Politics

THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM

The Liberal party has been almost eerily tranquil. Don’t expect that to last.

JOHN GEODES October 4 2004
Politics

THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM

The Liberal party has been almost eerily tranquil. Don’t expect that to last.

JOHN GEODES October 4 2004

THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM

Politics

The Liberal party has been almost eerily tranquil. Don’t expect that to last.

JOHN GEODES

AFTER AN ERA defined by feuding between the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin camps, Liberals have been almost eerily tranquil lately. The opposition parties haven’t done much to fill the acrimony vacuum, apparently stockpiling their best partisan shots for the return of Parliament. And with a health deal sealed in the early hours of Sept. 16, peace has broken out between Ottawa and the provinces. All this can’t last. Politics runs on much the same principles of attraction and repulsion as electricity. Polar opposition must exist or the whole thing doesn’t have a charge. It goes without saying that battles between parties will resume when the House is sitting again, and federalprovincial tensions should build by the time the PM meets the premiers to discuss equalization on Oct. 26. Predicting divisions within the minority Liberal regime is trickier, but watch for action along these fault lines when the political season gets under way in earnest with the Oct. 5 Throne Speech:

DOMESTIC PROGRAM VOTE-GETTERS VS. FOREIGN POLICY PRESTIGE-BUILDERS

Unlike U.S. presidential campaigns, in which foreign policy almost always looms large, Canadian federal elections tend to be resolutely focused on the home front. So it was in the race leading up to the June 28 vote, with health care dominating debate, and the Liberals also making big promises on daycare and the so-called new deal for cities. But major policy reviews in both foreign affairs and defence are under way, and should be delivered later in the fall. As well, Martin, who was at the United Nations last week, travels to Russia, France and Hungary from Oct. 8-16, and will attend summits of AsiaPacific nations and French-speaking countries. So there will be plenty of chances for Canada’s place in the world to grab the spotlight-giving Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew and Defence Minister Bill Graham openings to try to vie with the domestic agenda for attention.

Martin’s biggest challenge could be balancing his aim of improving relations with Washington against the anti-George W. Bush sentiment running high among many Canadians. One key question: will Martin be forced to make the tough call on Canadian participation in Bush’s missile shield program? The U.S. has signalled it wants a decision by the end of October. If John Kerry upsets Bush in the November election, the future of the controversial system would be in doubt—and Martin might be off the hook. Still, Graham said last week this decision gets top priority, and reportedly signalled his support for Canada participating. Beyond the missile shield question, the broader issue of how much Ottawa will boost defence spending, in part to satisfy U.S. pressure for a more robust Canadian military, will be a key question for next year’s federal budget.

SOCIAL LIBERAL BIG SPENDERS VS. BUSINESS-FRIENDLY LIBERAL RESTRAINERS

Martin has committed $18 billion over six years for health. He also campaigned on spending $5 billion over five years for a national child-care program, and funnelling another $5 billion in the same period to municipalities from the federal gas tax. For the Liberals’ left flank, that sort of spending is a welcome return to the activist instincts that largely went dormant during the deficit-busting 1990s. But wait—the businessoriented side of the party isn’t entirely silenced. Start with Revenue Minister John McCallum, the former Royal Bank of Canada chief economist, now assigned to lead a spending review to find at least $12 billion

in savings over five years. “It’s not about the size of government,” McCallum says. “It’s about shifting resources from lower priority items to higher priorities.”

Maybe so. But high priorities like health, children and cities involve Ottawa transferring money to provinces and municipalities—not running its own programs. That suggests fewer federal public servants. There’s also a proposal from Public Works Minister Scott Brison for a massive sell-off of government real estate to save money. (The cost-cutting push is poisoning the atmosphere surrounding bargaining with public service unions, and many federal workers are already on strike.) And the efforts to shrink spending are not the only parts of the agenda that are of particular

THE FIRST hints

of an anti-Martin faction have already begun to emerge. Given Liberal history, it’s not surprising.

interest to right-tilting Liberals. Finance Minister Ralph Goodale is behind schedule on delivering a policy paper on bank mergers. Industry Minister David Emerson, a former B.C. forestry executive who was a star recruit to the Liberals for the spring election, has already said he supports letting the mergers go ahead. Adopting that policy would reverse Martin’s own 1998 decision as finance minister to block them, and could incite a revolt from some left-leaning Liberal MPs.

ETHICS-IN-GOVERNMENT REFORMERS VS, SPOILS-OF-POWER TRADITIONALISTS

Last winter’s auditor general’s report into the sponsorship affair set off a flurry of initiatives designed to clean up government. Justice John Gomery’s inquiry hearings into the scandal will continue for many months. But early signs of how seriously Martin means to pursue reforms should come soon after Parliament resumes, in the form of a package of reports from Treasury Board Secretary Reg Alcoek. He was assigned to come up with ways to fix parts of the system widely denounced as broken in the wake of the sponsorship revelations, ranging from the way executives and board members of Crown corporations are appointed, to what sanctions apply if public servants break financial administration rules, to how cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats are held accountable—or not.

All this cuts to the heart of how things work in Ottawa. Martin vowed in the wake of the sponsorship scandal to be deadly serious in his response. Few Liberals would publicly disagree. But old habits about wielding power won’t evaporate so easily. Many political insiders fumed about reforms, rushed in by Chrétien before he stepped down last year, that stopped parties from raising money from companies and unions. Some of the same old-school operators will not want to give up other time-honoured techniques. Flow far will Martin go in limiting his own patronage power to reward loyal Liberals? Will cabinet ministers accept new constraints on using government operations to partisan advantage? Such messy questions may not get publicly aired—but keeping the inevitable behind-closed-doors arguments from leaking out could be a challenge for the Prime Minister’s Office.

INSIDER MARTIN LOYALISTS VS. OUTSIDER ANTI-MARTIN SNIPERS

Liberal prime ministers have long had to contend with sniping from enemies in their own party. John Turner used his networks of business contacts to spread his critique of Pierre Trudeau’s economic policies. Then Turner, having succeeded Trudeau, suffered at the hands of Chrétien forces. After Chrétien got his turn in power, Martin’s tight-knit crew finally forced him out. So far, no coherent anti-Martin faction has materialized. But the first hints of one began to emerge

in the days after the Prime Minister signed his health deal with the provinces. First, John Manley, the former finance minister who had to abandon a run for the Liberal leadership last year in the face of Martin’s overwhelming lead, denounced the agreement as too costly—suggesting it might even drive the government back into deficit. Next, Maurizio Bevilacqua, a Toronto-area MP viewed as close to Martin before he failed to get a cabinet appointment, voiced concerns that the deal might have weakened the federal government.

Two discontented Liberals doesn’t add up to a revolt. Still, the comments suggest that Martin is not immune to the sort of internecine squabbling that plagued his predecessors. Interestingly, both Manley and Bevilacqua are influential among businessfriendly, right-tilting Liberals—the part of the party once thought to be Martin’s undisputed domain. Now that Martin has thrown his weight behind issues such as health and child care, his credibility with the so-called social Liberals couldn’t be stronger. Yet some left-tilting elements in the party may still find him wanting. Sheila Copps is scheduled to publish her memoirs in late October. Given her very public clashes with Martinfirst as he thrashed her in the leadership race, and then when she lost the nomination

in her longtime Hamilton, Ont., riding to a Martin loyalist—Copps is expected to take aim at the Prime Minister during the publicity push for the book.

Martin has often said he welcomes political dissent, even from his own backbenches, and his aides insist he revels in situations that aren’t “pre-cooked,” where riffs and divisions have to be managed on the fly to get the outcome he wants. In that case, the coming months in Liberal politics should be right up the Prime Minister’s alley. Ifi