Out of Canada: Calamity Kim's campaign pep turns to petulance

TORONTO - Canadians are worried. This is, after all, a country which admits to being a mite boring, but one which has long prided itself on being civilised, open- minded and free of sexual discrimination. Not, however, it would seem, in these extraordinary elections of October 1993. It is not just the old political order that looks set to take a beating. For women it is shaping up as a downright calamity. What is happening to us, wonder the editorialists: is Canada, nice decent Canada, experiencing a male chauvinist backlash?

Britain after all gave Margaret Thatcher a run of almost 12 years; Israel and India were long governed by women. America grows warmer to Hillary Clinton by the day; even Turkey has elected a female prime minister. But here the tide is running in the opposite direction. Barring a miracle in this last week of the campaign, Canada's first woman prime minister will not only have proved the country's shortest lived, Kim Campbell will also have led the Conservatives to what promises to be the greatest defeat suffered by a ruling party in a major Western parliamentary democracy, certainly since the rout of the British Tories in 1945.

And that is not all. Not one but two of Canada's three national parties are currently led by women. Audrey McLaughlin, who heads the New Democratic Party, is faring no better than Ms Campbell. Of its 43 former seats only three or four may remain after Monday. Between them, the Tories and the NDP held 197 of the 295 seats in the previous House of Commons in Ottawa. If the direst predictions come true they could be left with only 35 or so in the new one. Ms Campbell will not even be Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition.

To give her some credit, the Prime Minister has not mused publicly on this sinister sexist trend afoot. But Ms McLaughlin has no such inhibitions. To reporters she mutters darkly about an 'anti-woman prejudice'. Men, she claims, dislike the emergence of women as leading players on the political stage. The headlines in the papers on 26 October, she predicts, will read 'Two Women Leaders Shot Down in Flames'.

She produces anecdotal evidence from the campaign trail, too, such as signs in Northern Ontario proclaiming 'White Men Have Rights Too'. Then there are the prairie populists out west, of Preston Manning and his surging Reform Party. Manning, she declares, 'would return women to the days before we were even considered persons'. Enough to give any well-meaning Canadian food for thought.

But good citizens should not worry. If women are failing in 1993, the explanation lies in politics, not their sex. Ms McLaughlin and her party are the left of the political spectrum here. But Canada is in a foully anti-establishment mood, and moving rightwards to boot.

Much the same goes for Ms Campbell, whose lot was to take over a party in power for the last eight years. But problems of her own making have made her troubles a dozen times worse. When she was elected Conservative leader on 25 June her gender was no handicap, rather her greatest selling point. She was a blast of fresh air, worlds away from the unctuous Brian Mulroney, whose devious, manipulative style the country could stand no longer. Instead Canada had a vivacious, outspoken 46-year-old who seemed a winner. Even now, her election posters consist simply of a scrawled trademark signature, Kim.

With two divorces behind her she might not be everyone's model of womanhood. What is destroying her, however, is not her marital history but a campaign that makes George Bush's dismal effort in 1992 look inspired by comparison.

It seems an eternity now, but only three months ago Kim Campbell crackled with wit and humour. But that persona has vanished, like a light bulb which has been switched off. On the hustings pep has given way to petulance. Her relations with the media are abysmal. When questioned, her replies are robotic, clothed in bureaucratese. And that was before last week's chapter in the adventures of Calamity Kim. One day, she was being forced by public outcry to pull a party ad that mocked the partial facial paralysis of the Liberal leader, Jean Chretien, all but certain to be her successor. The next, she launched a graceless and utterly unnecessary attack on Mr Mulroney and his cronies, which had half the party establishment in open revolt.

And almost invariably she contrives to hit the wrong note. A week or two ago she was asked to elaborate on her plans for welfare reform. Dismissively, she replied that the campaign trail was no place to 'get involved in very, very serious issues'. It would have been a goof anywhere; in serious- minded Canada it was little short of a mortal insult. That's one reason why Kim Campbell is staring into the political abyss. The fact that she happens to be a woman has nothing to do with it.

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