CANADA

'Hold on to your hats’

PAUL GESSELL January 27 1986
CANADA

'Hold on to your hats’

PAUL GESSELL January 27 1986

'Hold on to your hats’

CANADA

Industry Minister Sinclair Stevens was unapologetic. His controversial role in the closure of a Montreal oil refinery last month had led to the resignation of one cabinet minister, Suzanne Blais-Grenier, and evoked the first major expressions of dissent within the Conservative parliamentary caucus. With derisive references to “the minister for Ontario,” some Quebec Tories had accused Stevens of neglecting the economic interests of their province. But as parliamentarians returned to Ottawa last week from their annual Christmas break, Stevens—still recovering from heart bypass surgery—maintained his composure. The criticism, said the MP for York-Peel with a broad

grin, “didn’t faze me too much.” But Maclean's has learned that in the days before Parliament reconvened, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney seriously considered moving Stevens into another portfolio. Part of the reason was Stevens’s failure to consult with Quebec ministers on key government decisions. Among them: the projected Hyundai automobile plant in Quebec, the sale of Toronto-based, Crown-owned de Havilland aircraft, and the closing of the Gulf Canada refinery in Montreal with the loss of 433 jobs (page 12). Instead, deferring a cabinet shuffle, Mulroney returned from the holiday recess determined to rally his 210-member caucus—and the party’s sagging fortunes.

The Conservative strategy seemed based on the maxim that the best defence is a good offence. In a flourish of partisan spirit, Mulroney delivered what some Conservatives described as a “pep talk” at the weekly Tory caucus meeting on Parliament Hill, apparently to good effect. Disgruntled Tory MPs who had complained volubly about the refinery closing—and sale to Britishowned Ultramar Canada Ltd.—suddenly endorsed the cabinet’s handling of the affair. Carole Jacques, the first Montreal Tory MP to criticize the Gulf deal, emerged from the caucus meeting to deliver a tub-thumping speech in the Commons defending the government. The Prime Minister himself was in high spirits, declaring: “The caucus is united, delighted, raring to go. And so am I. Just hang on to your hats.” Mulroney also seemed intent on restoring his own personal reputation. In recent months he had carefully distanced himself from government controversies, letting other senior ministers respond to opposition attacks in Question Period and avoiding the press. Last week, returning to the parliamentary forum, the Prime Minister seized centre stage. He tackled Liberal and New Democrat questions with arm-waving oratory and finger-pointing ripostes. Responding to criticism on the Ultramar issue, Mulroney accused the Liberals of blatant hypocrisy, noting that three other Quebec oil refineries had been shut during the Liberal years in power. Outside the House, Mulroney stopped frequently to chat with reporters and tourists, exchanging views on the issues of the day. The Prime Minister’s “more feisty mood,” said Tory MP Geoffrey Scott, “is certainly what the people want.” Still, that show of energy obscured deep concern in Tory ranks about the political damage incurred recently. Criticisms from his own ranks that the federal cabinet lacked strong Quebec voices had almost convinced Mulroney to shuffle his cabinet during the Christmas break—and give Quebec ministers a higher profile. Telephone calls had even been placed from the Prime Minister’s Office, advising ministers to stand by for a change in status. Stevens, Treasury Board President Robert de Cotret and a few others were to have been reassigned. Ministers Robert Layton (mines), Jack Murta (tourism) and Walter McLean (immigration) were to be dropped. And Quebec MP Marcel Danis was among a handful of backbenchers slated for promotion. But the idea of a major shuffle was postponed because Mulroney did not want to be perceived as making changes in a mood of political panic. At week’s end Mulroney also had a piece of good economic news for Quebec: the reopening, with federal,

provincial and private funding, of the ITT-Rayonier paper mill in Port Cartier, in his own riding of Manicougan.

Inside the Commons, opposition MPs were on the attack. Their clear objective: to sustain the negative publicity generated for the government by the refinery closing and other issues. Both Liberals and New Democrats, buoyed by favorable public opinion polls, contend that they are on the threshold of capturing disillusioned Quebec voters from the Conservatives. The Ultramar issue, said Liberal caucus chairman Douglas Frith, “allowed us to create a major bridgehead in Quebec.” New Democratic Party MP Lome Nystrom said that the antagonism toward Tories in Quebec could provide his party’s longsought breakthrough in the province. Added Nystrom: “Quebec is the priority now, like it hasn’t been for a long, long time.”

But opposition MPs claim that Canadians are more dissatisfied with Mulroney personally than with his government. In separate interviews with Maclean ’s

both Frith, from the Northern Ontario constituency of Sudbury, and Nystrom, representing the eastern Saskatchewan riding of Yorkton-Melville, said that the Prime Minister’s credibility problems have led many of their constituents to refer to Mulroney as “lyin’ Brian.”

On the government side of the House, Tory MPs said they were bewildered by the criticism. The nation’s economy has improved markedly since the Conservatives came to power—a point stressed at every opportunity by Mulroney—but the public perception—as reflected in the polls —appears to be that the government has achieved little. William Tupper, a freshman Tory MP, said that there is a common theme in the comments he hears from his constituents in Nepean-Carleton, a suburban Ottawa riding. “They say, ‘Bill, I wish the government would pull up its socks and get on with things.’ ” Officials close to the Prime Minister concede privately that Mulroney has an image problem. To correct it, Mulroney’s

advisers are considering arranging visits to rural communities across the country. Their reasoning: the Prime Minister performs better in smalltown hockey rinks and legion halls than at big-city, black-tie dinners, and he generates more favorable media reviews outside the capital.

Beyond Quebec, there was renewed criticism last week of the government’s handling of the de Havilland issue. A parliamentary committee set up to examine the sale of the firm to the U.S. aerospace giant Boeing had scheduled a long slate of witnesses. But the Conservative majority on the panel voted to restrict the list of witnesses, prompting Liberals and New Democrats alike to denounce the government’s high-handed tactics.

Yet the Prime Minister’s major problem last week was clearly the economy. Falling unemployment rates—down to 10 per cent last month, the lowest since the spring of 1982— and inflation under control at an annual rate of four per cent were increasingly difficult to keep in public focus as interest rates climbed and the dollar declined on foreign exchanges. And the overall improvement in the economy apparently has not allayed business concerns about the nation’s $33.8-billion federal budget deficit.

While Finance Minister Michael Wilson, a former Bay Street investment executive, is still regarded highly in business circles, Mulroney’s reputation has suffered. Asked to rate the current cabinet, Geoffrey Hale, director of government relations for the Canadian Organization of Small Business, gave high marks to Wilson, Energy Minister Patricia Carney and Transport Minister Don Mazankowski. But Hale said others had problems with the “the wimp factor, the klutz factor, the credibility problem.” He refused to comment on Mulroney’s performance, but he added, “You can read into that what you want.”

The chief beneficiary of the Tory setbacks has been Opposition Leader John Turner. Since the Liberals’ massive electoral defeat in 1984, Turner has travelled 300,000 km across the country, largely mending fences within the party. Still, as the party gathered for a weekend caucus in Ottawa, the Liberals remained divided over many basic issues, including free trade. They also recognized that their current standing had more to do with Tory losses than Liberal victories and could quickly turn against them. But with both major parties on the attack, the current parliamentary session seemed certain to produce some epic confrontations.

HILARY MACKENZIE

-PAUL GESSELL with HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa