In an uncharacteristic gesture Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wrote a letter to Ontario Premier William Davis last week that was long, vague and even somewhat sanctimonious. And because it was sent during a week of setbacks for the federal Liberals, it also had an unsettling air of pleading. Trudeau told Davis—who is the chairman of this week’s premiers’ conference in Toronto—that all governments must cling to spending restraints in order to foster the fragile economic recovery. The Prime Minister also resurrected Ottawa’s call in the April budget for “a new national partnership” among labor, business and governments. That, in itself, was likely to rankle the premiers because it follows the federal-provincial dispute over medicare—extra billing and hospital user fees. “The government of Canada is determined to pursue its search for a more effective mix of economic policies and to do so in close co-operation with provincial governments as well as business and labor organizations,” Trudeau vowed. “We do not think that we have all the answers.”
That view was apparently shared by most Canadians early last month, according to the latest Gallup poll. After inching up to 34 per cent of decided voter support in early June, the Liberals
plummeted to 27 per cent in early July. The Liberals also fell to 27 per cent—a record low—in early spring, but many of them hoped that the party had pulled out of its slump. At the same time, the Tories—fresh from the election of Brian Mulroney as their leaderclimbed from 50 to 55-per-cent support among decided voters. The Tories last hit 55 per cent during the heyday of John Diefenbaker in 1959 (support for the Conservatives soared to 57 per cent in January that year). The struggling New Democratic Party crept from 15 to 16 per cent, and NDP strategists expressed relief that the party’s slide had halted—if only temporarily. The poll brought even more dismal information for the Liberals, however, when it reported that their support had dipped to 50 per cent in their Quebec stronghold. That served to concentrate the minds of such Quebec cabinet members as Jean Chrétien and André Ouellet last weekend as eight ministers gathered in the Laurentian resort of Val Morin with 25 experts on social issues.
In the face of this setback, Trudeau’s letter to Davis managed to be both conciliatory and patronizing. After a recitation of the prospects for an economic rebound, the Prime Minister explained that the provinces have a “critical role” in the recovery because provincial and municipal spending account for 55 per cent of total government expenditures
in Canada. He insisted that governments must work together to boost Canadian productivity and competitiveness and to ensure that wage and salary demands remain “compatible” with productivity. He asked Davis and the other premiers not to concentrate on federal policies—a discreet way of telling them to stop ganging up on Ottawa.
Senior Ontario officials reacted politely to the letter in public. But privately they were disgruntled. All provinces and territories have already imposed salary restraints on employees, except for Alberta, which has adopted guidelines. Ontario officials pointed out that economic recovery is on Davis’ agenda and that the premiers want to devote a lot of time to the issue. The Ontario officials were also baffled by the letter because Trudeau has rejected Davis’ frequent call for a federal-provincial first ministers’ conference on the economy. “Who the hell does he think he is?” grumbled one senior official, who requested anonymity. “He has refused our calls, and now that we’re having a provincial meeting he is sending his own agenda. And of course he is going to get his wish because the premiers are hoping to get a consensus that restraint is still needed.” The provincial agreement may be the summer’s only promising development for the ailing Liberals. lt;£>
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