Robert Lewis September 10 1979


Robert Lewis September 10 1979



Robert Lewis

It had been 100 days since the people elected him the 16th prime minister. Except for the towering jack pines and the splendor of the Rocky Mountains, it was a day like most in Joe Clark’s political career—he attended a long meeting, in this case the final session of a four-day retreat with his inner cabinet to Jasper. The venue was 49-yearold Outlook Cabin, a long, sprawling bungalow at Jasper Park Lodge which, at another time, served as the set for a movie featuring Marilyn Monroe. The picture was called River of No Return.

The Jasper days marked the end of Clark’s languid honeymoon cruise into office.

Never before in this century | has a newly elected govern¿ ment waited so long to meet | Parliament. In a listless Ot£ tawa summer, official Oppod sition all but ceased. The | most striking thing that

Pierre Trudeau did was to “ grow a beard during a canoe trip. Clark, meanwhile, received good reviews for his government’s strong stand on the boat people and for two trips abroad, one to the Tokyo economic summit, the other to the Commonwealth meeting in Lusaka. Clark was not a major player at either event, but it is intriguing to witness evidence of the aura of office attained. In Africa, by way of contrast to his world trip last January, Clark bumped his head leaving a small airplane but a CBC technician assured the PM the incident would be wiped from the videotape. During a door-knocking tour last week at Barrhead in his constituency, Clark indirectly acknowledged the change after struggling vainly with a locked gate outside one house. “If I had done that six months ago,” he cracked, “I would have lost the election.”

Clark’s only major setback, in fact, has been the impression left that the government treats campaign promises in the style of Jerry Brown dismissing policy reversals—“just words.” Under pressure from Arab states, diplomats and Canadian businessmen, Clark was forced to back down unceremoniously on the plan to move the Canadian embassy from Tel

Aviv to Jerusalem. To extract himself from the quagmire, Clark had to play an ace card too early in the game when he turned to Robert Stanfield for a lifeline. There also have been confusing utterances about the economy, with Finance Minister John Crosbie and Treasury Board Presi-

dent Sinclair Stevens producing different numbers on projected unemployment, inflation and growth. In dealing with PetroCanada, the government has elevated the waffle to a main course, one day suggesting it will be retained, another that it will be sold off. “When you mealy-mouth,” confesses one strategist candidly, “you can expect to be called mealy-mouthed.”

Internally, the government has faced criticism from its supporters about the apparent reluctance in the first three months to replace senior officials with new—and Tory blue—faces. “I sometimes despair of getting control,” says one wellplaced party official.

Surprisingly, even some bureaucrats, weary of the indecision and confusion that marked the last government’s dying days, concur. “They’ve been taken over,” says one government official who notes that Clark’s celebrated transition team prepared detailed plans for changing structure, but not substance. Accordingly, when the new government turned to the civil service for advice, what it tended to

get back was the work plans of the old regime. By way of refinement, a Clark adviser remarks: “It wasn’t so much Liberal policy coming up—it was the bureaucracy’s policy. The bureaucrats were the government.”

Clark insists the horses are now in front of the cart, but he acknowledged the problem: “What I wanted to do with these four days in Jasper was to take all the stuff that has been coming up in the system, the work plans, and fit them in to what we undertook to do as a government. I opened by saying to ministers, ‘Forget about your departments, we’re here as people pledged to undertake certain changes.’ ” Beyond that Clark, in effect, could only hold out unspecified hopes that courtesy, compromise— and more meetings—would be the keys in resolving the conflicts he faces (see interview, page 25).

Underwhelming though the tone of the prime ministry can be, Clark has managed to change it in 100 days. His style is to call people down to the plains from the mountaintops, to share decision-making, to be more involved in ordinary life.

For his trip west to Jasper, for example, Clark boarded a regular Air Canada flight and, as he wandered the aisles signing autographs and posing for the Instamatics, he found himself harassed by an enthusiastic but very drunk supporter who kept slapping him on the back, and bellowing at reporters: “It’s not Joe Who: It’s Joe Do.” When a local reporter asked Clark what he preferred to be called— “prime minister” or “sir”—he replied: “Just Joe.”

Through his symbolic use of commercial aircraft, the number of government jets in use by ministers these days is such that the pilots have complained they are not logging their required hours. Clark has also shown an inner toughness that is not always evident on the outside. He has expressed unhappiness with feeble attempts by many ministers to recruit francophones and women to their staffs. When Immigration Minister Ron Atkey got himself embroiled in self-inflicted verbal controversy, Clark dispatched his chief of staff, Bill Neville, to pass a message: “I like my job. Help me keep it.”

Clark shows every evidence that he is at ease in his role. “It’s fun,” he says. The people who attend his meetings say he is well briefed and asks pointed questions, the result perhaps of the two hours of reading he has been taking home at night to Harrington Lake where the family, frequently joined by Maureen’s kin, spent the summer. Officials who were around the Trudeau cabinet are struck by the contrasting shirt-sleeves style of Clark’s government and with the courtesy Clark and his ministers show in thanking them for their advice on tricky issues.

There was no lack of complexity about the agenda for Jasper: drafting a throne speech for the opening of Parliament Oct. 9, developing a new energy policy, cutting government spending and taking stock of the summer-long attempt to take control of the government.

Adding urgency to the affair were party soundings indicating that in the first 100 days the government has been singularly un-blessed with the customary post-election “halo.” There has not been, for ex-

ample, any dramatic rise in the number of voters who now identify themselves as Conservatives.* One factor is that as leader of the Opposition, Clark raised few expectations—and has lived up to them.

Clark is banking on a relatively short honeymoon, mainly because he recognizes that people voted more against Pierre Trudeau than for Clark. “There is a waitand-see attitude about us,” says one insider. “People don’t expect much. It won’t take much for the ‘snarl factor’ to surface.”

Beneath the calm of the mountain retreat, as a result, there was an air of tension among the pines. In the evenings, before dinner, voices raised in heated anger could be heard drifting from the cabins around emerald green Lac Beauvert. Twice Clark called weary ministers to late-night informal meetings, dragging them away from post-dinner drinks in the lodge. This may have been an attempt to compensate for his hands-off approach throughout the summer, when Clark left ministers mainly on their own to solve their problems. But as Crosbie observes, borrowing from Samuel Johnson, the imminent opening of Parliament “has focused the mind wondrously”—including Clark’s.** Says one official: “From the

*The only published poll by Gallup since the election is eight weeks old and had the PCs up two points at 38 per cent, with Liberals (10) and NDP (18) the same as at the polls.

**On Sept. 19, 1777, Johnson declared: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

questions he’s asking, it’s clear his mind is very much focused on the opening of Parliament.”

In the first cabinet session Clark excused officials and got right down to political hardball. He called on Lowell Murray, a key political adviser and godfather to his daughter, Catherine, for a briefing. While the cabinet spent the summer developing policy, Murray was out around the parish pumps picking up some disturbing vibrations. He warned the cabinet that too many Liberals have been kept on their personal staffs and that they have been inattentive in rewarding party loyalists.

Patronage and appointments have now become one of Murray’s chief mandates. Along with Chief of Staff Bill Neville, fund-raiser Terry Yates, pollster Allan Gregg and staffer Jean Pigott, Murray will vet every appointment made by Clark. Gregg in turn has gone off to Toronto to establish a research company for polling and analysis, in the manner of the Liberals’ Martin Goldfarb. In turn, Murray has appointed Peter Swain, head of Toronto’s Media Buying Services Ltd., as the clearinghouse for all government advertising, which last year amounted to $28.9 million. Swain just happens to have run the Conservative ad campaign in the last election and was involved in the remake of Clark’s electric-shock hairstyle two years ago, which moved his part from the right to the left side of his head.

Murray also warned the ministers that their conflicting policy utterances in the first 100 days have created the impression that they are “all over the lot” with no firm goals. Clark picked up on the need to firm up the government’s course. He told his ministers that cynicism about politiz cians is so high these days that they have i no choice but to keep their word. As a 5 reminder, he produced an exhaustively ref searched list of campaign undertakings. One result was the decision to announce establishment of a panel that will study § ways in which to sell off parts of the national oil company, Petro-Canada, to the private sector.

Drafting the outlines of the throne speech was the second—and easiest— matter addressed by cabinet. Instead of opting for what one staffer called “a kitchen-sink approach,” the ministers decided to sketch general directions for the four years the Conservatives believe they have until the next election. The themes will be more reliance on the private sector, building up the strengths of the regions and opening up the government with a freedom of information law. (That legislation-likely to cost $10 million to administer—will make it possible, in cases where a minister refuses to release documents, to appeal to a judge and will eliminate the government’s right, under the Federal Court Act, to keep documents secret without explanations.)

As if meeting Parliament and preparing a first budget were not enough, the

government is committed to a hectic dance card outside the House this fall. Clark will meet with the 10 premiers on the economy in November, while Economic Development Minister Robert de Cotret will host a similar joint conference for business and labor leaders. U.S. President Jimmy Carter arrives for his first official visit next month with a decision on the oil pipeline on the agenda.

The government also has to resolve the fight between Ontario and Alberta over what happens to the increased take from higher domestic oil and gas prices. The current Canadian price of $13.75 per barrel, roughly $11 below world levels, will increase in line with Clark’s undertaking at the Tokyo summit. A $l-per-barrel price hike—and the government is planning higher jumps—not only raises gasoline at the pump from three to five cents per gallon; each $1 hike generates $2 million a day in new revenues which flow liberally to companies and, in royalties, to producing provinces like Alberta, where the Heritage Savings Trust Fund already brims with 4.7 billion petrodollars. During the next decade, without changes in the tax structure, the fund could rise to $30 billion, while consuming provinces such as Ontario watch oil-dependent industries wither and individual fuel bills soar.

y Ontario has proposed that increased g revenues should be used to cushion conic sumer costs and to invest in new energy 2j development across Canada. Alberta Preï mier Peter Lougheed says the Ontario

scheme is unacceptable, especially since Alberta has already subsidized lower Canadian prices to the tune of $15 billion.

Clark is planning to rely on long-standing personal relations with the two Conservative premiers to reach a compromise. Indications in Jasper last week were that, while guaranteeing provincial control of resources, the cabinet will propose that Alberta lend petrodollars to a national fund to stimulate conservation and exploration. The government also is examining ways to spur substitution of natural gas for oil in industry through tax incentives and has decided that a dramatic price increase above next January’s planned $1 is the only way to stop Canadian gasoline guzzlers. Notes one adviser: “The capacity of the consumer to absorb annual $1 increases seems endless.”

The other major agenda item in Jasper was the campaign led by Sinclair Stevens to hold the line on government spending, which this fiscal year will be $52.6 billion. The government views restraint as the key ingredient in moving closer, as Clark undertook, to a balanced budget in four years.

Treasury Board had already chopped $500 million from spending plans when cabinet met in Jasper. Further cuts were made by the ministers and a series of “envelopes”—spending ceilings—were assigned to all departments on the basis of projected revenues—“a healthy change,” as Auditor-General J.J. Macdonell noted.

Stevens approaches his mission in the manner of a negative monument builder, in sharp contrast to the political pork-barrellers of a past political era. No extravagance, whether custom-made boots for the RCMP or million-dollar cost overruns, escapes his attention. He is toying with the idea of making civil servants sign cost estimates for projects, so they can be held personally accountable for failing to meet targets—and can be fired if they do it once too often.

At Jasper, Stevens was ribbed as the cabinet’s sour apple. At an opening-night meal one Clark adviser remarked: “I better finish before Sine takes it away.” Reflecting support for heavy federal spending in Atlantic Canada, Crosbie laughed about arranging an armored car for Stevens’ first visit to Newfoundland—all of this in a lavish setting where the room Clark occupied rents for $350 a day.

More substantial tensions are bound to surface as ministers sit down to face the elimination of government programs and services. Crosbie has had direct knowledge of the perils of paring. As finance minister under Conservative Premier Frank Moores in Newfoundland, Crosbie eliminated the $25-a-year “mother’s allowance” which was doled out as a political handout for each child who remained in school. The howls of outrage lasted for months and, ever since, Crosbie has had an abiding suspicion about the prospects of elected politicians chopping programs.

There is also the unresolved matter of how Clark’s economic quadrangle will work. Apart from Crosbie-the-Pink and Stevens-the-Black, Clark relies heavily on his economic development minister, Bob de Cotret, and former MP Jim Gillies, an economist now on Clark’s staff. Already there are splits on the policy of a stimula-

tive deficit and no clear winner yet in the behind-the-scenes struggle to be the economic czar.

A broader policy issue facing Clark is that reductions in shared-cost programs with the provinces, part of the effort to balance the budget, could conflict with the other announced goal of better relations with the provinces. The government can only hope that spending watchdog Macdonell was right when he declared last week: “We now have a widespread public perception that governments should spend with as much care as individuals do when it is their own money.”

Principles will be tested against action in other areas of policy, too. This is a government with a commitment to volunteerism, and letting people do more things for themselves. Yet when Consumer Affairs Minister Allan Lawrence first proposed that stores voluntarily remove explosive pop bottles, response was so indifferent that a mandatory ban was subsequently imposed.

Another unknown is whether the new cabinet structure will work any better than the old. By investing committees with decision-making power, Clark has, in effect, decentralized the burden to a team. But he has yet to ride herd, as a prime minister must, when the system bogs down. Ministers are spending as much as 25 hours a week in committee sessions, which is reminiscent of the problems Trudeau’s cabinet had keeping in touch with the pulse of the nation. Another unexplored mystery is the extent to which the 18 ministers who do not sit in the 12-member inner cabinet—including big spenders such as David Crombie in Health, Don Mazankowski in Transport and Allan McKinnon in Defence—will remain content away from the action.

Clark discovered some of the same dilemmas when he bootlegged stops at towns in his riding on his trip to Jasper. In Hinton the folks wanted the airstrip extended. In Grand Cache they wanted a bailout of the troubled coal industry. In Edson they wanted a timber operation. “The problem,” Clark reflected as he rode back to Jasper, “won’t be mediating between different communities in the constituency. The problem will be that some of the things they want to have done aren’t do-able. It was always easier when you weren’t the government.”^