International Trade Minister John Crosbie had been gearing up for the occasion for weeks. But when the moment finally arrived to unveil the government's
historic free trade legislation last week
there were some unexpected hitches.
For almost an hour opposition MPs in the House of Commons kept Crosbie waiting while they clashed with the Tories over a motion clearing the way for a free vote on Canada’s abortion laws.
Then Liberals and New Democrats held up proceedings for another 90 minutes by demanding two separate votes on the introduction of the 123page trade bill. Slouched in his green velvet chair, a visibly impatient Crosbie shouted across the chamber that, in spite of the opposition’s delaying tactics, Parliament would ultimately pass the legislation. But as the bells rang for the second vote,
Liberal MP Lloyd Axworthy warned that the episode was merely a foretaste of his party’s strategy to fight the bill.
Declared Axworthy with a grin: “It is only just beginning.”
Despite the relaxed mood in the House, there was no denying that the introduction of the longawaited trade legislation marked the start of a new and acrimonious phase in Parliament. Even as fed-
eral bureaucrats were putting the final touches to Crosbie’s proposals, strategists for both opposition parties were poring over the parliamentary rulebook for arcane procedural devices that could be used to drag out debate on the free trade bill and, if possible, force the government to call an election. At the same time, senior Tories have been drawing up plans to push through the Commons a growing backlog of other major bills—including legislation to privatize part of Air Canada, approve the Meech Lake constitutional accord, reform the incometax system and implement a promised federal-provincial child care program. As one Tory strategist put it last week: “It is going to be very busy in June. Bang, bang, bang—get out of
the way or get run over by a bus.”
In fact, most Conservative MPs conceded that the government will almost certainly move to extend the current session of Parliament well beyond the normal June 30 deadline. Moreover, advisers to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that, by prolonging the current session, the government hoped to erase the widespread public impression that the Tories have promised much but delivered little. Said a senior Tory: “The terrible, terrible truth is that this government has started more legislation and produced less than any government in history that I know of. Now time is running out, and we find that we have not done any of the things we set out to do.”
On the opposition benches, MPs are
digging in for what many of them predict will be a long, fractious summer. Complained NDP House Leader Nelson Riis: “This is the biggest legislative pileup, the biggest logjam, that I have ever seen in my eight years as an MP.” Axworthy, meanwhile, said that the government appeared to be planning to use its massive majority—the Tories hold 207 of the 282 seats in the Commons—to keep Parliament sitting for as long as necessary to wear down the opposition.
As last week’s procedural wrangling demonstrated, the two opposition parties can resort to a wide range of delaying tactics in an effort to block approval of the free trade bill. They can propose amendments and subamendments to the legislation, insist on holding time-consuming memberby-member recorded votes rather than voice votes on each of the 153 clauses in the bill, and apply pressure on the government to hold public hearings on the merits of free trade. In the face of
such challenges, the government has vowed that it will not hesitate to use its power to cut off debate in the Commons. But the battle would then shift to the Senate, where Liberal leader Allan MacEachen can be counted on to launch an assault on the free trade deal. Said Liberal Senator Royce Frith: “Crosbie’s job is to get this thing done as fast as he can. But he has to do it within the system, and that includes the Senate.”
Still, opposition MPs acknowledged that they will have to tread carefully to avoid leaving the impression that they are simply obstructing government business. The NDP is willing to give speedy approval to Health Minister Jake Epp’s controversial bill to outlaw tobacco advertising. The Liberals, for their part, do not want to be accused of blocking Epp’s $5.4-billion child care program, announced last December. Said the NDP’s Riis: “We will have to pick and choose our targets.”
Even though Crosbie faces a tough battle in the weeks ahead, the preliminary signs last week were mostly favorable to the free trade bill. The premiers of Quebec, Alberta and Nova Scotia each expressed concerns about two clauses in the bill that give Ottawa sweeping powers over provincial laws to ensure that they comply with the trade pact. Still, none of the three went so far as to withdraw support for the agreement. And in Prince Edward Island, Premier Joe Ghiz—he and Ontario’s David Peterson are the only provincial leaders who oppose the freetrade treaty—announced that he had decided for the time being not to fight the bill in the courts because it did not appear to represent an unacceptable intrusion on his province’s jurisdiction.
Even Peterson seemed to be having second thoughts. Earlier, he had suggested that he might launch a constitutional challenge of the federal legislation on the basis that it infringes on matters of provincial jurisdiction. But amid a barrage of provincial NDP criticism, Peterson told the Ontario legislature that he needed more time to study the bill before deciding how to respond. Above all, Peterson will have to consider the danger that an unsuccessful court challenge by Ontario could have far-reaching implications for provincial rights in other areas where the federal and provincial governments vie for jurisdiction. If that happened, it would anger other premiers—notably Quebec’s Robert Bourassa, a strong champion of provincial rights.
Late last week Crosbie received more good news from Washington. Under strong pressure from the White House, two important congressional committees gave their consent to the U.S. legislation to implement the trade accord. To the relief of Canadian trade officials, the committees decided not to include in the bill a provision that would prevent it from going into effect
next Jan. 1 unless all 10 Canadian provinces comply with the agreement. According to congressional aides, the committee members feared that such a provision would only give Ontario more power in its fight to derail the free trade agreement. U.S. Senate finance committee chairman Lloyd Bentsen said later that he hoped both houses of Congress would vote on the final free-trade legislation before a planned August recess.
With congressional approval all but assured, Mulroney could afford to concentrate on the coming battle in Ottawa—and on how the free trade debate will affect the timing of the next election. As recently as a month ago senior Tories appeared confident that the party had started to climb back from a prolonged slump in the publicopinion polls. But a survey released by Angus Reid Associates late last week seemed to squelch those expectations. The poll found that only 31 per cent of respondents favored the Tories, compared to 37 per cent for the Liberals and 30 per cent for the New Democrats. Although most Tories still favor a fall vote, one Mulroney adviser said that the Prime Minister was “totally flummoxed” by his party’s lacklustre performance in the polls and was beginning to lean toward an election in the spring of 1989. Added the adviser: “Mulroney is spooked. The only option we have is to keep Parliament sitting all bloody summer, or at least until August, and then have another look at the lay of the land.” Until then, the atmosphere in the House of Commons is likely to grow increasingly combative.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.