After a 14-week recess that spanned a politically charged summer and with an election looming in the spring, Parliament was expected to resume
with megaton vigor last week. It was assumed the Opposition, tasting blood, would mount an all-out attack and the government, back to the wall, would not leave a parliamentary rule unturned in its struggle to survive. MPs fostered this illusion with provocative statements on
the eve of the new session. Predicted Conservative John Crosbie: “This session of Parliament is certainly going to be ferocious because we’ll have to go for their jugular.” Added colleague Walter Baker: “We will be watching a government ready to try any ploy and sacrifice any principle to stay in office. This is unlikely to be a pretty sight.”
But the new session started out with all the excitement of a convention of accountants, and it was the Conservatives who set that mood. Back in their constituencies, they had been told the House of Commons, on television for
the first time, appeared indecorousmore like a bunch of schoolboys just after the teacher has left the room than like a gathering of the country’s legislators. Thus, the Tories decided to stop thumping their desks in support of their debaters and to refrain from heckling government speakers. The Conservatives were also faced with polls showing that, while the government is reeling, the public sees the Opposition as overly negative and doubts its ability to govern. Thus the softened attack and respectful questions.
The government maintained the sober atmosphere the next day with a deadly dull throne speech setting out the parliamentary agenda for the coming months. Normally the speech contains a few headline-grabbing surprises, but not this time. Instead, it reiterated previously announced government policies on the economy and the constitution, embellished with soaring prose. The government felt it had botched its first efforts to explain its constitutional and economic priorities last spring and summer, and a restatement was necessary. As one Trudeau aide put it: “We’ve got to establish our credibility in these areas before moving on in new directions.”
As the Commons moved to debate the contents of the throne speech the following day, the calm facade masking the underlying political tensions the first two days began to disintegrate. Conservative leader Joe Clark started off the nationally televised debate with an attack on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, whom he called “a centralist” (a description of the highest opprobrium in Clark’s vocabulary). Hooking his thumbs in his belt in mock-Trudeau style, Clark accused the prime minister of picking fights with everybody—the provinces, labor, business—and centralizing power in “a little elite” around him. The result, he said, is a failing economy, a “poisoned” atmosphere in federal-provincial relations, and a breakdown in the credibility of federal institutions, including Parliament.
Then Trudeau, goaded, lashed back. In a 110-minute harangue, the like of which the country has not seen from its prime minister since the last election, he defended his policies with a barrage of statistics designed to show that Canada is outperforming most other countries, and suggested Conservative proposals for sweeping tax cuts would drive the government hopelessly into the red. But it was in heaping scorn on Clark— his first-ever personal attack on the Conservative leader—that Trudeau was most effective. Mimicking Clark’s style by tucking in his chin, Trudeau painted a picture of the Conservative leader as a lackey of the provincial premiers who would sell out federal interests. “This is what he wants to do,” charged Trudeau. “Decentralize to the point where there would no longer be a government to speak for the people of Canada.” Egged on by Liberal MPs, Trudeau jabbed his finger across the aisle at Clark and declared: “At some time he’ll have to take his courage in his hands and take some stand which is not just a feeble echo of what the provinces are saying.” After the Liberals had finished thumping their desks (they have not yet followed the Conservative lead), NDP leader Ed Broadbent joined the fray. He accused Trudeau of abusing his intellectual gifts by using them only in battle. Lamented Broadbent: “He is a highly undesirable combination of a philosopher and John Wayne.”
The acrimonious debate did not bode well for the dying days of this Parliament as it heads toward the election. The MPs faced a heavy agenda of urgent economic and constitutional measures, not to mention the immediate problem of what to do with the inside postal workers, and the country can ill afford delays prompted by personality clashes. But for all the rhetoric, the Conservatives will probably not obstruct any major pieces of legislation introduced by the government, for fear of handing the Liberals an election issue. Instead, they will restrict their fire to a few selected targets, including the government’s alleged attempts to downgrade the monarchy (see box), and concentrate on making constructive proposals of their own. The government, in turn, will not likely press ahead with highly controversial proposals.
Parliament will be brightened in its last days by the addition of the 15 new faces tossed up by the Oct. 16 byelections. As well, both Opposition and government will be shuffling their front benches as Trudeau names some new cabinet ministers and Clark makes additions to his shadow cabinet. But, as the election draws nearer, attention will focus increasingly on the three leaders themselves: Trudeau, in his struggle to regain lost popularity; Clark, in his efforts to look like a prime minister; and Broadbent, in his bid just to be recognized.
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