CANADA

HEADING FOR THE POLLS?

SPECULATION ABOUT A FALL ELECTION GROWS AS PROGRESS IN THE UNITY TALKS GRINDS TO A HALT

GLEN ALLEN August 3 1992
CANADA

HEADING FOR THE POLLS?

SPECULATION ABOUT A FALL ELECTION GROWS AS PROGRESS IN THE UNITY TALKS GRINDS TO A HALT

GLEN ALLEN August 3 1992

HEADING FOR THE POLLS?

CANADA

SPECULATION ABOUT A FALL ELECTION GROWS AS PROGRESS IN THE UNITY TALKS GRINDS TO A HALT

To many standing watch over the nation’s tortuous constitutional debate, the outward signs pointed to the same conclusion: paralysis. After months of feverish high-level negotiations, several key participants in Canada’s ongoing national unity drama last week retreated to the wings. Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark spent part of the week vacationing on the Massachusetts coast, and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney retired to his summer residence at Harrington Lake before leaving for a threeday weekend speaking tour in Quebec. Quebec’s Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Gil Rémillard went fishing on the Restigouche River with Edmond Blanchard, his New Brunswick counterpart, while several premiers, including New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna, Nova Scotia’s Donald Cameron and Newfoundland’s Clyde Wells, also took brief holidays. Against that backdrop, some of the other constitutional players openly worried that progress had stalled, perhaps irreversibly. “We reached an agreement and the Prime Minister sent out strong signals that he was not happy with it,” an exasperated Edward Roberts, Newfoundland’s justice minister, told Maclean’s. “Since then, the feds have been dithering.”

But behind the scenes, phone lines and fax machines hummed as federal and provincial officials tried desperately to get the constitutional process back on track. Their aim: to woo Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa back to the constitutional negotiating table, perhaps as

early as this week, to discuss details of the deal reached on July 7 among Ottawa, nine provinces, the two territories and aboriginal groups. Bourassa, who has boycotted talks since the failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord two years ago, continued to hold out for changes—he has called them “clarifications”—before agreeing to rejoin the debate. But at week’s end, Clark said that Bourassa would likely attend an informal first ministers’ meeting to be held in Ottawa within a matter of days.

Meanwhile, the apparent lack of progress led to new proposals, along with widespread political speculation about more radical solutions to the unity dilemma. For their part, the opposition Liberals suggested a five-year moratorium on further constitutional talks, although they did not address the question of the Quebec referendum on that province’s future, which must be held by Oct. 26. Other politicians said that the Conservatives could well call a fall election, with constitutional issues as the main item on their platform. Declared NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin: “I wouldn’t put it past Mulroney to attempt the ultimate cynical manoeuvre. The government looks at the Constitution as an electoral issue—and how they can benefit from it—rather than as a careful nation-building process.” But according to some experts, such a move might be to the

advantage of the beleaguered government. Says Conrad Winn, a political scientist at Ottawa’s Carleton University: “I think Mulroney could do very well—it would be like an election in wartime, one where people wouldn’t want to change horses in midstream.”

While the Conservatives are not obliged to call an election until the the fall of 1994, their national election readiness committee is preparing for the possibility of a national vote this autumn. That coincides with the fourth anniversary of their Nov. 21, 1988 victory. Said committee co-chairman John Tory in an interview: “The Prime Minister has not whispered in my ear. In fact, his public comments have tilted more towards 1993.” But, Tory declared, “Politics is a volatile business,” and he added that Conservative organizers would be

CANADA WATCH

Attempting to allay fears that the national unity process had slipped off the rails, Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that a first ministers’ meeting, with Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa attending, would likely be held this week. But an aide to Bourassa said that expectations that the premier will take part are premature. In other developments:

• Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien urged the first ministers to abandon the unity deal they reached on July 7 in favor of February’s proposals by a parliamentary committee, known as the Dobbie-

Beaudoin report. The main difference: DobbieBeaudoin recommended equitable, rather than equal, representation in a reformed Senate.

•A discussion paper released by the C. D. Howe Institute concluded that the latest unity accord would do more harm than good to the economy.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“Just don’t let it hang out there and be pecked to death in Quebec by people, mainly commentators and politicians, who won’t support anything.’’

—Reform party Leader Preston Manning, urging the Prime Minister to sell the latest constitutional package to Quebecers

prepared for a campaign this fall if necessary.

Clearly, the Liberals are also preparing for the possibility of a fall vote. By week’s end, they had nominated 14 candidates, among them Alberta oilman Robert Blair. Other possible high-profile candidates: Toronto-Dominion Bank senior economist Douglas Peters, who is seeking a nomination in suburban Toronto, former Ontario premier David Peterson and P.E.I. Premier Joseph Ghiz. An election on the constitutional issue, according to Gordon Ashworth, senior administrator to the Liberal campaign committee, “is certainly one of the possibilities Mulroney has before him.” And, Ashworth added, “If one is called, we would be ready.”

NDP spokesmen say that they are also preparing themselves for the possibility of a fall election. And Reform party Leader Preston Manning told Maclean’s that his party is “doing a lot of the dog work absolutely essential for us to be a player in this election.” By last week, the party had 44 candidates nominated and Manning said that he expects there will be “close to 200 by late this fall.”

While a fall election could allow the Conservatives to argue that they need a new mandate to deal with the country’s instability, some senior Tories caution that calling an election on the Constitution would be folly—even though the party has begun to recover from its abysmal standing in public opinion polls. (A Gallup poll released earlier this month showed the Conservatives in second place with 22 per cent—a three-year high—compared with 42 per cent for the Liberals and 18 per cent for the

NDP.) But Gallup executive vice-president Lome Bozinoff says that in the event of an election, voters would remember that the Tories created the constitutional morass in the first place. Added Bozinoff: “They opened the issue and dragged it out for six years.” In his view, the only constitutional issue that would rally voters would be an “absolute crisis,” such as a Quebec declaration of independence. Otherwise, says Bozinoff, “the real issue is the economy.”

But one factor that would reinforce Conservative fortunes going into an election campaign would be the replacement of Mulroney by Clark. Party insiders clearly recognize that Clark has emerged as a hero among Canadians—if not among some fellow cabinet ministers. And Gallup data from June show that with Clark as leader, 32 per cent of Canadians would vote for the Conservatives, compared with 37 per cent for the Liberals and 18 per cent for the NDP. Ironically, Clark last week attempted to dispel a wild flurry of rumors that his struggles to achieve a national unity deal have driven him to the verge of quitting politics. Although he has acknowledged being tired after 20 years in federal politics, Clark declared: “I was as surprised as anyone at those rumors. I don’t know where they come from and I’m pleased to lay them to rest.” With that, he signalled his resolve to continue fighting the constitutional battle—and perhaps other battles still to come.

GLEN ALLEN

NANCY WOOD

E. KAYE FULTON

JOHN DeMONT