Canada

The boys in blue are back

Robert Lewis October 15 1979
Canada

The boys in blue are back

Robert Lewis October 15 1979

The boys in blue are back

Canada

Robert Lewis

Not for 22 years* had a new Conservative prime minister, brimming with new plans and big dreams, sat in the red chamber to bask in the echo of his own throne speech opening a Parliament. Then, Queen Elizabeth came to town to deliver the words drafted by John Diefenbaker’s minority government. The men wore striped pants and morning coats and a military band blared out Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. This week Ed Schreyer, a former NDP premier named GovernorGeneral by Pierre Trudeau, had the uncomfortable task of intoning the principles of a Tory government which has reservations about him even holding the vice-regal post. Instead of formal attire, there were dark business suits. The band of the Royal 22nd Regiment from Quebec City played Vive La Canadienne and Century in Progress.

It was no accident that the tone was less ambitious and that there is muted tension surrounding the relations of

Schreyer, as an appointment of the previous government, and the minority Tories. On the eve of the opening of the 31st Parliament, Clark, in effect, reiterated his call for Middling on the Rideau: “The country needs a rest from governments inventing ideas. Our modest purpose will be to take note of some of the good ideas which have grown up outside Ottawa, and then help them develop.” As for tensions, Clark and friends are as jumpy as dragonflies about holdovers from the past Liberal regime—even to the point that the dean of the federal career civil service, Gordon Robertson, announced a premature retirement last week (see page 34).

By design, the basic outlines of Clark’s program for the fall were set in the somnolence of a post-election summer, including: mortgage tax credits, privatization, greater reliance on the private sector, government spending cuts, more power to regions, energy conservation and less secrecy in government. Clark’s theory is that he has roughly a year to establish that people who voted for a change have got what they wanted. The drawbacks are that sweeping changes have generated an atmiosphere of a policy garage sale in Ot-

tawa. Decisions have been made, largely, by an unelected inner circle of fierce partisans, sometimes against the advice of civil servants now departed or threatened—and always with a minimum of public debate among electors who voted mainly to dump Pierre Trudeau, not for specific Clark planks.

A classic example is the government’s decision to turn over control and ownership of off-shore resources to the provinces, a Tory election promise. First word of the agreement came casually in an encounter last month between Clark and reporters after his meeting with Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford. Last week, following a round of private talks with other premiers, Clark provided the first written confirmation of the terms. The issues still to be resolved in further federal-provincial discussions are striking: potential court action by companies granted conflicting federal and provincial leases off Newfoundland’s shores; establishment of boundaries between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to determine which province controls any new oil pools; and a Supreme Court decision reinforcing Ottawa’s right to “explore and exploit” in the seabed off British Columbia, which may require a joint address from Parliament (including a Liberal-dominated Senate*) to Westminster to change the constitution.

The determination to honor election commitments is laudable, but the apparent indifference to consequences is unsettling. For example, the government puts Canadair up for sale to the private sector, but at the same time its politically crafted pledge to move the embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has threatened sales of 36 Canadair Challenger jets to Arab states. A second Candu nuclear reactor sale to Argentina goes down the tube, amid charges—and denials—that a tough new stand on human rights and uncertainty about safeguards were important factors (see page 45).

The government, admittedly, has time to batten down its hatches in the minority Parliament. As Pierre Trudeau put it after consulting his MPs: “We should give the government a chance to govern. We’re getting what we expected, so why should we be disappointed.” Added NDP leader Ed Broadbent: “We’re not putting our emphasis on the defeat of the government.”

Translation: nobody wants to force an election, not even on the hot issue of

*Clark made four more party appointments last week: retired P.E.I. MP Heath Macquarrie, Manitoba organizer Nate Nurgitz, onetime New Brunswick leader Cyril Sherwood and William Doody, exNewfoundland cabinet minister. This brings nine Clark-appointed senators to Ottawa since the election, all but one of them party loyalists, although Liberals still outvote Conservatives, 71-28.

Petro-Canada’s future. Thus, while the combined opposition has seven more seats than the government (not including Speaker James Jerome, elected as a Liberal MP), the Conservatives can either assume Social Credit backing or calculated absences of opposition MPs during confidence votes—starting this week.

More crucial for the government’s long-term future is what success Clark will have in securing a consensus with the provinces, notably Alberta and On-

tario, on the new, higher price for domestic oil and gas. He sold himself as a man who could work with the premiers, but a statement expected from Clark this week on the matter was an attempt to offset the failure to conclude an agreement before Parliament met. The new effective deadline: Nov. 19, when the parties square off in two byelections, one in Newfoundland to replace provincial Liberal leader Don Jamieson, the other in John Diefenbaker’s Prince Albert, fp