The 250 students crowding the auditorium at Edmonton’s Harry Ainlay Composite High School last week gave Prime Minister Brian Mulroney a standing ovation. “This warm and gracious reception,” said Mulroney lightly, “reminds me of the one I get each day from the opposition in the House of Commons.” But slipping out of Ottawa for a one-day visit to solidly Conservative Edmonton did not allow the Prime Minister to escape entirely from, as a party insider put it, “the nasty things” that are discussed in the
Commons. The students peppered Mulroney with tough questions on Canada’s attitude toward Washington’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDi) and social policies. Even so, they were far friendlier than the opposition MPs in Ottawa who last week pressed their attacks on a government that appeared to have lost its momentum.
The government has been criticized sharply through the autumn over issues ranging from rancid tuna and two ministerial resignations to bank failures and the travels of former environment minister Suzanne Blais-Grenier.
Now, it seems unable to mount an offensive that would enable it to initiate the bold legislative changes that it pledged before taking office. Two cabinet jobs—Communications and Fisheries—have been vacant since September when the incumbent ministers, Marcel Masse and John Fraser, resigned.
At the same time, Mulroney has missed the daily Commons Question Period several times recently to deal with business elsewhere in Ottawa or travel to official functions like the recent Commonwealth conference in the Bahamas or on trips like last week’s to Edmonton. One Tory insider explained the absences by saying that the Prime Minister wants to sample “the real world” and test the nation’s mood. But opposition MPs claim that Mulroney is trying to avoid awkward questions in the Commons at a time when public opinion polls show the Conservatives losing ground.
Even some Conservatives suggested that the current session of Parliament be ended with the Christmas recess to allow the Tories a few months to regroup and return to Ottawa with a new agenda. But Mulroney declared last week that he did not intend to prorogue the Commons before Christmas. Since the Commons recessed this week for the annual
_ fall break, he may
take the opportunity to choose new ministers to fill the gaps in his cabinet. After introducing a budget in the spring and unveiling a series of energy policies this fall, the government appeared to have run out of major initiatives. Said New Democratic Party MP Les Benjamin: “I think they are still thrashing around. It’s always the case historically with the Tories, trying to make up their minds what it is they want to do.”
The only major item on the government’s agenda now is the proposal for trade negotiations with the United States. Mulroney announced last week
that Simon Reisman, a former deputy finance minister under the Liberals, would be Canada’s chief negotiator in the proposed trade talks. But the government’s trade plan ran into trouble after government documents that were published by Maclean's indicated that some Canadian cultural industries, such as publishing, may be on the negotiating table when trade talks begin with the United States next year. Although the government has said “cultural sovereignty” will not be compromised in the talks, opposition MPS voiced concern that Canada’s cultural identity might be jeopardized in the trade talks. For his part, Liberal Leader John Turner declared: “Now Canadian culture is on the block.”
External Affairs Minister Joe Clark appeared to confirm in the Commons that cultural industries would indeed be part of the trade talks. But he argued that the removal of trade barriers could help some Canadian cultural industries by enabling them to expand into the United States (page 69).
Still, the government enjoyed success in one area last week. Financial figures for the month showed that for the first time since the Conservatives took office in September, 1984, the rate of growth in the federal budget deficit declined. In August the shortfall between Ottawa’s income and spending was $2.5 billion, down from $3 billion a year ago. That will not necessarily make it possible for Finance Minister Michael Wilson to fulfil his undertaking to reduce the deficit in his $105billion budget for the fiscal year that ends next March to $33.8 billion from $35.8 billion in last year’s $100-billion budget. But it did indicate that government spending restraints, increased employment and higher taxes imposed in May have begun to take effect.
The government’s actions in dismantling the former Liberal administration’s National Energy Program and deregulating natural gas prices gave Mulroney almost hero status during his visit to Edmonton. The province’s new Conservative premier, Donald Getty, had his first official encounter with Mulroney on Wednesday over breakfast and proclaimed it “a wonderful meeting.” Still, not all Edmontonians were as friendly toward the Quebec-born Prime Minister. As he turned the first sod for a new government office building, about 40 unemployed construction workers demonstrated nearby. “Why don’t you go back to Baie Comeau,” shouted one, and another called out, “Nice tan from the Bahamas, Brian.”
— PAUL GESSELL in Ottawa with MICHAEL ROSE in Edmonton
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