It was Robbie Burns Day last week, and Allan MacEachen donned his kilt, tucked a skean dhu (dagger) into his sock and hauled his burly new bodyguard off to a parliamentary shindig.
The security was clamped on the finance minister after an anonymous caller warned an Ottawa newspaper that he planned to shoot the budget architect. But the pugnacious pair also provided an apt image for the stormy first week of the 1982 House of Commons.
Amid opposition vows to prolong debate and government threats to retaliate,
MPs locked swords in a bitter economic battle that will probably disrupt proceedings and fray tempers for the next few months.
The main target of the opposition attack was the beleaguered MacEachen and his berated November budget. In its upcoming quarterly report to privateand public-sector clients, the authoritative Decima Research Limited of Toronto reveals that 70 per cent of Canadians are dissatisfied with the budget, 69 per cent believe that it will increase inflation, 73 per cent think that it will slow down the economy and a staggering 76 per cent are convinced that it will boost unemployment. The poll was based on interviews with 1,500 Canadians during mid-December—and it is the first statistical proof that the budget has simply bombed. “It is so politically damaging that if they don’t pull back on most tax measures, the damage will probably carry through to the next election,” predicts Decima President Allan Gregg.
Although they did not have those statistics yet, opposition MPs sensed the public mood—and they were quick to capitalize on it. Daily question periods erupted with barbed inquiries, heckling and arcane procedural wrangles, and the clashes are certain to escalate. In mid-December, the rattled MacEachen promised to let a parliamentary committee probe major budget tax changes before they are implemented. That was a shrewd move since it would allow the government to wrestle with noncon-
troversial bills while the brunt of the budget debate is shifted away from the Commons floor into the seclusion of a committee.
The catch, however, is that MacEachen’s committee motion must be passed by the Commons. And the opposition parties have vowed to prolong the debate on the move by airing all their budget grievances at length. “Our intention is to fight with every atom of our energy—the more you debate, the more you focus public attention on what they are doing,” says Conservative House Leader Erik Nielsen.
Adds Acting NDP House Leader Ian Deans: “We want to debate the budget as much as we must either to kill it or to delay it until the government has come to its senses.”
The lust for Liberal blood was so strong that it even saved Clark from a looming caucus revolt.
Last Wednesday, in a dramatic four-hour faceoff, the Conservative caucus promised to stop its unseemly sniping at Clark’s leadership. In return, the leader promA guarded MacEachen
ised to consult the caucus and the party’s national executive about his future if political circumstances change. The compromise was apparently hammered out during a secret Tuesday night meeting between Clark and 10 senior MPs, including some opposed to his leadership. The lull in hostilities lured disaffected Ontario MP Gary Gurbin back to the caucus fold after a five-week absence. Hours later, however, Alberta dissident Bill Yurko abruptly quit the party to sit as an independent.
The budget mess has also welded the Liberal caucus into a woeful but defiant unity. Liberal MPs said in interviews that the parliamentary committee will & likely modify unpopular budget proposals on capital a cost allowances, corporate reorganizations, life insurance, charitable foundations, forward averaging and work-inprogress rules. It is also almost certain that the committee will drop the controversial tax slapped on employer-paid medical schemes. “We decided to roll up our sleeves, gather round the leader and fix things up,” says Montreal Liberal MP Pierre Deniger. “We also decided that taxes like the denticare tax appear to be a needless irritant.”
These major concessions do not mean, however, that the Liberals are not braced for a fight. MPs agreed at last week’s caucus that the party was going to slip even further in the polls over the next few months. But they also consoled themselves with reminders that they are only midway through their mandate. Senior Liberals have vowed to fight opposition delaying tactics every step of the way with closure and time allocation motions. Some have even threatened to scuttle the committee budget probe if ^the opposition does not i agree to curtail debate, u While these threats and counter-threats pre-
occupy the Commons in the coming weeks, senior Liberals are concocting plans behind the scenes to inject additional stimulus into the economy. Strategists are concentrating on a major plan to overhaul youth employment training programs and a proposal to accelerate some of the 57 major industrial projects slated for 1982-’83. The projects will require regulatory changes, possible federal financial guarantees and underwriting, more community supports such as rental housing and perhaps direct financial contributions.
It also seems likely that MacEachen will introduce a mini-budget before Easter to target tax breaks to such groups as the high technology sector (cover story). Cabinet is mulling a $25-million aid package for auto parts manufacturers and major schemes to help the ailing fisheries and transportation areas. In the wake of the budget disaster, the Liberals sense that they simply do not have the moral authority to impose wage and price controls or credit controls. They are struggling just to regain voter credibility. The opposition is fighting to keep them down. And that means that Canadians are going to be treated to many more nasty and turbulent debates.
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