MACLEAN'S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

Blair Fraser August 21 1965
MACLEAN'S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

Blair Fraser August 21 1965

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

With federal medicare in the works, can an election be far behind?

Blair Fraser

OTTAWA’S NEW PROPOSALS for national health insurance provide a model not only for medicare itself, but for any other federal intrusions into provincial fields of authority. Forewarned by their disconcerting experience with the Canada Pension Plan (on which federal officials forged ahead after merely perfunctory consultation with provincial premiers, only to have Quebec’s Premier Lesage pull the rug from under them by announcing a plan of his own) the federal people this time have proceeded with the most elaborate concern for provincial susceptibilities.

Early in April Prime Minister Pearson wrote to each premier, and health minister Judy LaMarsh wrote the same day to provincial ministers of health, outlining Ottawa’s intentions in general terms. In the ensuing weeks a team of half a dozen federal officials, from the Departments of Health and Welfare and of.Finance, visited every provincial capital and talked to ministers, deputy ministers and other senior officials in each department of health. These talks involved no binding commitment on either side—they were no more than exploratory sound-

ings—but they did give Ottawa a clear idea of what the provincial reactions (and objections, if any) would be to the federal proposal.

Federal ministers were pleased and encouraged by the favorable response they got in most capitals, but it does not follow that an unfavorable response would have killed the medicare plan. Ottawa wanted to, and did, make very sure that this time Quebec would have no objection — federal officials knew that in Quebec, if nowhere else, a provincial government could rally the people behind it on any issue of “autonomy.” But if Ontario’s Premier Robarts had stuck to his previous stand against “compulsory” health insurance, and especially if his fellow Conservatives Stanfield of Nova Scotia and Roblin of Manitoba had stood with him, this would not have imposed a veto on the federal proposal. It would merely have provided Ottawa with a magnificent issue for an autumn election.

No decision on the election date will be final until it is officially announced. Tentative plans for an October campaign could be cancelled, just as the plans for a July election were scrapped last May. (It was scheduled for July 12 until somebody remembered that was Orangemen’s Day, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne; then it was hastily rescheduled for July 19.) However, the midsummer mood in Ottawa was hardening in favor of an early dissolution, and even ministers who had been firmly opposed to it were swinging around. Several new factors contributed to this change of mind.

One was the Dorion report and its unexpectedly harsh criticism of Guy Favreau, the ex-Minister of Justice. Some people leaped to the conclusion that Chief Justice Dorion’s rebuke would make a 1965 election impossible, but in fact its effect seems to have been just the opposite. To men of the temperament which is shared by Favreau and Prime Minister Pearson, this kind of challenge makes it more desirable, not less, to submit

their conduct to the judgment of the people.

Another factor is the growing realization that 1966 will be a provincial election year in Quebec, and that both Liberal Jean Lesage and the Union Nationaie’s Daniel Johnson will probably be running against Ottawa. In the present mood of Quebec it’s at least unlikely that anyone will be running in favor of Ottawa. The effect of such a provincial campaign on the national Liberal party is not entirely predictable, but it certainly couldn’t be good.

Aside from these negative stimuli are a number of positive factors -— the prospect of a good crop and good markets for it; continuing prosperity and high employment (plus a growing uneasiness about how long these good economic conditions will last); a party organization in prime shape and ready to go, against a Conservative machine still visibly out of order.

But perhaps the most important of all is sheer weariness and exasperation with the uncertainties of minority government. Perhaps history will record that the final decisive straw on the Liberal camel’s back was Social Credit leader Bob Thompson, pompously announcing that unless the Liberals did more housecleaning he, the great Thompson, would no longer be willing to keep them in office. In fact no party is less anxious for an early election than Bob Thompson’s little band of Social Crediters; for the Liberals, the temptation to take Thompson at his word and make his group face one now was almost overpowering.

Against all these considerations, the well-known objections are still valid. All parties agree that the Prairies are still solidly pro-Diefenbaker. Premier Ross Thatcher of Saskatchewan, a disgruntled and pessimistic Liberal, says, “We’ll run third in every seat” in his province, and he thinks Manitoba and Alberta will be much the same. Conservatives will probably lose the eight seats they hold in Quebec, and perhaps one or two in the Maritimes, but these Liberal gains may well be offset by losses in Ontario and British Columbia. Another minority government is by no means inconceivable.

But perhaps the most sobering reflection of all is that even if the Liberals do win a majority, it could be a majority of the wrong kind. It could be composed of seventy-five French Canadians and perhaps seventy of British origin, facing an opposition that would represent “a majority of the majority.” This is the nightmare that has deterred the Pearson government from calling an election long ago, and it is still a very real threat.

However, some Liberals have begun to wonder (and this may well be the decisive consideration) whether the French-English situation will be better or worse a year or two from now. They recognize that with John Diefenbaker leading a Conservative campaign, things may be said that would do terrible damage to the national fabric of Canada, but they’re

also convinced that he would lose— that the campaign would be a Conservative disaster.

No matter who is in power, the next two years are certain to be a period of strain between Quebec and the rest of Canada. The argument over division of taxing powers will begin in earnest at the next federal-provincial meeting, probably before Christmas. A whole new set of fiscal arrangements have to be worked out before 1967, when the present ones expire. It’s not a task for a federal government uncertain of its mandate, and subject to defeat in the House of Commons from day to day.

For all these reasons, more and more MPs are taking it for granted that the present Parliament will never reassemble.