A B.C. win over the veto, but the welfare war rages on
NO END OF ANGER
A B.C. win over the veto, but the welfare war rages on
The meeting was brief, the atmosphere congenial and the Prime Minister reflective. Last Wednesday evening, B.C.’s six Liberal MPs were summoned to Jean Chrétien’s third-floor office in Parliament’s Centre Block. For 20 minutes, they listened as Chrétien quietly discussed his government’s controversial national unity legislation, with its distinct society clause for Quebec, and its regional constitutional vetoes for Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario and the West. The B.C. members were waiting to hear that their intense lobbying, combined with public pressure from constituents, had convinced the Prime Minister to amend the package by extending the veto to British Columbia. But Chrétien kept them guessing. “My hunch was we’d won,” said Vancouver Quadra MP Edward McWhinney. “I called some close friends that night and told them, ‘I think we’re home.’ ”
The following afternoon, federal Justice Minister Allan Rock, flanked by his delighted B.C. caucus colleagues, announced that the country’s third-largest province would be elevated and given its own veto. Under this plan, Alberta would effectively have a veto as well because it has more than 50 per cent of the population in the three Prairie provinces, which would constitute a region. The decision took some—but not all—of the steam out of a mounting protest over the government’s original plan to lump B.C. with the three Prairie provinces. Political leaders of all stripes in the province dismissed Ottawa’s move as a superficial bid to deal with a deep and abiding discontent with the status quo. As well, British Columbia and Ottawa remained embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious dispute over the province’s new three-month residency rule for welfare recipients, which last week prompted federal
Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy to withhold $47 million in transfer payments. As B.C. Premier Mike Harcourt put it: “Ottawa has got to understand that the reason there is such public outrage over their veto screwup is only because it is the last in a long list of discriminatory action against British Columbia.”
The Chrétien government’s demonstration of political flexibility received an equally rough ride elsewhere in the country. Bloc Québécois constitutional critic Pierrette Venne said it simply demonstrated that the veto offered to Quebec was worthless. “It doesn’t mean anything, and the proof is that it didn’t take a week for B.C. to obtain it,” she said. Conservative premiers Ralph Klein of Alberta and Gary Filmon of Manitoba both expressed reservations about the effectiveness and necessity of the vetoes. And Reform party unity critic Stephen Harp-
er said that the Liberals had revealed their lack of a coherent constitutional strategy. “It should be transparently obvious that this government is operating by the seat of its pants,” he said.
Despite the criticism, the Liberal unity bill, drafted to fulfil Chrétien’s promise of political change made during the dying days of the Quebec referendum, was expected to be passed before the House of Commons recessed for Christmas on Dec. 15. Introduced on Nov. 27, the bill had immediately stirred up regional resentments. In British Columbia, politicians were harshly critical, callers to open-line radio shows denounced it, and hundreds of others wrote letters and made phone calls urging their MPs to reject
it. “Some of the letters were very vituperative, almost pathological,” said McWhinney a former professor of constitutional law at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “Lumping us together with the three Prairie provinces became a very dangerous symbol of eastern Canada’s disregard of B.C.”
that granting regional vetoes could weaken the country by making constitutional change impossible. Furniture installer James Braid, 33, added: “I believe in one Canada, but with no vetoes and no special status for Quebec.”
The fight over the Liberal unity package occurred in the midst of what has become a protracted and increasingly heated dispute between B.C. and Ottawa over financial support for social programs. In September, provincial Social Services Minister Joy McPhail announced that the government planned to introduce a threemonth residency requirement for welfare recipients, effective on Dec. 1, a move aimed
The province’s Liberal MPs responded with a well-co-ordinated, high-pressure campaign to change the unity bill. ‘We literally dropped everything else for this,” an adviser to one member told Maclean’s. Revenue Minister Dave Anderson, the province’s only member of cabinet, met at least twice privately with Chrétien, and other B.C. MPs presented their case in private conversations with cabinet ministers. McWhinney said he wrote the Prime Minister to explain that population growth and immigration over the past 20 years had changed the character of the B.C. to such an extent that it could no longer be considered just another western province. The B.C. members also worked on their western colleagues. “I read some of the letters I’d received at a meeting of the western caucus and people were astonished,” said McWhinney. “We got widespread support, especially from the Saskatchewan MPs.”
But despite the success of the lobbying effort, many British Columbians were anything but grateful. Rafe Mair, host of a hugely popular open-line show on Vancouver’s CKNW radio, opened his program on Dec. 8 by telling listeners that the vetoes would allow Ontario and Quebec to maintain the constitutional status quo and then added: “That is totally and fundamentally wrong.” Elsewhere in Vancouver, opinions were much the same. Sipping a coffee at a downtown restaurant, 49-year-old geophysicist David Howe said
`The veto screwupis the last in a long list of discriminatory actions'
at saving $26 million a year. However, Axworthy declared that the new rule violates the Canada Assistance Plan, and on Dec. 5 he announced that Ottawa would withhold $47 million in transfer payments.
While the residency rule had turned into a tactical blunder from a financial perspective, some experienced government watchers in British Columbia said that the province’s embattled New Democrats, who must call a provincial election within the next year, could still collect a political dividend from the dispute. “Bashing Ottawa is a tried and true formula to gain public support,” said University of British Columbia political scientist Paul Tennant. “McPhail and her government will gain a lot of sympathy with this.”
The federal minister insisted that he was merely upholding the law, as he was bound to do. But McPhail maintained that, with ongoing cuts in federal transfers, British Columbia cannot afford to support the 2,200 welfare recipients arriving, on average, monthly from other provinces. The two ministers failed to resolve the dispute during a brief meeting in Ottawa on Dec. 7, and McPhail later told reporters that the province will take Ottawa to court unless the $47 million is restored by Dec. 20. “This is very disheartening for people in B.C.,” she said, “and I fear they will react strongly against the federal government.”
But even as they were skirmishing with Ottawa—encouraged by the Reform party’s Preston Manning, who accused the Liberals of a “Neanderthal approach to federal-provincial relations”—the B.C. New Democrats were also being attacked at home. Lawyers working for anti-poverty groups were preparing to challenge the residency requirement in the B.C. Supreme Court as soon as possible. “It’s absolutely black and white,” said Carolyn McCool, director of the Public Advocacy Centre in Vancouver, one of the organizations involved. “McPhail has got a real problem in terms of the lawfulness of what she’s done.” Political opponents described the new welfare rule as a desperate ploy by the government to clean up a mess of its own making. Opposition leader Gordon Campbell noted that the number of recipients has soared by 50 per cent to almost 375,000 from 250,000 since the NDP took office in 1991, far greater than the increase in the general population; and annual payouts have more than doubled, from $810 million to $1.8 billion, in part because the government jacked up benefits. ‘The NDP created the problem in the firstplace,” said Campbell. “McPhail went looking for a fight, not a solution.” The federal flip-flop on giving British Columbia a veto may have taken some of the sting out of the NDP’s attempts to point the finger of blame on Ottawa. But as last week’s angry reaction to that move within the province demonstrated, there is more than enough resentment to go around.
D’ARCY JENISH with JOHN PIFER in Vancouver and E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa
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