CANADA

FIGHTING FOR FAVOR

HIGH HOPES AND SHRUNKEN BUDGETS MARK THE TORY PLAN FOR A NEW SESSION OF PARLIAMENT

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 27 1991
CANADA

FIGHTING FOR FAVOR

HIGH HOPES AND SHRUNKEN BUDGETS MARK THE TORY PLAN FOR A NEW SESSION OF PARLIAMENT

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 27 1991

FIGHTING FOR FAVOR

CANADA

HIGH HOPES AND SHRUNKEN BUDGETS MARK THE TORY PLAN FOR A NEW SESSION OF PARLIAMENT

Gov. Gen. Ramon Hnatyshyn opened the third session of Canada’s 34th Parliament last week with a speech from the throne that, in the government’s words, signalled “a turning point in Canadian history.” But for an administration that is seeking a fresh approach to the future, the unsolved problems of the present were impossible to escape. Just one day after Hnatyshyn outlined a federal plan to bolster national unity, Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the separatist Bloc Québécois and once a close friend of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s, accused his former ally of preparing “to strike against Quebec.” The next day, Quebec’s Liberal government tabled a bill that, if passed, would permit it to hold a referendum on sovereignty within 13 months. In reply, a tough-talking Mulroney told the House of Commons that a separate Quebec would face “economic disaster.”

As Parliament returned after a 30-day recess, such angry exchanges over the Constitution obscured the government’s efforts to deal with a welter of problems that have driven Mulroney’s Conservatives to record lows in public opinion polls. In what one adviser to the Prime Minister described as a “twin-track” strategy, the throne speech concentrated on linking national unity to the need for Canadian commerce and industry to become internationally competitive. Other initiatives included the appointment of former chief justice Brian Dickson to advise the government on the creation of a royal commission on aboriginal issues, and the promise of a “blue-ribbon” panel to study violence against women. The throne speech, which was drafted by senior officials including Clerk of the Privy Council Paul Tellier and Norman Spector, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and which Mulroney himself polished, also committed the government to try to nego-

tiate the removal of more than 500 barriers to interprovincial trade by 1995. In addition, it promised steps to make members of Parliament more responsive to their constituents.

Those ambitious plans, however, appeared to rest on a mixture of high hopes and lowbudget promises. In fact, although the word “prosperity” was uttered no fewer than 17 times in the 25-minute throne speech, the address was almost devoid of references to new programs or legislation. And many financial analysts said that they were baffled by the government’s forecast that Canadian incomes would rise by 25 per cent by the end of the century. Said Douglas Peters, the chief economist of the Toronto-Dominion Bank, for one: “I

am in favor of prosperity—and the government should be in favor of it, too. I just wish there was something in the throne speech that would get us there.”

In fact, the speech did include a declaration that the government intends to foster “a learning culture” throughout Canada in order to promote productivity. That was greeted with outright incredulity in academic circles, which have weathered cuts in federal funding of postsecondary education in the past two Tory budgets. Robert Kerr, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, noted that the successive cuts have stripped $580 million from postsecondary education since 1989. Added Kerr: “Yet the government has

the gall to call on universities to double the number of graduates in science, engineering and mathematics. It should put its money where its mouth is.”

Quebec officials, meanwhile, denounced the declaration as a federal intrusion into provincial jurisdiction over education. Said Gil Rémillard, Quebec’s intergovernmental affairs minister: “If we want to have efficiency in this country, we should avoid contradictions.” In the Commons, the reference to unspecified educational initiatives provoked a heated exchange be-

tween Mulroney and Jean Lapierre, House leader of the Bloc Québécois. To Lapierre’s taunt that Mulroney should “mind your own business” and stay out of education, the Prime Minister shot back: “It zsmy business.” And he sarcastically reminded the Bloc MP: “Because you are a Canadian, you turned out to be educated, prosperous-looking and so dignified—from time to time.”

By contrast, the government’s proposals for constitutional change were both more detailed and better received. In a clear acknowledgment that a large majority of Canadians demand greater involvement in the constitutional process, the government promised to submit its own ideas for national reform—to be unveiled over the summer—to a new committee of MPs and senators that will travel the country

in the fall to “hear the views of men and women across Canada.” The committee is to report its findings by the end of next January. At that point, according to the throne speech, the government plans to introduce legislation enabling it to “provide for greater participation of Canadian men and women in constitutional change.” That participation could take the form of either a nationwide referendum on draft amendments or a constituent assembly empowered to devise actual changes. However, Mulroney appeared to dismiss the assembly option last week when he declared: “There is no greater constituent assembly than the House of Commons.”

In keeping with the government’s efforts to convince the public that it wants to keep partisan politics out of the constitutional process, both Mulroney and Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that they hope to work closely with Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien and New Democratic Party Leader Audrey McLaughlin. The opposition leaders said that they are prepared to do so—with some reservations. Chrétien, asked whether he could work with the government on its announced constitutional timetable, replied: “I have no choice—I want to see their package of proposals.” That remark later led Bouchard to say that Chrétien and Mulroney are now “allies” who “march hand in hand against Quebec.”

Mulroney’s advisers acknowledge that Quebec’s plans for a provincial referendum may challenge their own timetable. Under terms of the legislation tabled in the National Assembly last week, the province plans to hold a referendum on sovereignty next year during one of two periods: either between June 8 and 22, or between Oct. 12 and 26. A majority “yes” vote could lead the province to declare its independence one year later. But the ambiguously worded Quebec bill also would allow Premier Robert Bourassa’s government to avoid any referendum on sovereignty if, in the meantime, it receives a formal offer of constitutional reform from the rest of the country that it considers acceptable. Citing that provision, close advisers to Bourassa insisted last week that the legislation demonstrates Quebec’s desire to reach a new constitutional agreement with the rest of Canada. Said one: “We are saying we want Quebec in Canada, and we are doing what we can to try to maintain that.”

Indeed, it is clear that neither Bourassa nor Mulroney—who leaves this week for a 12-day trip to Hong Kong and Tokyo—can afford to ignore the other’s timetable and political imperatives. And in fact, the two men are in frequent contact. They conferred by telephone shortly before the Quebec bill was introduced. As a result of the call, said an adviser to Mulroney, “There was nothing in [the bill] we had not known about. We are satisfied they are acting in good faith.” As Mulroney strives to salvage his government’s popularity and the country’s future, that commodity may become increasingly important.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH and GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa

GLEN ALLEN in