For weeks the Ottawa rumor mill had buzzed with speculation about a spring cabinet shuffle. But when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney finally tipped his hand last week, there were still some major surprises. Instead of merely tinkering with the second tier of ministers—as many observers had predicted—
Mulroney shifted several key players on the Conservative front benches in an apparent effort to strengthen his embattled party for a fall election. Of all the changes, however, none was as unexpected — and politically risky— as Mulroney’s decision to elevate to the cabinet Lucien Bouchard,
49, an old school chum who has never held elected office and who worked as a Parti Québécois organizer during Quebec’s 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association. Bouchard, who quietly resigned as Canada’s ambassador to France on the eve of the shuffle, told reporters later that he plans to run in a Quebec byelection before the summer. Added a beaming Mulroney: “This puts us in fighting trim for an election, when it comes.”
Despite Mulroney’s outward optimism, his decision to appoint his former university classmate to senior political office provoked an immediate opposition response. Bouchard became secretary of state, replacing David Crombie, who resigned last week to head a royal commission into Toronto’s waterfront development. The new minister also joins the select ranks of cabinet’s powerful priorities and planning committee. But Liberal Leader John Turner, for one, called Bouchard’s appointment a “slap in the face” for Quebec Tory MPs. Said Turner: “The only qualification he seems to have is being a close buddy of the Prime Minister.” New Democratic MP Lome Nystrom, meanwhile, called the move a “bastardization of the electoral system”
that could well rebound on the Tories.
The last time a political outsider was named to cabinet was in August, 1975, when then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau chose his close friend Pierre Juneau to be communications minister. Less than two months later Juneau contested a byelection in the supposedly safe Liberal seat of Hochelaga in east-end Montreal, but many local Liberals resented his presence in the riding and refused to campaign actively on his behalf. As a result, Juneau lost the byelection to a Conservative and was forced to resign his portfolio.
For the most part, the other changes during the swearing-in by Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé were designed to address key issues that the government expects will dominate the next election. John Crosbie, a longtime advocate
of free trade with the United States, moved from the transport portfolio to become minister for international trade, a job in which he will be responsible for selling the free trade agreement to the Canadian public. His predecessor in that role, Pat Carney, was demoted to the less demanding position of Treasury Board president. The other major promotion went to Torontoarea MP Barbara McDougall, who—while continuing as minister reponsible for the status of women—now has responsibility for employment and immigration.
Formerly the minister responsible for privatization, she succeeds Benoît Bouchard, who had been widely criticized for his handling of the refugee controversy. He will now serve as transport minister. As one official in the Prime Minister’s Office
put it: “Except for Lucien Bouchard, the shuffle was a fairly surgical operation to deal with some needs and problems. We wanted to shore up the weak spots.”
Privately, many Conservatives said they were pleased by Carney’s departure from the trade portfolio and Crosbie’s arrival. Said one Tory trade strategist: “I cannot tell you how happy I am.” Carney’s abrasive style, according to many party officials, had distanced her from many colleagues, who voiced disappointment at her performance during the free trade debate in the House of Commons last fall.
A Tory official involved with the trade deal said that in the past few months Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski had taken over most of the responsibility for the agreement, while Mulroney’s chief of staff, Derek Burney, had helped to devise strategy. Carney herself has had only “minimal” involvement with the dossier, the official said. Declared another senior Tory: “The bottom line is that Carney was not the right woman because of her personality and her confrontational style.”
By contrast, Crosbie is widely respected among politicians of all parties for both his intellect and his quick wit. “The Prime Minister puts a very high price on his
talent as a popularizer of complicated issues,” said one official close to Mulroney. He added that, with the free trade legislation scheduled to go before the Commons sometime in the next few weeks, the Tories badly need someone who can mobilize support for the deal among ordinary Canadians: “We need a person whom people will listen to and enjoy, nod their heads and think is credible.” Crosbie himself called the trade package the “crown jewel” of the Tories’ achievements, adding: “I certainly intend to be a cannon, but not a loose one. Our job is to sell.”
For McDougall, elevation to the immigration portfolio may prove a decidedly mixed blessing. She gained a coveted seat on the priorities and planning committee—the so-called inner cabinet. But she also inherited the challenging task of trying to sort out Canada’s policy on refugee claimants—more than 47,000 of whom are currently living in Canada.
Indeed, on the same day that McDougall was sworn in as immigration minister last week, 22 Turks in Montreal who had been threatened with deportation went on a hunger strike in an effort to force the federal and Qqebec governments to allow them to stay in Canada as
refugees. Hours later they called a halt to the protest but warned that they would resume it unless McDougall agreed to meet with them. Observed a senior Tory official: “Employment and immigration is a suicide portfolio. No minister has ever come out looking good. They come out staggering and reeling.”
At week’s end, senior Tories said they were still searching for a safe Quebec seat for Bouchard. “You have to get him into the House,” said a key strategist, “but now that expectations have built up, you have to make damn sure he does not lose.” Bouchard, meanwhile, said that he was dismayed that many high-ranking Tories are touting him as a potential “savior” of the party’s fortunes in Quebec. The Tories currently hold 57 of 75 federal seats in the province, but recent opinion polls consistently put the party in third place there. “Savior—that is a poisonous word,” Bouchard told reporters. “I will not be a savior. I will be on the team.” Still, Mulroney is clearly banking heavily on Bouchard to add lustre to his government in the critical run-up to the next election.
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