Canadian News

Thinking the unthinkable for the year of decision

Robert Lewis January 1 1979
Canadian News

Thinking the unthinkable for the year of decision

Robert Lewis January 1 1979

Thinking the unthinkable for the year of decision

Canadian News

TRUDEAU RETIRES. TURNER IS LIBERAL LEADER. CLARK GAINS SLIM MINORITY. LÉVESQUE SETS REFERENDUM

DATE.

If only one hypothesis becomes a headline in 1979, the national political life of the nation will skip to an entirely different beat. That all this could come true, in a nation that patented ritual-

ized talkfests and the baize-covered table, is unthinkable. But it is the 112th year and, it appears, the days of national hand-wringing are over. It is the year of decision.

Pierre Trudeau’s will come promptly, near the end of January, after a family reunion with Margaret and the in-laws in Vancouver and a ski vacation in Vail, Colorado. By year’s end he had filled the airwaves and front pages with bravado and boosterism, but in reality it was a last struggle for political life. His party workers had laid down their tools and, worse, the people had stopped listening. “Do you want to hear about these things, or don’t you?” was his pained cry last week in Toronto on the threat to Canadian unity.

In the next month, through his polls and his personal pulse-taking, Trudeau will have the answer—whether to stay and join the referendum debate or to go off quietly to his newly announced Laurentian retreat. If he steps down, party stalwarts are ready to organize a snap, spring leadership convention. It would be a bloody affair but Toronto’s John Turner would likely be the king.

Whoever is Liberal leader, there is the necessity of calling a twice-postponed federal election. Legally, the prime minister has until July 31 to set a date. But he could do it as early as February, hard on the constitutional conference of first ministers. If the 11

leaders can’t agree, as they have not so far, Trudeau could wrap up a renewed confederation package and carry it along his spring campaign trail. He could even ask for formal approval in a federal referendum during the election. “Say no to Lévesque.” It would be a monumental gamble verging on scam. But risk-taking at this time is virtually all Trudeau has left.

In Quebec City the federal election/referendum scenario has the cutting edge of Gitanes and café-filtre. Although the actual vote may not come until 1980, next year is the time for Lév-

esque to focus his formidable powers of persuasion on luring, cajoling and shaming Quebeckers into line on his murky sovereignty-association proposal. A federal referendum at the same time would be a disruptive tactic that would make the RCMP Security Service look like a wolf cub pack.

All signs, including private reports to Trudeau in Ottawa, point to a PQ victory on the referendum. As the result of some 35 hours of debate in the national assembly, a “soft question” will emerge that seeks only a “mandate” to negotiate. Then, there will be more questions—negotiate with whom? By treaty? By constitutional amendment?

If he is still around, the questions will play straight to Trudeau’s game plan.

He says he won’t negotiate, period. Joe Clark says he will, a stance reiterated this week by Conservative MP David Crombie in a taped-for-New-Year’s-Eve interview on CTV’s Question Period.

In addition to fending off Liberal

charges that he won’t speak up for Canada, Joe Clark will have to avoid any fatal mistakes. His first gamble of the new year is a round-the-world tour starting in Tokyo, where the foreign affairs novice will attempt to project an

image of statesman-in-waiting.

Clark’s strongest card remains the economic situation and the image that the Liberals are incompetent to do anything about it. The forecasts are not promising. The Conference Board, not noted for doom and gloom, last week revised its forecast on GNP growth for

next year down to 3.4 per cent, which is well below Finance Minister Jean Chrétien’s projected four to 4.5 per cent.

In the face of government restraint and inflation, major confrontations are expected in 1979 as more than a million workers liberated from controls come back to the bargaining table. The Conference Board warns that any acceleration of wage demands beyond 8.7 per cent—the board forecasts inflation of 7.8 per cent—could erode the competitive trade position Canada gained by the depreciation of the dollar. The anticipated U.S. economic slowdown will

be an additional depressant.

As political sideshows, there is the prospect of up to six provincial elections. In British Columbia, where a vote is expected in the spring, Bill Bennett’s Socreds are favored over Dave Barrett’s New Democrats. In Alberta, an embattled Peter Lougheed is expected to survive handsomely. In Newfoundland, Tory Premier Frank Moores’ fortunes are on the rise, along with the economy, and he is expected to capitalize next fall, especially if the Liberals are still wilting. In Ontario, New Brunswick and P.E.I., election prospects will be determined by the unpredictable quirks of minority government in the first and by razor-thin majorities of two seats in the others.

It is, in sum, a year that promises significant change in national affairs and the crystalization of some developing trends, notably closer scrutiny of public spending and wider application of Auditor-General J. J. Macdonell’s insistence on value for money around the public trough. If Trudeau survives, first as leader, then as prime minister, it will be a year of upsets and comebacks. If that is indeed the look of ’79, even the Toronto Argonauts could be contenders. Robert Lewis