Repairing an uneasy cabinet

Michael Clugston,Hilary Mackenzie March 11 1985

Repairing an uneasy cabinet

Michael Clugston,Hilary Mackenzie March 11 1985

Repairing an uneasy cabinet


Michael Clugston and Hilary Mackenzie

The first breath of spring touched Ottawa last week and the heads of crocuses began rising on Parliament Hill. Politically, the seasons changed more swiftly. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, returning from a two-day visit to Jamaica, moved to fill the gap in cabinet ranks left by Defence Minister Robert Coates’s abrupt resignation last month. In quick succession he named Erik Nielsen, who will continue to act as deputy prime minister, to the defence portfolio, then he appointed House Leader Ray Hnatyshyn to take over Nielsen’s largely ceremonial duties as privy council president. The miniature cabinet shuffle instantly touched off an intense round of speculation in the capital over which cabinet ministers are on their way up and which ones may be on their way out.

The speculation was fuelled by the revelation last week that Environment Minister Suzanne Blais-Grenier, who was already under heavy fire for cutting

$33.6 million in environmental programs in November, was fired from the last job she had before becoming a cabinet minister. At the same time, Ottawa cabinet watchers were fascinated by the spectacle of as powerful a figure as Finance Minister Michael Wilson facing an uncertain future after losing out in his pre-Christmas campaign to cut back on universal social benefits as a deficitreducing measure.

Coates’s resignation, following reports of a visit to a disreputable West German bar in November, forced Mulroney to shift cabinet members long before he planned to do so. According to cabinet insiders, the Prime Minister was anxious to avoid any cabinet shuffle until late next summer in order to give ministers time to prove themselves. The same sources said that under that timetable, Coates—whose overall performance in the defence portfolio had given Mulroney cause for concern—would have been appointed to the Senate as a reward for his long and stalwart loyalty, while some other senior cabinet members, possibly including Veterans’ Affairs Minister George Hees, would also

have been given rewarding sinecures.

Although circumstances forced Mulroney’s hand, the tough-minded Nielsen—who is adept at straight-arming the opposition and snubbing the press —is unlikely to cause problems in the defence portfolio. Among Nielsen’s first tasks will be to obtain sufficient funding to expand the Canadian Forces and to defend Ottawa’s position in the continuing controversy over the United States’ “Star Wars” space defence research program. “Nielsen does not divulge anything he does not want known,” noted New Democratic Party House Leader Ian Deans. “That will make it all the more difficult for those of us who want answers to get answers.”

Meanwhile, Blais-Grenier continued to be a source of controversy. Her latest difficulties arose after a Canadian Press reporter discovered court records in Montreal indicating that she launched a lawsuit in 1983 against her former employer, the Quebec Parity Association for Workplace Health and Safety, demanding $160,000 in damages and back wages. Blais-Grenier claimed in the suit that she was fired from her job as execu-

tive director in such a way that her professional reputation was damaged. She noted in the suit that her former employer accused her of falsifying the minutes of meetings, and of hysteria, incompetence and intellectual dishonesty. She also filed a separate suit for $120,000 against an official who she claimed led the campaign to have her fired.

The Mulroney government had already become the target of criticism because of Blais-Grenier’s cuts in spending on environmental and wildlife programs.“There do appear to have been some teething problems,” said a cabinet colleague of the neophyte minister. By week’s end, speculation in Ottawa had put Blais-Grenier’s name near the top of the gossip list for those ministers most likely to be demoted in the next cabinet shuffle.

Wilson’s position in the cabinet is quite different—although far from secure. An enigmatic man, the finance minister is widely admired by fellow Conservatives for his candor and strong sense of principle, the very qualities that helped put him at odds with his colleagues during cabinet debates. He has consistently defended the deficitcutting measures outlined in his Nov. 8 financial statement, although other influential cabinet ministers—such as Transport Minister Don Mazankowski and Health Minister Jake Epp—resisted them in order to avoid facing the political costs of austerity programs. Wilson’s fortunes reached their lowest ebb during last December’s debate on Tory proposals for restructuring universal social programs. Then, according to a fellow cabinet minister, “we went into the House every day wondering whether the Prime Minister was going to be able to get the finance minister through the day.”

Already, several cabinet ministers are lining up for Wilson’s job. According to a member of Mulroney’s inner circle, Energy Minister Patricia Carney’s staff is promoting her as Wilson’s successor —and members of Revenue Minister Perrin Beatty’s staff are promoting him. But a senior aide to one of Wilson’s cabinet colleagues said that it could be “a very big mistake” to assume that the finance minister is likely to leave soon. “If people are pushing Carney,” he said, “they’ve got a long wait.”

Questions have also been raised about the future of Solicitor General Elmer MacKay, who admitted last month that he met secretly with New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield on Oct. 7. At the time, they discussed an RCMP investigation into suspected drug possession by the premier. Hatfield was subsequently charged with—and acquitted of—possessing marijuana. But the propriety of MacKay’s meeting with the premier is

still being debated in Ottawa. Said Deans: “It’s not over yet. I don’t think that has been resolved.”

Still, some ministers have clearly surprised Mulroney by demonstrating unexpected strength and resilience. External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, for one, made an uncertain start in his new portfolio: in November he was quoted from a wayward dictation tape as wondering whether Nicaragua had an ambassador

in Canada. But now the former prime minister, who lost the party leadership to Mulroney in 1983, appears to be confidently taking Canada’s foreign affairs in new and promising directions and giving the country a more visible international presence than at any time in the recent past.

In the meantime, several of Mulroney’s more junior ministers are emerging as likely candidates for promotion. One is Carney, who, according to a source

close to the Tory inner circle, is currently “Numero Uno in the PM’S mind.” Still riding the crest of last month’s “Atlantic Accord,” which established an offshore resource sharing agreement between Ottawa and Newfoundland, Carney will face a larger test of her abilities this spring as she seeks to work out an energy deal between Ottawa and the three western oil-producing provinces (page 30).

Consumer and Corporate Affairs Minister Michel Côté is another minister who has won favorable attention in Ottawa. He impressed cabinet colleagues with his adroit and diplomatic resolution of the metric issue in January. Côté managed to convince maverick Tory MP William Domm, the vociferous champion of imperial measurements, to accept a metric compromise that essentially gave full approval to metrification while leaving room for the continuing limited use of imperial. Côté has even been rumored as a possible candidate for the seat on the cabinet’s powerful priorities and planning committee left vacant by Coates’s departure (Nielsen, as deputy prime minister, already sits on the committee).

Another probable candidate for promotion is Barbara McDougall, the personable minister of state for finance. Her portfolio involves mostly low-profile financial issues, leaving her largely isolated from the tempest over the plummeting dollar and other national economic issues. One senior political aide considers McDougall to be politically “still in the romper room,” but some cabinet colleagues insist that she is natural senior cabinet material. “It’s as if she’s always been in the House,” said one minister. “She’s the greatest advertisement I know for the role of women in government and business.”

Other ministers may be destined for eventual removal from the cabinet. According to cabinet insiders, Treasury Board President Robert de Cotret, for one, has been losing political battles inside the government in trying to control spending. Said a cabinet source: “De Cotret is going down. No attention is paid to him, nor does he have any sway.” De Cotret’s unpopularity may result partly from the fact that, as the minister who controls the government’s pursestrings, he had the task of imposing spending cuts on his colleagues last fall —cuts that in some cases exposed ministers to furious criticism for their decisions. Now, with rumors circulating of another round of spending cuts to follow Wilson’s budget in May, Mulroney’s ministers are already manoeuvring to protect their portfolios and further their careers. Noted a senior Tory: “The minuet has not even begun to be played out. You have to wait and see which coalitions form over the budget.”