The Sermons on the Mount: isn’t this where we came in?
The Sermons on the Mount: isn’t this where we came in?
Late in the final day of last week’s federal-provincial conference on the economy, a weary Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, having just endured yet another harangue from the Quebec delegation about Ottawa’s policies, turned to Manitoba Premier Sterling Lyon, who was indicating he wanted to speak next. Trudeau nodded and said: “Premier Weir.”
Walter Weir has not been premier of Manitoba since 1969. But few could blame Trudeau for the slip because, as the conference droned to a close, the sense of having been there before was overpowering. The wonder was that Trudeau managed not to doze off during the three days of aimless discussion and political posturing by provincial premiers and federal ministers alike. Equally difficult to fathom was Trudeau’s assessment of the conference in his wrap-up statement. “In
the eyes of almost all of us,” he concluded, “this has been a successful conference.”
In fact, the conference accomplished little. It was meant as a follow-up to the February federal-provincial conference, which discussed structural economic problems and tentative solutions. Canada, nearly everyone agrees, needs a new industrial strategy to take the place of John A. Macdonald’s 99-year-old national policy of tariff protection and railway promotion. But few can agree on the nature of such a strategy. In an effort to fill the void, the federal government produced dozens of position papers and policy statements for presentation to last week’s conference. Those were supplemented by other papers from the provinces, particularly British Columbia and Ontario, and from teams of business and labor leaders set up to study Canada’s manufacturing industries. It was as if Ottawa, the provinces, business and labor were trying to
drown the problems in words. But all that paper did not produce agreement.
The conference did serve as a platform for the announcement of two new agreements between Ottawa and Alberta in the energy field. The agreements had been reached the week before at a private meeting between federal Energy Minister Alastair Gillespie and his Alberta counterpart, Don Getty, but Ottawa wanted the conference to endorse the action taken. That was no problem for one of the agreements—the lowering of the price of natural gas for new customers in Eastern Canada to expand the market for the fuel. But the provinces balked at the other—suspension of the scheduled oil price hike on Jan. 1. The oil-consuming provinces, particularly Ontario, were leery about endorsing that agreement because it also included a commitment to resume the move toward world petroleum prices later on with increases scheduled for July 1,
1979 and Jan. 1,1980. Although two price hikes would be less painful than three for consumers, Ontario’s Bill Davis did not want to be seen to be supporting any price hike at all. Davis, in effect, washed his hands of the affair and left it to Ottawa and Alberta to decide.
The whole exercise left many observers among the press, who had pushed in the past to open federal-provincial conferences, wondering about the monster they had helped create. Last week’s conference was the third held in the open this year and the second in less than a month, including the constitutional conference at the end of October. Besides creating jobs for translators and a new market for paper companies, little appears to have been achieved. Trudeau, however, disagreed with that assessment at his post-conference meeting with the press: “I would say that the other provinces and ourselves went through a lot of tedious reports and statements of positions, which were not only tedious for me to preside over but I suppose for you, the media, to report on. But they were all very important. Maybe progress is tedium.”
Trudeau also disagreed with suggestions that more would have been accomplished had the meeting been held in cam-
era: “I think the conclusions would have been the same. We might have got through it a bit more quickly and with less blinding lights in our eyes, but, if that is important for the people of Canada to see how we operate, I am happy.”
What the people of Canada, or at least those shut-ins who were actually watching, saw was a blitzkrieg attack by the Quebec delegation on Ottawa for al-
leged mismanagement of the economy, interference in its jurisdiction and cutbacks in its aid. Quebec Premier René Lévesque and his ministers, who had adopted a relatively low profile at federalprovincial conferences until last week, were evidently responding to polls that showed the voters in their province want them to get tougher with Ottawa. That performance left the other provinces, some of which had come to Ottawa with a genuine interest in finding solutions, seething, and may have destroyed Lévesque’s hard-earned credibility with his English-speaking counterparts.
In contrast, Alberta’s Peter Lougheed, previously a harsh critic of Ottawa, adopted a conciliatory line during the conference. There were suggestions he was simply happy over the Grey Cup victory of his old team, the Edmonton Eskimos, on the eve of the conference.* But even before the conference began, Lougheed and Alberta were in a compromising mood, which led to the agreements with Ottawa on oil and gas prices. Those agreements, forestalling a constitutional crisis on the pricing issue, had seemed out of reach just a few weeks before when Lougheed had left the constitutional conference with the curt message that he was not satisfied. He suffered considerable criticism for his uncompromising stance at that conference and seemed to be determined to be more
flexible last week.
But other provinces were still in a mood to fight old battles. The conference witnessed Ontario and B.C. squaring off over the issue of tariff protection, and Ontario and the Atlantic provinces in conflict over regional development grants. Even the neighboring provinces of Manitoba and
* Lougheed was a halfback in the 1950 season.
Saskatchewan fought. Manitoba’s Lyon, the most right-wing of all the premiers, condemned government deficits, public works projects, Petro-Canada and foreign investment controls, while Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney, the only surviving NDP premier, defended all of them.
Faced with such diverse views, there was little chance from the outset that the conference would be able to settle on the contents of an industrial strategy. The provinces, in effect, have abdicated the duty of drawing one up to the federal government, providing they are consulted and retain the right to complain about Ottawa’s decisions. In Ottawa, the task will fall to the new economic development board under Robert Andras, which held its first meeting last week after the conference had ended. “I do not promise any industrial strategy with all the Ts crossed and Is dotted,” Andras told the premiers before they went home. “But I do agree with the other aspect of that same common theme, which is that much can be done in developing a set of industrial policies that are co-ordinated and support economic confidence and growth.” The premiers will get a progress report a year from now, when they are scheduled to meet again to discuss the economy.
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