A tough week and a welcome recess

PAUL GESSELL July 7 1986

A tough week and a welcome recess

PAUL GESSELL July 7 1986

A tough week and a welcome recess

Parliament’s annual twomonth-long summer recess could not have come soon enough for Brian Mulroney. For days, newspapers across the country had featured stories about the Prime Minister’s extravagant spending habits on foreign trips—including $l,200-a-night hotel suites in New York City. Then, the U.S. International Trade Commission ruled that exports of Canadian lumber were hurting American lumbermen. The decision, widely expected to lead to substantial tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber, signalled a new threat to the Conservative government’s free trade initiative with the United States. But perhaps the cruellest blow was delivered at week’s end as the 33rd Parliament formally adjourned. A public opinion poll conducted by Winnipeg’s Angus Reid Associates Inc. showed Mulroney’s Conservatives trailing the opposition Liberals 38 to 31 per cent—a seven-percentage-point decline for the Tories in a month. Concluded Reid: “Clearly, Brian Mulroney has alienated a large percentage of Canadian voters.”

In the Prime Minister’s Office, aides said privately that they feared Mulroney would be perceived as a “big spender,” despite his repeated calls for restraint in government spending. And such perceptions would only add to Mulroney’s lingering credibility problems, which began last fall with the tainted tuna affair and escalated after three ministers resigned.

The Reid poll of 1,673 adults across the country was even worse for Mulroney personally. Only 31 per cent of those polled said they approved of Mulroney’s performance, compared with 39 per cent for Liberal Leader John Turner and an impressive 60 per cent for New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent. In Mulroney’s home province of Quebec, the poll set Tory support at 20 per cent—28 per cent behind the Liberals—and found the public generally unhappy with the government’s handling of everything from controlling expenditures to job creation. Liberals were plainly delighted with the Prime Minister’s discomfiture. Said MP Douglas Frith: “This is going to be Mulroney’s summer of discontent.”

The ITC decision affirmed the claims

of various U.S. interests that Canadian exports of softwood lumber—about $3.5 billion in 1985—had hurt America’s domestic industry. With the fivemember panel’s unanimous vote, the

U.S commerce department will now rule on whether the damage stems from the low stumpage—or cuttingfees that Canadian lumbermen pay to provincial and federal governments. Those fees, U.S. lobbyists contend, amount to a subsidy, giving Canadian exports an unfair advantage. If the commerce department agrees, a new duty—at a projected cost to Canadians of $1 billion—may be levied. And any new tariff would inevitably renew concern about Ottawa’s efforts to reach a free trade agreement with Washington. Public support for the initiative, some advocates fear, is already slipping. Said John Bulloch, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business: “We have a difficult educational job ahead of us. The

politicians are playing games with it.” Mulroney’s image problem was expected to be high on the agenda this week as the cabinet’s powerful priorities and planning committee meets in Saskatoon to develop strategy for the fall session of Parliament. Shortly before flying to Saskatoon, Government House Leader Ray Hnatyshyn conceded that Tory controversies often overshadowed the government’s legislative achievements. Said Hnatyshyn: “The real work of the Commons has been woefully overlooked.”

Indeed, the Commons has passed about 100 bills since the Tories came to

power in September, 1984, about 30 more than the last Liberal government enacted in the equivalent period. Among the major Conservative pieces of legislation passed during the past 10 months were a clampdown on soliciting by prostitutes, compensation for depositors in two failed Alberta banks, controls on the mergers of large corporations and several energy bills that helped dismantle the Liberals’ controversial national energy program.

There was also a blizzard of paper activity last week as MPs, cabinet ministers and Commons committees attempted to clear their desks before the summer recess. Transport Minister Don Mazankowski tabled long-awaited legislation that would deregulate much of the transportation industry. House

Leader Hnatyshyn produced a policy paper on electoral reform containing proposals to control the publication of public opinion polls during federal election campaigns. The Senate-Commons committee on international relations tabled an exhaustive review of Canada’s foreign policy, including a suggestion that Ottawa begin talks with the outlawed African National Congress to help end apartheid in South Africa. And the Commons finance and economic affairs committee called for new restrictions on ownership of financial institutions.

Still, several key issues remained unresolved, including draft legislation dealing with attempts to control pornography, the dismantling of Canagrex, the agricultural marketing Crown corporation, and various initiatives designed to help the faltering energy and agricultural sectors. Those bills would automatically die on the order paper if Mulroney prorogues Parliament in September, as expected, and immediately begins a new session with a throne speech.

Inevitably, free trade will continue to be the centrepiece of the government’s fall economic strategy. But the government is likely to confront other controversial issues as well, including long-awaited legislation that would control production of no-name generic drugs, possibly increasing the cost of prescriptions for consumers. Finance Minister Michael Wilson has promised a review of all the government’s social programs, a step the opposition parties say could hurt the poor. And Mulroney has promised, before the next federal election, to persuade Quebec to sign the Constitution endorsed in 1981 by the other nine provinces.

A long-rumored cabinet shuffle was also expected, perhaps as early as this week. Among the possible changes: the retirement of Deputy Prime Minister Erik Nielsen from the Commons. The Prime Minister’s aides no longer deny that Nielsen’s obsession with secrecy, his inability to stifle controversies and, especially, his desire to slash government programs have hurt the government. Conceded Tory MP Stan Darling: “Nielsen sends chills up people’s backs when he talks about streamlining.” Added one source close to Mulroney: “Secrecy is one thing, but Erik is so secretive he won’t even tell you the time of day.” Nielsen himself is said to have told friends he is ready to retire. Said one Conservative senator: “Erik has wanted to get out of politics for some time.” On the basis of last week’s polls, Neilsen may have chosen the right time to go.