CANADA

The perils of consultation

Michael Clugston February 11 1985
CANADA

The perils of consultation

Michael Clugston February 11 1985

The perils of consultation

Michael Clugston

CANADA

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is rapidly learning the pitfalls of the consultative approach to policymaking: it can turn a game of political hardball into batting practice for the opposition. Not only does consultation increase the opposition’s opportunities for criticism, but it exposes the government to charges of indecisiveness when it is forced to retreat from the course of action it planned to take. Last week Mulroney’s government—after already backing away from a planned overhaul of Canada’s social welfare system—retreated from its highly criticized offer to the National Association of JapaneseCanadians on compensation for their Second World War internment and left Ottawa’s controversial metric policy in place—more or less.

On the other hand, Revenue Minister Perrin Beatty’s announcement that he will introduce legislation to ensure that taxpayers are considered innocent until proven guilty in disputes with Canada’s tax collectors—reversing the unpopular system that has prevailed in the past—was a rare example of consistency in the Tories’ tentative advance from

rhetoric to policy. Beatty’s plan would allow taxpayers to keep disputed income until a court rules on income tax assessment appeals. And Mulroney made it clear that he intends to continue with his policy of consultation, no matter what the risks. “I know that we’ll be scorched,” he told a press conference. “But I’m willing to pay the price because I think that’s the way that Canada functions best.” Throughout the week his government continued to release discussion papers on issues ranging from social welfare policy and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the advisability of free trade with the United States and export financing.

Health and Welfare Minister Jake Epp led the parade last week by unveiling a discussion paper on universal social programs that was anticlimactic rather than provocative. After weeks of heated debate in the Commons and drawn-out disagreements within the cabinet on the subject, Epp’s paper proposed only minor tinkering with child support payments rather than the fundamental overhaul of the system that Mulroney suggested earlier. “We don’t have a mandate to revolutionize,” explained Epp. “We have a mandate to improve.”

The 30-page “consultation paper” confirmed Mulroney’s recent pledge that Ottawa would maintain universality in social programs and proposed two ways of redistributing family allowance payments but left benefits for the elderly untouched. One option—reducing family allowances, increasing the child tax credit and lowering income tax exemptions for dependent children —would give the poorest families about $175 more a year for each child, while cutting payments to better-off families by an average of $375 a year per child.

Under the second proposal, the income tax exemption for children would be eliminated and the child tax credit would be increased, giving poorer families an average of $358 annually for each child and costing richer families an average of $442 a year, per child.

After accusing the Tories before Christmas of planning drastic changes in social policy, the opposition last week found itself charging the government with failing to go far enough in helping the poor while penalizing middle-income Canadians and sparing the rich. (Families with incomes as low as $28,000 would lose some benefits under both proposals.) The Tories, charged New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broad-

bent, were “playing a very cool and cruel game” against middle-income Canadians. Declared Liberal Leader John Turner: “The Prime Minister’s $500,000-a-year bank president did not suffer too much under the document. But a bank teller with two teenagers certainly did.”

The tone and direction of the government’s discussion paper on free trade, tabled by International Trade Minister James Kelleher, suggested a strong inclination to work toward the removal of Canadian and U.S. tariffs and nontariff barriers in order to restructure and revitalize the Canadian economy. Among the options outlined by Kelleher were proposals that Canada seek more sectoral free trade agreements like the 1965 auto pact or call on Washington to work toward the elimination of trade barriers under a “framework agreement.”

Mulroney reinforced that signal of growing U.S.-Canada ties at his press conference when he supported U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s proposed “Star Wars” space defence system and insisted that Canada must improve its record on acid rain control before it demands American action on the problem. “We are not neutrals in regard to fundamental concepts of freedom and justice,” he said of the controversial American defence plan. The Prime Minister went on to warn that previous U.S.Canada acid rain discussions stalled because “we did not go to any bargaining table with clean hands.” On the heels of that advice, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that seven provinces will sign an agreement with Ottawa this week to halve acid rain emissions in Eastern Canada by 1994—and to share the multibillion-dollar price tag.

The Tories’ decision to allow retailers to continue to use imperial as well as metric measurements means that businessmen—with the exception of some small entrepreneurs—can still be prosecuted for not using metric, a threat that the Tories had promised to eliminate.

In the meantime, the Mulroney government was castigated by JapaneseCanadians for its attempts at meeting grievances stemming from the internment of some 21,000 Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. At week’s end, Multiculturalism Minister Jack Murta abandoned efforts—rejected by the National Association of Japanese-Canadians and by both opposition parties— to force a settlement through Parliament that offered victims a flat $6 million in compensation and a formal apology. Instead, said Murta, the government would resume talks with the Japanese-Canadians. For the opposition, Murta’s retreat showed that once again a Mulroney policy thrust had turned out to be a slow ball that could easily be hit out of the park.