Free from the start

MICHAEL ROSE October 13 1986

Free from the start

MICHAEL ROSE October 13 1986

Free from the start

Brian Mulroney’s two-year-old government formally unveiled its new look last week, but the early reviews were unfavorable. For three months the Prime Minister and his advisers had planned a strategy that would help them recover from setbacks suffered in the first half of the Conservative term. Since Parliament recessed at the end of June, Mulroney arranged a major cabinet shuffle, strengthened his planning team and apparently orchestrated with his advisers the resignation of Commons Speaker John Bosley. Then, the Prime Minister and his aides delayed the return of MPs in order to spend more time drafting last week’s speech from the throne, the kickoff to the second session of the 33rd Parliament. But even before Gov. Gen.

Jeanne Sauvé began reading the 40-minute speech in the stately Senate Chamber, the government found itself under renewed attack.

In two federal byelections last week —the first since the 1984 election—the Tories finished relatively weak. In Alberta’s traditionally Conservative Pembina riding, the Tories gained only a slim victory over the New Democrats.

And they suffered a decisive defeat in Quebec, finishing narrowly ahead of the NDP, but 12,857 votes behind the winner, Liberal Gilles Grondin. The following day the first attempt to elect the Commons Speaker turned into a comic political marathon which stretched through 11 ballots and seemed to lead to a competiton between anglophone and francophone Tory MPs. The contro-

versial winner: former fisheries minister John Fraser, 54, who resigned last year during the rancid tuna scandal and whose command of French, critics claimed, is inadequate for his demanding new role.

Then, U.S. lumbermen rejected a Canadian plan to resolve a long-standing

dispute over softwood lumber exports. In an attenpt to avert new U.S. duties of up to 32 per cent on Canadian exports, Ottawa had offered to raise prices by about 10 per cent. The government took that action before the U.S. International Trade Administration was scheduled to deliver its ruling this week on whether the Canadian industry was unfairly subsidized. Opposition leaders accused the government of staging a tactical retreat. Said Liberal trade critic Lloyd Axworthy: “We can now call [International Trade Minister] Pat Carney ‘Wrong-Way Carney.’ She’s taken the ball and scored a touchdown in her own end zone for the other side.” Nor did the throne speech generate an enthusiastic response. For the most part, the document restated objectives laid out by the Tories two years ago: national reconciliation, economic renewal, social justice and constructive internationalism. Those goals, said the speech, “are within reach.” The address broadly committed the Tories to “alleviate personal hardship” among Canadian farmers, to sustain the hard-pressed energy industry, to consider tax reform and to improve regional development initiatives. But the cost of those programs was unknown, and there were no detailed proposals for implementing them. Spokesmen for both opposition parties criticized the speech for its lack of specific remedies for the nation’s widespread economic difficulties. Said Liberal Leader John Turner: “It’s Brian’s last stand.” Later in the Commons, Mulroney said

that the government will continue to pursue a trade accord with the United States. But he added, “We are not talking about trade with the United States to the exclusion of trade around the world.” Canada, said the Prime Minister, is involved in trying to “further liberalize international trade and create opportunities and a new deal with our largest trading partner, the most dynamic and richest market in the world on our doorstep.”

Mulroney was less clear on the issue of whether cultural industries will be included in a free trade accord with the United States or in any multinational arrangement. “We are told we are going to lose our culture,” he declared. “That should be explained to [the late French President]

Charles de Gaulle. Does one think that Charles de Gaulle would have taken France into a common market, into a liberalized trading bloc, if he thought there was any doubt as to the defence of the French language and French traditions?” The Prime Minister added: “Canada’s culture and dignity [are] strong enough to stand up in international trading blocs, create jobs at home and strengthen our culture and identity.” Later the Prime Minister said, “When the history of this day is written, it shall be recorded who the daring were, and the daring were those who had confidence in Canada and themselves.” NDP Leader Ed Broadbent said earlier that Mulroney, in fact, appeared to be abandoning his free trade initiative. “I think you can kiss free trade goodbye,” Broadbent declared. At the same time, in the throne speech the government seemed to take a more cautious approach to its earlier commitment to expedite Quebec’s entry into the constitutional accord. The government would only undertake formal negotiations if there are “reasonable prospects for an agreement.”

As well, the speech concentrated less on the government’s determination to reduce the deficit and stressed instead a greater concern for the family and others in need. “Fiscal responsibilty,” read Sauvé, “is fully compatible with social responsibility.” The document

committed Ottawa to such issues as quality child care, protection for battered women, help for the victims of crime and a stepped-up fight against pornography, prostitution and drug abuse. But there was no mention of earlier legislative plans to raise Canadian consumer drug prices by extend-

ing patent protection for multinational pharmaceutical companies. Nor was there any reference to Mulroney’s election undertaking to allow a free vote in Parliament on capital punishment, an omission that some right-wing members of the Tory caucus said that they were concerned about. Declared Alberta MP Alex Kindy: “I’m certainly disappointed. I think it’s a pressing issue, and most people in Canada really want it.”

The opening session of Parliament was disrupted by the complicated process used to elect a replacement for Speaker John Bosley, who abruptly resigned his post last month after a two-year behindthe-scenes battle with the Prime Minister’s Office. For more than 11 hours the MPs milled around oak polling boxes, voting 11 times before choosing a successor. Mulroney and his PMO colleagues were publicly neutral in the race for the $110,000-a-year post, but last week there were persistent rumors that the Prime Minister had decided that Fraser was the best man to replace Bosley.

The two front-runners —Deputy Speaker Marcel Danis and veteran Ontario Tory Douglas Lewis—both denied reports that they had been pressured to withdraw. And aides to Mulroney said that the Prime Minister had not intervened. Still, Fraser’s election was a surprise. The week before the vote, he had sent the required letter to the Commons clerk indicating that he did not want his name on the ballot. A few days later, he suddenly changed his mind. That was a result, Fraser told Maclean's, of “the persuasion of some friends on both sides of the House and a reconsideration of my position.”

Clearly, Fraser faces a testing time. Adjudicating parliamentary debate, which in the last session frequently deteriorated into an exchange of expletives and insults, is in itself a major challenge. But in the 14 years as the MP for Vancouver South riding, Fraser also has developed a reputation as a man with a short temper.

In his first Commons question period last week, Fraser appeared nervous, and his French was stilted. Then,

Deputy Prime Minister Don Mazankowski—in an apparent warning to Fraser—said that opposition questions should be shorter and contain less opinionated preambles. The lecture appeared to anger Liberal House leader Herb Gray, who claimed that Mazankowski was trying to muzzle the opposition. It was clear that it would require more than Fraser’s appointment to eliminate the rancor that marred the last session.

The byelection results were a disappointment for many Tories. In Pembina riding, north of Edmonton, Conservative Walter Van De Walle edged out his NDP opponent by just 232 votes. Two years earlier Tory Peter Elzinga—who resigned to enter provincial politics—swept Pembina by 34,000 votes. Meanwhile, 150 km northeast of Montreal, Liberal Grondin scored an easy victory in Saint-Maurice riding, previously held by former Liberal cabinet minister Jean Chrétien. The Conservative share of the popular vote dropped to 20 per cent from 35.

In Parliament, the latest developments on the softwood lumber issue were also a source of concern. Early in the week Trade Minister Carney told a hastily arranged news conference in Ottawa that the affected provinces had authorized what she called a “once only” offer to voluntarily raise the price of softwood sold in the United States. The only condition: that American lumber producers withdraw their appeal for countervailing duties against Canadian softwood exports. Canadian trade officials delivered the offer to their U.S. counterparts in New York, and Carney also called Commerce secretary Malcolm Baldrige and Trade representative Clayton Yeutter to explain the proposal.

But spokesmen for the U.S. Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports rejected the offer as insignificant. The minister said the offer did not acknowledge the coalition’s contention that the provinces unfairly subsidize exports by charging low stumpage fees. Those fees represent the rates paid by lumber companies to log on Crown land. Still, in Washington, Idaho Republican Senator Steven Symms said that the proposal was “a de facto admission that [Canadians] are engaged in unfair lumber practices.” In Ottawa, Axworthy described the Canadian action as a surrender, adding: “Miss Carney has made Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow look like a minor play.” At stake in the dispute: $3.8 billion in export sales and 25,000 Canadian jobs. But with a difficult autumn ahead, it is a battle that the Mulroney government will clearly strive to win.