SENATORS STRIKE A DEAL TO RESUME NORMAL SESSIONS AND PASS STALLED LEGISLATION—BUT NOT THE GST
BRUCE WALLACE,NANCY WOODOctober291990
REACHING A TRUCE
SENATORS STRIKE A DEAL TO RESUME NORMAL SESSIONS AND PASS STALLED LEGISLATION—BUT NOT THE GST
The calendar perched amid the clutter of books and papers on the Senate clerk’s table was testament to the long and fatiguing struggle. Showing the official date of Senate business, the calendar had not been changed since Oct. 9. During that day’s sitting, Liberal senators began an around-the-clock filibuster, directed largely against the Conservative government’s controversial Goods and Services Tax (GST), but also bringing all government business before the chamber to a dead halt. While more than a week went by outside the Senate, the date officially remained unchanged within the chamber as one Liberal after another spoke nonstop, reading old legislation, passages from the Bible, names from anti-GST petitions— anything to keep the session from ending. Finally, at 6:55 p.m. on Oct. 18, by the rest of the country’s reckoning, both party whips entered the chamber to table-thumping approval from their colleagues. The walk down the aisle by Liberal Senator William Petten and his Tory counterpart, Senator Orville Phillips, formally indicated that the long filibuster was over— and that the Senate’s business for Oct. 9 could officially end.
It also signalled that the two warring parties had at last agreed to impose some formal terms of engagement on their unruly political contest. By placing time limits on debates, said a visibly relieved Government Senate Leader Lowell Murray, the agreement would provide “what we call the light at the end of the tunnel.” Indeed, minutes later, senators began dispensing with the backlog of legislation, which had accumulated because of the Liberal filibuster. Even before the sitting was at last formally adjourned, the Tories succeeded in passing a long-delayed bill to alter the Income Tax Act.
That vote—carried by a 51-to-38 margin with one ab-
stention—was the first demonstration of the power the Tories now wield in the Senate. After decades during which a Liberal majority dominated the upper chamber, the rash of 24 Senate appointments that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has made since Aug. 30 has tilted the voting balance back in the Tories’ favor. Further bolstering Conservative confidence, the Ontario Supreme Court last week upheld the legitimacy of the most controversial of
those appointments—Mulroney’s addition of eight extra senators, which brought the total number to 112.
With the Liberals effectively deprived of their ability to kill the GST outright in the upper chamber, Liberal Senate Leader Allan MacEachen vowed to use other tactical measures from the chamber's Byzantine procedures to try to delay its implementation instead. For one, he hinted that Liberal senators may continue the timeconsuming process of reading onto the Senate record the name of each person in the country who has signed an anti-GST petition. Declared MacEachen: “We have lots of petitions—petitions are eternal.” But despite such partisan bravado, Murray vowed that the GST will pass.
In any case, as a result of last week’s agreement the senators will be operating ac| cording to clear rules for
1 dealing with all legislation. It u allowed both sides to claim z some measure of victory.
The Liberals secured the right to propose eight amendments to the GST bill, each of which must be debated and voted upon. The party is now in a position to propose sweeping, politically popular changes to the tax—and the Tories will then be forced to vote against those amendments. But the Tories secured a six-hour time limit on the length of debate on each amendment. And a strict timetable will prevent the Liberals from holding up the bill by refusing to appear in the chamber for votes. On Sept. 27, they filed out of the chamber after calling for a motion to adjourn debate, leaving the division bells ringing. Said MacEachen last week: “We never thought that bellringing was the way to defeat the GST.”
The agreement is not likely to mark the end of political storms in the appointed chamber. For one thing, the intense debates of the past few weeks have exposed a deep personal animosity between Tory Senate Leader Murray and his Liberal counterpart, MacEachen. The lack of trust between the two combatants was so evident in the negotiations that led to last week’s breakthrough that the final agreement was, in the words of one Tory senator, “examined under a microscope to guard against any trickery.”
Still, the Liberals were under some pressure themselves to end the filibuster— and the unprecedented,often circus-like atmosphere that accompanied it. For one thing, the legislative logjam had tied up final approval for federal funding for Newfoundland’s multi-billion-dollar Hibernia oilfield development. As the standoff continued, some Liberal supporters from Atlantic Canada started asking their party’s senators to allow the government to pass the Hibernia bill. In addition to that legislation, which according to the new agreement will be voted on no later than Oct. 29, the Liberals agreed to vote on another bill with serious repercussions in Atlantic Canada—an amendment to the Unemployment Insurance Act that promises better coverage for seasonal workers.
The Liberals also permitted the government to set an Oct. 25 deadline for voting on the Senate banking committee’s report on its planned sales tax. That report, written at a time when the Liberals still controlled the upper house, urged the Senate to kill the GST. The Tories’ expanded clout in the Senate all but ensures that the report will be rejected. The num-
bers also should ensure that
the GST bill passes by its proposed Jan. 1 implementation deadline.
Until last week, the Liberal stonewall had been fortified by widespread opposition to the GST and the unpopularity of the Mulroney government. But MacEachen and other Liberal strategists must now decide whether it is politically astute to pursue their campaign of harassment against the tax. If they do not succeed in stopping the tax, further delaying tactics might damage their own political image. The behavior of some senators during the past weeks—blowing kazoos, shouting vulgar insults and losing their composure in heated arguments—has already attracted widespread criticism. Yet pollster Lome Bozinoff, vicepresident of Gallup Canada Inc., concluded that Liberals run an equal risk of alienating Canadians if they are perceived to be abandoning their opposition to the despised tax. Said Bozinoff: “If this in the end is perceived to be just another political move, the public these days has an axe—and it is swinging.”
The New Democrats are also watching the Liberal moves with intense interest. Once again, as with the opposition to the Free Trade Agreement in 1988, the NDP finds itself ceding the political initiative to the Liberals—in part because the party has no representatives in the upper chamber.
In that earlier battle, Liberal senators refused to pass the free trade legislation until Mulroney won an election on the issue. But NDP strategists last week downplayed fears that they were losing public opinion points by not being at the forefront of the anti-GST fight. Instead, they zeroed in on the political consequences of what they described as the “disgraceful” behavior of Liberal senators. Said former NDP national director Gerald Caplan:
“The Liberals have made a terrible mistake. People have in their minds those scenes from outside the Senate chamber, with guys yelling hysterically at one another.”
Some NDP MPs also said that if the GST becomes law, the public will blame the Liberals and the Tories equally for the tax. Said Winnipeg MP William Blaikie: “We still believe the Liberal senators are insincere. If they were sincere, they could have defeated the tax while they still had a majority.”
Although the GST is keenly unpalatable to most Canadians, some may at least welcome an end to the uncertainty surrounding its introduction. The political manoeuvring over the GST has caused frustrations for many business people who have already geared up to operate under its complicated procedures. Still, scores of smaller companies have postponed acting on the legislation’s requirement to register with Revenue Canada. Said Catherine Swift of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business: “Firms are getting dubious about whether they’ll see this tax on Jan. 1. Registrations have dropped precipitously.”
As for businesses that have conformed to provisions of the GST, some major retailers have already prepared advertising material for early 1991, with prices adjusted to reflect the new tax structure. As a result of such considerations, many businesses are anxious to see the GST’s fate resolved one way or the other promptly. Said Eaton’s spokesman Patrick Wilson, for one: “The closer you get, the more inflexible you become.”
With last week’s developments, the Tories may indeed be close to getting the GST out of Parliament and into the marketplace. But the unpredictability of politics, compounded by the involvement of the crafty MacEachen, left the Tories with lingering concerns about the fate of the GST. Still, after emerging from their nine-day procedural deadlock, Tory senators were in an upbeat mood last week. Many, in fact, predicted that the Liberals, after realizing that their years of controlling the Senate were finally over, would suffer a sharp blow to their political morale.
One recently retired Tory senator is familiar with that sentiment. Former Quebec senator Jacques Flynn, who retired at age 75 last August, but who returned last week to advise Murray on Senate procedure during his negotiations with MacEachen, recalled that he had never won a vote in his 28 years as a senator. But Flynn, now a lawyer in Quebec City, said that even with the newly created Tory majority, he did not miss the raucous and rancorous fray. “It is of great consolation to be away,” said Flynn. “I would not have wanted to be involved in that awful circus.” In that respect, he was not alone in welcoming last week’s return of calm to the upper house.
BRUCE WALLACE and NANCY WOOD with E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa
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