CANADA

A conference without confrontation

Susan Riley August 22 1983
CANADA

A conference without confrontation

Susan Riley August 22 1983

A conference without confrontation

CANADA

Susan Riley

Canada’s 10 provincial premiers met in Toronto last week determined to avoid launching an outright attack on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Instead, they tried hard to ignore him altogether. The result was one of the most harmonious, if uneventful, gatherings in the 24-year history of provincial first ministers’ conferences. After two days of deliberation, the 10 provincial leaders produced a communiqué remarkable for its blandness. It called for improved co-operation in promoting international trade. But that recommendation was made by the premiers’ own industry ministers 10 months ago—and by federal and provincial officials for decades. The communiqué’s other main proposal—that Trudeau visit each provincial capital for discussions of economic problems with individual premiers—was never considered to be a serious possibility. Asked when he expected the Prime Minister to visit Winnipeg, Manitoba Premier Howard Pawley replied, “I’m not holding my breath.” Then the Prime Minister himself ruled out the idea as impractical.

Indeed, the premiers appeared to deliberately court a low profile in Toronto.

Certainly, this year’s chairman, Ontario Premier William Davis, was determined from the start that there would be no harsh public attacks on Ot tawa. Prompting Davis’ statesmanlike concern was the political realization that, in his own words, “The public is a

little tired of confrontation.” As well, the premiers believe that Trudeau’s Liberal government, now at its lowest point ever in the polls, may very well destroy itself without the need for any outside criticism.

Some premiers had additional reasons for not wanting to draw attention to themselves. British Columbia Premier William Bennett, who was under fire last week when 40,000 B.C. public servants demonstrated against his new austerity policies, was one provincial leader who welcomed the relative anonymity of Toronto. Bennett stoutly defended his job-slashing restraint budget but he was careful to restrict his remarks to that subject. Meanwhile, René Lévesque was uncharacteristically buoyant, although his Parti Québécois government is sliding badly in the polls. Even Newfoundland’s volatile premier, Brian Peckford, and Alberta’s iron-jawed Peter Lougheed were unusually mild in their comments. Behind the scenes, however, Peckford, Lougheed and Lévesque got what they wanted when they argued down a Davis proposal for a first ministers’ conference on the economy. Such a forum could be used by the Liberals as a pre-election platform, the dissidents contended. In-

stead, they came up with the unlikely “alternate plan” that Trudeau meet them one at a time.

The premiers even tempered their antimedicare rhetoric. That was because, as one premier confided, “We would be handing Ottawa an election issue.” As a result, despite recent threats from Edmonton that Alberta will fight federal Health Minister Monique Bégin’s threatened penalty on hospital user fees and extra-billing by doctors, Lougheed’s resentment was distinctly muted in Toronto. With the rest of the premiers, he avoided ringing denunciations and substituted a mild request that Bégin meet with provincial health ministers in September to discuss proposed changes in federal-provincial health care funding.

On the issue of Canada’s 1.4 million unemployed, the premiers were unable to reach any consensus. With New Democrat Pawley extolling Manitoba’s $200million job creation program and Bennett laying off hundreds of public servants in British Columbia, the ideological gulf proved too wide to cross. Pawley, for one, expressed disappointment: “The human, the economic waste of unemployment should have dominated the economic communiqué throughout, ” he said. But most of his colleagues, particularly the seven Progressive Conservative premiers, appeared ready to delay taking any action in the hope that Brian Mulroney and his federal Tories will win the next election and provide enough new economic stimulation to create more jobs.

The most heated discussions were also the least expected. In one closeddoor session, New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield, often Ottawa’s ally, complained that the federal government’s new approach to regional assistance was more politically partisan than ever before. He charged that Ottawa is providing federal grants to Liberal ridings with virtually no consultation with the province. Then, Nova Scotia Premier John Buchanan declared that federal Trade Minister Gerald Regan, a former premier of the province, had recently approved construction of a $50million federal office building for downtown Halifax without any prior discussion with provincial officials. The project has since been delayed, but the incident threatened to ignite an outright attack on the federal government. Then, Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine reminded his colleagues that any strong criticism of Ottawa would be counterproductive. Ultimately Devine, Davis and other moderates prevailed. Their colleagues decided to wait for what one Alberta official called “the common enemy”—Trudeau—to retire from politics for good.