CANADA

Pre-election jitters

Antics and animosity upset the Liberals’ plans

E. KAYE FULTON February 17 1997
CANADA

Pre-election jitters

Antics and animosity upset the Liberals’ plans

E. KAYE FULTON February 17 1997

Pre-election jitters

CANADA

Antics and animosity upset the Liberals’ plans

E. KAYE FULTON

It began with a portly member of Parliament threatening to punch out an opponent across the floor of the House of Commons. It ended with a man bouncing his Jeep up the steps of the Centre Block and then entering the lobby on foot before more than 20 security guards subdued him as he shouted: “Devil worshippers, devil worshippers.” Last week made it official—the pre-election silly season is upon the country. But a sense of urgency lurks beneath the inevitable, and often unpredictable, shenanigans that envelop Ottawa in anticipation of an election that may, depending on the whim of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, take place as early as June. With 45 pieces of legislation before Parliament, and another 20 bills likely to be tabled before the two-week Easter break that begins on March 24, the normal flow of government business is anything but ordinary. “We’re on a very tight schedule,” admits a senior Liberal adviser. “Because of a possible election, it’s down to bang for bucks: fitting bills into slots where you know you can make some progress.”

Judging from last week, the Liberals appear to be marching backwards. Party strategists were prepared for opposition attacks over the government’s integrity on bigticket items, such as the impending end of the Somalia inquiry. In fact, Finance Minister Paul Martin pushed up the announcement of his Feb. 18 budget by a week to grab the spotlight from the Reform party’s plan to open the spring session with stunts that included stacking the public gallery of the Commons with hecklers. What was unexpected were the spats pitting Liberals against Liberals over what were supposed to be surefire pieces of legislation, some in the works since 1993—and some of which may not survive if an early election is called. Among them:

• The anti-tobacco advertising act (C-71). It may be smart politics to protect Canadians from cigarettes. But MPs from all parties are balking at Health Minister David Dingwall’s tough legislation. Cultural and sporting groups say that the proposed ban on financial sponsorship from the tobacco industry

could well mean the end of such events as Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival or Toronto’s IndyCar race. The alliance proved to be potent: insiders say the order came from Chrétien’s office to drop the bill from last week’s parliamentary business after Quebec politicians took up the cause for cash-strapped Montreal, which stands to

lose an estimated $250 million a year in tourist dollars if tobacco-sponsored events die. That forced a mildly chastened Dingwall to hint last week that he would soften his bill before it reappears for final reading. “Canadians don’t care if we come down hard on the tobacco industry,” said one senior Liberal strategist. “But take away their Grand Prix and they raise bloody hell.”

• Amendments to the Copyright Act (C32). Viewed as she is by many as a cultural cop-out, there is nothing that embattled Heritage Minister Sheila Copps would like more than to win a round for struggling artists—and herself. Maybe that is why, last December, she dumped 70 last-minute

amendments to the Copyright Act on a parliamentary committee that had already waded through 80 amendments of its own. Copps’s changes would force broadcasters to pay more to artists for use of their work, as well as fees for the right to copy that work onto hard drive or tape. Bloc Québécois MPs applaud the increased measures because they would benefit the large Quebec artistic community. But Reformers and some Liberals think she has gone too far— at the expense of small broadcasters that cannot afford higher fees. Last week, Ontario Liberal MP Brenda Chamberlain tabled another 22 amendments—and rebuked Copps for playing to the interests of Quebec. Warned Sarnia Liberal MP Roger Gallaway: “This bill is never going to make it without massive changes.”

• Amendments to the Divorce Act (C-41). The Liberals thought their troubles in the Senate were over when they cracked the Tory majority in the upper house last September by bringing their total to 51 seats, one more than their combative foes. They did not count on a December revolt in Liberal ranks that led to the defeat of government legislation, now in limbo, to limit damages to developers for the 1993 cancellation of the privatization contract for Toronto’s Pearson airport. Nor did they figure on Liberal Senator Anne Cools, who threatens to do the same to Justice Minister Allan Rock’s amendments to the Divorce Act. The changes include a clause that would give Ottawa the power to revoke the passports of deadbeat dads. Cools says the proposals would be too hard on fathers; aides say Rock, who promised the bill would be enacted by May 1, is apoplectic. As for fathers’ rights advocacy groups, the prospect of a delay or possible defeat of the legislation makes them—in the words of Ross Virgin of Toronto-based In Search of Justice—“happy as pigs in mud.” Feisty Liberal MPs are already taking sides in anticipation of a whole new round of legislation that some party officials fear will turn an unwelcome spotlight on internal differences. For one thing, southern Ontario Liberals are privately marshalling arguments in defence of local industries prepared to fight Environment Minister Sergio Marchi’s proposed revamping of environmental laws. With an election looming, such internecine fights are perhaps predictable as MPs play to the interests of their constituents. But they may also cast further doubt on the ability—and commitment—of the party to deliver on its promises.