CANADA

A Tory who refuses to toe the line

MARC CLARK November 2 1987
CANADA

A Tory who refuses to toe the line

MARC CLARK November 2 1987

A Tory who refuses to toe the line

For almost a year the tension between Conservative MP Fernand Jourdenais and the Mulroney government had mounted. A rookie member for La Prairie, Que., southwest of Montreal, Jourdenais is a self-styled “fighter.” In recent months he had urged the firing of a top bureaucrat, and he described government proposals to toughen the immigration and refugee system as “garbage.” Then, in September, he called for an inquiry after Mila Mulroney, the Prime Minister’s wife, was indirectly involved in the immigration request of a French citizen who teaches her children at an Ottawa private school. With that, his fellow Tories had had enough. Three weeks ago they voted Jourdenais out of his post as chairman of the House of Commons committee on labor, employment and immigration—and Tory MP Ricardo Lopez challenged him to quit the Conservative caucus entirely. Jourdenais now awaits a phone call from Brian Mulroney to decide his political future. Said Jourdenais: “He’s my boss. Only he can fire

me.

Whatever his fate, Jourdenais’s troubles with his party raised doubts about the government’s willingness to tolerate criticism from within. Three years ago Parliament adopted governmentsupported reforms designed to loosen rigid party discipline—particularly for backbenchers, government MPs who do not sit in cabinet. MPs on both sides of the House of Commons lauded the changes, which included committee budgets for research assistance and greater independence for the 29 standing Commons committees that review government affairs. But Jourdenais’s removal as chairman of the immigration committee, charged NDP House Leader Nelson Riis, has prompted “serious questioning of the government’s commitment to parliamentary reform.”

Jourdenais, a 54-year-old businessman, lost his committee chairmanship on Oct. 7 when the other six Conservatives on the 11-member committeefour of them appointed only weeks earlier by the government—voted against him at a raucous meeting. Jourdenais

promptly branded the Tories “patsies” of the party. And NDP MP Raymond Skelly charged that the government put the new Tories on the committee in “an orchestrated move to squelch free speech.”

In fact, the government has tolerated wide criticism of its policies by Commons committees and, on occasion, has

even changed proposals in response. One example: in the aftermath of the collapse of the Canadian Commercial and Northland banks in 1985, the government accepted about half of the finance committee’s 133 recommendations—rejecting key elements of government policy—on the reform of financial institutions. And chairman Donald Bienkarn, Tory MP for Mississauga South, said that the committee expects to table a report in mid-November urging extensive changes to Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s proposals for tax reform.

Other committees, and other reports, have not fared so well. In mid-October Justice Minister Ray Hnatyshyn rejected all but 10 of 108 unanimous recommendations by an all-party committee for reform of Canada’s access-to-information laws. The government also rejected a part of the finance committee’s report that called for limits on ownership of large financial institutions.

Still, the reforms have undeniably given committees greater freedom. Ex-

cept when the government calls an end to a session of Parliament, party whips can now change committee members only once a year, in September, rather than twice a year—giving MPS greater security in their committee roles. And for the first time, committees have money to hire research staff—about $100,000 for the finance panel this year,

plus a budget of $350,000 for crosscountry hearings into tax reform—and the right to travel in Canada without seeking special permission from the House.

As for Jourdenais, several MPs said that his problem was less his outspokenness than his penchant for personalizing his attacks—particularly his repeated calls for the firing of Gaétan Lussier, the powerful deputy minister of employment and immigration, because of the way the department is run. Jourdenais himself was unrepentant. “Yes, I have shaken the cages of some powerful people,” said the former insurance salesman and cheese shop owner. “But who runs the country? The bureaucrats or the parliamentarians?” By week’s end, Jourdenais had not yet heard from Mulroney—and said that he would decide this week whether to stay in the Conservative party. “Who knows?” he added. “Maybe I’ll go back to selling cheese.”

— MARC CLARK in Ottawa