Free trade: the storm before the call

HILARY MACKENZIE September 12 1988

Free trade: the storm before the call

HILARY MACKENZIE September 12 1988

Free trade: the storm before the call

The vote was a tumultuous taste of the clamor ahead. As the members rose one by one last week to cast their vote on the controversial free trade bill, the House of Commons erupted. Opposition Liberals unfurled a giant Canadian flag and bellowed the patriotic lines of the national anthem. Liberal and New Democratic Party MPs pounded their fists on the wooden desks, demanding an immediate election on the legislation they had so adamantly opposed for so long.

Amid the ruckus, security guards struggled to evict 30 anti-free traders from the opposition visitors’ gallery.

Even then, the protesters’ calls from the hallway for an election could be heard inside the chamber. For their part, Conservative party MPs sported buttons that stated “Free trade—a stronger Canada” and jeered at the opposition tactics.

Emerging from the noisy chamber after gaining Commons approval for his major policy plank, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney declared it was ‘‘a great day for Canada.”

With that fitful show of emotion, the Commons delivered the controversial bill to a hostile Senate. As the party leaders left Ottawa for summer retreats to plot election strategy, MPs headed home to their ridings for a 12-day break, and political strategists began planning last-minute moves in anticipation of an election call.

Meanwhile, despite its easy passage in the Commons by a vote of 177 to 64, Bill C-130 still must pass the upper house, and the Liberal-dominated Senate has vowed to stall the legislation at Turner’s request with the objective of forcing Mulroney to call an election. The deadline for ratification by Parliament under the terms of the CanadaU.S. trade agreement is Jan. 1. Said Liberal Senator Royce Frith: “We will do what is necessary to postpone a final vote on it.”

That declaration set the tone for the Liberal strategy in the appointive Senate, where the Liberals hold 59 seats, compared to 31 by the Tories and six Independents. Liberal senators said that a swift first reading of the bill last week would be followed by a lengthy debate at the second reading stage that could last three weeks. Said Liberal Senate leader Allan MacEachen: “We will keep it in second reading as long as we have senators interested in speaking on the bill.” Unless Mul-

roney calls an election before the end of September, Liberal senators threaten to drag out the process further by holding cross-country hearings. Those hearings would give free trade’s foes the opportunity to condemn the deal publicly. The final phase of the counterattack would be to send the bill back to the Commons full of amendments, forcing further debate. Said Frith of the tactic: “There is not only consensus, there is clear-cut determination to stall.”

While the Liberals in the Senate ap-

peared to be united, there were indications of disarray elsewhere in the party ranks—with Turner at the centre. Last week, the opposition leader came under fire from his own caucus for not spending more time on the road speaking out against free trade. Said one senior Turner adviser, who talked on condition that his name be withheld: “Right now, they are very anxious for him to be seen to be more active and to get out on the hustings.” Added the informant: “They see Broadbent campaigning like mad and they cannot understand why Turner is not doing the same.”

As well, Maclean's has learned that caucus chairman Brian Tobin and opposition justice critic Robert Kaplan complained to Turner’s staff about his frequent absences from Ottawa during the summer. Yet Turner’s wife, Geills, told party officials that her husband needed rest. Said a Turner confidant: “Geills wants him to relax and get himself ready for the campaign.”

In fact, minutes after last week’s vote on free trade, Turner walked swiftly to a waiting car that drove him to the airport to catch a 7:35 p.m. plane to Winnipeg, bound for the family’s Lake-of-the-Woods cottage. In his briefcase Turner carried a de^ tailed 28-day schedule of ¿¿the planned Liberal I campaign drawn up by

1 his deputy principal sec-

2 retary, Douglas Kirkpatrick. Those papers show that the day after

Mulroney calls the election, a Turner campaign bus will leave Ottawa for Montreal, where the Liberal leader will launch his campaign in an attempt to boost his party’s flagging support in Quebec. Also in Turner’s briefcase were briefing papers prepared by adviser Robert Jackson that outline Liberal policy on at least 20 subjects. Turner has withstood criticism by several caucus members who wanted him to announce some policies before an election is called.

Meanwhile, Mulroney spent the

weekend at his summer residence at Harrington Lake, reviewing party polls prepared by Decima Research Ltd. and seeking evidence that he could win a majority government. Conservative advisers told Maclean's that internal projections show that the Tories would win at least 150 of 295 seats—57 fewer than they now have but still a bare working majority. The Conservatives readily admit that they have problems, and some of the biggest are in Ontario. In an attempt to regain lost ground, Mulroney will announce shortly the awarding of funds for a low-cost housing project in Metropolitan Toronto and a national program to improve literacy across Canada. Said another strategist who requested anonymity: “The idea is to get out and do the things that we promised we would. Then we will see where we stand.” NDP Leader Ed Broadbent left for a relaxing weekend with his wife, Lucille, at their Buckingham, Que., cottage before heading off for a busy week of campaigning. He planned to announce some NDP policies in Toronto before going to Winnipeg, Montreal and Quebec City. This week, Broadbent intends to spend at least two days in Quebec where his support has slipped in the polls to 25 per cent from a high of 41 per cent two years ago.

Party strategists planned their most expensive campaign ever in a determined bid to field viable candidates for the first time in every riding across the country. Said NDP strategist Gerry Caplan: “We are not wasting a minute, the campaign has already begun.”

But the turmoil that surrounded the last-minute preparations in the three camps did little to mask each party’s anxiety over free trade. The leaders’ speeches last week capped a stormy session in the House of Commons. Mulroney delivered a 72-minute speech and was applauded by the Conservative caucus 37 times. Free trade, Mulroney declared, “is an idea older than Confederation itself whose

time has finally come.” Carefully scripted over three weeks by chief of staff Derek Burney, the speech was designed to avoid Mulroney’s habitual partisan jibes. Said a senior Mulroney adviser: “Because he has little use for Turner, the trick was to be less partisan and take a higher road.”

In a desperate gamble to become the sole opposition voice, Turner delivered an emotional, nationalistic appeal for the anti-free trade vote. “Will Canada be independent, sovereign and autonomous, or will it be an American colony?” Turner asked. By contrast, while Turner was furiously scribbling on his own text during Mulroney’s speech, Broadbent sat quietly with his arms folded, breaking his silence periodically to heckle the Prime Minister. Then he underscored his view of why Canadians would not benefit from the free trade agreement in the long run. Having staked their political ground on the free trade issue, the leaders have embarked on campaignstyle swings across the country, each accompanied by aides, research notes, speech texts and the overriding hope that voters will buy the message.