Lac Meech, a finger-like lake set in the evergreen-forested hills of Quebec's Gatineau Park, has long been a mecca for canoeists, campers, fishermen and skiers. But it was not the area's scenic beauty that last week drew Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and key members of his Progressive Conservative Cabinet to the government-owned retreat on the lake's snow-covered shore. Faced with Parliament's return from Christmas recess this week and with a host of problems awaiting action, Mulroney and his advisers had driven the half-hour north from Ottawa for an agonizing reappraisal of where the government was, where it should go and even, as it began its second full year in office, who would make the journey.
Although the Conservatives won the election in September 1984 with the biggest parliamentary majority in Canadian history (211 of 282 seats), Mulroney's government has seemed for much of the past year like a hiker lost in the north woods, a tenderfoot wandering through the wilds of Canadian politics with little sense of direction.
Now, polls suggest, Canadians who were willing to take a wait-and-see attitude after Mulroney's early mistakes are becoming impatient and increasingly question whether their Prime Minister can lead the country ably. According to a poll last month in Maclean's, a Canadian newsweekly, only 37% are satisfied with the Prime Minister's performance, vs. nearly 60% a year earlier, when he had been in office only three months. "The biggest challenge facing the government is classical leadership, to define where the government wants to go," says Allan Gregg, whose Decima Research, Ltd., conducted the Maclean's poll.
Part of Mulroney's problem is that he raised high expectations. A mellifluous speaker and charismatic campaigner, he convinced Canadians that some painful belt tightening would eventually improve an economy plagued by double-digit unemployment and a rapidly rising deficit. He also promised to sell off unprofitable government-owned businesses or crown corporations. But Mulroney's performance has not matched his rhetoric, and his government has been characterized by indecision and some easily avoidable scandals.
The waffling became evident as early as March, when Mulroney returned from his meeting with President Reagan in Quebec City with little more on the highly sensitive acid rain issue than U.S. promises to study the already overstudied problem. Then in June, Ottawa backed away from its plan to reduce Canada's federal deficit by changing the indexation of old-age pensions. In August, many Canadians were offended when Ottawa failed to take the initiative in protesting the passage of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage, which Canada claims as a territorial waterway.