William Kempling is a big, friendly MP who owns a truck parts company in Hamilton, Ont. He prides himself on keeping one foot in the business world. When he was home from Ottawa last week, he met an old associate for coffee and conversation. “I think I can see a little blue sky up there, Bill,” the friend said. “Where?” asked Kempling eagerly. “I don’t want to analyse it or a cloud will come over,” the businessman answered. For the 62-year-old Conservative MP, that conversation captured the mood of his recession-battered riding on the eve of Finance Minister Marc Lalonde’s April 19 budget. And the stories that other MPs brought back from across the country as they returned from Easter recess were very much the same.
No one wanted to risk defining or dis-
secting the subtle shift in the economic climate, but most MPs were convinced that the severe recession of the past 18 months has finally begun to loosen its grip. “We’re out of the pre-Christmas period of absolute depression, but there’s still no feeling of optimismlet’s just call it a midstage of uncertainty,” said B.C. Conservative businessman-MP Robert Wenman.
Ironically, the fragile signs of recovery are making Lalonde’s job more difficult than ever. Only a few weeks ago most Canadians agreed that the government should stimulate the apparently lifeless national economy, even if it meant boosting the projected $30-billion federal deficit. Now, that consensus has vanished. Some MPs are pressing Lalonde to create jobs. Others are insisting with equal vehemence that any substantial increase in government spending will set off an unwelcome
surge in interest rates and inflation. After weeks of waiting and speculating, Quebec Liberal back-bencher Jean Lapierre says he now finds that his constituents are not even sure they want a budget. “People are saying, ‘Please don’t move anything around—just let it go on, it might work,’ ” he said.
There are indeed promising signals of a recovery. In hard-hit Sudbury, Ont., more than half of Inco Ltd.’s work force returned to jobs last week, and the rest expect to be recalled by April 18. Car production increased by 18.8 per cent during the first quarter from a year earlier. Manufacturing output in January increased by five per cent from its December level. And stock market traders reported their best quarter in years. Last week the Conference Board of Canada announced that consumer confidence, too, is picking up.
Prices and interest rates are also moderating. Inflation stands at 7.4 per cent—the lowest level in six years—and the Bank of Canada’s trend-setting lending rate is 9.5 per cent, compared with 15.4 per cent a year ago. “The Sixand-Five program has been accepted well, and the government has managed to keep inflation down,” acknowledged Manitoba Conservative MP Jack Murta. But Liberal back-bencher David Weatherhead, who represents the suburban Toronto riding of Scarborough West, commented unhappily that politicians are not getting enough credit for winning the war against spiralling prices. “It’s funny,” he said. “People seem to get kind of used to living with an inflation rate of 10 to 12 per cent. What they really want is some assurance that they will be able to keep their jobs.”
Jobs, unquestionably, remain the country’s biggest worry. The unemployment rate is stuck at a painful 12.5 per cent, compared with 8.9 per cent a year ago. Private surveys show that two out of every three Canadians fear that they or someone close to them will soon lose their job. For many MPs that dismal outlook overshadows all the statistics pointing to recovery. “It’s nice to read in the press that the economy is improving, but it would be nicer if I could feel it,” said LaPierre, after talking to 14 constituents, each with a job-related worry, at his office in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. In North Battleford, Sask., New Democrat Douglas Anguish reported that jobs were the central concern in Saskatchewan. And in suburban Edmonton, Conservative MP Stan Schellenberger said that his constituents— especially those in the oil industry— were still too troubled over their own futures to sense any national turnaround.
Weatherhead also pointed to two longer-term worries. For one thing,
many businesses seem to have decided to invest in new equipment rather than hiring back the workers they laid off in the past year. For another, the 55-yearold Toronto lawyer said that unemployment in the past year seems to have brought out the worst characteristics in many Canadians. “People pay lip service to improving the unemployment situation but they aren’t really that sympathetic to the unemployed,” he said. “People here tend to equate unemployment with being lazy and getting money under the table. You still find this kind of stigma and you have to fight it.”
Unemployment preoccupied MPs from coast to coast, but there were secondary themes as well. Among them:
• Prairie farmers are angered by Trans-
port Minister Jean-Luc Pepin’s decision to increase freight rates for grain. The NDP calculates that the Feb. 1 Crow rate abandonment will cost the average Western farmer $6,000 a year.
• The proposed testing of cruise missiles in Alberta and Saskatchewan generated pockets of fierce opposition across the country. A senior Liberal strategist admitted privately that when the economy improves, the nuclear issue will dominate the 1980s.
• Small businessmen and farmers fear a renewed increase in interest rates. “That frightens the daylights out of my constituents,” said Manitoba’s Murta.
Tory MPs are finding a keen interest in their leadership race among constituents. Clearly, many Canadians view their party as a government-in-waiting. A Gallup poll released last week showed that Tory popularity had reached a remarkable 50 per cent among decided
voters—the highest that party’s rating has stood since 1959. (The Liberals had slipped to 30 per cent, and the NDP had dropped to 17 per cent.) Wenman is convinced that the upsurge in support partly represents a yearning for change in all the parties. “People hope the sense of change from the Conservative leadership will spill over into the other two parties and lead to a widespread renewal,” he said.
Not all MPs stayed in their ridings over the Easter break. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his three sons were in Jamaica on vacation, and Industry Minister Ed Lumley was holidaying in Trinidad. Consumer Affairs Minister André Ouellet and Health Minister Monique Bégin were in Paris, and Secretary of State Serge Joyal was in Loui-
siana. At least two parliamentary delegations were abroad and a handful of ministers merely informed the Prime Minister’s Office that they would be “on vacation.”
On the other hand, Marc Lalonde remained in Ottawa, not hiding out but locked away with his officials in budget meetings, trying to balance out the nation’s conflicting economic concerns. For four months he has sought the advice of business leaders, labor spokesmen, academics, provincial officials and his parliamentary colleagues in the most exhaustive set of prebudget consultations ever held. Now, with BDay fast approaching, the minister appears to have become the victim of his own timing. He faces the prospect of prescribing a remedy for an economy that may already be curing itself.
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