Undercurrents of unease

Mary Janigan January 14 1985

Undercurrents of unease

Mary Janigan January 14 1985

Undercurrents of unease


Mary Janigan

Liberal Jean Lapierre was just learning to enjoy the heady experience of federal political office when the Canadian electorate evicted John Turner’s party from power last Sept. 4. Lapierre managed to hold on to his Shefford riding in southeast Quebec, but the Liberals’ electoral defeat cost the 28-yearold politician his portfolio as minister of youth, fitness and amateur sport after only two months in cabinet. So when Lapierre returned to his riding for the month-long parliamentary Christmas break last month, he was naturally curious to see how voters felt about Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s new Conservative regime. He drew small comfort from the reports he heard. “There is a sense among the people of not knowing what is going on—especially with regard to the universality [of social programs] issue,” noted Lapierre. “I think the problem is that Mulroney is operating by consultation as opposed to providing leadership. But the honeymoon is not over yet.” The Liberals, Lapierre concluded, “are not gaining from any dissatisfaction that people feel: if anything, people are feeling a cynicism toward politicians.”

That mix of confused signals accurately reflected the mood of voters across the country as members of Parliament took advantage of Parliament’s month-long Christmas recess to visit their ridings. Most of the Conservative MPS interviewed by Maclean's reporters across the country felt that their constituents were basically satisfied—but they admitted that some are worried about the economy and indications that the Mulroney government intends to cut back on the universality of social welfare programs. Opposition MPS, on the other hand, found that Canadians are concerned by government spending cutbacks, distressed by what they perceive as a growing gap between haves and have-nots and irritated by the Prime Minister’s tendency to answer questions with wisecracks. Still, the consensus seemed to be that after three months of Conservative rule, Canadians are reserving judgment. Some are optimistic —and some are not—but few Canadians expect an economic miracle to unfold.

Despite that wait-and-see attitude, interviews with MPS and their constituents suggested that all regions of the

country share a concern over the economy—and especially about jobs and social spending. Although many voters praised some aspects of the Mulroney government’s performance, many feared that full economic recovery is still a distant hope. And some were braced for a long, hard winter. “I like what the government is doing,” says Shirley Vickery of Cassiar, B.C. “I just wish they could do more for the unemployed, especially young people. I think in the long run their policies are going to help but they are not helping them right now.”

The most pronounced polarization of

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views was evident in British Columbia, perhaps as a reflection of the provincial Social Credit government’s draconian restraint policies. Many British Columbians who work in the private sector were cautiously optimistic about the Mulroney government’s promise for the future. “I am pleased so far,” declared Ken Schachner, who owns a car rental and leasing business in Terrace. “I like Mulroney’s attempts at privatizing, and he has a good attitude toward the Americans.” Mary Buchanan, a Vancouver investment dealer, praised the Tories’ desire to bring down the federal deficit. “And I think they are going about it in

the right way,” she added. “For the first time in years I feel confident that the people looking after this country know what they are doing.”

Other B.C. voters were disillusioned. “So far, I see the Conservatives as being mean and taking pride in being that way,” said Jim Duvall, a Vancouver college teacher. “The only [spending] cutbacks so far have been aimed at those who need help most.” Added Gordon Sherriff, an unemployed carpenter in Courtenay, B.C.: “Mulroney is no different from any other politician—he makes promises and does not keep them. He promised jobs. Where are they?”

In the Yukon—where the territory’s largest mine, the Cyprus-Anvil leadzinc operation, is slated to close on Jan. 15—the major concern was unemployment. Another nagging concern is that after 11 years of tough negotiations the deadline for signing an agreement on Yukon Indian land claims has passed without settlement. “Without land claims, without Cyprus-Anvil, and if we also have federal cutbacks, the population of the Yukon territory will go into a precipitous decline,” predicted territorial New Democratic Party Leader Tony Penikett.

The concern over jobs is shared by other westerners. Many Albertans applauded tough Tory spending decisions, and some praised proposed moves to pare back universal social programs. Tory MP Jim Hawkes of Calgary reported that his constituents are braced for more government spending cuts, a minimum tax on the rich and slow economic recovery. “They do not think the cuts are deep enough or hard enough,” declared Hawkes. Saskatchewan’s hopes in 1985 are pinned to a recovery in agricultural revenues, after average net farm income fell to $13,400 last year from $17,800 in 1981. “There may be some small-business people who are hopeful the government will help them,” says NDP MP Simon de Jong of Regina. “But I do not believe that any new mood of optimism has taken hold. People wonder if they will be working a year from now.”

Ontario voters appeared to be the ones most concerned over Tory moves to cut government spending and rethink the universality of social programs. Aideen Nicholson, a Liberal MP from Toronto, noted that many of her constituents are upset at the cancellation of the summer employment program, because students used those job revenues to help pay their university fees. Nicholson spent much of her Christmas holiday talking to senior citizens—who are afraid that their pensions will be trimmed—and actors, who fear that the $85 million slashed from the CBC’s 1985 budget will mean fewer jobs for them. “The public is starting to see that the government is launched on a massive

restructuring of public policy,” says Nicholson. “People feel that the Conservatives are trying to change everything and they ask what is next.”

Ottawa Tory MP David Daubney found his constituents worrying about their pensions and disturbed by spending cutbacks to the Canadian Wildlife Service and the National Research Council. Tory MP William Tupper of NepeanCarleton agreed that constituents are concerned about old-age pensions and environmental programs. “I was at several senior citizens’ dinners and people there needed a considerable amount of reassuring,” noted Tupper.

In contrast to the preoccupations elsewhere in the country, Quebecers seemed

less worried about possible cutbacks in social spending than about the way that the Mulroney government has handled the issue. Many constituents pointed to contradictory statements by Mulroney and his ministers as evidence that the government is secretive—and that it has a secret agenda. “I did not trust Mulroney before. Now I trust him less,” said Montreal bookstore clerk Grant Roche. “He said nothing during the election campaign, and now the government appears to be doing everything they were afraid to talk about before they were elected.”

In the Atlantic provinces MPS from all parties found that their constituents are worried primarily about jobs. And although Maritimers are cautiously approving of the Mulroney government, they feel that spending cutbacks tend to hit those provinces that can least aiford

them. Dennis Cochrane, a rookie Tory MP from Moncton, N.B., said that voters are relatively satisfied with the government’s performance but worried by the conflicting policy stands on social welfare. “People are looking for a solid sense of direction,” said Cochrane. “The worst thing is the fear that is created among old-age pensioners who depend on their pensions for the majority of their income.”

Noted Cathy Jacob, a poet in Dartmouth, N.S.: “[Mulroney] promised to reduce the deficit without raising taxes or burdening the middle classes but he is not doing that. The people he said would not suffer are suffering.” In Newfoundland, where jobs are scarce and unem-

ployment is chronic, voters were worried about the Mulroney government’s apparent concentration on cutbacks rather than job creation. “Where there is restraint, it causes a minor belch at the centre but major indigestion at the country’s edges,” observed St. John’s Conservative MP James McGrath.

For the Mulroney government the holiday season message from across the land seemed clear enough: major policy changes in social spending, if they materialize, would create profound resentment among those who depend on government programs the most. When the 282 MPS from Canada’s 33rd Parliament return to Ottawa on Jan. 21, it will be with the sombre realization that the mood of Canadians is as mixed, and as volatile, as the policy signals emerging

from Ottawa._

With correspondents'reports.