Trudeau’s restless Liberals

Mary Janigan February 22 1982

Trudeau’s restless Liberals

Mary Janigan February 22 1982

Trudeau’s restless Liberals


Mary Janigan

When the wine corks pop at the Liberal government’s second anniversary celebration this week, the Ten Black Sheep are ready to sport red carnations, munch cheese and obediently toast the joy of reigning. All that will be much in contrast with their behavior last week, when the eight east-end Montreal MPs and two cabinet ministers, Monique Bégin and Serge Joyal, triggered an unintended furore with their public pitch for more jobs for young workers and the construction industry.

Their muddled mutiny was hatched in the naïve belief that it would be popular with their hard-pressed constituents. Instead, it provoked a parliamentary uproar, a frosty lecture from Quebec leader Marc Lalonde and a stern rebuke from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Then the rebellion fizzled. The dissidents lapsed into disciplined silence, and the nervous Liberals are celebrating their Feb. 18,1980, election win in the heady hope that all problems are temporary and that the voters will topple back into love with them soon.

Such cross-your-fingers optimism in the face of a crippling recession is based largely on the comforting notion that the Liberals do not have to face the voters for at least two years. The breathing space means, in turn, that they can weather despairing demands for major changes in economic policy. Despite some cabinet wrangling, the government is sticking to its scheme to fight inflation with high interest rates. Senior Liberals are also praying that the American economy will recover soon, tugging Canada along in its wake.

They are gambling, of course, that their stand-pat solution will work and that grateful Canadians will eventually laud their single-minded determination. “Our political popularity always goes in a straight-line progression with the economy,” says Trudeau’s principal secretary, Tom Axworthy. “If things begin to recover this year, then so will we. If not, then there’s still lots of time to do something about it. But a year from now, I’d be far more perplexed than I am at the moment.”

The moment is not good—for any political party. In its upcoming Quarterly Report, Decima Research Ltd. of Toronto will tell publicand private-sector clients that only 29 per cent of Canadi-

ans are satisfied with the Liberal government’s performance. A mere 13 per cent think the Liberals are doing a good job in creating employment, and only nine per cent approve of Ottawa’s inflation-fighting efforts. Despite these disastrous grades, however, the Gallup poll reported last week that the Conservatives are not gaining from them. The party has the support of 40 per cent of the decided voters, but the Liberals have crept up to 38 per cent and the New Democrats are riding at 20 per cent.

The continuing debate over Joe Clark’s leadership has clearly afflicted Conservative fortunes. But Decima President Allan Gregg maintains that Canadians are simply disgusted with all three parties. Although 75 per cent of Canadians believe a competent government could at least partially solve their economic problems, 45 per cent flatly told Decima that no party has the best solution to their greatest worry. “There

is increasing cynicism about all of the actors—not about the system,” declares Gregg. “So although the potential for electoral volatility is extremely high, the parties are still struggling for primacy as problem-solvers, struggling for credibility. The Liberals are not facing a very forgiving public right now, but the Tories will pick up no more support simply as a consequence of this growing dissatisfaction.”

Voter rage appears to be rampant on all fronts. While ordinary Canadians are increasingly berating their MPs, business and labor are sputtering with fury. John Bulloch, the head of the 64,000-member Canadian Federation of Independent Business, charges that the Liberals are governing with an arrogant centralist approach at a time when co-operation with all groups is desperately needed. “The mood is anger and confusion and frustration—the business community is now an armed camp,” he grumbles.

For his part, Canadian Labour Congress President Dennis McDermott has vowed to step up his dramatic protests against federal high-interest-rate policies with rallies, conferences and the artful ploy of throwing pickets around houses targeted for mortgage foreclosures. “The government has become increasingly authoritarian,” he complains. “This country is not the private domain of Pierre Trudeau.”

The winter’s discontent has been deepened by the continued fallout from the bungled November budget. Finance Minister Allan MacEachen was recently forced to concede that only 4.1 million Canadians will reap a tax reduction from the budget. For more than two months, the minister had insisted that nearly 12 million Canadians are getting a break—but he did not explain that 7.7 million people benefit only from the automatic annual rite of indexing for inflation. Liberal MPs discovered the miscalculations in mid-December and then gritted their teeth, bracing for more flak. It was stupid, just plain stupid, muttered one Quebec Liberal MP; the government should have just been honest and said it needed more money.

Despite the outrage, most of the Liberal caucus is simply pressing for more short-term aid and grimly swallowing MacEachen’s overall economic prescription. Last week, cabinet agreed that individual members will rummage through their departments, reordering priorities to find money for more jobs. Employment Minister Lloyd Axworthy is dipping into his department’s $4.5billion unemployment insurance fund to create a range of temporary makework projects. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. has been asked to find ways to increase rental housing starts. Trade Minister Herb Gray has been told

to cut red tape on large industrial projects, and the government may dip into next year’s spending envelopes to accelerate them.

In spite of those major headaches, most Liberals genuinely believe that their government deserves a good midterm report card. Although important promises to pass competition and freedom of information legislation have been temporarily scuttled, they can crow about some significant victories. Liberals wrestled the National Energy Program through Parliament to Canadianize the oil industry, worked out a landmark oil-pricing deal with Alberta and snared an accord to bring the constitution home with an amending formula and a charter of rights.

More important, many senior Liberals believe that they are proving that liberalism can work in troubled times. Although most major Western economies are mired in recession, they stress that Canada has the rare record of avoiding devastating cutbacks in social services. “It’s quite an exciting time,” Tom Axworthy insists. “In some ways, this government is as much of an experiment in liberalism as the United States is an experiment in Reaganomics.”

Buoyed by those notions, the government is clearly determined to turn Canada into a test tube for liberal doctrine over the next two years—whether most people like it or not. In the belief that government has a role in managing economic affairs, Economic Development

Minister Bud Olson has hammered out an ambitious development strategy that has the guarded blessing of all provincial governments. Olson predicts that in two years “the priorities and the use of resources will have changed,” and he promises that Ottawa will try to ensure federal-provincial harmony.

That benign wish may be shattered, however, by the growing federal deter-

mination to be a strong central government and to slice billions of dollars from federal-provincial transfer payments. Senior Liberals argue that they have been signing cheques without spending control or voter credit. They say that funds are required for economic projects and for such major social programs as an upcoming proposal on pension reform. And they vow that if the provinces want a fight, they will get it. Things must be done in this country by the federal government taking bold initiatives, insists a senior adviser, who says that Ottawa must elevate that argument away from a question of credit and show Canadians that his party is preventing the erosion of government. That stand means, of course, that the Liberals are bulldozing ahead with

their plans with few friends and many opponents. It also means that they can count on reaping most of the credit—or most of the blame—when frazzled Canadians finally go to the polls again.