutional unity package nationwide.
Though the embarrassment will pass, long-term government efforts to sell NAFTA may have been jeopardized, political observers say.
"What conservatives want to say is that NAFTA is not just our deal but one for all Canadians," says Jane Jenson, a political scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa. "But what is revealed is that this is a narrow partisan bid."
In addition, she says, the transcript seems to reveal a strong element of cynical, back-room deal-making that runs counter to a powerful trend in Canada toward openness in decision-making - one of the chief criticisms of the 1988 Meech Lake constitutional accord and one reason it was rejected in 1990. This is also a major criticism of NAFTA, which was negotiated largely out of public view, she says.
Others concur that if the constitutional debate ends in the next six weeks, the focus will turn to NAFTA. There, the transcripts will likely be used over and over again by NAFTA opponents leading up to the elections, says Philip Resnick, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia.
"It was such a partisan type of language, it could be used to say, `Hey, they've politicized the most senior levels of civil service,' " he says. "I don't think the tapes are going to make or break the deal, but they will weaken the government's ability to sell the deal between October and next spring."