Opposition MPs head home in a testy mood as the Liberals ride high in the polls
Opposition MPs head home in a testy mood as the Liberals ride high in the polls
It wasn’t supposed to end this way, the first session of the 35th Parliament. It was supposed to be a kinder, gentler House of Commons that voters had fashioned by their ballot choices in last October’s federal election. Canadians were assured that Parliament would be the showcase for a new brand of politics, where the government always kept its word, where the opposition was unfailingly constructive, where the national interest was always placed above partisan interest. But by the time MPs left Ottawa last week for their summer break, such high idealism had been dashed. Instead, they returned to their home ridings with fresh memories of filibuster and closure, cat calls from all sides over national unity and taunts of promises betrayed.
Election promises are the currency of politics and so it came as no surprise that politicians spent most of the week trying either to inflate that currency or devalue it before they faced their constituents over the summer barbecue circuit. Setting the tone for Liberal MPs was Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, whose personal popularity during his first eight months in power has both surprised pundits and helped his government weather controversies on everything from youth crime to rising interest rates. “We told the people what we would do and we have done it,” Chrétien said in an interview last week with Maclean’s. ‘We have kept our promises.” It was a claim loudly mocked by the opposition parties, which clearly hope that the government’s postelection glow in the public opinion polls will soon end. Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien
Bouchard said the Liberals have violated their basic election pledge to get the country back to work and described Chretien’s administration as “an absentee
government.” Reform Party Leader Preston Manning complained that the government is adrift and ignoring both the deficit and the national unity crisis: ‘They have kind of run out of steam.”
The rising temper of the Commons was evident last week as Manning—abandoning an oft-repeated pledge to forgo theatrics and offer more constructive oppositionled his MPs on their first-ever parliamentary filibuster. Reform went to war over legislation enshrining a land-claims settlement that would give 14 Yukon Indian bands a total of 16,576 square miles of land
and $242.6 million in compensation—measures that Reform considered too complex to deal with in a hasty debate. The government responded by invoking closure to cut off the debate. That move, which won the backing of both the Bloc and NDP, set off high-volume charges and countercharges of broken promises and democracy under attack. Reform House leader Elwin Hermanson, noting that Liberal MPs had described closure as “morally wicked” when it was invoked by the former Conservative government, accused the Liberals of reneging on their promise to improve the tenor of debate in the Commons. Liberal House leader Herb Gray, observing that the land claim had been 21 years in the making, retorted that the Reformers wanted to thwart the democratic will of Yukon natives.
The summer break may not diminish tensions and, indeed, there are indications that tempers may be even hotter when the Commons resumes sitting on Sept. 19. By then, the Parti Québécois could be in power in Quebec City and, if so, Bouchard vowed last week that the Bloc would act in Ottawa as the voice of Quebec’s separatist government “I am a sovereigntist and this will be the great moment for which we were elected,” he said. Such a role is sure to inflame passions. As Finance Minister Paul Martin, one of the government’s senior Quebec ministers, told Maclean’s last week: “It’s going to be a very tough session ... because of the Quebec situation.” Also on the agenda for the autumn will be the government’s plans to overhaul Canada’s social-safety net, an initiative that is likely to draw fire from several quarters, including the labor movement, anti-poverty groups and some provincial capitals.
But last week, it was Chrétien’s promise to scrap the federal Goods and Services tax and usher in lower interest rates that drew the most scrutiny. Interest rates climbed to their highest level since November, 1992, following the defeat of the Charlottetown constitutional accord in a national referendum (page 56). Despite that disturbing trend, Martin argued that higher rates do not threaten Canada’s prospects for economic growth. “I believe the recovery is sufficiently robust that it will withstand these interest rates,” he said.
Chrétien and his finance minister were also on the spot last week after the Liberal majority on the Commons finance committee issued a
A summer report card
What they promised What they did
Set up a $6-billion infrastructure program funded jointly by Ottawa, the provinces and municipalities to put “tens of thousands” of people to work.
IMLU Replace the Goods and Services Tax with a fairer, more efficient tax that produces equivalent revenue.
Tighten rules on Ottawa lobbyists; appoint an independent ethics counsellor; reform parliamentary pensions to end double-dipping.
Give the country a leaner, less imperial style of government with fewer perks for MPs and smaller budgets for political staff.
Toughen sentences for young offenders and tighten gun controls.
The program is up and running with approval given for projects that Ottawa says will create 30,000 jobs. The unemployment rate was 11 per cent when the Liberals took power, and 10.7 per cent in May.
Last week’s report of the Commons finance committee suggests the promise will be kept in name only, with a proposed National Value Added tax that would work a lot like the GST but might apply to a wider range of goods and services and be included in retail prices.
Tighter mies for lobbyists have been introduced, but newly appointed ethics counsellor Howard Wilson will not be independent of government. The government has yet to take action on doubledipping but promises legislation within the next 12 months.
Promise kept. The shower-equipped Airbus A310 bought by the Tories and for VIP travel is up for sale. Political staff in ministers’ offices cut to save about $13 million, and MPs’ perks reduced.
Introduced a bill to change the Young Offenders Act, doubling maximum sentences for teenage murderers to 10 years. Promised legislation to tighten controls on firearms.
controversial report on a new tax to replace the GST. The report’s key recommendation called for federal-provincial talks to set up a national value-added tax, blending all provincial sales taxes with a modified GST. The Liberals recommended that the tax be included in the sticker price, but still recorded separately on sales receipts. The report’s most contentious proposal: lower the tax rate and streamline its collection by extending it to apply to previously exempted items, including food and drugs.
While critics pointed out that the NAT-VAT, as the proposed tax was quickly dubbed, looked an awful lot like the GST, Martin said the committee had made a significant contribution to the debate. “They have told both levels of government that what Canadians really want is a harmonized tax,” he said. “That’s a very important message not only to the federal government, it’s a very important message to provincial governments.”
Whether the provinces are getting that message should be somewhat clearer this week when Martin meets in Vancouver with provincial finance ministers. Already, several provinces, including Ontario, Manitoba and sales-tax-free Alberta appear decidedly cool towards the NAT-VAT. Still, Martin is convinced that he has public opinion on his side, adding that the private sector is fed up with the current system that forces it to contend not only with the complexities of the GST, but with nine provincial sales tax rates, all with different rules on what is taxable and what is not. “They’ve been out there saying to every level of government, for God’s sake, solve this mess,” says Martin.
In fact, Canada is the only country in the industrialized world with several sales tax regimes and the idea of a national consumption tax did not originate with the Liberals: the Tories tried and failed to get provincial agreement on a harmonized tax. Martin maintains that the Tories failed because they attempted to railroad the provinces —a mistake he says he will not repeat For that reason, he is deliberately evasive when asked what ideas he has in mind for replacing the GST. “If you ask me, do I have a very clear sense of direction about what I think should be done, absolutely,” he says. “But is that one which says that if the provinces have other ideas or are there other ways to skin a cat, am I open to that? The answer is, absolutely.” This conciliatory tone also allows Martin to avoid getting drawn into a debate over whether the government should apply the new sales tax to groceries and drugs, thereby breaking a longstanding Liberal pledge. The tax base would be a key issue for the negotiations, he told the Commons last week.
But for opposition politicians, at least, the issue was not so much the details of the proposed NAT-VAT as whether the government had broken its word on scrapping the GST. Reform MP Jim Silye declared that “the Prime Minister certainly played fast and loose with the truth.” Silye predicted that the GST issue would finally end the Liberal’s protracted political honeymoon.
That honeymoon is a matter of some consternation among opposition MPs and some glee on the Liberal side. A Gallup Canada public opinion poll conducted during the second week of June indicated that 59 per cent of decided voters supported the Liberals, compared with 41 per cent in the last election. In Quebec, where the federal Liberals trailed the BQ by 16 percentage points in the election result, the Liberals now narrowly lead the Bloc by a margin of 50 to 47 per cent. Opposition expectations that the magic will finally fade because of the GST debate may be misplaced, says Donna Dasko, vice-president of Environics Research Group in Toronto. A poll by Environics after the election showed that Canadians were more concerned with unemployment and deficit reduction than with getting rid of the GST. “People would love to have no tax but they know they are not going to get no tax,” says Dasko. “So it really doesn’t make too much difference to Canadians which side of their back they have a pain on.”
The honeymoon has dragged on longer than usual, in part, because the Liberals have kept many—but not all—of the promises they made in their famous Red Book. They started their first day in power by cancelling a $4.8-billion deal to purchase 43 military helicopters. Chrétien has played a large role in the Liberal’s success—surprisingly so since, prior to the election, he was seen by some as such a drag on party fortunes that the Liberal campaign took pains to stress the team approach. “At this point,” says Dasko, “he is a definite plus; his style, his demeanor and everything about him is really helping the government.”
The government can also thank the opposition, fractured into Quebec and western rumps, for its current highstanding in the polls. Manning conceded last week that Reformers have been on a “steep learning curve” and need to communicate their message more effectively. Liberal ministers have often been able to dominate Question Period—so much so that some aides worry that ministers might become complacent.
With the exception of the disturbing climb in interest rates, fate has been on the Liberal side as economic growth and the promise of more make Canadians feel better about themselves and their government. The big plus, though, is still that Jean Chrétien is not Brian Mulroney and that the Liberals are not the Tories. According to Dasko, what has made the honeymoon linger is that the nine-year affair with Mulroney and the Tories ended so miserably. “People are so happy to have a new government,” she says, “that they are willing to give it a little more rope.”
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