Pierre Trudeau’s voice broke in the Commons last week while he was reading a speech introducing the Liberals’ nonconfidence motion on energy. It wasn’t emotion, just a bad head cold. In fact, the usually robust leader of the Opposition had to stay home the next day to recover before a political jaunt to the Maritimes. But there are indications that the malaise affecting Pierre Trudeau is more complex than a simple head cold—and highly infectious besides.
With a few exceptions the Liberals— particularly the veteran front-benchers—have been a flat, dispirited group during their first six weeks in Opposi5 tion, especially compared with the feisty jg New Democrats to their left. The Lib| erais came back after the long summer recess highly charged and eager to rip into Joe Clark’s vulnerable flanks. But the attack has fizzled like a damp match. Why? Partly because of the heavy mist in the Liberals’ front row. Trudeau himself, moody at the best of times, has been particularly downcast this fall. (He snapped “merde” and stormed out at a recent press conference with French reporters, leaving an embarrassed Jean Chrétien behind to explain his leader’s sudden pique.) In Ottawa’s gossip mill his bad temper is attributed to Margaret’s sudden reappearance as a homeowner. “She comes to town, starts messing with the kids, gets him all upset. I just wish she’d disappear,” says one Liberal back-bencher with considerable vehemence. Others say Trudeau is simply going through a delayed mid-life crisis, or that he’s bored in Opposition. It could also be that, like some of his former cabinet colleagues, he hasn’t yet recovered from the psychological and emotional blow the Liberals suffered May 22.
“No doubt about it, it was traumatic,” says Northern Ontario MP John Reid, the former federal-provincial relations minister. He wants the party to forget about defending old policies in the House and start proposing new ones. “We ran longer than The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and even she had to take a break for a while to regenerate herself,” says Reid.
Other former ministers say that after years of defending government policy, it is hard to attack. “We’re not vicious enough,” says Monique Bégin, the former health minister and one of Tru-
deau’s most effective ministers in the Commons. Passionate and highly partisan, Bégin has been effectively muzzled in question period because the Liberals’ “tactics committee”—chaired by House leader Allan MacEachen and attended by invitation only—is giving her questions to read, rather than letting her think on her feet. Bégin is determined to change all that, and there are signs other Liberals are learning. New boy Lloyd Axworthy, who spent six years in Opposition in Manitoba’s legislature, says that after one recent question period Trudeau commented on his instinct for blood. “I told him after six years in Opposition, you learn to go straight for the jugular,” says Axworthy.
In comparison to the Liberals’ often limp efforts, Joe Clark’s cabinet, heav-^ ily coached and consciously playing to I two discreetly placed television cam-2 eras, is deflecting Opposition arrows § with ease. Small wonder. They have all 2 been instructed by Parliament’s con-i summate artful dodger, Joe Clark him3 self, to be polite, constructive and straightforward. The key word is “mannerly”and the tactic seems to be working. Ministers’ answers might seem lame to the Opposition, thepress and informed observers, but in 30-second television clips they sound moderate, reasonable and convincing.
There are cynics who say it hardly matters how ineffective the Liberals have beenin Opposition because Clark’s government shows such a talent for
self-inflicted wounds. Following on the debacle over moving the Israeli embassy, the Petro-Canada issue and the interest rate increases, the Tories this week face their toughest challenge to date: the energy showdown with Alberta. Joe Clark, elected on promises of bringing harmony to federal-provincial relations, is now threatening to impose an energy-pricing agreement on Alber-
ta. And if Premier Peter Lougheed feels any friendlier toward Clark’s Ottawa than he did toward Trudeau’s, he hides it well. Nonetheless, he was due in the capital Monday, along with the nine other premiers, to talk about a new energy plan—one that is almost certain to bring sharp increases in gasoline and heating oil costs for all Canadians.
The one issue that really ignites Liberal passions in the House is the Quebec referendum. They say Clark is being weak, inept and cowardly in refusing to participate directly. Clark, who can be as effortlessly imprecise in French as he is in English, has been stonewalling on Quebec, promising “concrete gestures” but refusing to elaborate. After chasing him on the issue for 30 frustrating minutes last week, an angry Warren Allmand finally scored a rare Liberal hit when he shouted: “Get yourself some new writers, Joe!” But again, some of the toughest questioning on this issue has come from Liberal back-benchers, not from the impressive array of frontbench talent.
In any event, the Liberals might not get a chance to ease into their new jobs. Two federal byelections next Mondayone in Newfoundland and one in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan—are expected to reduce the Tory-Socred margin in the House to one thin vote, increasing the chances of an accidental defeat for the government. Many people on Parliament Hill are praying that the unilingual, unpredictable Socred leader, Fabien Roy, likes Ottawa enough to stay the winter. If it had not been for him when last week’s nonconfidence vote was tallied at 140-138, the doughty warriors of all parties might now find themselves strapping on skis for a January campaign.
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