CANADA

Mulroney at a crossroads

KEN MACQUEEN,HILARY MACKENZIE September 2 1985
CANADA

Mulroney at a crossroads

KEN MACQUEEN,HILARY MACKENZIE September 2 1985

Mulroney at a crossroads

CANADA

In downtown Vancouver’s affluent hotel district, British Columbia’s faltering economy and its 14-percent unemployment rate seem part of another, less fortunate world. From inside the Hotel Vancouver—where Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his inner cabinet were closeted for three days last week—guests can view evidence of local prosperity in the Bank of British Columbia office tower under construction across the street. In that setting Mulroney—concerned by his steady decline in the public opinion polls—undertook a series of carefully orchestrated gestures designed to erase perceptions that his government may be drifting without direction into its second year in power.

On the way to Vancouver, Mulroney also sought to dispel an aura of extravagance that appears to cling to his government. At the same time, members of his cabinet, some of whom he shifted to new positions last week, flew west on commercial flights rather than in more costly government planes. Mulroney himself flew first class to Vancouver by CP Air from Toronto—the return fare is $1,208, but the Prime Minister has a pass—switching his booking from Air Canada to avoid crossing picket lines thrown up by striking flight attendants.

Earlier, Mulroney ended a month’s working vacation at his official summer residence outside Ottawa and, after months of expectation, shuffled the assignments of nine primarily junior ministers. He added a 40th minister—Stewart Mclnnes, the freshman MP from Halifax as supply and services minister. That restored the cabinet to its original size before the February resignation of Nova Scotian Robert Coates as defence minister. Coates resigned following disclosures that he had gone to a West German bar featuring strip-tease dancers during a NATO business stopover. Mulroney also increased the cabinet’s powerful Priorities and Planning Committee by two members to 16. Then he convened the inner cabinet meeting in Vancouver—his first visit to the province as Prime Minister.

As the session began, signals of the tough decisions facing the government swiftly emerged from other parts of the country. In Ottawa a parliamentary committee acknowledged that it is divided in its approach to proposals for an official Canadian role in the U.S. “Star Wars” defence initiative and for free

trade with the United States (page 13). And in St. John’s proposals for a free trade pact generated heated debate among Canada’s 10 premiers (page 12).

After two days of cabinet meetings —and visits by some of Mulroney’s ministers to outlying B.C. communities—the Prime Minister made the major statements of his trip. For one thing, he responded to charges of patronage that have been levelled at the govern-

ment since it took office last Sept. 17. Mulroney said that starting this fall allparty parliamentary committees will be allowed for the first time to review the qualifications of political appointees. The Prime Minister added that the committees would also be permitted to review the senior civil service appointments announced by the Prime Minister’s Office last month as well as some of the more than 1,000 federal

appointments in the past 11 months. But none of the review committees will have the power to veto an appointment —which Mulroney acknowledged may make the exercise “a waste of time.”

As well, the Prime Minister pledged that he will soon present cabinet ministers and federal employees with amplified conflict-of-interest guidelines designed to prohibit favoritism toward their families in awarding government contracts. That undertaking followed a series of actions that critics denounced as nepotism. In June, Justice Minister

John Crosbie came under fire when the law firms at which his two lawyer sons work in St. John’s were given legal work by the minister’s office. Then, last week the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that a letter from Crosbie’s office in the same month requested that the St. John’s office of the Federal Business Development Bank channel work to the same firms—an allegation that Crosbie dismissed as “puffery.”

Earlier this year the parliamentary opposition charged nepotism in the award of federal contracts to a brother of External Affairs Minister Joe Clark and a brotherin-law of Finance Minister Michael Wilson. Mulroney said that he had delayed introducing his limited reforms in the area of patronage in order to give the cabinet time to study an all-party parliamentary com-

mittee report on the subject that was tabled in June.

At the same time, attention was distracted from the cabinet session by a disclosure that on two recent flights, to Toronto and to Mulroney’s home town of Baie Comeau, Que., an empty government jet trailed the Prime Minister’s plane as a backup. Mulroney’s staff blamed the defence department, which operates the planes, for misinterpreting instructions and added that the practice had been stopped. Then, the Ottawa Citizen reported that, on the basis of fig-

ures obtained under the federal Access to Information Act, Mulroney’s ministers appeared to have spent more than $3 million during their first six months in government to refurnish and redecorate their offices.

Earlier in the week Mulroney made largely cosmetic changes in his cabinet. After the ministers were sworn into their new jobs by Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé, Mulroney explained to reporters that in reviewing his ministers’ performances he had decided that “no one merited dismissal.” But the two ministers who clearly had the most difficulty earned the most obvious demotions. Former environment minister Suzanne Blais-Grenier was reduced in rank to minister of state for transport S after her abrasive style 2 and her insistence on £ putting cost-cutting

above environmental issues tarnished her public image. Thomas McMillan, the former minister of tourism whose brother Charles is a senior Mulroney adviser, was named to take over the environment portfolio. Elmer MacKay, who was severely criticized as federal solicitor general for meeting privately with New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield before the premier was charged with marijuana possession last October, was shifted to the revenue portfolio. To soften the blow for MacKay—who temporarily vacated his Nova Scotia riding in 1983 to give Mulroney a byelection entry into Parliament—the Prime Minister elevated his friend to the cabinet’s Priorities and Planning Committee.

In a straight switch of portfolios, Perrin Beatty was rewarded for turning around the troubled revenue department by getting MacKay’s old job as solicitor general, becoming one of the few nonlawyers ever to have held the post. Mulroney’s approval was also evident when Consumer Affairs Minister Michel Côté assumed Beatty’s former responsibility for Canada Post and was added as the fourth Quebec minister in the inner cabinet. Another Quebec minister, Benoît Bouchard, was promoted to secretary of state from the junior ministry of state for transport. In a shift that appeared to indicate Mulroney’s policy priorities in the months ahead, Alberta’s Harvie Andre moved from the supply and services portfolio to associate defence minister—a transfer aimed at easing the burden on Erik Nielsen. On the weekend Mulroney flew to Jonquière, Que., to attend a meeting of Tory MPs from the province. There, he named Public Works Minister Roch LaSalle to be his chief political organizer in the province.

With the approach of the first anniversary of Mulroney’s Sept. 4 election victory and the postvacation resumption of Parliament on Sept. 9, the Prime Minister seemed preoccupied with defending his record. Faced with a Gallup poll last month that showed national support for the Conservatives down to 40 per cent, from a postelection high of 60 per cent last October, Mulroney repeatedly told reporters that he had made “significant progress” on his two highest priorities —economic renewal and national reconciliation. Still, when he was confronted with complaints about Ottawa’s approach to policy and finances from the premiers, Mulroney was less than conciliatory. “If people expect us to always have the big cheque available, then obviously we can’t,” he declared. “We have our own financial problems and any responsible person, including a Canadian premier, knows that.”

KEN MACQUEEN

HILARY MACKENZIE