1988 Federal Election in Canada

Free trade with the United States had been rejected by Canadians in the 1911 election. Since that time, politicians had stayed away from the issue, but in 1988 Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives felt the time was right to start free-trade negotiations with the Americans. The free trade debates, combined with efforts at constitutional reform, made the 1988 election very emotionally-charged. The climax of the election would come at the Leaders’ Debate, with Turner and Mulroney taking turns accusing each other of being unpatriotic and of “selling out” Canada. Once again, Canadians were called upon to decide whether free trade was right for their country, and this time they decided it was.

Historical Background

Economic recession, constitutional initiatives, and a free trade negotiation with the USA would set the stage for this election.

Political Party Profiles

The internal division of the Liberals contrasted sharply with the united policy platform of the Conservatives.

Party Leader Profiles

The personal animosity between Brian Mulroney and John Turner would be an important factor in this campaign.

The Election Issues

Free trade became the sole issue, and other factors such as constitutional reform took a back seat.

The Political Campaign

The emotional, intense leaders’ debate took centre stage in this campaign.

Election Results

The Conservatives regained their majority government, with solid support in Quebec and the West.

Historical Significance

Canadians were asked to question their patriotism and national pride as they made the momentous decision to accept free trade with the USA.

Links/Further Reading

Learn more about the 1988 election.


Historical Background

Economic recession, constitutional initiatives, and a free trade negotiation with the USA would set the stage for this election.

The 1970s and early 1980s had been difficult economic times in Canada. By the early 1980s, Canada saw high unemployment and inflation, and a ballooning federal budget deficit. Despite signs of economic recovery, Canadians opted to reject a listless Liberal government in 1984, opting for a more market-oriented Progressive Conservative government, led by Brian Mulroney. Reducing the deficit and improving Canada’s economic performance were central to the policy agenda of the new Conservative government. The 1984 federal election saw the Conservatives win a massive landslide victory with 50% of the popular vote and 211 of the 282 seats in the House of Commons. Critical to Mulroney’s victory was his ability to earn votes and seats in Quebec. In 1984, the PCs managed to add strong Quebec support to its traditional support base in western Canada. Although the Conservatives enjoyed solid support from every region of the country in 1984, the Quebec-West alliance was central to the PC electoral coalition.

Between the 1984 and 1988 federal elections were several developments that helped to set the stage.

Progressive Conservative Scandals

Soon after the 1984 election, Mulroney’s caucus was plagued with scandal after scandal. A number of his ministers were forced out of office. The PCs’ overwhelming popularity in 1984 was already under attack. Mulroney needed to draw attention away from the scandal and focus on nation-building if he wanted to maintain power. As a result, the Meech Lake Accord and the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement became central issues in Canada.

Drafting of the Meech Lake Accord

When the Canada Act was adopted in 1982, Quebec was opposed to many aspects of it and refused to sign on. One of the keys to Mulroney’s support in Quebec was that he promised to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold by addressing Quebec’s outstanding concerns in a new constitutional agreement. The Meech Lake Accord was drafted to meet five of Quebec ’s major demands:

  • Recognition as a distinct society
  • Restrict federal spending in areas of provincial jurisdiction
  • Greater power for Quebec in immigration
  • Increased provincial control over federal judicial appointments
  • A veto over any changes to the constitution.

On April 30, 1987, Mulroney and all the premiers agreed to the Accord. The Accord had the support of all three major federal political parties.

Drafting of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States

On October 4, 1987, Mulroney and American president Ronald Reagan initialed the Free Trade Agreement in Washington, D.C. The free trade agreement would abolish most tariffs at the Canada-USA border and established a process for dealing with trade disputes. Although Mulroney had publicly opposed free trade when seeking the Conservative leadership in 1983, he became convinced of its value in improving the efficiency of Canadian business, providing access to a large market of consumers, and protecting Canada from growing American protectionism. Free trade was controversial, and a vigorous debate over the merits of the agreement began. Critics argued that the agreement “sold out” Canadian interests and impinged on Canadian sovereignty. Defenders of the agreement argued that this would provide the economic “cold shower” that the Canadian economy needed. The free trade agreement would prove to be the defining issue of the 1988 election.


Political Party Profiles

The internal division of the Liberals contrasted sharply with the united policy platform of the Conservatives.

There were three main political parties running in the 1988 election:

Progressive Conservatives

As a result of being able to gain the support of Quebec and the western provinces, the PC Party had won the largest majority in Canada’s history in the 1984 election. The Progressive Conservatives were less focused on preserving a strong central government and were more comfortable with a decentralized federal system. The Conservative style of campaigning focused on regional politics and clever strategy. After the 1984 election, the party was plagued with scandal. In order to get the party back on the right track, the Conservatives felt a national project that could unite Canada was needed. The Free Trade Agreement was touted by the PC Party as an innovative, forward-moving policy that proved the PCs were committed to positive change.

Liberals

Under Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals had pushed for a strong centralized government. For the Liberals, that meant a strong national government that would intervene in the economy, when necessary. Under this model, the Liberals had patriated the constitution and brought the Charter of Rights and Freedoms the Canada. This approach proved to be electorally disastrous. The Economic crisis of the early 1980s damaged the Liberals’ credibility all across the country. When they tried to increase Ottawa’s revenue with western oil (the National Energy Program), the Liberals lost much of their already meager support in the West. Many Quebeckers also resented Ottawa’s power and the 1982 constitutional settlement. After a long period of Liberal power in Canada, the 1984 election left the party in tatters.

Not surprisingly, the period since 1984 had been tumultuous for the party. Preserving party unity had been difficult. Liberal leader John Turner’s victory over Jean Chretien left the party divided. These divisions were aggravated by the fact that the major policy initiatives of the Mulroney government – free trade and Meech Lake – divided the Liberals internally. The Meech Lake Accord directly challenged the Trudeau vision of Canada, but the Liberals supported it in order to regain support in Quebec. The Liberals had historically been the party that supported free trade, but the party chose to oppose the free trade agreement. Adding to the Liberals’ problems was the surging strength of the New Democratic Party, threatening to supplant the Liberals on the left of the political spectrum.

New Democratic Party

A social democratic party, the NDP (and its previous incarnation as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation) had been a small but important presence in Canadian electoral politics for decades. The 1984 election had seen a major boost to the party’s fortunes. The NDP finished with 30 seats, only 10 behind the Liberals. There was much talk of the possibility of the NDP surpassing the Liberals in the 1988 election. Buoyed by the leadership of the ever-popular Ed Broadbent, the NDP had high hopes for this election.

Unlike the Liberals, the NDP was not plagued by the same internal divisions. The NDP was unequivocally opposed to free trade, believing that once the government withdrew from regulating trade, transnational corporations would move in and take control of business. The NDP’s concern was that all of these changes would come at the expense of workers. They were also concerned that too much American influence in the Canadian economy would be a threat to Canada ’s social programs. Although the NDP’s support of Meech Lake raised a few eyebrows because of the Accord’s potential to limit the federal government’s role in social programs, the Accord was not as significant a problem for the NDP because the party’s presence in Quebec was negligible.


Party Leader Profiles

The internal division of the Liberals contrasted sharply with the united policy platform of the Conservatives.

John Turner – Liberal

John Turner was born on June 7, 1929 in England. He immigrated to Canada with his family in 1932. He was educated in England and Paris, receiving his law degree. He worked as a lawyer before becoming involved in politics. He was an active member in Lester Pearson’s cabinet as a rebel MP advocating for reform of party politics. The following are highlights of Turner’s political career:

  • First elected a Member of Parliament in 1962 in a Quebec riding
  • Held various ministries from 1965-1975
  • Finished third in running for the Liberal leadership in 1968, losing to Pierre Trudeau
  • Leader of the Liberal Party 1984-1990
  • Leader of the Official Opposition 1984-1990
  • Prime Minister June-September 1984

John Turner left politics in 1993. He currently works as a lawyer.

Brian Mulroney – Progressive Conservative

Brian Mulroney was born on March 20, 1939 in Baie-Comeau, Quebec. Before being elected to the House of Commons, Mulroney worked as a lawyer and a corporate executive. He became well-known for his work in labour relations. In 1976, despite having very little experience in running for office, he ran for leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, losing to Joe Clark. The following are highlights of Mulroney’s political career:

  • First elected as a Member of Parliament in 1983 in a Nova Scotia riding
  • Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party 1983-93
  • Leader of the Official Opposition 1983-84
  • Prime Minister 1984-93

Mulroney retired from politics in 1993. He currently works as a lawyer and author.

Ed Broadbent – New Democratic Party

Ed Broadbent was born March 21, 1936. He worked as a university professor before entering politics. Throughout his political career, he earned a reputation as a trusted leader and was very popular with Canadian voters. The following are highlights of Broadbent’s political career:

  • First elected as a MP in 1968 in Oshawa
  • Leader of the NDP 1975-1989
  • Under his leadership, the NDP won its highest number of seats ever in the 1988 election

Broadbent retired from politics in 1989. However, he returned in January 2004, winning the NDP nomination in his Oshawa riding. He will be a candidate in the 2004 federal election.


Election Issues

Free trade became the sole issue, and other factors such as constitutional reform took a back seat.

The 1988 campaign was unique in that it was largely a single-issue campaign. Free trade with the United States dominated almost all of the election speeches and debates. Although the leaders may not have wanted to focus on such a controversial issue, there was no denying that it became the dominant concern for most Canadians.

Free Trade

In October of 1987, Brian Mulroney and USA President Ronald Reagan initialed the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. The Agreement was scheduled to be implemented on January 1, 1989, but it needed Parliamentary approval for this to happen. The House of Commons had passed the agreement and it only needed to be passed by the Senate to become law. In July 1988, Liberal leader John Turner asked Liberal senators to delay passing the bill until after the people of Canada had the opportunity to express their views on the agreement through a general election. Mulroney called the election in the Autumn, giving voters their chance.

The free trade agreement was popular for the critical components of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. It was attractive to westerners who were anxious for new markets for their natural resources at world prices, and who had historically opposed the protection of central Canadian industry. It was also attractive for certain Ontario ridings and for Quebec . Premier Robert Bourassa of Quebec was a supporter of free trade because it meant that Canada was moving away from national government control of the economy. The Conservatives also enjoyed the support of most of the business community, who supported the government financially and with significant advertising in support of the accord. Indeed, the 1988 campaign saw significant advertising by “third parties” (non-political parties), some supporting and some opposing the agreement.

Although the agreement was lengthy, complex, and technical, it quickly emerged as the defining issue of the campaign. Debates about free trade became much more than legal arguments and jurisdictional questions. Emotional debates about American domination of Canadian culture and loss of Canadian identity became the main focus of speeches. Those who supported free trade were accused of being unpatriotic and of submitting to American domination. Those who were against free trade were accused of exaggerating the effects of the deal and of not having confidence in Canada. Canadians were deeply divided over this issue.

The Meech Lake Accord

Although free trade dominated the election, the Meech Lake Accord was used as a tool to garner support, especially in Quebec. The Accord had not yet reached the level of public awareness that it would later on, but it was important because it went along with the decentralizing theme of the 1980s. Meech Lake was another alternative to Trudeau’s strong national government. It was also a very important issue in Quebec. Their acceptance of the Canada Act 1982 relied on the federal government meeting certain demands. Recognition of their distinctness and independence was important to Quebec. The fact that all three major parties supported the agreement, and the complexity of its provisions, however, limited the importance of Meech Lake as an election issue.


The Political Campaign

The emotional, intense leaders’ debate took centre stage in this campaign.

The campaign of 1988 was characterized by intense emotional debates. All three leaders were concerned about how much to emphasize the free trade issue. While its importance could not be denied, the leaders were reluctant to focus too much on such a controversial issue.

Each party adopted a unique strategy in their election campaign:

Progressive Conservative Strategy

Mulroney initially thought that free trade could redeem the PC Party after all the scandals they suffered through. However, the question was how much he could play up free trade without risking too much on one very controversial issue. Mulroney tried to make free trade just one aspect of a larger picture. He emphasized a number of economic issues such as job creation and tax cuts, with the Free Trade Agreement being just one aspect of his effective economic management. That allowed Mulroney to portray himself as an “agent of change” and a leader who “makes tough decisions.” He wanted economic prosperity in general to be his main message, with free trade one illustration of that theme.

As free trade took over the campaign, however, and the Liberals gained momentum from it, the Conservatives had no choice but to respond. Their research found that voters had doubts about the sincerity of John Turner’s opposition to the agreement. In the later stages of the campaign, the Conservatives began the famous “bomb the bridges” campaign, attacking Turner’s crecibility.

Liberal Strategy

The Liberals faced a two-front war in this campaign. Although they were ostensibly taking on the Mulroney Conservatives, they were also looking over their shoulders at the NDP. For the Liberals, this election was as much about the battle for second place as it was about winning the election. Free trade provided the Liberals with an opportunity to position themselves as the major opponent of the Conservatives. Although arguably a reversal of the party’s traditional position on trade, it allowed the party to take a firm position and fend off the surging NDP. The focus on free trade also helped to deflect attention away from Liberal weaknesses, such as persistent rumours that Turner was going to be replaced by Jean Chretien.

In the campaign, the Liberals tried to walk a delicate line in defending the principle of free trade, but opposing this particular agreement. These subtle nuances did not work well, however, and the Liberal strategy began to focus on the emotional level. Turner emphasized the unpatriotic aspects of the Free Trade agreement by declaring that Mulroney was “selling out” and had been coerced by the Americans. He campaigned under the slogan “This is more than an election – this is your future.”

New Democratic Party Strategy

Although the NDP was not plagued with the divisions facing the Liberals on free trade, the focus on the single issue did not play to the NDP’s strengths. Generally speaking, the NDP was not perceived as being strong on economic issues, limiting the extent to which the NDP could capitalize on the issue. As the election developed into a single issue election with two sides, the Liberals outmaneuvered the NDP in the debate. The NDP tried to capitalize on Broadbent’s personal popularity, but to no avail.

The Leadership Debate

This event really cemented free trade as the single issue in the campaign. Even Ed Broadbent, who had tried to keep the focus on the personal credibility of Mulroney, used the threat to Canada’s social programs to draw attention to the free trade issue. This was an emotionally charged event, with the climax coming as Turner and Mulroney had a heated debate over their commitment to Canada. Turner accused Mulroney of giving up Canada ’s economic levers to the US, and that Canada ’s “political independence was sure to follow.” In response, Mulroney accused Turner of being overly dramatic and of resorting to personal attacks because he offered to effective alternative of his own. In the end, there was no clear consensus on who had won the debate, but the magnitude of the election had been revealed. The debate likely did not change the outcome of the election, but it certainly affected the flow of the campaign, changing the election into a virtual referendum on the free trade deal.

Watch a clip of the Leadership Debate (link to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)


Election Results

The Conservatives regained their majority government, with solid support in Quebec and the West.

Voter turnout for this election was high, and Brian Mulroney was re-elected Prime Minister of Canada, with John Turner as the leader of the Official Opposition. Although the Conservatives were able to keep support in Quebec and the west, they lost seats in BC and Ontario. The NDP made impressive gains in this election, winning its highest number of seats yet.

Population of Canada (1988): 25,309,331
Number of electors on list: 17,639,001
Total ballots cast: 13,281,191
Voter turnout: 75.3%

 

Seats won

% of vote

# of candidates

# of valid votes

PC

169

42.9

295

5,649,848

Liberal

83

32.0

294

4,216,111

NDP

43

20.4

295

2,684,568

Other

0

4.7

677

617,816

Total

295

100

1561

13,168,343

Provincial Breakdown

 

PC

Liberal

NDP

Other

 

# of seats

% of votes

# of seats

% of votes

# of seats

% of votes

# of seats

% of votes

AB

25

51.8

0

13.7

1

17.4

0

17.1

BC

12

34.4

1

21.3

19

37

0

7.4

MB

7

36.9

5

36.5

2

21.3

0

5.3

NB

5

40.4

5

45.4

0

9.3

0

4.9

NFLD

2

42.2

5

45

0

12.4

0

0.4

NWT

0

26.4

2

41.4

0

28.3

0

3.9

NS

5

40.9

6

46.5

0

11.4

0

1.2

ON

46

38.2

43

38.9

10

20.1

0

3

PEI

0

41.5

4

49.9

0

7.5

0

1.1

PQ

63

52.7

12

30.3

0

14

0

3.2

SK

4

36.4

0

18.2

10

44.2

0

1.2

YK

0

35.3

0

11.3

1

51.4

0

2

Totals

169

43

83

31.9

43

20.4

0

4.7


Historical Significance

Canadians were asked to question their patriotism and national pride as they made the momentous decision to accept free trade with the USA.

The significance of this election can be summarized in two words: free trade

The Single-Issue Election

One of the central issues in Canadian history has been the country’s trade relationship with the United States. The 1988 election is remembered for the passionate debate over the issue and the outcome. The election saw an intense debate, involving political parties, corporations, unions, and a variety of other actors. The debate touched issues of the very nature of Canadian nationhood and sovereignty. During the campaign, there was significant movement of public opinion about the agreement, the parties, and the leaders. In the end, the Conservatives and their trade agreement prevailed. Although a majority of Canadians voted for parties that opposed the agreement, the Conservatives won the most seats and the country made the historic decision to enter into a free trade agreement with the United States. The debate over the issue and globalization in general continues, but the 1988 election stands as a critical point in the Canadian debate.

The issues that weren’t discussed

The emphasis on the single issue meant that a number of other pressing issues were ignored in the campaign. The Conservatives were proposing to change Canada’s taxation system to implement a value added tax. This would eventually become the hated Goods and Services Tax that became a critical issue in 1990. Even more important was the failure of voters and political parties to debate the merits of the Meech Lake Accord. The Accord was relatively new, complicated, and none of the three parties saw much gain in making it a campaign issue. Still, the Meech Lake Accord began a constitutional journey that led to the Charlottetown Accord referendum in 1992, and culminated in the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty.

The Reform party

The attention paid to free trade also made it easy to overlook a development in western Canada – the emergence of a small party called the Reform party. The party didn’t fare particularly well, doing best in Alberta with 15% of the vote there. Western Canadians had long supported free trade and the dominance of that issue ensured that they would stay in the Conservative coalition for another election. The erosion of support to Reform in the West, though, foreshadowed the fact that the Conservatives were in the process of losing their support of one of the two critical elements of their Quebec-West coalition.

For more information:


Learn more about the 1988 election.

Elections Canada, Voter Turnout at Federal Elections and Referendums, 1867-2000 www.elections.ca

Howard A. Scarrow, Canada Votes: A Handbook of Federal and Provincial Election Data (New Orleans: The Hauser Press, 1962).

John Duffy, Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership, and the Making of Canada (Toronto: Harper Collins Publishing, 2002).

The Prime Ministers of Canada: An Intimate Portrait of the Nation’s Leaders www.primeministers.ca

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