The return of a divided House

PAUL GESSELL October 6 1986

The return of a divided House

PAUL GESSELL October 6 1986

The return of a divided House


In ordinary circumstances, the days leading up to the reopening of Parliament are a period of political consolidation. In high secrecy, the governing party drafts the final version of the promissory speech from the throne, while the loyal opposition prepares to mount its ritual counterattack.

With the attention of Canadians rivetted on the House of Commons, party unity is paramount— and internal divisions are discreetly hidden from public view. But this week, as MPs return to Ottawa for the second session of the 33rd Parliament, the nation’s political circumstances seemed anything but ordinary.

Despite its vast majority, the Conservative government was so concerned by the party’s prospects in two scheduled byelections that it whisked Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on a 3,200-km campaign trip from Alberta to Quebec.

Appearing at a rally for the Tory candidate in Edmonton’s Pembina riding, the Prime Minister was jeered and heckled by an angry throng of striking union workers who demanded jobs and shouted derisive slogans.

Calling his confrontation “more fun than an Irish wake,” the Prime Minister told the protesters: “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. I’ve fought bigger and better people than you, and I’ll do it again.” Observers later called it the most hostile reception Mulroney h id ever received.

For their part, the opposition Liberals ended their three-month summer holiday on the verge of an internecine war. The explosive issue: John Turner’s lead-

ership, defended by many party faithfuls but under escalating attack by influential Liberal Senator Keith Davey and others, who have voiced doubt that Turner can win the next election. Said an unrepentant Davey in an interview

with Maclean’s Ottawa staff correspondent Hilary Mackenzie: “I think Jean Chrétien would be an excellent leader of the Liberal party.”

The backstage Liberal drama threatened to overshadow this week’s main political events—the first parliamentary election of a Commons Speaker and the Oct. 1 unveiling of the throne speech,

outlining the government’s legislative priorities from now until the anticipated election in 1988. In fact, Liberal MPs and senators were scheduled to meet in caucus this week in Parliament’s West Block for what party officials called a showdown with Davey. For days the man known as the Rainmaker—for his ability to produce election victories for former prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau—had dominated news headlines and upset his colleagues by musing on Turner’s shortcomings.

In response, Turner supporters accused Davey of political treason and blamed him for the party’s decline in recent poll standings. A Gallup survey released last week put Liberals and Conservatives in a virtual tie, backed respectively by 36 and 35 per cent of Canadians. (The New Democrats were at 28 per cent.) Said Liberal party presi-

dent Iona Campagnolo: “It is not because of Mr. Turner that the Liberal party has lost points. It’s mostly because of the revelations of Senator Davey, which have cast doubts on the unity of the party.” But Davey, preparing for his caucus confrontation, told Maclean ’s that some Liberals “take themselves too seriously. If the party is so fragile that

someone is vilified for suggesting that ultimate loyalty is to the party and not the leader, then, boy, it’s later than we think in the Liberal party.”

Davey’s open challenge, combined with a simmering party feud over constitutional reform and the sudden drop in opinion polls, intensified Turner’s woes as he approached a crucial vote on his leadership at a Liberal convention Nov. 27-30 in Ottawa. Although Davey supported Turner over Quebec’s Chrétien in the party’s 1984 leadership race, he declined last week to say whether he would endorse Turner in November. And while praising the leader for his integrity and commitment, Davey added,

“Maybe those things of themselves are not enough.”

Meanwhile, the race to succeed Speaker John Bosley, who resigned last month, forced all parties to return to Parliament on Sept. 30, a day ahead of schedule. Traditionally, the Prime Minister simply appoints the Speaker in consultation with opposition leaders.

But under Commons rules adopted last year,

Speakers will now be

elected by all MPs in a secret ballot. By week’s end, four Conservatives were rated serious contenders to replace Bosley—Marcel Danis (Verchères), Doug Lewis (Simcoe North), Steve Paproski (Edmonton North) and Blaine Thacker (Lethbridge-Foothills). One dark-horse possibility: former fisheries minister John Fraser. But to the surprise of many MPs, some would-be Speakers were actively campaigning for the job by telephone, mail and in person. Declared veteran Liberal MP Robert Kaplan: “It’s unhealthy for candidates to campaign, because they might be tempted to make promises that could undermine their impartiality.” The logical successor seemed to be Danis, Bosley’s deputy and the only serious candidate who is fluently bilingual. But Danis’s favored status appeared shaky, in part because of lobbying by Tory Lewis, who told Maclean's: “Right now I can assure you I have support in the Liberal and NDP parties. I don’t

1 know whether any of the

2 other candidates can tell /2 you that.” Added Nelson

g Riis, the NDP’s new 1 í House leader: “Quite

frankly, if you were to ask members to write a few comments about Danis, most people’s comments would be very short.” But MPs from all parties agreed that whoever wins this week’s vote must be able to control House debate more effectively than Bosley did. Said Liberal MP Brian Tobin: “There’s a sense in the land that we [MPS] haven’t behaved ourselves very well.” After the Speaker’s election, MPs will convene on Oct. 1 in the august Senate chamber to hear the government’s speech from the throne. A rough outline of its contents was first sketched last July, when Mulroney and his senior ministers met for three days in Saskatoon. Since then the speech has been through several drafts, and g sources said that Mul| roney was still tinkering 5 with the text late last ° week, taking it home to pencil in changes. Three items are expected to dominate the speech: free trade, tax reform and the attempt to bring Quebec into the Constitution—all issues the Conservatives intend to highlight in the months ahead. Other major initiatives expected to be announced include a greater role for provinces in administering regional economic development programs and new programs to combat child and drug abuse.

For the Liberals, the constitutional question last week remained as troubling as the skirmish over Turner’s leadership. At the centre of the dispute is the role of Quebec within Confederation. The party’s Quebec wing has already endorsed—as has Turner—a proposal aimed at persuading Quebec to embrace the five-year-old constitutional accord. But according to sources close to Trudeau, the former prime minister believes the Quebec wing’s resolution is misguided because it would label Quebec as a distinct society. That, Trudeau has argued, would effectively turn Quebec into a ghetto and play into the hands of separatists. Said Davey: “That is the nub of the issue. Is Quebec going to be a French province in Canada or is it going to be a province like the others in a bilingual Canada?”

The Conservative government has yet to comment on the Liberal proposals. Senator Lowell Murray, Mulroney’s federal-provincial relations minister, and his Quebec counterpart, Gil Rémillard,

met last week for almost three hours in Ottawa to discuss Quebec’s conditions for signing the Constitution. They include everything from a veto on future amendments to greater control over immigration. Murray accepted Quebec’s demands in principle, but he refused to say whether he wholeheartedly endorsed them. He plans to monitor Rémillard’s talks with the other nine provinces and decide by December whether there is enough agreement among the players to begin formal negotiations.

Meanwhile, Kaplan and Quebec MP Lucie Pépin, who chair a Liberal caucus committee on the Constitution, are expected to meet Trudeau. Turner’s dilemma is complicated by the fact that his Quebec lieutenant, Raymond Garneau, is a key architect of the proposals, and some party officials are worried that he may resign if his handiwork is seriously altered. As for Davey, he will have several opportunities this month to accelerate the debate on Turner and the Constitution, as he promotes his justpublished memoirs, The Rainmaker: A Passion for Politics. Although organizers of the November convention have refused him a stall to sell the book, it has become an instant bestseller, with 42,000 copies sold by week’s end.

For their part, Conservative strategists were focusing attention on the Sept. 29 federal byelections, the first since the Tories came to power in September, 1984. In Pembina riding, where Mulroney appeared Thursday night, a once-solid Tory majority was threatened by NDP candidate Ivor Dent. Said the Prime Minister in a partisan speech to party workers in a high school gymnasium in an Edmonton suburb: “If Western Canada is hurting, all of Canada is hurting, and this government will help make it right again.” Then Mulroney flew east to spend Friday evening in Saint-Maurice riding, the seat vacated by Chrétien.

Senior Tories said that Mulroney’s hasty decision to campaign was prompted by cancellation of a visit to Canada last week by French Premier Jacques Chirac—not by last-minute fears that the Tories would do badly in the ridings. But other observers insisted that Mulroney, although expecting to lose in Saint-Maurice, did not want the return to Parliament—and the excitement surrounding the throne speech—marred by an upset loss in Pembina. After Mulroney’s personal appearance, a defeat in that Tory stronghold would be a setback for the elaborate effort to restore public confidence in the government.