Canadian Premier Mulroney seeks to regain favor with voters

As he enters his third year in office, Canada's Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is searching for ways to boost his sagging popularity. The search began in June, when he reshuffled his Cabinet. Then he removed some top civil servants from important positions and recently hired some new political and policy advisers. And today, as the Canadian Parliament reconvenes, Mr. Mulroney is expected to announce the government's legislative agenda with his Speech from the Throne. He will undoubtedly use the occasion to emphasize his government's achievements.

The Progressive Conservative government has another two years or so in office before it will feel obliged to call a general election. But with public opinion polls showing the Tories getting only some 30 percent support and the opposition Liberals several percentage points more, the government is understandably nervous.

The government believes it is getting less credit than it deserves -- and too much blame for some lapses in judgment which have forced several ministers in the 40-member Cabinet to resign.

``I wonder whether you sometimes feel you're being pecked to death by sparrows,'' Canadian journalist Peter Newman asked Mulroney earlier this month. But the premier insisted that his government would be judged on ``the big issues.''

The major priorities for the remainder of Mulroney's term will include tax reform and negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States, as well as laws to deal with pornography, battered women, child abuse, and drug abuse. It also intends to alter laws concerning the entrance of refugees. And it will make an effort to win Quebec's approval of the Canadian Consitution.

Another big goal for the Tory government has been that of ``national reconciliation.'' When it took over from the Liberals two years ago, there were many political battles and unsettled issues between Ottawa and the provincial governments, and between regions. Since then, many of these issues -- such as disputes over energy -- have been settled. Economic recovery was another Tory aim. Mulroney likes to note that Canadian unemployment has dropped from 11.3 percent in 1984 to 9.7 percent in August.

But economic growth has been slower than anticipated.

Finance Minister Michael Wilson says national output should increase about 3 percent this year. That, plus lower oil prices and falling grain prices, means that federal revenues will be $2.5 billion (US$1.8 billion) lower than budgeted, Mr. Wilson notes. Still, the government deficit will shrink by $2.5 billion in the current fiscal year to under $32 billion (US$23 billion).

Behind the Mulroney government's weakness in opinion polls is the historic minority status of the Progressive Conservative Party. It traditionally gets 30 to 35 percent of the vote, with the Liberals and the left-of-center New Democrats dividing the remaining votes. The Conservative victory in September 1984 with 51.8 percent of the popular vote was an exception.

Mr. Mulroney's political strategy aims at strengthening that 1984 victory by winning support among those voters where the Conservatives have been typically weak. These include French Canadians, women, and ``ethnic'' Canadians, such as those of Latin American or Asian descent. Mulroney has courted their support with the June Cabinet shuffle, which gave greater prominence to Quebec Conservatives and women.

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