Canada

The best defence is a good offence

IAN URQUHART September 4 1978
Canada

The best defence is a good offence

IAN URQUHART September 4 1978

The best defence is a good offence

Canada

It was a dazzling display of political pragmatism (some might call it cynicism) that demonstrated why the Liberals have been in power in Ottawa for 60 of the last 82 years. With its right hand, the government reached out and grabbed the Conservatives’ platform, and with its left it stole a few planks from the NDP as well (see box). For the Liberals, who in the past have borrowed such policies as unemployment insurance, medicare and wage-price controls from their rivals, it was standard procedure. But it sent the Opposition gasping—and left little doubt in anyone’s mind that an election was imminent.

The Opposition, indeed, assumed the election had already begun, so political was the nature and timing of the government’s policy heist. In quick succession, following Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s television address to the nation Aug. 1, Treasury Board President Robert Andras announced cutbacks in government spending and Finance Minister Jean Chrétien unveiled a mini-budget with something for everyone. That was to be followed by an announcement of more spending cuts, including a slice from unemployment insurance by Andras and new job-creation programs from Chrétien.

The first two announcements by Andras and Chrétien were reminiscent of the 1974 election campaign. They had the same back-of-the-envelope quality: megabuck programs tossed around with abandon, details to be filled in later. As in the 1974 campaign, the announcements were made late in the day, leaving reporters little time to analyse the programs and the Opposition even less time to react before deadlines arrived. The government had commandeered the headlines and the Opposition was left with inside-page coverage the following day.

Ordinarily, political strategy would call for such announcements to be made during, not before, an election campaign. But Liberal strategists such as Jim Coutts, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s chief of staff, and Keith Davey, the campaign manager, decided that the public, weary of political games and wary of unkept Liberal promises,would not go for a rerun of 1974. They decided, instead, to announce the Liberal platform before the election— when the public might still accept it at face value—and to run on the record after they’d issued the writ.

The Conservatives, whose private polls show considerable public distrust of Trudeau and his government, are counting on a groundswell of reaction against such bla-

NEW LIBERAL PLANKS

Cut spending by some $4 billion; reduce bureaucracy by 5,000

Cut unemployment insurance by $580 million; redirect money toward job creation

Tax credits up to $200 per child for low-income families

Freeze oil price (had been New Democrats scheduled to rise $1 per barrel Jan. 1)

ORIGINAL CARPENTERS

Conservatives (recommendec $2 billion cuts and 60,000 jobs)

Conservatives

New Democrats

tant politics and in their favor, provided they can portray Joe Clark as more honest and trustworthy than the incumbents. The NDP is hoping the public will write off both Trudeau and Clark, and that the protest vote will coalesce around Ed Broadbent.

Both Conservatives and New Democrats will also try to shift attention away from the government platform and onto other issues, such as Trudeau’s constitutional reform package. While the package is really just a collection of long-overdue reforms, some critics see in it an attempt to downgrade the role of the Queen. The Conservatives, with help from Eugene Forsey (see page 16), hope to cash in on such monarchist sentiment. The NDP will try to focus on the high unemployment rate in its campaign and argue that the government has not done enough to bring it down. “Unemployment is finally becoming an issue with the middle class,” says a Broadbent aide, “because their sons and daughters can’t find work.” Recent Gallup polls showing an increase in NDP strength indicate there is some truth in this statement, but the latest government manoeuvres may have taken the steam out of the NDP campaign.

Beyond the political implications of the AndrasChrétien announcements, it was not immediately clear what impact the shift in economic policy would have.

Government officials were hard-pressed to say whether, the net effect of the spending cuts and new tax measures would stimulate or restrict.

Finally, after repeated questioning by reporters, they said it would likely restrict.

More clear was the impact on individuals. All consumers will benefit from the temporary halt in the relentless rise in petroleum prices—provided the government of Alberta agrees to it. But of the 3.6 million families with children under 18, only 1.9 million will be better off under the proposed cutback in the baby bonus and accompanying tax credit. More than a million elderly people will gain from higher pensions.

The real losers were the bureaucrats, for whom the salad days are definitely over. CBC President AÍ Johnson called the $71million cut in his budget “savage” and declared: “A cut this deep really means in effect the government is prepared to accept the drift to cultural colonialism through American television.” Plans to expand Canadian programming have been scrapped as a result of the cutbacks and shows like Canada After Dark (the successor to 90

Minutes Live) may have to go.

The angriest reaction to the restraint program could yet come from the public service unions. They held a summit meeting after Andras’ announcement and agreed to fight the government all the way to the treasury. The unions’ most effective weapon remains the strike and a summer of uneasy labor relations in the public sector, capped by a walkout by Air Canada’s maintenance workers, seemed to portend a showdown between the government and its employees. The public service unions are even giving consideration to a general strike.

The public mood is decidedly anti-labor, however, and a strike of any kind by the “essential-service” unions could play straight into the government’s hands. Already, Liberal strategists are looking ahead to a postal strike, expected this fall, as an opportunity for the government to prove it means what it says about getting tough with its employees. IAN URQUHART

IAN URQUHART