Canada

The polls are closed until further notice

IAN URQUHART August 8 1977
Canada

The polls are closed until further notice

IAN URQUHART August 8 1977

The polls are closed until further notice

Canada

It was eleven-thirty on a late July night and the House of Commons had just finished voting approval of the new Immigration Act, the last piece of legislation to be passed before its annual summer recess. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was putting in a brief appearance at the traditional Commons postmortem party. He appeared tired, pasty-faced, confiding to an opposition MP that he was “exhausted.” He spoke wistfully to a reporter about taking a canoe trip, but regretfully gave up the idea, citing official and family obligations. Despite swirling rumors of a fall election, he did not look like a man about to send the country to the polls.

And, barring totally unexpected developments, there will be no general election in Canada this year. Trudeau himself is opposed to an early election. Not only is he worn out physically, but he is also cautious by temperament.

Trudeau did face enormous pressure for an early election from key advisers who had been watching the polls,* including Jim Coutts. his principal secretary, Senator Keith Davey, Liberal campaign manager, Jerry Robinson, national director of the Liberal Party, and cabinet ministers Marc

*The June Gallup poll showed the Liberals with the support of an astounding 51% of the public compared to just 27% for the Conservatives. The July poll, which was to be released in early A ugust, was said to show an even wider margin.

Lalonde and Francis Fox. But that pressure was countered by the Liberal caucus, the people who would have to face reelection. They told Trudeau in a caucus meeting July 6 they did not want an early election. Said Trudeau: “As far as I am concerned, just because one is convinced he is going to win an election is not a good enough reason to go to the people.”

But the election rumors stayed alive throughout July and the Liberals did nothing to discourage them. If nothing else, rumors served to keep the opposition Conservatives off balance and might have aided the passage of some controversial legislation through the Commons, including the Immigration Act and a bill restricting access to unemployment insurance.

Still, the legislative record of the session just completed (which began last October 12) was poor. The government managed to get only 44 bills through the Commons, compared with an average of more than 50 in previousyears during the last decade. Of those 44 bills, only a handful were important, including the immigration and unemployment insurance legislation, the Human Rights Act, and a new Fiscal Arrangements Act setting out the sharing of revenue between the federal government and the provinces. Some 16 bills died on the parliamentary agenda when the Commons recessed, including a new national transportation act and legislation estab-

lishing O Canada as the national anthem, naming a new holiday in February, protecting borrowers from loan sharks, and reorganizing Air Canada. New competition and telecommunications acts were introduced for purposes of discussion but never intended to be passed. Two other bills—legislation providing for gun controls and metrication—were passed only after being watered down to meet lobbyists’ demands.

Part of the blame for the shoddy record could be attached to the opposition parties, which delayed several bills with time-consuming and often pointless debate. The Commons spent 15 days, for example, in debate over a bill rubber-stamping government spending cuts that took place a year before. Trudeau commented: “It is the same old merry-go-round every lime. There is always some member who does not want to give unanimous consent (to end a debate) or a few members who think that they have not spoken long enough and want to speak more. It is very difficult, without seeming arbitrary or, even worse, arrogant, to run the House in an efficient way.” The government did bring forward a series of proposals for changes in the rules of the Commons to shorten debate, but got nowhere in its efforts to win opposition

support for the package. The government is now counting on the introduction of television in the Commons at the beginning of the next session in the fall to embarrass MPS into shortening their speeches.

But the opposition cannot be blamed for delaying bills that were never brought forward, and the list of touchy legislation put off by the government is distressingly long. The neglected areas include: divorce, abortion, marijuana, conflict-of-interest, welfare, patents, trademarks, marketing boards and banks. There is no lack of proposals for change in these areas, but the government has decided it is better to do nothing than to risk angering the interest groups involved. It has even reneged on some of its promises during the 1974 election: promises of urban transit aid, guaranteed loans for the working poor, and a ceiling of 50% on foreign ownership of new resource projects.

The opposition says the government is so preoccupied with the question of national unity that it is ignoring other problems, especially in the area of the economy, where its record has been abysmal. The latest figures show unemployment still at the 8% level, once considered cata-

strophic, and inflation remaining above 7% despite the controls program.

Even in the area of national unity, supposed to be the government’s forte, there appears to be more inertia than initiative. There has been a great deal of rhetoric, a $3.5 million promotion of “Canada Day,” a national unity commission under the aegis of Jean-Luc Pepin and John Robarts with no clear mandate, and a policy paper on language that was even less clear, but little real action. Indeed, the federal government has watched helplessly from the sidelines as Quebec proceeds with implementation of its own language bill, which, by denying English Canadians moving to Quebec the right to an education in English, could lead to de facto separation. It was to produce a mandate to challenge this legislation that such ministers as Lalonde and Fox urged Trudeau to call an election.

But if the federal government was inert during the past parliamentary session, the opposition parties, particularly the Conservatives, were positively inept. Conservative Leader Joe Clark started the session with his party well ahead in the polls but quickly lost that lead along with two of his MPS. Jack Horner and Jacques Lavoie,

to the Liberals in the process. By July, Clark appeared even more tired than Trudeau and left for two weeks vacation in Cape Cod before the Commons recessed. But Trudeau and the Liberals may not be able to continue counting on opposition incompetence. Now that the Conservatives have fallen below 30% popularity in the polls, Clark, with nothing to lose, may be less cautious and come out fighting. He gave an early indication of this new approach before he left for Cape Cod in a Commons speech in which he attacked the government’s bilingualism policy, previously a sacred cow. NDP Leader Ed Broadbent has also shown signs of catching fire, particularly on economic issues.

To meet a resurgent opposition, Trudeau plans a face-lift for his tired-looking cabinet, probably in September after he returns from his own vacation. The extent of the cabinet shuffle depends primarily on Finance Minister Donald Macdonald, who can keep hisjob if he wants to, but who has hinted broadly that he wants out of politics altogether. If he goes, the resulting shuffle could be substantial. His replacement might be Trade Minister Jean Chrétien, but Chrétien must first decide whether to run for the leadership of the Quebec Liberals.

Trudeau is also planning a package of proposals for constitutional change, which would be the government’s first concrete response to the election of René Lévésque’s Parti Québécois. “I think I’ve been a bit guilty in not addressing the problem of national unity enough,” conceded Trudeau before he left for vacation. “We will be bringing it a bit more to the fore (in the next session of parliament).”

New faces in cabinet and proposals for a new Constitution would serve as a good platform for an election campaign. But in 1978, not 1977. IAN URQUHART