CANADA

The Ottawa rumor mill

HILARY MACKENZIE April 21 1986
CANADA

The Ottawa rumor mill

HILARY MACKENZIE April 21 1986

The Ottawa rumor mill

CANADA

Brian Mulroney clearly had his political batteries recharged. Looking fit and tanned after a 10-day vacation in Palm Beach, Fla., the Prime Minister strode into the House of Commons last week, his spirits buoyed by a steady stream of good news. As Parliament returned from its Easter recess, the nation’s economy was spurred by a general decline of borrowing rates—more than three-quarters of a percentage point to 9.33 per cent in the trend-setting Bank of Canada rate. At the same time, a Gallup poll reported that Mulroney’s Conservative government had surged to a seven-point lead in popular opinion over the opposition Liberals (41 per cent to 34 per cent).

But the high spirits did not last long. At a Fridaymorning news conference,

Mulroney was visibly surprised to learn that the chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate finance committee, Robert Packwood, had threatened to reject proposed free trade talks between Canada and the United States—the centrepiece of the Conservative government’s economic strategy.

Mulroney was quick to dismiss the development as evidence that might persuade free trade critics in Canada “how tough” negotiations will be. Said the Prime Minister: “It might do something for Canadian nationalists who believe that the United States has been down there on bended knee, just waiting for Canadians to negotiate a deal with them.” But while Mulroney insisted that the committee’s vote, expected this week, would not be the Reagan administration’s final word, it was plainly a major setback to hopes for an early agreement with Washington.

In the early part of the week, the talk in Ottawa focused not so much on the Prime Minister as on his cabinet. The prospect of a June shuffle of min-

isters prompted corridor and cocktailparty discussion, as politicians and senior bureaucrats traded report cards on Mulroney’s ministers. Speculation was rife about which members were slated for political oblivion—and who might take their places.

The guessing game is a well-practised art on Parliament Hill, and this

season’s exercise is enlivened by two key factors: the Prime Minister’s need to get a team in place to fight the next election and to shore up Quebec’s presence in the cabinet. Those factors have backroom jostling, wild rumors and jockeying among ministerial aides, with a firm eye on their own future, trying to position their bosses.

The mood of opportunism was heightened by last week’s change in House of Commons rules that allowed

backbench MPs for the first time to be guaranteed debate on private members bills. And the politicians wasted no time in testing the limits of their new rights. In fact, Minister of State for Finance Barbara McDougall was forced to head off backbenchers’ demands for an emergency debate on a controversial bid by the giant Imasco conglomerate to take over Genstar Corp. (page 44). Other Tory backbenchers were equally bold. William Domm (Peterborough) tested Mulroney’s resolve to honor an election pledge to hold a free vote on capital punishment by introducing a bill calling for the death penalty well ahead of the government’s own timetable for the debate. And Cape Breton’s Lawrence O’Neil proposed controversial Criminal Code amendments that would protect the legal rights of unborn children.

When he named his 40member cabinet in September, 1984, Mulroney gave ministers two years to prove themselves. Said one primeministerial adviser: “Two years is enough time to assess the talents and the weaknesses.” Mulroney shuffled his junior ministers last August and made other changes prompted by three resignations. Now, 19 months into his term, Mulroney seems determined to I root out political deadwood from a cabinet that now numbers 39, and to recognize backbench talent. Certainly, the backbenchers are eager for promotion and a taste of

power.

The expected June shuffle will be designed to address two pressing political problems. First, although Mulroney commands a healthy Commons majority—211 seats to the Liberals’ 39 and the New Democratic Party’s 30—the time has come for him to put his 1988 election team in place. Second, despite holding 58 of the 75 federal seats in Quebec, Conservatives acknowledge that the cabinet lacks a Quebecer in a

heavyweight economic post. Said Conservative party president William Jarvis: “I content myself by saying you are not going to pluck out of the air these big hitters. You’ve got to develop them. Whoever heard of Jean Chrétien and Marc Lalonde? At some point they had to start.”

High-ranking Tories have identified several Quebec MPS as potential cabinet timbre. Gravel-voiced rookie member Monique Landry (Blainville-Deux Montagnes), for one, impressed party officials with her deft organization of the Tory convention in Montreal last month. Deputy Speaker Marcel Danis (Verchères) has been a solid performer.

In English Canada another Conservative on the rise is Ontario MP Thomas Hockin, 47 (London West).

As co-chairman of Parliament’s special joint HouseSenate committee on international relations, he delivered an equivocal report on Canada’s role in the U.S Strategic Defense Initiative.

But insiders say that the report’s conclusion—to support Washington in principle while hedging on actually participating in the $26-billion Star Wars effort—was exactly what Mulroney wanted to hear.

While the Prime Minister is not expected to shuffle the major players in his cabinet, senior Tories say some junior ministers have earned promotions. Minister of State for Finance Barbara McDougall (St. Paul’s), 49, has drawn high praise for her handling of last year’s calamitous western bank failures and her effort to reform financial institutions. One cabinet aide says that McDougall has “proved herself under fire.” Her own aides are pushing her for Communications. So is current Communications Minister Marcel Masse’s staff, who say their boss is headed for a more senior portfolio. Said one insider: “What she will come to represent is the new generation of women politicians.”

Another minister who has impressed official Ottawa is Labor Minister William McKnight from Wartime, Sask. A farmer who grows canary seed, the low-key McKnight, 45, has adroitly managed his portfolio, in addition to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. But he does not sit on the cabinet’s 16-member priorities

and planning committee, which is the government’s policymaking heart. That, says one senator, should be corrected. “He has terrific potential and should be there discussing the politi-

cal direction of the government.”

Most cabinet watchers agree that if Mulroney is to wage the next election with a strong team, he must make some tough decisions. Said a former high-ranking aide and now a Tory lobbyist: “If he’s smart he’ll get ruthless and get rid of the deadwood.” Among ministers whose names are often cited as threatened with dismissal or demotion are Walter McLean (minister of state for immigration) and Tom Siddon (Fisheries). McLean, blamed for a generally lacklustre performance and poor political judgment, has “the skids under him,” said a senior ministerial aide. Siddon, who donned an erminetrimmed academic gown for Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s 1985 budget speech, has been the target of equally merciless attacks.

Other Tories who insiders say are

headed for the political shadows include Jack Murta (Tourism), who allowed gyrating nurses in a chorus line to be used in television advertising aimed at attracting American visitors;

backbencher Patrick Boyer whose Equality for All report recommended that homosexuals be allowed into Canada’s Armed Forces, causing a brief firestorm; and onetime Quebec actress Andrée Champagne, whose performance in the Youth portfolio earned her a speedy transfer to Employment and Immigration.

The fate of Michel Côté (Consumer and Corporate Affairs) is unclear. Many observers have claimed Côté, 43, is being groomed for a senior portfolio. But insiders say Côté is not developing as fast or as smoothly as had been hoped. Doubts surfaced after he released a departmental report indicating that Gulf Canada’s Montreal refineries should have remained open, even after cabinet had decided they would be shut down. Moreover, with Côté’s corporate competition bill now under debate in the House and major legislation on generic drugs and registration of lobbyists planned, Mulroney is said to be reluctant to shift him.

Buoyed by last week’s Gallup results, political observers believe that Mulroney favors proroguing the House in June, shuffling the cabinet and recovening Canada’s 33rd Parliament for a throne speech in the second session in September. The speech establishing government policy may signal the intention to secure agreement from Premier Robert Bourassa’s new Liberal government in Quebec to the constitution, which former premier René Lévesque rejected. Depending on the fate of the free trade debate in Congress, it might also lend new impetus to talks with the United States. Two years from now, insiders predict, Mulroney will ask Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé to dissolve Parliament for a June election. Said Senator Lowell Murray: “That’s not a hell of a lot of time. We have to start getting things together—to get on an election footing.” Last week a rested Mulroney appeared ready to do just that.

HILARY MACKENZIE

PAUL GESSEL