Conflicting Narratives: Mulroney and Turner on Free Trade

Because my Rotman school narratives course used film as its major medium, I incorporated one clip of a visual narrative into the final exam. This year it was the heated exchange over free trade between then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Liberal leader John Turner in the party leaders’ debate in the 1988 election. The exchange, lasting less than two minutes, can be found on YouTube as the first video that comes up under “Brian Mulroney election.” I asked the MBA students to outline the narrative each leader was attempting to present the voters, how each was attempting to disrupt the other’s narrative, and whom they thought was more convincing. If you’re interested in the answer, have a look at the clip first.

In my view, John Turner had the more complete narrative, namely that for over 100 years Canada built an east-west infrastructure intended to resist the north-south pull of the US. He accused Mulroney of reversing a century of public policy with one signature of a pen, with the likely result that Canada would become an economic and political colony of the US.

In this exchange, Brian Mulroney was attempting mainly to disrupt Turner’s narrative, which he did by continually interrupting him. Mulroney’s narrative point was that he was nation-building because he loves Canada and, if the free trade agreement doesn’t provide the anticipated benefits, it could be cancelled with six months’ notice. In his interruptions, Mulroney accused Turner of impugning his motives and patriotism and said he had the facts wrong.

The overwhelming majority of the students thought that Mulroney won the exchange. With the benefit of hindsight and the influence of an education that favours market liberalization, most students found Turner’s narrative – while coherent – unconvincing fear-mongering.

Regarding presentation, most felt that Turner was stiff, if not wooden, while Mulroney had much more powerful gestures and more dramatic vocal range, and that he thus came off better in the visual medium of a televised debate. One student called it a “classic case of the bully and the geek.” This student, one of the minority who thought Turner prevailed, wrote that “Mulroney’s disruptions won over Turner’s, though Turner’s facts won over Mulroney’s.”

Recalling the election campaign itself, Turner was considered to have bested Mulroney in the debate, which led to a Liberal surge in the public opinion polls. This trend, however, was ultimately countered by the Conservative’s strong advertising and endorsement campaign.

Have a look. What do you think?

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