A few minutes before the federal cabinet broke last Thursday from its winter strategy retreat at the government lodge in the Gatineau Hills, House of Commons Leader Ray
Hnatyshyn glared out on the blowing snow, shook his head and remarked, “We could be trapped here till Easter —maybe we’ll never be seen or heard of again.”
But the chances of that were slim indeed. This week Parliament was back in session after its month-long Christmas break and embroiled in debate over the nation’s affairs. But opposition MPS who returned in expectation of continuing the interrupted debate on universal social programs had to rethink their tactics. Emerging from an Ottawa cabi-
net session, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney reaffirmed that universality is a “sacred trust” and that “there will be no change.” Health Minister Jake Epp elaborated, ruling out any special tax to reclaim family allowances or pension benefits from upper-income Canadians and ruling out means tests to determine eligibility for those programs. After a period as dry as the Meech Lake snow facing Hnatyshyn, the wheels of the Mulroney government were again in motion and, the critics would say, as slick as ever.
The cabinet gathering was just part of a flurry of events last week whereby the Mulroney government sought to put itself back into public focus as a beneficent, action-oriented administration. Mulroney himself was in Montreal to woo Louis Laberge, head of the 400,000member Quebec Federation of Labor, to the point where Laberge, once a fierce Mulroney critic, pronounced his group as nothing short of “very happy.” Finance Minister Michael Wilson gathered with smiling provincial finance ministers in Montreal. Transport Minister Don Mazankowski announced the restoration of six passenger train lines, including The Super Continental, and said his department would study the possibility of a Via Rail revamp that could cost as much as $800 million. And as far away as London, England, Thomas d’Aquino, president of Canada’s Council on National Issues, was delivering a report card “covered with As” on the first four months of the Mulroney government.
It all seemed too good to be true—and was. For some other Canadians were less than amused at the goings on. Sam Hughes, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, for one, felt that Mulroney’s propensity for consultation on a wide range of issues could inhibit his government’s capacity for action. Too much consultation, declared Hughes, “is a very real risk. If he [Mulroney] is too dependent on getting information from all the people who could be affected, then we’ll never get anything done.” There was a sense that the preChristmas weeks had been all talk and little action. Apart from housecleaning left over from the previous Parliament, there was little to show but a bill to change the name and style of the Foreign Investment Review Agency to Investment Canada and legislation to provide gold commemorative coins for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.
Last fall, however, was merely “the first leg of a journey,” said Hnatyshyn. The new sitting, he assured, would not be done on members’ hands. He said
that in the new session the government would introduce new Criminal Code amendments to deal with matters ranging from hate propaganda to prostitution, amend existing statutes to bring them into conformity with the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as introducing incentives for smallbusiness men and farmers.
All the same, while Mulroney eagerly took credit for the 100,000 new jobs Statistics Canada said were created over the past three months, other economic indicators—from inflation to the foreign exchange value of the dollar —are mildly worse than when the Conservatives were elected last Sept. 4. The Tories, although pledged to curb federal spending, may be forced into further outlays to deal with the 1.3 million unemployed. “They’re either going to have to come up with something or else they’re going to end up paying billions of dollars to the unemployed and those on welfare,” said Ian Deans, New Democratic Party House leader. “Either way, they’ve got to spend money. Indeed, Mulroney warned that bad news might well be in store when Finance Minister Michael Wilson brings down his first budget in April. “It always is difficult when you’re cutting back on expenditures,” noted Mulroney, adding that Ottawa had to stop living on borrowed money. “The government ran out of real dollars a long time ago.”
In the meantime, John Turner’s Liberals approached the resumption of Par-
liament reeling from bad press notices. Turner, dismissing the criticism as more “phantom war” than reality, used a two-day caucus meeting last week at nearby Montebello, Que., to try to repair his image. Behind closed doors, Turner blasted his caucus for their constant sniping and doubts about his leadership with such fury that the public address system was switched off for fear his shouts would spill into print.
Much of the talk about the possible disintegration of the Liberals had been raised by two unfounded rumors—one floating through Quebec circles that Turner would retire “gracefully” by Easter, the second flushing through Turner’s own office that the latest Gallup poll had the Liberals trailing the New Democratic Party by a remarkable six points, 22 to 16. But when the poll appeared, the Liberals had 24 points to the NDP’S 20. Both remain far behind the Tories, who were supported by 54 per cent of those polled Dec. 6-8.
Liberal House Leader Herb Gray said he hopes the caucus will perform more as the Liberals did in the week before the recess. Then, the two opposition parties had the Tories in retreat over proposals to dilute
the universality of social programs. In the coming months, Liberal strategy will be buttressed by two themes—preservation of the Canadian cultural identity and, in a step that Turner may find as awkward as giving up his familiar cue cards, glorification of the Trudeau years, which pollster Angus Reid told them will now sell well.
Mulroney was convinced that bickering in the House would arise less because of Tory shortcomings than over what he calls “the life-and-death struggle going on between the NDP and the Liberals” to be the real opposition. But Deans, citing the combined opposition in the social services debate, claimed that “if anything we’ve held this government more accountable with just 70 opposition members up against 211 than happened in the previous Parliament. The Tories seem to be much more vulnerable.”
Both opposition parties expect that the government will provide new targets, including probable increases in oil pricing, possible retreat from the metric system and bigger deductions from paycheques to finance the Canada Pension Plan. Wilson discussed CPP premium increases—the first since the program was set up in 1966 to augment the universal Old Age Security—in his Montreal meeting with his provincial counterparts. The current levy of 3.6 per cent is applied to a maximum of $23,500 earned by salaried Canadians, with 1.8 per cent being paid by the employee and the other half by the employer. Wilson foresees payouts eventually exceeding premiums, which total more than $3.7 billion a year, as the number of retirements increase. “It’s a pay-as-you-go fund, so premium increases are inevitable.”
The opposition is also looking forward to soft spots in Wilson’s first full-blown budget, which he is currently expected to present in the April 22 to 26 period. Wilson is committed to an austere regimen that aims to reduce the gap between what Ottawa collects and what it spends—a projected deficit of almost $35 billion on total outlays of just over $100 billion in the budget year that ends March 31. “Everybody is convinced the Tories are going to drop 12 points [in popularity polls] around then,” said freshman MP Sergio Marchi (York West) at the end of the Liberal gathering in Montebello. “Our job is going to be to make sure we pick them up.”
With Hilary MacKenzie and Michael Clugston in Ottawa.
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