WITH A FULL FIRST MINISTERS’LUNCH, OTTAWA IS SEEKING A NEW CONSENSUS ON THE CONSTITUTION
SOUP, SALAD AND UNITY
WITH A FULL FIRST MINISTERS’LUNCH, OTTAWA IS SEEKING A NEW CONSENSUS ON THE CONSTITUTION
In the increasingly explosive world of Canada’s constitutional talks, even an invitation to lunch is issued in delicate diplomatic terms. As a result, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney asked Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and the nine other provincial premiers to his official summer residence at Harrington Lake this week, he earnestly assured his guests that the first ministers will merely talk to each other, but not negotiate, while they eat. Explained Mulroney: “I am not seeking a meeting to pursue negotiation. We have to try to get the partners to agree to a process that might lead to a favorable conclusion.” That convoluted wording provided the right enticement. Bourassa agreed to end his two-year boycott of constitutional talks, claiming that he was “justified in accepting an invitation to examine the evolution of the process.” It was a well-executed constitutional dance. But, said Michael Adams, president of Environics Research Group Ltd. of Toronto, “Most Canadians think that the politicians are in outer space, dealing with issues that are going to do no good for themselves or their families.”
Politicians are grimly aware that they may have exhausted many voters’ patience. Indeed, Maclean’s has learned that an unreleased poll taken two weeks ago by Toronto’s Decima Research shows that almost three-
quarters of Canadians do not care about the details of a constitutional deal—they want the issue resolved. For a brief moment, on July 7, that solution appeared possible: Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark and nine premiers announced that they had agreed on a package of wide-ranging proposals, including the creation of an elected Senate with veto powers and equal representation from each province, the acknowledgment of the aboriginal right to self-government and the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society. But federal strategists now concede that the deal itself, and the overblown rhetoric that surrounded it, constituted a strategic disaster.
Key elements were unacceptable to Quebec and to some federal cabinet ministers. As a result, federal officials have tried to downplay the importance of the deal—and to portray it as just another proposal in the constitutional debate, hoping that they can restart the momentum after this week’s lunch. Said a veteran Conservative insider: “This is an incredible dilemma, an impasse that everybody has come to.”
In response, federal officials have devised a tentative plan to nudge the premiers back to the bargaining table. Last week’s carefully worded luncheon invitation was a first step towards a renegotiation of the July 7 deal. Ideally, that renegotiation would result in a new package to be unveiled by the premiers when they stage their annual conference in Charlottetown from Aug. 26 to 29—a dramatic “re-Confederation” in the birthplace of Canada. That fast-paced scenario would accommodate Quebec legislation calling for a referendum on that province’s future by Oct. 26. Under Quebec law, Premier Bourassa has until Sept. 9 to decide which question will be on the ballot: Quebecers could vote on independence or on new constitutional offers—if any offers are available.
Still, the scramble to secure a deal could have devastating consequences for the nation. Before the lunch, at least, all participants were focused on preserving their favorite aspects of the July 7 deal. But analysts say that the first ministers, in their desire to secure an accord,
Quebec opposition politicians and the province’s powerful media roundly criticized Premier Robert Bourassa for agreeing to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s invitation to a first ministers’ luncheon at Harrington Lake, Que. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, federal strategists continued their efforts to renegotiate the fragile accord reached on July 7 between Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark and nine premiers.
•Senior bureaucrats from Quebec, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories met in Montreal to
discuss Quebec’s demand for a veto over the creation of new provinces.
•Quebec’s tiny English-rights Equality party failed to convince the courts to strike down sections of the provincial referendum law, which commits Quebec to holding a referendum on the province’s future by Oct. 26.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK “You start by going for lunch, you end up staying for dinner and you wind up in the bedroom.”
—Fernand Daoust, sovereigntist president of the Quebec Federation of Labor, commenting on Bourassa’s announcement that he will attend this week’s first ministers’ luncheon
any accord, may accept a bad agreement. An inferior agreement could potentially paralyse the federal government, straining its pocketbook and drastically limiting its powers. That, in turn, could provoke a barrage of justified criticism from angry voters. That prospect may seem distant to strategists: the recent Decima poll indicates that fully two-thirds of Canadians know little or nothing about the July 7 package. Still, conceded a senior federal Tory: “If they make the wrong deal, maybe in the short term people will be relieved, but ultimately they will find out that the deal is unworkable. The danger now is that the reformation of one institution is going to create problems that you do not even know about— but you will not be able to change it.”
But officials who are worried about content are a minority. Most strategists are far more concerned about the impact of «of having a deal before Quebec’s referendum date. Adding to the uncertainty is the fragile nature of the federal strategy to keep the negotiations alive from week to week. It is almost impossible to predict the behavior of so many players with such complicated agendas. Along with Ottawa, there are 10 provinces, two territorial governments and four aboriginal groups involved in the talks, all with different goals. And in that unstable climate, federal strategists are relying on the assumption that most provinces are so desperate to reach an agreement that they
are willing to make further significant compromises.
As well, premiers may be reluctant to storm out of constitutional talks because the package does contain benefits for each region. Ottawa, in turn, can use the provinces' desire for those benefits to extract concessions: under the Constitution’s amending formula, all changes require Ottawa’s approval. Still, Ottawa has no guarantee of success. Noted longtime Liberal strategist Hershell Ezrin of Toronto: “Even with the best-laid plan, they have an enormous dilemma because this is not a three-dimensional chess game—this is an intergalactic chess game.”
That game began to spin out of Ottawa’s control during Clark’s marathon 12-hour negotiating session on July 7 with the nine premiers. Under pressure to reach an accord, Clark and Ontario Premier Bob Rae abandoned their long-standing opposition to an elected Senate with equal representation from each province. The participants also agreed to recognize the inherent aboriginal right to self-government, to prevent the erection of trade barriers between provinces—with major exemptions— and to transfer key powers, such as that over culture, to the provinces. Although Quebec’s negotiators were not at the table to approve those changes, Clark triumphantly announced at the meeting's end: “It has been an historic process. I cannot recall another time, literally
since Confederation, when there has been so much agreement on such a wide range of issues.”
Over the next few days, it became apparent that Clark’s rhetoric was optimistic at best. Quebec responded politely—but coolly—to the proposals. In the federal cabinet, Clark faced an onslaught of criticism from senior officials including Finance Minister Donald Mazankowski. Trade Minister Michael Wilson even made a rare public attack on the wording of the proposal to lower trade barriers. To make matters worse, premiers who had returned to their provincial capitals flushed with pride refused to consider any serious changes to the deal. Then, federal strategists realized that they had to stall in order to cool passions, to lower public expectations and to take the national focus off the agreement.
The euphoria of July 7 was allowed to dim. Throughout most of the month,
Ottawa delayed the call for the expected first ministers’ conference. Officially, federal strategists were studying the fine print—and tinkering with the wording of three clauses in response to Quebec queries. Unofficially, behind the scenes, they began tentative negotiations to rewrite large portions of the deal.
Maclean’s has learned that federal officials actually considered—and then abandoned—a proposal to drop the whole issue of Senate reform and aboriginal self-government from the package. The two issues have sharply divided the nation’s leaders: the redesigned Senate represented a highly prized victory for Newfoundland’s Clyde Wells and Alberta’s Donald Getty, while aboriginal groups have threatened to campaign against any proposal that does not recognize their rights.
Instead, federal officials are trying to limit the definition of aboriginal selfgovernment to address Quebec’s concern that the current wording is dangerously vague. Those officials are also seeking a new Senate formula. Maclean’s has learned that Quebec might accept a variation of a model that was discussed—and then abandoned—during the talks. Under the so-called Saskatchewan formula, each province would have the same number of senators, but on certain issues the senators from larger provinces would have more votes. And Quebec has suggested an extra twist to that already complicated scheme: provincial legislatures, not the general public, would elect the senators. A more likely federal plan would be to return to regional, and not provincial, equality in the Senate.
The secretive talks among Ottawa, Quebec and several provinces may eventually lead to workable compromises. But they have also aroused the anger and suspicion of aboriginal
groups and the government members of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. They have been largely excluded from those discussions, although territorial representatives and aboriginal leaders will meet with Prime Minister Mulroney on the day after the Harrington Lake luncheon. As well, Quebec wants the power to block the creation of new provinces—
a provision that was contained in the abortive Meech Lake agreement. That move has provoked furious denunciations from Yukon Government Leader Tony Penikett. “What the hell business is it of theirs?” he said. “It looks like the fix is in and the North is going to get screwed again.”
But the sheer desperation to get an agreement may overshadow any objections. Decima polls have consistently shown that less than 20 per cent of Canadians—and less than 10 per cent of Quebecers—view the constitutional process as a national priority. Instead, Canadians are deeply worried about the economy: more than 50 per cent cite jobs and the econo-
my in general as their top concern. Said Decima president Allan Gregg: “You cannot really understand this issue unless you understand the context of disinterest, fatigue and an overwhelming desire to ‘get on with it.’ And so, opposing a deal is not good politics. As long as there is a sense that there is something in it for everyone and that no one got everything that they wanted, that would satisfy the public.”
Ottawa is certain to explain such political facts of life to its negotiating partners. Federal negotiators are also likely to counter frustrated and bitter arguments that Quebec is the sole province that opposes the current deal by pointing out that many interest groups—such as labor and business— have expressed grave misgivings about key aspects of the proposal. Also, Ottawa is likely to underline the vital importance of Quebec to the country: although it is only one of 10 provinces, it represents one-quarter of the nation’s population.
But the most powerful incentive for compromise may, ultimately, be greed—most participants stand to gain more money or power from any new agreement. The poorer provinces, in particular, have obtained a vital economic package. They would get more control over the way that Ottawa invests in regional development. They would also receive a strengthened federal commitment to equalization payments, which fund public services in the poorer provinces. And Nova Scotia negotiators also obtained a commitment to “reasonably comparable economic infrastructures.” Although that phrase has baffled many observers, it could force the federal government to provide all poorer provinces with sophisticated installations such as fiber-optic cables and pipelines, which exist in wealthier parts of the country.
In the end, the political and financial effects of a constitutional accord may prove far-reaching and perhaps unsettling to the nation in the long run. But there may be short-term political gains for most participants. While few federal Conservatives say that they expect
to be hailed as heroes for achieving a settlement, most of them point out that an accord would free them to tackle issues of more pressing concern. But, said Environics’ Adams, “The Conservatives are unpopular for a great many reasons— and the constitutional problems are only one of those reasons. Its solution will be seen as politicians solving a problem of their own making. I do not think that there will be a sense of gratitude. There may be a sense of relief.” Even that prospect may be enough incentive to produce an accord over the next several weeks.
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