CANADA

Governing in the slow lane

The Liberals continue to drag their heels on some painful policy choices

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 20 1995
CANADA

Governing in the slow lane

The Liberals continue to drag their heels on some painful policy choices

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 20 1995

Governing in the slow lane

CANADA

The Liberals continue to drag their heels on some painful policy choices

As members of Parliament last week resumed what is expected to be one of the most important sessions in the country’s recent history, it might have been expected that their first gathering of 1995 would be dominated by intense debate over the dramatic choices and actions that lie ahead. Among other things, Canadians soon face: a budget that will hike taxes, cut government programs and cost as many as 45,000 civil servants their jobs; a reform of the unemployment insurance system that will be bad news for the 9.7 per cent of Canadians who are unemployed; a Quebec referendum campaign that is already certain to be nasty and divisive. “This,” an adviser to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said recently, “is put-up or shut-up time.” That, then, made it all the more fascinating that MPs conducted the first and most lengthy debate of their first day’s return on whether to amend the Canadian Potato Marketing Act—a topic that took up as much time as all of the others combined.

The wrangling over potatoes drew lengthy responses from members of the Liberals, Bloc Québécois, Reform and New Democratic Party, but ended, to no one’s surprise, with the Liberals supporting their existing policy. That ex-

change, on an issue that is important to farmers but far from engrossing to anyone else, set the tone for an uneven, unfocused week marked more by who was not there rather than who was, and what legislation was absent rather than what was presented.

Among the no-shows: Bloc Leader Lucien Bouchard, still recovering from the amputation of most of his left leg in December, and Reform Leader Preston Manning, who skipped the first day of the return, as well as the swearing-in of new Governor General Roméo LeBlanc (page 16). Chrétien might as well have done the same, since his withdrawn tone and evasive responses to most questions suggested that he would rather have been almost anywhere else. In response to one of the few pointed questions by an opposition member— a query from Reformer Deborah Grey about whether the government would emphasize higher taxes or lower spending—Chrétien responded in a dismissive manner that would have done Pierre Trudeau proud: with a flat tone, accompanied by a slight shrug, he said that “when the budget is tabled, the Liberal party will, as always, find a middle ground.”

In all cases, the parties appeared directionless. That was particularly true of the Bloc:

without Bouchard, Canada’s official Opposition party lacks both its best orator and, more surprisingly, any sense of coherence and co-ordination in its attacks on the government. Reform, meanwhile, is often actually better without Manning, because the spotlight then falls on some MPs—Grey, Jim Silye and Myron Thompson—who are far better at provoking the Liberals. But with or without him, Reform’s overall performance in the Commons remains lacklustre. The same description, however, applies to the governing party: the pieces of liberal legislation that were conspicuous by their absence included a tough new bill on gun-control legislation, which Justice Minister Allan Rock had promised to present as soon as Parliament resumed, and legislation sharply reducing the size of the pension plan for MPs.

Since the House of Commons’ recess that began just before Christmas, individual MPs— particularly Liberals—have made much of the fact that they were going back to their ridings to listen to the wishes of their constituents. Having done so, they now appear prepared to move in the opposite direction in several key areas. Selected tax hikes, senior Liberals acknowledge, are inevitable despite the strong public outcry against them, given the difficulties that Finance Minister Paul Martin faces in trimming close to $8 billion from the deficit.

But the Liberals’ foot-dragging is less easy to understand in the cases of legislation on gun control and MPs’ pensions. Repeated polls across the country have shown that up to three-quarters of respondents support the substance of legislation requiring gun owners to register their weapons. Even in Alberta, where opposition is supposed to be the strongest, a poll commissioned by the provincial government—which opposes the legislation—showed that two-thirds of respondents favor tighter controls. As well, the Liberals, who would be fully supported by the Bloc Québécois, easily have the votes to pass it. De spite that, a backbench rebellion led by Liberal MPs from rural Ontario and the West effectively stalled presentation of the bill.

The Liberals face even more inner-party squabbling—and a potential public relations disaster—on the issue of reforming the pension plans of MPs. Unhappiness over the issue has been stoked by Reform and is particularly strong in the West: in British Columbia, a campaign sponsored by The Vancouver Sun resulted in more than 12,000 letters being sent in 10 days to Chrétien’s office demanding that the Liberals keep their promise to reduce MPs’ pensions.

Despite those considerations, attempts by Treasury Board President Art Eggleton to reduce the scope of the plan have been opposed by some of the party’s most prominent figures, including Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps and Public Works Minister David Dingwall. Eggleton’s proposal would bring MPs’ pensions much more in line with private plans by delaying eligibility to about 65, and ending or limiting indexation. Already, Chrétien has moved to end another controversial aspect by asking former MPs appointed to federal positions to renounce “double-dipping”— collecting a pension and a federal salary at the same time. But the opposition in caucus means that any further pension reform may go no further than entrenching the ban on double-dipping, and creating a minimum age of pension eligibility.

Some Liberals suggest that last week’s inactivity amounted to nothing more than the calm before the furor that will be caused by the budget, which will likely be presented on Feb. 28. Another reason for the quiet, acknowledged a Chrétien adviser, is that “the kind of opposition we faced didn’t exactly terrify us.” But the Liberals should not exult too much over the inadequacies of their political opponents. For one, it focuses more attention on grumbling and dissent among their own MPs. For another, as evidenced by demonstrations recently across the country over issues as diverse as gun control, student loans, tax hikes and gay rights, many Canadians pay attention to government only when they are angry with it. And the painful policy decisions, both for those who make them and those who will be affected by them, are about to begin.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with WARREN CARAGATA in Ottawa

WARREN CARAGATA