CANADA

Containing the damage

PAUL GESSELL October 14 1985
CANADA

Containing the damage

PAUL GESSELL October 14 1985

Containing the damage

CANADA

The tone of the letter was humbly apologetic. It was written by the third prominent Tory in two weeks to retract remarks that had made an issue of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s credibility. “I especially regret any critical reflection on the Prime Minister as a result of my comments,” Conservative Party national director Jerry Lampert wrote last week to party president Peter Elzinga. With Lampert’s letter among his briefing papers, Brian Mulroney wore a broad smile as he entered the House of Commons. Even though Lampert’s apology was almost a week in preparation, the Prime Minister could count it as a victory as the opposition continued to pepper his government with questions about rancid tuna, collapsing banks and resignations.

Lampert’s letter, dated Sept. 30, was made public by Conservative party officials three days later. The release took place during a continuing controversy over when Mulroney first knew that former communications minister Marcel Masse, who resigned late last month, was being investigated by the RCMP for alleged election expense irregularities. Mulroney said that he learned of the investigation only hours before Masse resigned from his cabinet position on Sept. 25. But according to Lampert, he had informed Mulroney’s office weeks before that. Both men stuck to their stories until Deputy Prime Minister Erik Nielsen had what he described as “the discussions necessary” with Lampert. The party director’s subsequent letter of retraction led Elzinga, who was directed by Mulroney to investigate the affair, to issue a statement saying that Lampert had made an “appropriate apology.”

Lampert’s retraction followed two others by senior Tories. Former fisheries minister John Fraser, who resigned in the same week as Masse, was persuaded—by Mulroney’s office—to retract his claim that he, not Mulroney, ordered more than a million cans of tainted tuna off the market. Then, Fred McCain, a Tory MP from New Brunswick, reversed his claims that he had raised the tuna issue in Mulroney’s presence as early as last year. But Mulroney declared that he did not know anything about the affair until the CBC broadcast the story Sept. 17.

As the twin shocks of the Fraser and Masse resignations reverberated in Par-

liament last week, the government pursued a damage-control strategy that was designed to starve the opposition and news media of ammunition. But just as one brushfire was put out, others sprang up. During the week The Canadian Press obtained details of government plans to eliminate 1,500 jobs in the Indian affairs and northern development department during the next three years. That forced the department’s minister, David Crombie, to acknowledge that a major shakeup was planned in an effort to make native peoples more responsible for their affairs.

Then, Southam News Services’ allegations that

Suzanne Blais-Grenier, the francophone minister of state for transport, had taken a vacation in Europe, partly at government expense, so incensed Nielsen that he accused the author of the story of “racism.” According to the report, Blais-Grenier holidayed in France and Sweden after attending lowlevel meetings while she was environment minister. Southam also said that in April Blais-Grenier sent a departmental official to Paris for the sole purpose of explaining to the management of a hotel ^ that she, and not her hus5 band, Albert, who accom2 panied her, was the minis9 ter. Nielsen declared in the I House: “I ask myself the question as to whether or not the motivation wasn’t to arouse some kind of racism here.”

Nielsen refused to repeat his comments outside the House and he pushed his way through a waiting group of reporters and television cameras. For her part, Blais-Grenier denied the allegations after meeting with Mulroney. At the same time, criticism of the government’s handling of the closing of the Calgary-based Northland Bank last week spread from the opposition to the government’s own ranks. Alex Kindy, Tory MP for Calgary East, told Maclean's, “It is certainly a bad decision, and those who are responsible for it should be gotten rid of.” Kindy said that he would not go as far as to call for the resignation of Minister of State for Finance Barbara McDougall, but he said that Gerald Bouey, governor of the Bank of Canada, and William Kennett, inspector general of banks, should consider leaving their jobs.

The government’s damage-control efforts were evident as the week began and McDougall announced the Northland’s closure. Almost simultaneously, Mulroney stated that he had appointed Mr. Justice Willard Estey of the Supreme Court of Canada to head a judicial inquiry into the problems of both the Northland and the Edmonton-based Canadian Commercial Bank, which ceased operations on Sept. 1. The opposition parties pledged to fight a bill introduced in Parliament on Thursday that would pay $875 million in government funds to uninsured depositors of both banks. The bill does not cover other, still-unaccounted, expenses associated with the bank bailouts. But Liberal MP Aideen Nicholson noted that the appointment of a judicial inquiry would limit the ability of MPs to get answers from the government to their questions about the bank failures (page 64).

For his part, Mulroney sought to distance himself from the aftermath of the tainted tuna issue by appointing Nielsen acting fisheries minister to field questions on the issue. Still, the Prime Minister did repeat his denial of allegations that he knew about the tuna months before the story became public.

Masse himself appeared to be unconcerned by the controversy that his resignation generated. Attending the Commons as an ordinary MP, he smiled for the TV cameras and responded to reporters’ questions with an affable “no comment.” At the same time, some Tory officials said that the RCMP investigation into Masse’s electoral affairs would soon clear his name. If that happened, Masse could return to the cabinet—and provide assistance to the Mulroney government’s attempts to restore its image.

PAUL GESSELL

in Ottawa