BUSINESS WATCH

The Prime Minister’s political choices

It is difficult to pick out any citizens Mulroney has yet to alienate, as he implements policies he feels are needed, no matter how unpopular

Peter C. Newman February 12 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

The Prime Minister’s political choices

It is difficult to pick out any citizens Mulroney has yet to alienate, as he implements policies he feels are needed, no matter how unpopular

Peter C. Newman February 12 1990

The Prime Minister’s political choices

PETER C. NEWMAN

BUSINESS WATCH

It is difficult to pick out any citizens Mulroney has yet to alienate, as he implements policies he feels are needed, no matter how unpopular

Because perception has become reality, politicians’ images seldom catch up with changes in their attitudes. Brian Mulroney is a case in point. There was a time, especially during his first three years in office, when he longed so hard to bask in public acclaim that he seemed willing to do almost anything to avoid making political enemies. His desire to be revered was a serious misreading of how Canadian voters feel about prime ministers—a relationship that demands not love, but respect. Mulroney’s initial shying away from tough decisions was all too reminiscent of the sentiment attributed to Voltaire. When the French philosopher lay on his deathbed, an attending priest demanded, “Monsieur Voltaire, would you like to renounce the devil?” The dying man looked momentarily startled, shook his head and replied: “Certainly not. This is no time to make new enemies.”

But ever since he was re-elected with a second majority 15 months ago, Mulroney has been behaving very differently. Instead of trying to ingratiate himself with public and press, the Prime Minister has tackled a sequence of politically hazardous issues that have made him enemies, effortlessly. It’s difficult to pick out any group of citizens he has yet to alienate with his various initiatives, as he goes on implementing policies he feels are necessary, no matter how unpopular. His party’s recent dip in the Gallup poll to just 22 per cent, less than half the public support for the leaderless Liberals, testifies to the negative impact of Mulroney’s tough stance.

No longer agreeable to having his daily schedule driven by photo opportunities, the Prime Minister has given up attempting to please the Parliamentary Press Gallery because he is convinced most of its members will never give him an even break. He has not held a formal news conference in Ottawa’s National Press Building in more than two years, since Jan. 18, 1987, a record equalled only by one other head of government: Ramiz Alia, the president of Albania.

Although Michael Wilson’s April, 1989, budget was the toughest since the Second World War, this month’s document will be even more brutal, slashing not only current estimates of future spending but departmental infrastructures. While $8 billion or so has already been cut out of the annual budget deficit inherited from the Trudeau years, the Tories are determined to slice the current figure in half (to $15 billion) by 1993. As part of that exercise, Mulroney hasn’t budged on implementing a Goods and Services Tax—even in the face of mounting universal opposition, bound to grow as the 1991 deadline approaches.

At the same time, that most sacred of Canadian institutions, universality of social programs, has been discarded with the clawback provisions to tax back children’s allowances and old-age pension payments from upperbracket income earners. Day care, the main Tory plank of the 1988 election, has been forgotten; the glowing promises to buy new defence equipment, shelved.

Abortion, the most controversial issue of all, was tackled in a way that has made both prolifers and pro-choice advocates so angry that the compromise legislation just might slip through the middle. Unemployment insurance,

another formerly untouchable subject, is finally being reformed by the withdrawal of $3 billion in federal funding. Via Rail, subsidized by $5 billion during the past 12 years, has been gutted, despite widely supported protests.

After interminable years of haggling, native land claims are being settled, including the biggest of them all, the 260,000 square kilometres ceded to the Inuit of the central and eastern Arctic. And although Pierre Trudeau, first as justice minister and later as prime minister, had access to the same files for 20 years, nothing was done until recently to start prosecuting alleged Nazi war criminals resident in Canada, despite protests by some ethnic groups.

Most of the action on environmental issues remains to be taken, but the Tories have moved against the Rafferty-Alameda Dam in Saskatchewan and have bluntly told the Alberta government that the $ 1.3-billion pulp mill Alberta Pacific Forest Industries is planning on the Athabasca River is environmentally unacceptable.

These and other steps (including deep cuts in transfer payments expected in the next budget) are being implemented at a time when Ottawa desperately needs provincial support to save the Meech Lake accord. The agreement was already in jeopardy, with the Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland premiers in active opposition. But now that Pierre Trudeau has mutated into Jean Chrétien on the national stage, opponents of the deal suddenly have the immense advantage of a leading French-Canadian touring the country proclaiming that, not to worry, Quebec won’t up and leave Confederation if the accord is not ratified.

Even if Chrétien is right, Quebec will never ask for less to join Canada’s constitutional family. Meech was negotiated at one of those rare moments in Canadian history when partisan differences were forgotten and 10 premiers, as well as the leaders of the three national parties, unanimously agreed on an acceptable formula. What has happened since proves just how rare that moment really was and how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to re-create.

Public support for Meech Lake has waned partly because of two basic misunderstandings. Too many Canadians still equate the existing Constitution’s “notwithstanding” clause with Meech Lake’s “distinct society” provision. There is no connection. The former condition was put into the 1982 document, at the request of western premiers led by Manitoba’s Sterling Lyon, to protect western legislatures from centralist intrusion; the latter is a historically rooted description of one of Canada’s founding societies. Another point of confusion is the feeling that Meech Lake was somehow responsible for the Quebec law forbidding outside signs in English. Again, there is no connection, although the unfortunate timing of Robert Bourassa’s election-inspired legislation has left an understandably bitter taste in English Canada.

The Meech Lake accord is the new, tough Brian Mulroney’s greatest gamble. This time, he hasn’t just bet the family farm; he has bet the country.