CANADA

The problems ahead

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 14 1994
CANADA

The problems ahead

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 14 1994

The problems ahead

CANADA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Jean Chrétien ought to be pleased. As he prepares to mark his first 100 days in office this week, his government holds easy control of the House of Commons and, if polls are correct, the hearts of a growing number of Canadians. Since winning power on Oct. 25, Chrétien’s own authority has been unquestioned, his manner serene: no longer can he be described as the face that launched a thousand anecdotes. The next challenge is the budget, due by the end of this month, which will set the tone for the Liberals’ term in office. But even if Finance Minister Paul Martin achieves popular consensus with his measures, the liberals face other problems. Here are five that worry some key party figures:

• Small, incomplete ministerial staffs. In his eagerness to create an air of frugality,

Chrétien allowed each minister a maximum budget of $500,000 to hire political aides. That is only a fraction—perhaps a quarter, according to educated guesses—of the amount allowed ministers in the Progressive Conservative regime. But the Liberal belt-tightening is a good idea that is producing bad results.

Offices are understaffed, employees overworked, and delays in producing information and important policy decisions are inevitable. And inexplicably, some ministers have still not filled all available positions, so such bottlenecks are even more pronounced.

• Chrétien’s largely homogeneous group of advisers. Almost all those in the Prime Minister’s unelected inner circle— ranging from chief of staff Jean Pelletier to senior advisers Eddie Goldenberg and Chaviva Hosek—are from Quebec or Ontario. Most, to be more precise, are males from Quebec. That restricts input from other regions and runs the risk that those advisers attach the most attention to issues with which they are personally familiar. One example: the controversial reaction to tobacco smuggling, which is largely a Quebec issue. By listening too carefully to the wishes of the Quebec government, which wants tobacco taxes sharply reduced, the Liberals may steam-

roller over the objections of most other provinces.

• The overabundance of Ontario MPs in the Liberal caucus. It’s hardly the Liberals’ fault that 97 of their 176 MPs are from Ontario. But the Liberals’ popularity there resulted in the election of a

number of MPs who could most politely be described, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, as modest men with much to be modest about. Over time, that will show. A happier dilemma is the number of talented Ontario members who are on the back benches only because there is an informal limit on the number of ministers that any province can have. Sooner or later, some will become restless. A related problem is that the Liberals’ talent base in the West is small. Chrétien must ensure that the concerns of Ontario MPs (and his Quebec advisers) do not dominate the caucus—and, by extension, the government.

• Arrogance. Whether it is Revenue Minister David Anderson’s reluctance to withdraw a lawsuit against his own government, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé’s fondness for expensive chartered aircraft, or the party’s campaign decision to hide from the public the troubled background of § Ontario candidate Jag ^ Bhaduria, the Liberals display a dismaying lack of contrition. They invariably blame the media or cite unexplained “misunderstandings.” Those incidents would be more quickly forgiven and forgotten if any of them simply said: “I made a mistake.”

• The vision thing. The best idea the Liberals have brought to the new Parliament is the notion of all-party debates on major issues before policies are announced. But over time, the Liberals will have to demonstrate a clearer grasp and vision than they have until now on some policies. Two examples where “policy review” seems to be a euphemism for “delay is desirable” are foreign policy and the reform of social programs.

Already, Chrétien has demonstrated that he is comfortable managing and leading government. His next test is to show what direction he wants to take it in.