The clash of opinions was carefully restrained—and icily correct. First, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told reporters at the close of last week’s First Ministers’ meeting in Toronto that Ottawa has the legal right to implement all aspects of its proposed free trade agreement with the United States, even in areas of provincial jurisdiction. “I would be relying on very solid legal advice,” he maintained. Fifteen minutes later his host, Ontario Premier David Peterson, firmly declared that Mulroney might have the right to sign treaties—but he could not impose them on areas controlled by the provinces. “The fight is a very long way from over on this free trade matter,” he insisted. Then, as his fellow prePeckford: miers and Mulroney headed home, Peterson struggled to summarize the spirit of the two-day debate: “The fact that we got through it without a lot of blood on the floor is wholesome in itself.”
Indeed, Mulroney and the premiers congratulated themselves that Canadians were not treated to an unseemly
spectacle. But their mutual applause did not conceal the fact that from the moment each leader made his opening statement, deep divisions remained on the merits of the free trade pact. Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba reaffirmed their adamant opposition to the proposed accord. In turn, Mulroney
countered that “governing Canada by committee” is impossible—and he added that his government intends to go ahead with the agreement.
While free trade was not even on the conference’s formal agenda—which included overfishing by foreign countries in Canadian waters, regional develop-
ment and government plans to increase spending on research and development in Canada—it overshadowed all other issues. Indeed, Mulroney had been expected to outline a proposed national day care program to the premiers; in the end, the subject was not even raised. Only the mention of Senate reform
caused a brief flurry of excitement. One provincial official complained that the trade agreement had clouded the vision of all involved. “It’s almost like a cataract,” he said.
For Mulroney, who last week cited free trade with the United States as one of the things he would like to be remembered for, the meeting had both sweet and sour moments. Mulroney and the premiers had met nine times previously to discuss free trade, but last week’s meeting was their first public session on that subject.
public on With national television cameras trained on him, Mulroney listened as Ontario’s David Peterson urged his fellow premiers to reject the deal, calling it “a desperate attempt to buy some shortterm goodwill south of the border.”
But there was success for the Prime Minister as well, as Newfoundland Pre-
mier Brian Peckford came out in favor of the proposed trade agreement. Peckford, who until last week had been noncommittal, rejected suggestions that Mulroney had bought his support by promising to help Newfoundland in its fight for a better price for the hydroelectric power it sells to Quebec from Churchill Falls in Labrador. All Mulroney would say is that he was “sympathetic to the notion of more equitable development” of Newfoundland’s hydro power and that he would help Peckford “by the book.”
Transport Minister John Crosbie, the federal government’s senior political minister for Newfoundland, said that it was obvious that Peckford felt strongly about developing Labrador’s hydro potential. And, added Crosbie: “I believe that the Prime Minister is willing to do what he can to assist there—and will.” Federal officials privately told Maclean's that Peckford left the conference with no guarantees — but with the understanding that officials from Newfoundland, Quebec and Ottawa would sit down soon to discuss the contentious energy issue.
But while Peckford gave Mulroney his support, Ontario’s Peterson seemed to harden his opposition. A critic of the proposed deal since it was signed on Oct. 3, Peterson waited until Nov. 23two days before last week’s meeting opened—to announce that he would not implement a key provision that would end discriminatory pricing of U.S. wine sold in Ontario. Considered a deal breaker by the Americans, the clause would require the provinces to phase out over seven years higher markups on foreign wines compared to domestic wines.
But Peterson maintained that Ontario’s wine and grape industry needs a 12-year transition period to adjust. Asked about the timing of his announcement, Peterson said that he did not want to “mislead” anyone before the final text of the free trade agreement is made public. Said the premier: “Now they know where we stand.” To emphasize the point, Peterson served Ontario wine at both the reception and dinner for the premiers on Wednesday night.
Still, the tone of exchanges between Mulroney and Peterson was surprisingly civil. Indeed, aides to Mulroney said before the meeting that his strategy was to remain unruffled—although they confessed to wondering if the Prime Minister could maintain a statesmanlike demeanor. But, while there were strong undercurrents of tension between Mulroney and Peterson during the two-day session, the surface atmosphere remained calm. And officials who attended private briefings with the first ministers said that, even behind closed doors, testy
exchanges were kept to a minimum.
In fact, Peterson came closest to losing his temper, not with Mulroney but with Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine, who criticized Peterson in terms that were almost personal. Devine said that Ontario selfishly wanted to keep the prosperity it had achieved through the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact to itself, while denying other provinces the
same benefits. How could Ontario oppose free trade, Devine asked, when 85 per cent of its exports go to the United States? He added: “I envy Ontario.” Donald Getty of Alberta and William Vander Zalm of British Columbia raised the same argument. Getty pointed out that unemployment in Oshawa—where General Motors of Canada Ltd. has its largest auto plant—is so low that it was not recorded by Statistics Canada this fall. And Vander Zalm urged Peterson to reconsider his opposition to the free trade pact. But whereas Getty was good-natured in his comments—betting Peter-
son a barrel of oil against a barrel of Ontario wine that the Edmonton Eskimos would beat the Toronto Argonauts at last weekend’s Grey Cup game—Devine quipped sarcastically that both products taste about the same.
Peterson had harsh words of his own about his two fellow premiers. “I find it passing strange,” he said, “that some of the strongest proponents of
strongest proponents free trade with the United States are the biggest protectionists within their own borders.” While Peterson did not identify them publicly, Maclean’s learned that in the premiers’ private afternoon session, he singled out Peckford and Vander Zalm for holding up negotiations to dismantle barriers to interprovincial trade.
Earlier, during the public session, Mulroney used the example of New Brunswick’s Moosehead beer, saying that it was “silly” that a beer that is sold in the United States was not available in other parts of Canada. While a federal-provincial task force has been trying to identify and eventually reduce such barriers, Newfoundland and British Columbia delayed the work last summer by refusing to sign a memorandum of agreement. Peterson urged the other premiers to deal with those barriers, saying that “all it really needs is an act of political will.” The premiers took a step toward solving that problem last week, agreeing to set up a committee of ministers that will report to
their next conference on the economy-planned for Calgary in December, 1988—on progress made in dismantling internal trade barriers.
The strains among the leaders were also apparent on another issue. Peterson, Prince Edward Island’s Joseph Ghiz and Manitoba’s Howard Pawley told reporters that Mulroney had used the Friday closed-door session to persuade the premiers of the need to weaken the Senate’s veto power. Pawley added that Mulroney had told him to expect a formal “communication” on the subject within weeks.
But the Prime Minister’s aides
quickly denied that version of events. They said that while Mulroney did mention Senate reform, and cited a 1985 proposal by Crosbie to dilute the Senate’s powers to veto legislation passed by the House of Commons, the discussions were purely informal. Indeed, Senator Lowell Murray, the minister responsible for federal-provincial relations and government leader in the Senate, said that Ottawa does not plan to hold a constitutional conference until the Meech Lake accord is ratified by Parliament and all the provincial legislatures.
Despite that skirmish, Mulroney said that he took comfort from the fact that more premiers supported than opposed him on his main concern: the trade accord. But while the Prime Minister told reporters that his allies numbered seven, two of those he included—New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna and Nova Scotia’s John Buchanan—had not declared publicly where they stood. McKenna, whose Liberals swept all 58 legislature seats in the Oct. 13 provincial election, remained largely unknown at the conference. Because his officials were still analysing the free trade agreement, he
said little on the accord except that it contained both “perils and potentials” and that he will make his opinion known when the analysis is complete.
Buchanan, meanwhile, is expected to support Mulroney in the end. But for the time being, he withheld his approval, despite Mulroney’s reassurances that regional development programs would not be affected by the free trade deal. When Buchanan told the Prime Minister that a senior official had told him the opposite, MuL roney said, “You can quote me as a senior official from Ottawa.”
Despite his sometimes jocular tone, Mulroney made it clear that he wanted—but did not need—the premiers’ support to proceed with the trade accord. In a sharp exchange with Pawley, the sole New Democratic premier and a firm opponent of the deal, Mulroney said that he is obligated to provide national leadership “whether it is popular or not.” His message: that he would sign the agreement with or without acrossthe-board provincial support. Indeed, in recent weeks Mulroney has indicated several times that he is confident enough of public support that he might even call an early election on the issue.
But there are major milestones to pass before free trade can become an election issue. Negotiators for the United States and Canada are scheduled to meet again in Ottawa this week to put the finishing touches on a final draft of the agreement— which will run to more than 1,000 pages, compared to the 35-page text signed by the two sides on Oct. 3. The draft is written in legal language that one Mulroney adviser said is so dense “it’s a bit like reading your mortgage.” Originally expected in late October, the text was delayed by legal disputes between the two sides. The negotiators have until Jan. 2— the date that under U.S. law President Ronald Reagan and Mulroney must sign the agreement—to iron out the legal wrinkles, but the premiers have asked for more time to look at the accord before that date. And Mulroney has undertaken to hold another meeting—their 11th on free trade— when the text is complete. Last week’s session was a clear sign that it, too, is likely to be divisive.
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