UP FRONT

DRAMA IN OTTAWA!

Striking bureaucrats, sulking mandarins— and uncertainty over what Martin wants to do

Mary Janigan October 4 2004
UP FRONT

DRAMA IN OTTAWA!

Striking bureaucrats, sulking mandarins— and uncertainty over what Martin wants to do

Mary Janigan October 4 2004

DRAMA IN OTTAWA!

ON THE ISSUES

Striking bureaucrats, sulking mandarins— and uncertainty over what Martin wants to do

Mary Janigan

IT WAS AN exquisitely delicate dance that the governing Ontario Liberals and their NDP partners executed in the mid-1980s. Nuance was everything. When the two signed a pact to prop up the Grit minority, premier David Peterson refused to hold a public ceremony: he didn’t want anyone to forget that he was the boss—and the NDP leader was not. But, behind the scenes, Peterson’s aides nurtured the relationship, alert to the slightest whiff of discontent. “It requires a tremendous amount of sensitivity,” says Peterson’s former principal secretary Hershell Ezrin. “You have to rule as if you have a majority, but treat everyone as if every vote matters.”

Sound advice. Paul Martin’s tiny circle of Liberals does not normally do delicate. But when their minority government debuts on Oct. 4, everyone will need perpetual wooing: the premiers, the big city mayors, the chummy “gang of three” opposition leaders—and their own often malcontent backbench MPs. It’s a recipe for drama, exacerbated by the Martin group’s apparent inability to stake out legislative priorities.

Until then, official Ottawa is paralyzed. A chunk of the bureaucracy is on strike. Senior mandarins are sulking, convinced the Martin crowd views them as the enemy, partly because of the sponsorship scandal.

Worse, many mutter that the PMO doesn’t know how to govern.

Lobbyists are working overtime to attract the attention of all 308 MPs. Everyone is waiting to see what Martin wants to do—and what the opposition will let him do. “Almost everyone is an outsider,” says one lobbyist. “And you can-

The lesson is that

voters clearly wanted a minorityand they want it to work.

It will be a delicate balancing act for everyone.

not go to one single place to get things done.”

The Liberals may be weak on content, but they are working hard on process. Meetings between novice House leader Tony Valeri and his three counterparts are reportedly cautious but cordial. (They often use translators—because Valeri doesn’t speak French.) All are braced for the spotlight to shift from the Commons to committees where most bills will now go immediately after tabling. House leaders will opt for fewer committees, with fewer members, to ensure MPs are not spread too thinly. (The Liberals only have about 80 MPs eligible to serve.) And if ministers want their bills to survive those hearings, they must explain each clause, woo every MP and bargain over each proposed change.

This could produce more widely accepted laws. Liberal insiders say whenever public polls put them ahead during the last campaign, they immediately dropped in their own tracking polls. The lesson: voters clearly wanted a minority—and they want it to work. It will be a delicate balancing act for everyone. Valeri must learn how to cope with prolonged weekly negotiations on House business. Although the opposition wants to restrict the occasions when defeat of a bill would trigger an election so they can modify or trounce routine bills, the Liberals insist only they can decide when to ask the Governor General to pull the plug.

In turn, argues Peter Dobell, founding director of the non-profit Parliamentary Centre, the Grits could reduce opposition exposure in the media by trying to limit the number of sitting days. They could even adjourn the House this fall for a new session in late winter—and then act by executive fiat—although that would be risky. “It is going to be very, very uncertain,” he warns. Democracy may be messy—but it will get a lot more interesting very soon. Dll

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com