While he was prime minister, one of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s most cherished precepts was that reason should prevail over passion in politics. But Trudeau’s philosophy was apparently forgotten last week during a noisy battle in the federal Liberal caucus. The issue: party leader John Turner’s decision to support the Meech Lake constitutional agreement, despite serious reservations.
Some Liberals became so impassioned that they hurled epithets in public at the man at the centre of the controversy, Quebec MP Donald Johnston, an influential cabinet minister in the Trudeau government. But Johnston, who resigned his post in Turner’s shadow cabinet on May 8 to speak out against the constitutional agreement, was unmoved by claims that he was damaging his party. Said the former external affairs critic:
“The constitutional future of this country is worth the price.” The feud spread when Montreal MP David Berger publicly backed Johnston’s stand—despite Turner’s demand for caucus unity. Turner promptly fired Berger as the Liberals’ science and technology critic.
The infighting emerged during a particularly difficult period for the Liberals. It reinforced a perception of Turner as a leader unable to formulate
clear party policy on important issues such as the Constitution and free trade, and incapable of controlling members of his caucus still influenced by Trudeau’s centralist vision of Canada. Those difficulties were accentuated last week by an opinion poll conducted by Angus Reid Associates, which reported that the New Democratic Party
had pulled ahead of the Liberals to take the lead nationally—for the first time since the NDP was formed in 1961. However, a Gallup poll released one day later contradicted Reid’s results, putting the Liberals far ahead of both the NDP and the Tories.
The Liberals’ dispute reached a climax
at the beginning of last week, after an emergency caucus meeting called to map out the party’s position on the Meech Lake accord. Behind the closed doors of the caucus room in the West Block of Parliament Hill, André Ouellet, another former Trudeau cabinet minister, exchanged what he later described as “harsh words” with Johnston. But Ouellet went a step further, telling reporters that Johnston’s refusal to endorse the party’s position in favor of the principles of the Meech Lake agreement made him “a Westmount Rhodesian” who was ignoring the evolution of Quebec society.
The remark, which resurrected an old nationalist insult aimed at privileged English-speaking Quebecers, angered anglophones in the province. It also diverted attention from Turner’s carefully drafted speech on the Constitution in the Commons, in which he said that the Meech Lake agreement would be acceptable if some serious flaws were corrected. Turner was particularly concerned about a part of the agreement that redefines federal spending powers.
Already hurt by Johnston’s decision to break ranks, Turner moved swiftly to end the infighting in his caucus. On Tuesday he ordered Ouellet to apologize to Johnston. Then, during a tense caucus meeting Wednesday morning Turner warned his MPs about the dangers of appearing divided on major issues. Declared Turner as he emerged from the meeting: “The caucus knows what it has to do.”
But the next day Berger openly defied his leader. The 37-year-old Montrealer, who represents Laurier riding, issued a statement saying that the Meech Lake accord “unduly weakens the government of Canada.” Berger said the new limits on federal spending powers—which allow provinces to opt out of future national programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction—might inhibit Ottawa’s ability to establish a national child care program or a guaranteed annual income. Added Berger: “If the federal government is relegated to the role of tax collector, it will risk losing its raison d’être.”
Turner reacted swiftly. At week’s end he issued a terse, one-paragraph statement relieving Berger of his duties in the shadow cabinet. Like Johnston, Berger will keep his seat in Parliament and remain in the Liberal caucus. Caucus chairman Marcel Prud’homme defended Turner’s action, claiming that Berger had paid the price for failing to discipline himself. Added Prud’homme: “Members of Parliament cannot shoot in every direction without expecting that kind of action.”
Johnston’s main objection to the April 30 Meech Lake agreement between Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers was that it would fundamentally weaken the powers of the federal government. In addition to limiting federal spending powers, the deal would recognize Quebec as a “distinct society” and give the provinces a say in appointments to the Senate and the Supreme Court. Johnston especially objected to the clause affirming Quebec’s distinct nature, arguing that it could undermine Trudeau’s vision of a bilingual Canada. “It makes me sick,” he said of the accord.
Trudeau himself, silent on the Meech Lake accord for almost two weeks, offered his first comments last week. He phrased his remarks in the form of questions, but he left little doubt that he had serious reservations about the accord. “In every kind of constitutional deal, I think you must ask yourself what kind of country will come out of it,” Trudeau said during an appearance at a meeting of venture capitalists in Toronto. “The question for you is this: is this making the Canadian government that much weaker that it would be unable to use its economic levers in a time of great economic difficulties? And if so, [does] the agreement go too far? There are times in our history—the Great Depression, emerging from wartime to peacetime, social problems of a national magnitude—where one has to ask government to do a big job and an important job.” Trudeau refused to expand on his remarks, and a former Liberal cabinet minister who had lunch with Trudeau in Montreal last Wednesday said that the former prime minister was “very, very reluctant” to become embroiled in public debate on the issue.
For its part, the NDP managed to avoid serious controversy over the Constitution-even though Broadbent’s position in a Commons debate on the issue last week was essentially the same as Turner’s. Careful not to jeopardize the party’s newfound popularity in Quebec, NDP strategists sought to avoid potentially damaging missteps.
The New Democrats expressed delight at Reid’s poll results—but those findings were quickly followed by Gallup’s less encouraging survey. Winnipeg-based Reid had given the party 37-per-cent support among decided voters, compared with 36 per cent for the Liberals and 25 per cent for the Tories. By contrast, Gallup showed the Liberals with 42 per cent, the NDP with 30 per cent and the Tories with 26. Analysts said that several factors—especially how the two pollsters conducted their surveys in Quebec—might explain the discrepancy in the results. But for the Liberals, the encouraging Gallup results did not erase the week’s hard lesson about the high cost of making private differences public.
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