Mulroney's uneasy anniversary
After the House of Commons resumes next week, Eugene Forsey, 81, will at some point take his place in the Parliamentary Gallery, where he has been watching over Canadian history since he was a child. Now, the retired senator finds that what he
sees in the Commons reminds him of the political mood there when he first visited it during the early months of Robert Borden’s Conservative government. Just as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney took power last Sept. 4 with a commitment to change and the country’s blessing, Borden arrived in 1911 filled with promise—only to be eventually written off, as a Calgary journalist put it, as “a wellmeaning but torpid person.”
Now, Forsey sees a similar failure to follow through on the part of the Mulroney government, leading to “a certain disappointment” among Canadians about the present Tory regime.
Anxious: Just one year after the Conservatives’ electoral triumph, Mulroney’s Tories are engaged in an anxious stocktaking.
That the Prime Minister spent most of his summer vacation trying to shake off
a cold was oddly appropriate, because recent public opinion polls have detected an unseasonable chill in the political air. The Gallup poll taken in July found that the Conservatives had slipped from a post-election high of 60-per-cent voter approval to only 40 per cent, with the party declining most sharply in Quebec
and the West. Now, as the Mulroney government heads into the new parliamentary session—with key decisions pending on free trade with the United States and possible Canadian participation in Washington’s space-based Strategic Defense Initiative—the sense of disappointment and anger is focused on
nearly all aspects of the government. As well, it comes from most regions of the country—and even from some of Mulroney’s own advisers.
Leading the list of complaints is the fact that Mulroney’s government has postponed or ignored many of its campaign undertakings, ranging from his pledges to reduce unemployment to his vow to substantially cut the federal deficit. Faced with nearly constant criticism of the government for its patronage awards and appointments, Mul-
roney finally said in Vancouver two weeks ago that he will provide conflict of interest guidelines and permit parliamentary committees to review government appointments.
Painful: But disillusioned supporters contend that Mulroney is surrounded by aides and advisers who strive to please and flatter their boss while protecting him from painful realities. According to those critics, most staff members in the Prime Minister’s Office are Mulroney friends who were hired more for their personal loyalty than for their political skills. “The mutual flattery,” said a worried senior Tory, “breeds a natural sycophancy.”
As a result of Ottawa’s inaction on
key issues, the provinces, which almost unanimously applauded the arrival of the Tories in Ottawa, are showing signs of reverting to a more adversarial stance. Although the Prime Minister has restored cordial relations with Quebec and enjoys the approval of Alberta’s premier, Peter Lougheed—who says that Mulroney’s government has “done extremely well”—other premiers are less enthusiastic. Concluded Newfoundland’s Conservative premier, Brian Peckford: “After close to a year, very little follow-up seems to be there.” More predictably, Manitoba New Democratic Party Premier Howard Pawley rated the Mulroney government as “very disappointing” and showing “a lack of
principle, a lack of direction.”
Anger: Indeed, the Conservatives’ traditional core of support in the West is shifting uncomfortably. There is resentment over the fact that Mulroney has made only three brief visits to the region since he took office last Sept. 17. There is also anger over an apparent lack of western clout in the Mulroney government and Ottawa’s slow response to calls for a comprehensive federal program to cushion farmers from financial failures and over the federal refusal to adopt a red meat stabilization plan to help struggling beef producers.
At the same time, the government’s efforts in the economic arena—and its understandable failure to provide a
quick solution to unemployment—have angered labor unions and spokesmen for the poor and disadvantaged. Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s May 23 budget infuriated the labor movement by providing tax breaks for corporations and well-to-do Canadians while offering little for the poor or unemployed.
Alarmed: Canada’s 1,760,000 pensioners won a critical battle with Ottawa in June when the government backed down on Wilson’s plan to curtail increases in old-age security payments. But at least some of the victors are still bitter. Declared Marguerite Chown, a Winnipeg pensioner: “I think a lot of individuals who have been staunch Conservatives in their voting are now looking with suspicion [at the government].”
Even members of Canada’s business community, who welcomed the Conservative victory last fall, are inclined now to applaud with only one hand. While some businessmen claim to be satisfied—Mulroney has done “everything he said he was going to do,” said Calgary oil analyst
Wilfred Gobert—others are alarmed by Ottawa’s failure to move decisively against the deficit. Mulroney, said Toronto stockbroker Andris Gravitis, “is wasting a glorious opportunity to make his mark.”
That dissatisfaction has not escaped the attention of Mulroney or his advisers, many of whom spent the summer trying to determine just what went wrong. One Mulroney aide said that “in the first year we were carried away by events”—such as Pope John Paul iTs visit to Canada in September and the Quebec City summit between Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan in March, which distracted the new government from other pressing issues. Government
insiders also say that members of the new government were hindered by their lack of experience. Said a close associate of Mulroney’s: “We were like a bunch of guerrillas swooping into a village from out of the hills. We knew what we wanted to do but we didn’t trust anyone
there and we didn’t even know how to make the water work.” By the end of June, when Parliament rose for the summer break following Wilson’s retreat on the pension issue, not even the most loyal Tory showed any exuberance.
Galvanized: For their part, the opposition Liberals and New Democrats have been galvanized by the evidence of government confusion. Liberal Leader John Turner restructured his own office to gain firmer control over the party’s research and communications activities and worked to mould his hit-and-miss Commons caucus into a more effective opposition. In a report made public last
week, a Liberal party reform committee urged that party members be given a larger role in policy formulation and stressed the need for greater accountability to the party rank and file. The report also recommended that the party compile a comprehensive party mem-
bership list and intensify its fund-raising efforts in order to deal with the party’s estimated $3.5-million debt.
Under pressure, a different Brian Mulroney seems to have emerged. The politician who last year was packaged to
corner the largest electoral penetration in Canadian history stepped into September wrapped in new and improved colors. A bureaucratic shakeup to put the government firmly in charge of the federal civil service, although spread over eight months, was completed in August. But the firmness did not carry through to the Prime Minister’s minor cabinet shuffle, in which the demotion of
two ministers—Suzanne Blais-Grenier from Environment and Elmer MacKay from the post of solicitor general—surprised some critics who had expected sterner action.
In Vancouver last month the Prime Minister made his pledge to erase the government’s image as a patronage dispenser. In another take-charge approach, Mulroney declared that despite an inconclusive decision by the all-party parliamentary committee studying a possible Canadian role in the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative he would decide the issue himself before Parliament’s Sept. 9 resumption.
The new image was welcomed by Tory strategists, who acknowledge that as the government embarks on Year 2 it will no longer be possible to blame the Liberals for all the nation’s problems. Said Ottawa consultant and Mulroney confidant William Neville: “The problem is that this government is a little unclear even on the basic direction —and it is beginning to hurt it politically.” The issue, added Neville, is, “Where is this government going?”
Protests: According to many critics, nothing has so sharply illustrated the Mulroney government’s lack of direction as the voyage last month of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage. As Canadian nationalists protested Washington’s refusal to ask Canada’s permission, Mulroney’s silence and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark’s indecision disturbed even members of the Prime Minister’s own staff. Later in Vancouver, Mulroney tried to recover by declaring that the arctic waters belong to Canada “lock, stock and barrel.” But by then the image had formed of a Prime Minister crippled by indifference or indecision.
Neville said that since the Mulroney government took power last fall, it has fallen into “a reactive mode.” In that, Mulroney may resemble former Liberal prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King more than Borden. King’s adviser, Jack Pickersgill, has written that King believed “the real secret of political leadership was more in what was prevented than what was accomplished.” And there is evidence that Mulroney also follows that dictum: a cosmetic cabinet shuffle, the delaying of vital decisions on defence and trade, the failure to take tough but unpopular measures against the federal deficit.
Critics of the government say that Mulroney is badly served by members of the staff of the PMO, who control access to the Prime Minister as well as the information he receives. A year ago Mulroney surprised party veterans by staffing the PMO largely with old friends, like senior adviser Fred Doucet,
who attended St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., with Mulroney. Then he added other friends from his days as a Montreal lawyer, including Bernard Roy, his principal secretary. As a result, said a senior Conservative, “no one ever gets the opportunity to give him the bad news. He has no identifiable group of strong people who meet to kick things around the way they need to be.”
Last week Ottawa was awash in rumors of a possible shakeup in the PMO that might even affect the role played by principal secretary Roy. Described by friends as “the closest thing to a hero Brian ever had,” Roy at one time was regarded as the one person who could tell Mulroney when he was making a mistake. But insiders say that has not happened. Said one: “Bernard is an able, decent, capable guy who does not run the PMO.”
Now there is speculation that Mulroney, like Pierre Trudeau, will turn for guidance to the Privy Council Office, part of the permanent civil service, where policy has traditionally been developed and refined by senior bureaucrats.
Tailspin: No one
doubts that major changes are necessary.
The Mulroney government’s loss of direction over the past year has been surprising even those expecting the
worst. “I thought the momentum would carry further than that,” Turner told Maclean ’s last week. “It has been quite a collapse.” For loyal Conservatives the tailspin has been painful indeed. In its first throne speech, last Nov. 5, the new government declared that “there is a new will among Canadians to make a fresh start in the search for answers.” Three days later Wilson stood in the
Commons and, as a first move toward deficit reduction, announced measures that he said would cut $3.5 billion from federal spending.
But within weeks the government’s sense of commitment seemed to dissipate. To be sure, the Conservatives did follow through on key pledges to dismantle the 1980 National Energy Program, establish a more welcoming envi-
ronment for foreign investment and begin the deregulation of the transportation sector. But other campaign undertakings were ignored. In Wilson’s increased $105-billion budget for the current fiscal year, he paid only token attention to the federal deficit, which in spite of sharp tax increases now is projected at about $34 billion, compared to the record of almost $36 billion in the year that ended March 31. And increasingly, leaders of the have-not provinces are
becoming anxious over federal inaction on unemployment and regional development.
Still, the Prime Minister may now be moving toward a more decisive legislative agenda. In Vancouver he told the 15 cabinet ministers who belong to the powerful Priorities and Planning Committee of cabinet to begin initiating policies without waiting for approval from the PMO. In three days of meetings on the West Coast the committee drafted a 10-month agenda that put Canada-U.S. trade arrangements at the top of the list. But because there is little money available for new and ambitious projects, Mulroney’s government is expected to pursue politically attractive legislation, including Criminal Code amendments such as those to clamp down on drunk driving and pornography, and may even—Turner suspects—in the near future call for a free vote on capital punishment. Actions such as this and the privatization of Crown corporations, such as Canadair Ltd. and de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd., cost little but pay political dividends.
Friends: Mulroney will also likely attempt to exploit and strengthen his already strong relations with the provinces. With an election expected in Quebec this fall, Mulroney will soon be in a position to step up negotiations for a constitutional accord with the province, that refused to support the 1982 Constitution. Mulroney is a personal friend of both Liberal Leader Robert Bourassa and Pierre Marc Johnson, expected to succeed René Lévesque this month as Parti Québécois leader and premier.
Some political forecasters predict that the Mulroney administration might be a one-term government. But that has been largely discredited by Mulroney’s new take-charge look. Borden was able to pull out of a political crisis and earn a second term by making significant policy advances in such areas as Canadian sovereignty, when he won a seat for Canada at the League of Nations, and reopened free trading negotiations with the United States, two areas that are almost certain to concern Mulroney in the coming months.
As well, Mulroney is unlikely to face the electorate before Year 4 at the earliest. And although many Conservatives say that they are worried, others declare confidence in the government’s ability to learn from its errors. Many Conservatives believe that, as Neville puts it, this government is not “in tatters. It is adjusting and on a learning curve.” After the debilitating events of the summer, the challenge for Mulroney will be to demonstrate that is true.
—ROY MACGREGOR in Ottawa with correspondents’ reports.