Backstage: Ottawa

Tin stars in the galaxy

Susan Riley August 18 1980
Backstage: Ottawa

Tin stars in the galaxy

Susan Riley August 18 1980

Tin stars in the galaxy

Backstage: Ottawa

Susan Riley

Prime Commons Minister chair, Trudeau his mouth seemed pursed to in sink an embarrassed lower in his smile. A row behind him his red-faced defence minister, Gilles Lamontagne, was dodging an Opposition fusillade—and awkwardly contradicting some of the prime minister’s own most-cherished notions in the process. Earlier that July week, Lamontagne told a national television audience that Canada and the West need nuclear weapons to counteract the Soviet threat—a position contrary to

Trudeau’s own personal views and to Canadian policy. Instead of retreating in the House the next day, Lamontagne blundered on, insisting the West needs more sophisticated weapons, including the neutron bomb, “so we can talk peace and disarmament from a position of strength, not weakness.”

But that outburst was by no means the first unsettling word from the former mayor of Quebec City. Ever since he was given the defence portfolio, he has been a puppet of the military bureaucracy, determined, apparently, to outhawk them all. “Buzz Nixon [the deputy minister of defence] has Gilles wrapped around his little finger,” says NDP Defence critic Terry Sergeant. Certainly the minister

has given no indication he has any ideas or policy on defence, beyond a personal nostalgia for the days when he was a Second World War fighter pilot. Nothing makes that plainer than his uncritical acceptance of the $4-billion-plus F-18 fighter plane contract with the McDonnell Douglas corporation, despite serious questions about the aircraft— both its technical soundness and its marketability. For Lamontagne it was love at first sight. The former flying ace was allowed to test fly one of the fighters at Ottawa airport one cold April day and he emerged elated. “It’s like making love,” he told reporters. “When you get older you don’t do it the same way. But you never forget.”

It’s like making war, too. The defence minister’s enthusiastic sabre-rattling and 1950s view of the world have a chilling, disturbing ring. In a tough editorial in Le Devoir, journalist Lise Bissonnette says it is odd that Lamontagne—who was no standout as postmaster-general or as mayor of Quebec—should be included in the federal cabinet at all. “What is more odd,” she says, “is that he be allowed to stay.” Insiders say Trudeau needs him because of political clout in Quebec City: others say this is nonsense—the Liberals are hardly vulnerable there.

But however richly deserving of oblivion the minister might be, it is unlikely he will be retired to the golf links yet. In fact, the rumors of a fall cabinet shuffle that have been wafting through the capital on a lazy summer breeze don’t seem to have much substance. That isn’t because Trudeau assembled a brilliant cabinet—far from it. But in six months of Liberal rule no one has erred seriously—that is, done anything criminal. There were no great disappointments before the Commons summer recess began because there were no great expectations to begin with.

So far, the least lustrous member of a tarnished galaxy is the Quebec-born transport minister, Jean-Luc Pepin, who represents eastern Ottawa and who wanted the high-profile portfolio of federal-provincial relations. Pepin has built a reputation for industry and intelligence, largely through liberal application of his personal charm. But even

if it is unfair to expect him to have mastered the complex and vast transport portfolio in a few months, he displayed in the Commons the political instincts of an amateur. He was often unable to answer questions on transport in the House, and routinely fobbed off questions on his other responsibility, the Canadian wheat board, with what many Western MPs regarded as unpleasant flippancy. Pepin’s animated style, his flashing brown eyes and verbal fluency may impress university undergrads, but as one annoyed farmer at the Liberals’ recent Winnipeg convention commented sourly after a session with the minister: “He’s all talk.” He can hardly have been less sensitive to the West, threatening to abandon some

western rail lines the Tories had decided to save, and to cut off federal aid to port facilities at Prince Rupert, B.C.

Pepin isn’t a personal favorite of Trudeau’s and if his performance doesn’t improve, this fall he may find himself shuffled. Meanwhile, Indian Affairs Minister John Munro survived a bruising and embarrassing set-to with his bathtub only to make headlines a few weeks later when he missed a meeting with Ontario Indian chiefs, though he managed on the same day to attend to patronage duties back home in Hamilton. External Affairs Minister Mark MacGuigan, who looks younger than his 49 years, has not distinguished himself, nor has he bombed. Finance Minister Allan MacEachen has, in the words of one critic, “done what a finance minister should be doing in times like these: fighting fires and keeping his head down.”

In fact, to some extent the cabinet is under orders to be lacklustre. Trudeau has warned his ministers privately and publicly not to lust too openly after his job, and they have all been heeling obediently. In this highly charged atmosphere any cabinet changes take on profound significance, and could make or unmake a future prime minister. But it is important to remember that in cabinet building ability often counts less than loyalty or geography. In this case that is just as well. Talent is not something the Liberal caucus possesses in abundance.

Susan Riley is a Maclean ’s correspondent in Ottawa.