Throne Speech 1996

As Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's government tried to evoke a new era of Canadian team spirit in the House of Commons last week, it was no coincidence that the one premier who came to listen was Captain Canada himself.

Throne Speech 1996

As Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's government tried to evoke a new era of Canadian team spirit in the House of Commons last week, it was no coincidence that the one premier who came to listen was Captain Canada himself. Beaming down upon his former Liberal colleagues from the VIP gallery, Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin was back in the arena he left in January not only to give moral support. In fact, the newly elected Liberal premier had his own agenda - and an old-fashioned way of lobbying for it. During a two-day visit, the former fisheries minister who earned the Captain Canada label during his standoff with Spanish fishermen a year ago discussed six provincial issues with five senior cabinet ministers. He argued for an employee buyout of a struggling St. John's shipbuilding yard. He met twice with Finance Minister Paul Martin to ensure that this week's budget formula to distribute federal spending money will continue to favor the poorer Atlantic provinces. And he spent an hour alone with Chrétien, plotting how to rally the country in the quest for national unity. "It's a damn good time for me to be here - just before the budget," Tobin told Maclean's. "When the glow is good, you gotta go."

Doors may open for a loyal and trusted ally, but few Liberals in Ottawa last week could boast that once past the entrance there was much inside. The domestic Team Canada theme that government nudged into play in its vague and rambling throne speech on Feb. 27 was supposed to be the carrot before the stick: a companion piece meant to soften the continuation of deficit-reduction measures that will be introduced in this Wednesday's budget. The intent was to shift the emphasis of the Liberal agenda to job creation and a rebalancing of federal-provincial powers - the blueprint for a renewed federation. Instead, Ottawa became mired in quibbles over ambiguities, righteous howls from a business community challenged by Chrétien to expand its role in the economic recovery, and cautious reactions from provincial premiers asked to re-create the shared magic of successful international trade missions to China, Latin America and India. "Team Canada worked well in Beijing or Bombay or Buenos Aires," Chrétien insisted last week. "It can work just as well in Burnaby or Brampton or Bromont."

Chrétien's wishful entreaties for new partnerships were undermined by evidence of disarray within his own Liberal ranks. The throne speech included only one clear initiative - a promise by Ottawa to double to $120 million the summer job fund for Canada's youth, an estimated 16 per cent of whom are unable to find work. But senior Liberals admit that, within cabinet, that was one of the package's few uncontested schemes. In the battle to define the Liberal agenda, the government is split between those, like Treasury Board President Marcel Massé, who want to give the provinces more control over the design of social programs, and those, like Human Resources Minister Doug Young, who argue that Ottawa should retain and strengthen its control over social programs through direct payment to individuals.

As a result, the throne speech masked a maze of policy contradictions. Largely as a concession to Quebec, Ottawa promised that it would not introduce future shared-cost spending programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction unless at least six of the 10 provinces agreed. Provinces that disagreed would receive federal funding if they instituted equivalent or comparable initiatives. But it is likely that Ottawa will avoid future federal-provincial spending programs altogether: less than three months after it was announced on Dec. 14, Ottawa has withdrawn its offer of $630 million towards a joint federal-provincial child-care program. Instead, future federal funding will likely go directly to individuals instead of to provincial governments. This week's budget, for example, is expected to increase the income supplement for working, low-income families. Further details may emerge at the next first ministers conference. The throne speech called for such a meeting in the near future - perhaps as early as April - to forge the details of an economic partnership that, for the first time, will allow for greater provincial input in federal programs that deal with the social safety net.

Ottawa, meanwhile, agreed to vacate its jurisdictional interests in forestry, mining, labor-related market training and recreation - areas that both Ottawa and the provinces agree are burdened with duplication. At best, it is a modest list - and one that some provinces, particularly Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, will likely demand be expanded. "The real tricky question is how far do you go?" Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow told Maclean's. "One might argue for one or two more headings, or one or two less. It doesn't matter. Ottawa's small shopping list is headed in the right direction."

But there are already wrinkles that could bedevil the process. Although last week the government refused to commit itself to specifics, Maclean's has learned that in this week's federal budget Finance Minister Paul Martin has reluctantly agreed to siphon money from a $300-million transition fund, established last December to create jobs in areas of high unemployment, to top up employment insurance benefits for seasonal workers in Atlantic Canada, Northern Ontario and, pointedly, Quebec. Ironically, that decision irritates New Brunswick's Frank McKenna, the premier of one of the provinces most affected by a reduction of benefits to seasonal workers. "That fund was intended to soften the hardships of the poorest of the poor," McKenna told Maclean's when asked about the plan. Instead, McKenna argues, Ottawa should amend the employment insurance legislation to avoid penalizing seasonal workers. "As it stands [the legislation] is a complete disincentive to industry." And although Tory premiers Ralph Klein of Alberta and Mike Harris of Ontario were conspicuously silent about the federal package, British Columbia's NDP Premier Glen Clark, considered a wild card by many Liberals in Ottawa, was bluntly dismissive. Said Clark: "I'm worried they are rushing headlong to meet an agenda set by a separatist government in Quebec."

In fact, it was the throne speech's approach to the national unity question that caused the most confusion over the Liberal government's game plan. Instead of clarifying the strategy to combat Quebec separatism, Chrétien and his government last week dropped - and then retracted - a thinly veiled hint that Ottawa was prepared to hold a national referendum on the issue. Speculation that Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard could stage another referendum as early as next spring hatched a corresponding flurry of rumors - also discounted - among Liberals that Chrétien was preparing for a fall election. Citing its responsibility to ensure that any separatist debate is conducted "with all the facts on the table, that the rules of the process are fair, and the consequences are clear," the throne speech then promised that "Canadians, no matter where they live, will have their say in the future of the country." Reaction in Quebec was swift and predictable. "If there is agreement on one thing in Quebec," Parti Québécois Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Jacques Brassard retorted, "it is that it's up to Quebecers to decide their political and constitutional future."

Anxious to pull the country together, Ottawa is assembling an array of options. A discussion paper, prepared by Massé, Justice Minister Allan Rock and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and expected by mid-March, will list the practical elements of Quebec's possible secession, including an assessment of the legality of such a decision as well as the right of federalist areas in Quebec to remain in Canada. At the other end of the scale, Dion has publicly invited Canadians to send ideas to Ottawa. "There is a grassroots movement, a wonderful movement, of discussions of the way we may keep our country together," said Dion. "Later, we will need a more organized way of consultation, but we are not at that time now."

Apparently, no idea is dismissed outright as too small - or too off-the-wall. At one point, according to a senior Liberal official, the government toyed with the notion that ordinary Canadians could use the government's approximately $1 billion worth of frequent-flyer points, amassed by MPs flying to and from their ridings, to get to know their country. That gave way to an idea that Canadians be offered reduced "unity fares" after it was pointed out that a flood of nonpaying travellers might well bankrupt Canada's two biggest airlines.

The purpose of Chrétien's appeal last week to business leaders, politicians and the public to work together for the good of the country was, of course, an effort to resurrect the spirit of last Oct. 27, when more than 100,000 people rallied in downtown Montreal in favor of a united Canada. Now, Canadian politicians, recalling the bond established three months later during the Asian trade mission among federal and provincial officials who had set aside regional differences for a common goal, compared the Team Canada spirit to the spontaneity of the Montreal gathering. They wondered why it could not be rekindled in the name of national unity. As Tobin mused last week: "There would be something incredibly backward in terms of our priorities [if] we can get together to sell Canada to the rest of the planet but we can't sell Canada to ourselves."

Maclean's March 11, 1996