After the votes are counted, it will be time to face the new realities
The way ahead
After the votes are counted, it will be time to face the new realities
Jean Chrétien was acting as though he could already feel the broadloom of the prime minister’s office underfoot. Touring Ontario last week towards the end of a remarkably trouble-free campaign, Chrétien seemed to sense it was time to demonstrate some
prime ministerial mettle, time to call some shots. The future of the 43 EH-101 helicopters
that the Conservatives promised to buy for $4.8 billion? ‘They’re gone,” Chrétien told about 900 high-school students in Welland. How quickly would he start creating jobs with his $6-billion public works projects? “Right away,” he said. With polls showing—and
some opponents even conceding—a Liberal victory on Oct. 25, Chrétien started to talk about what he will do, rather than what he proposes to do, as prime minister.
But campaigning is almost always easier than governing, as new Nova Scotia Premier John Savage would surely attest. Last May, Savage took power after promising to put the province’s
70,000 unemployed back to work without imposing new taxes. But when he brought down his maiden budget in
September, fiscal reality swamped Savage’s plans. Taxes rose and a major job-creation program was abandoned. ‘We are up against our own rhetoric,” confesses John Young, president of the Nova Scotia Liberals. ‘The most disheartening fact about winning an election these days is that you come in ready to roll, only to find out that you are financially strapped.” Whoever takes power in Ottawa after Oct. 25 will be similarly constrained by treasury woes. During the first five months of the 1993-1994 fiscal year the federal deficit hit $18.6 billion—$2 billion more than in the same period a year earlier. “They don’t understand the magnitude of the problem,” said one fiscally conservative Liberal adviser last week, commenting on the party’s preparations to take power. “They think they can trim around the edges, and a lot of them won’t admit that you can’t spend your way out of this problem. These guys are writing a transition document based on realities that aren’t real any more.”
The new realities, as Savage discovered, can be
Money and Little Time. The next federal government, especially if it lacks a majority, is unlikely to have the luxury of a long retreat to ponder cabinet choices and the niceties of committee structures. Chrétien’s advisers have said privately that they would prefer to wait until next February to bring in a new budget. But if the squeeze on federal finances gets any worse, a Liberal administration might be forced into presenting an interim financial statement well before then.
The list of other pressing political problems is long. Should Ottawa push to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement before its scheduled implementation on Jan. 1, as Chrétien has promised? Should deep cuts be made to defence spending, something all parties have called for, at a time when the Canadian Forces are taking on additional peacekeeping duties abroad? Should Bank of Canada Governor John Crow have his term renewed when it expires on Jan. 31?
For Chrétien, even such seemingly simple steps as cancelling the helicopter program may be fraught with difficulty. The savings may not be as large as he has implied: last week. National Defence officials put the cost of cancelling the program at $800 million. Cancelled contracts would also hurt Canadian workers. Canadian firms, notably Montrealbased Paramax Systems Canada Inc., stood to benefit from $3.2 billion of Ottawa’s spending on the program. Chrétien's other short-term problems would be no less difficult. Will his plan to change the way the GST is collected while sharing its revenues with the provinces satisfy those Canadians who expected him to scrap the tax altogether?
On the basis of polls so far, all those decisions might have to be made by a government lacking a majority in the Commons—in which case Canadians are likely to witness some unconventional alliances. The alternative would be a daring take-it-to-the-brink style that might force Canadians back to the polls within months. Some of the hottest issues:
The Liberals wooed voters away from the Tories by making jobs, rather than deficit reduction, the centrepiece of their campaign. But Chrétien would be hard-pressed to find funding even for his modest $6-billion plan to repair and upgrade roads, sewers and bridges-he says it will create 100,000 temporary jobs. The Liberals would ask the provinces and municipalities to share equally in the cost. But while the municipal politicians have argued in favor of such a program for more than a decade, most face budget shortfalls themselves. The premiers, too, have endorsed Chrétien’s plan. But Nova Scotia’s Savage and Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells both said last week that they expect richer provinces to pay the lion’s share of the cost. That is just a taste of the squabbling to be expected from all three levels of government, all crying poor, before any job notices are posted.
If Canadians elect a Liberal minority, the new government would need allies to get its jobs legislation through the Commons. The Tories and Reform ridiculed Chrétien’s program throughout the campaign, and would insist that Ottawa find new places to cut—not boost—spending. As a result, Chrétien might have to solicit support from the Bloc Québécois to get a jobs bill enacted. Bouchard maintains that the Bloc shares common ground with federalist parties on non-constitutional issues. “We will support any party which cuts taxes, military spending and government operations in order to invest in jobs,” Bouchard told Maclean’s last week.
QUEBEC AND NATIONAL UNITY
Bouchard and Chrétien working together? What at first glance appears preposterous is, upon reflection, not so unlikely. As much as the two leaders disagree about Quebec’s future, short-term events may conspire to push them onto common turf. Both parties, for example, would resist calls from Reform to dismantle official bilingualism. And, said Bouchard, “any party that wants to defend social programs will find an ally in the Bloc.”
Bouchard’s long-term interests might be served by gumming up the federal system; indeed, his call for independence rests on the belief that Canada as it exists does not work. But he vows that his party will not deliberately sabotage the federal government as long as Quebec remains in the fold. “We will have to act responsibly,” he said last week as polls suggested that he might win up to 60 of Quebec’s 75 seats. “We have to prove that our goal of sovereignty is not malicious.” To that end, he said that he would accept the title of leader of the opposition if it is offered by the Governor General.
While the Liberals may be on a war footing against the Bloc, they, too, are more likely to be coy than confrontational. Chrétien’s challenge is to show that the federal system can work for Quebecers. By showering the province with federal largesse, Chrétien would risk incurring the wrath of Manning and Reform, but would deny Bouchard the chance to take gratuitous shots at Ottawa. Meanwhile, he would likely try to avoid a direct debate over Quebec’s constitutional future at least until next year’s Quebec election. By then, Robert Bourassa’s successor as leader of the provincial Liberals will have had some months to demonstrate his prowess. If avowed federalist and current front-runner Daniel Johnson is in charge of the provincial party, he—not Chrétien—can lead the defence of Canada in Quebec.
Members of Parliament have tut-tutted for years about the need to give individual MPs more clout, clip the wings of lobbyists and reduce the perks of power. Little was done. It was only on the eve of this election campaign, for example, that the Tories finally proposed a ban on double-dipping, by which former MPs can collect their pensions while holding down another government job.
The arrival of a significant number of Reform MPs may accelerate change. Picture Reformers holding news conferences in the Commons barbershop to denounce subsidized haircuts, or staging protests against inexpensive meals in the parliamentary restaurant. But Reform’s greatest impact may be on the way individual members do their jobs. As strict adherents to representative democracy, they could easily create difficulty for rival parties whose MPs choose to follow their own consciences, or party dictates, on sensitive issues. That suggests that the next Parliament, whatever its final shape, will be a vastly different institution from the one to which Canadians have grown accustomed.
BRUCE WALLACE with MARYJANIGAN in Toronto and NANCY WOOD in Montreal
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