CANADA

Promises from the throne

Mary Janigan December 19 1983
CANADA

Promises from the throne

Mary Janigan December 19 1983

Promises from the throne

CANADA

Mary Janigan

Just hours after Gov. Gen. Ed Schreyer plodded through his final speech from the throne last week, officials from the Prime Minister’s Office telephoned Liberals across the country to ask their opinions. Some partisans were pleased that the outline of legislative proposals included many party policy planks. Others were disturbed that the Liberals had made more than 90 promises for this second session of Parliament, even though it cannot last more than 14 months before an election must be called. And almost all respondents wondered how the new proposals will affect Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s timetable, if any, for retirement. “It is what everyone wants to know,” one official sighed. And no one, except perhaps the increasingly coy Trudeau, had the answer.

That insistent inquiry underlined the Liberals’ concern about the approaching election and the political agenda contained in the speech. Despite the pomp and pageantry of the ceremonial reading in the Senate chamber, the speech rambled like an old-style cam-

paign oration with something for just about everyone. Under the slogans “peace” and “prosperity,” the Liberals staked out a careful line between promises to “contain and then curb the federal deficit” and pledges to “strengthen the social safety net.” Both opposition parties promptly denounced the agenda as a “grab bag.” And a senior Liberal admitted candidly that the speech was “largely a shopping list without an overall thrust. To have that thrust, you would have to have a very strong prime minister who is prepared to rule.” Individual interest groups, however, were delighted by specific goodies tailored to their needs, and the Liberals drew some electoral hope from the praise.

The speech rose above tub-thumping politicking only when it touched upon Trudeau’s current preoccupation with East-West tensions. No specific mention was made of his global peace mission, but the speech observed that “violence stalks many lands” and that “Canadians.want more than ever to become personally involved in the quest for peace.” Given Ottawa’s promise to fund a centre to gather data on defence and arms control issues, Charles Lynch, in

an Ottawa Citizen column, observed wryly that Trudeau had “put our money where his mouth is.”

The opposition parties have vowed to remain neutral about Trudeau’s quest, reasoning that no one is opposed to peace. But the introduction of this idealistic topic into a highly political document was too much for Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney to bear. At week’s end, Tory MPs chortled in the House as Mulroney, displaying his Irish talent for storytelling, mimicked a hypothetical telephone chat between Trudeau’s principal secretary, Tom Axworthy, and his brother, Lloyd, the Transport minister. In Mulroney’s rendering, brother Tom tells Lloyd that Trudeau’s international jet-setting has created a problem: “It has gone to his head—and he wants to stay.”

On the domestic front, the major federal initiative was more money for job creation, especially for out-of-work youths. Unemployment is now running at 11.1 per cent, but the rate for young people is a staggering 21.3 per cent for males and 16 per cent for females. In an election year, those figures spell trouble for the government. So Ottawa pro-

duced an extra $400 million—including $260 million for youth job creation— and unveiled two new direct employment programs. Finance Minister Marc Lalonde promised that the $400 million will not add to the 1984-85 deficit, because economic recovery—“better and faster than anticipated”—means more revenues from taxes and lower federal expenses. About $25 million of the new money will fund a National Voluntary Service which will allow groups like the YMCA to hire staff from the ranks of the unemployed. A conservation corpsdubbed Environment 2000—will use $35 million to hire youths for such projects as planting tree seedlings. Mulroney scoffed that Canada’s youth “does not want to be cutting trails in the forests. They want real, solid, tangible jobs in their own neighborhood.” But Employment Minister John Roberts defended the make-work money, arguing that it focuses on special areas of short-term difficulty. “We think the economy is recovering and will soon be better able to absorb young people, and they will be better equipped for the job,” he told Maclean 's.

The speech also reinforced the Liberals’ determination to be seen as the party that defends and strengthens social programs against the onslaught of the cost-cutting Tories. But in its zeal to take credit for this stand, the government created an embarrassing furore

among the provinces. The throne speech promised to raise the guaranteed income supplement for single pensioners, who now receive a maximum of $522.07 a month, and to overhaul public and private pension schemes. The government also repeated its plans to introduce a Canada health act which will penalize provinces that charge user fees or allow extra billing by doctors. Then the government boasted that more than $500 million will be added to transfer payments to the provinces to demonstrate “the strength of the government’s commitment” to health and postsecondary education programs. Lalonde later was forced to admit that those payments will increase automatically by about $769 million, according to a formula that ties funding to the gross national product. “It is a repayment of money owed to us,” declared a bitter Larry Grossman, the Ontario treasurer. The provinces were equally unimpressed by Lalonde’s claim that this money means they can afford to drop user fees. “Well, that is his conclusion,” said Alberta Treasurer Lou Hyndman.

The remainder of the speech was largely an eclectic jumble of recycled promises for special interest groups such as women, homeowners, the disabled and native peoples. The Liberals even repeated their perpetual pledge to maintain labor as “a full partner in the process of economic recovery.” Declared John Bulloch, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business: “It is a good thing that we do not give the right to vote to goldfish in this country because then there would be something in that speech for them too.”

The laundry list also provoked some furious clashes when the three party leaders faced each other in a Commons debate late last week. Mulroney dis-

missed the speech as “recycled promises, inadequate responses and some stolen ideas.” And he taunted the Liberals with an offer to pass the job creation measures over the Christmas holidays if they, in turn, call a snap election next month.

New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent scornfully charged that the Liberals are “committed to the status quo” and he said that they practise “bogus, cynical politics that Canadians are tired of.” Faced with this onslaught, Trudeau confessed that the throne speech “wasn’t the greatest thing that any god could have dreamed up in his paradise but it was an honest attempt to put forward solutions to the problems of the day.” Trudeau said that some voters want a change but added: “I plead with them to ask themselves what they would change to. The ugly face of reaction is sitting on the Tory benches.”

Work on the controversial speech began more than a year ago when Tom Axworthy began visiting individual ministers to ask them for a list of departmental and government priorities. And last September, when the cabinet’s priorities and planning committee met in a special session, it also assembled a priorities list. About a month ago Axworthy took a “point form” version of the speech to that committee—and ministers discussed their favorite projects. The aide kept going back to that elite cabinet committee with drafts of the speech, and ministers added suggestions. The peace plan portion of the speech, for example, was expanded only a week prior to delivery. The full cabinet approved the final version less than a week before Schreyer rose in the Senate. Although Trudeau was fully consulted about all changes made during his peace mission, Liberals privately concede that the speech does not bear his stamp.

That and the Prime Minister’s apparent lack of attention to the day-to-day affairs of government only drew more attention to the dominant question in Ottawa: when is he going to go? Former cabinet ministers such as James Fleming have recently made bold calls for a party rebirth. And senior Tories report that the Liberals have booked blocks of Toronto hotel rooms for April in the name of a numbered company. They speculate that the Liberals are preparing for a leadership convention. Trudeau, however, remains evasive about his plans. Last week he simply promised not to serve another five years. Many Liberals privately admit that all the promises in the world will not save them if Trudeau decides to stay. And that means that the backroom dramas now rival the traditional intensity of the speech from the throne debate.