Round 1 and up for the count

Robert Lewis October 22 1979

Round 1 and up for the count

Robert Lewis October 22 1979

Round 1 and up for the count


Robert Lewis

At times during the first week of the new Parliament, it seemed as though Canadian voters had grounds for a class-action suit—receipt of used goods after a five-month wait. There was Joe Clark in the Commons, standing for the first time to the right of Mr. Speaker, but calling Pierre Trudeau “prime minister.” Even more bizarre, after constantly criticizing high interest rates in Opposition,

Clark stood defending the third Bank of Canada hike since he took over, this time to a record high of 13 per cent (see box). To be sure, the PM used his inimitable syntax, but it had Trudeauvian overtones: “We do live in an international circumstance which limits the flexibility of the government of Canada.”

In the Senate, Lowell Murray, Clark’s chief political tactician, was on his way to take a front-row seat where he could look across contentedly at Trudeau’s political mentor, Keith Davey, but a guard stopped Murray to ask for identification. “I’m a senator,”

Murray sputtered—but it took Liberal Joe Guay to convince the guard to let Murray in.

“We are,” summed up one senior Conservative party official, “still learning how £ to behave in government.” ri Pierre Trudeau and the Lib-1 erais, it was obvious, were | having the same problems “ in Opposition. Former finance minister Jean Chrétien flashed the old Liberal arrogance and chided successor John Crosbie that he had “not been able to find any new policy better than mine.” For his part, Pierre Trudeau seemed to be re-fighting the last election as he assailed Clark for bowing to the provinces. By week’s end, however, it was clear the Liberals wanted an election

less than the Conservatives, as they refused to join in an NDP nonconfidence vote against the government (see page 22). One powerful reason is that the Liberals are disorganized and are beginning the grope for a new leader to replace Trudeau after the Quebec referendum.

That awareness added to the confidence and crispness that Clark displayed last week when he confronted Trudeau in Parliament and held the first of his weekly news conferences— the timing, at 9 a.m., reverses Trudeau’s preferences for late afternoon and re-

flects the PM’s earlier-rising lifestyle and that his French is better in the early morning. Clark made clear that he intends to tough out criticism that he is weak in the face of strong interests, from Peter Lougheed to the oil companies. Looking squarely at Trudeau, Clark declared: “There was a pattern of things coming apart in Canada, of the centre being literally unable to hold. The lesson is that this nation cannot be ordered together.” Whether or not he is making virtue of his own reality, Clark accordingly underplays what Ottawa can do and, in the face of growing diversity in the regions, celebrates the differences. “I’m just a prime minister,” he says. “I’m not a magician.”

Nor a poet, judging by the prosaic laundry-listing of plans revealed in the throne speech. While acknowledging the economy “as the greatest immediate challenge,” the speech delivered by Governor-General Edward Schreyer placed more emphasis on reform of Parliament and its committees. One reason is that Crosbie is not even sure of having revenue projections in time for his fall budget because Clark and the premiers are still haggling behind the scenes over a new price for oil—reportedly set to rise $4 per barrel next year, following the PM’s meeting with Lougheed last week in Montreal, where the Alberta premier landed after attending his Harvard reunion in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now* Clark has to talk Ontario into going along, and he must devise a formula for avoiding windfall profits and recycling petro-dollars beyond Alberta and Saskatchewan. Another issue skirted in the throne speech was the looming referendum in Quebec. Making the best of a bad base in the province, Clark argued in a CBC TV interview that focusing only

on the referendum gives it an importance it does not deserve. “If the referendum carries,” he declared, “that could be seen as the end of the nation, which it won’t be. If the referendum fails, that could be seen as the end of the issue, which it won’t be.”

Clark, in effect, is asking people to make a leap of faith with him into Quebec. “The message which we are interested in delivering is not to the premier of the province,” he said under heavy heckling from Liberals last week. “It is to the people of the province.”

The problems caused by lack of repre| sentation there, however, are illusÏÏ trated in reverse by two relatively minor but revealing developments in £ Western Canada since the Clark victod ry. In Edmonton, the airport customs | service, previously shut down at mid| night, now is open 24 hours to accommom date late arrivals and, in Calgary, where suburban construction outpaces postal service, the post office has filled 140 vacant positions to come to full strength. Both moves come in response to strong pressure at the grassroots for

better service, pressure which was not detected by the Liberal government. More importantly, there is across Western Canada a firm sense for once that in Ottawa there is a government that speaks for westerners—and in

their language. Clark, if he is to fashion a lasting majority, must somehow convey the same sense to Quebeckers. On that long march he has made only modest strides. His prompt acceptance of a report recommending expanded use of French in air traffic control last August is an example of his intent, as was the Senate appointment of distinguished Quebec bureaucrat Arthur Tremblay— and even the designation of a Montreal lawyer to hand out government legal work. In the same vein, the Tories also eagerly joined an all-party gang-up last week to deny the four-man Créditiste band of Fabien Roy official status in the z Commons, the theory being that if there g are any Tory seats for the taking in Quebec, they are now held by the Créditistes.

One clear change of tone in the first i week of the new government, a legacy of £ years of Tory independence from party f discipline, was a major eruption in the 0 caucus over interest rates led by Alvin Hamilton, the former Diefenbaker minister, who so far has been left without any responsibilities under Clark. “This

is not our policy,” Hamilton declared, “and the caucus is not going to accept

it.” By week’s end, Clark responded on the question of bank Governor Gerald Bouey’s future. Noting that his term expires in February, Clark undertook to

make a decision on an extension for Bouey by “late November or early December” because “there has been some uncertainty raised that should be resolved fairly quickly.”

That flap, said Clark bravely, only proved that his parliamentary group, unlike the loyalist Liberals, “is no longer a caucus of sheep.” As for the prime ministerial misnomer for Trudeau, Clark had another salty comeback: “I wanted to raise his hopes be-

cause there is no question that none of (his members) are going to do so.” Pugilistic, confident, crisp, evasive, courteous—these were some of the adjectives that marked Clark’s first week in Parliament. But never was there

overstatement about the prospects for results. It is a wise strategy in these politically fickle times, which have brought down greater figures than Joe Clark. One classic example is former New York Mayor John Lindsay (remember him?), whose epitaph has been written by the media adviser who made the image, David Garth: “We raised expectations too high. People expected him not to screw up, and the result was much worse when he did.” Clark, in ef-

feet, has had the good fortune to falter early in his prime ministry, notably on the Jerusalem embassy issue, and to be in hot water on Petro-Canada. Starting this week with a task force report on Petrocan, and later this year with Robert Stanfield’s embassy move recommendation, Clark has a chance to redress his mistakes—and to get on with the task of proving he can run the country, even if, by self-definition, he’s to be a backseat driver.