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CANADA: Casual Joe Takes a Fall

5 minute read

A no-confidence upset brings down Clark’s Tory government

When Speaker James Jerome ordered the “vote on division” at 9:50 p.m., the packed public gallery in Canada’s House of Commons stirred with excitement. The balloting took only eleven minutes. When it was over, the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Joe Clark, just 6½ months in office, had been stunningly upset. By a vote of 139 to 133, the Tories went down to defeat on a no-confidence motion supported by the combined opposition of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberals (114 seats) and the New Democratic Party of Ed Broadbent (27 seats). When the shouting from the triumphant opposition benches had subsided, Clark rose from the government bench to make the despondent announcement. “The government has lost a vote on a matter which we have no alternative but to regard as a question of confidence,” he said. “I want to advise the House that I will be seeing his excellency, the Governor General, tomorrow morning.”

Within ten hours Clark had kept his word, Parliament had been dissolved, and a new national election was called for Feb. 18. Canada was faced with the swiftest demise of any government in nearly a century, and the country faced an electoral struggle for which no one was really prepared. On one side: the youthful, untested Clark Conservatives, who have suffered a nosedive in popularity in little more than half a year in office. On the other side: the experienced Trudeau Liberal Party, unaccustomed to opposition after more than a decade in power, grown listless and, now, even leaderless. Just four weeks ago, in fact, Trudeau had resigned as party leader and had not been replaced. It was possible that he might be forced back into the leadership by a draft for the sake of the election; if not, Canadians asked themselves, who would become Prime Minister if the Liberals won? In the swirl of uncertainties, many voters could not resist a swelling mood of a plague-on-both-your-houses. Growled the Ottawa Journal: “Stupidity, intellectual dishonesty and a lust for power conspired to force an election which the people of Canada assuredly do not want.”

Clark’s dramatic downfall took place over a classic bread-and-butter issue: the budget. At stake was an austerity program that had been outlined two days before by Finance Minister John Crosbie. The program’s goal was to raise an extra $3.5 billion in Canadian tax revenue in order to move toward full energy independence for Canada by 1990. Unfortunately, it was not as simple as it seemed. Crosbie’s budget called for whopping tax increases on gasoline, heating oil and alcohol, and a 5% surcharge on corporate taxes. The gasoline tax alone would be increased from 7¢ to 25¢. Explained Crosbie: “It is short-term pain for long-term gain. That is the way we see it.”

The Liberals, the New Democrats and the tiny five-member Social Credit Party, which declined to vote, thought otherwise. Liberal Finance Critic Herbert Gray charged that the tax increases would impose the equivalent of a 14% income tax increase on Canadians, who are already smarting from 9.4% inflation and an un employment rate of about 8%. The no-confidence motion that was formally read out in Parliament “unreservedly” condemned the Clark government for “its outright betrayal of election promises” to cut taxes and interest rates and restimulate the Canadian economy.

Despite this broadside, the Conservatives hoped that the Social Credit Party, which had saved them on five previous no-confidence votes, would support them again. No longer. The Créditistes, as they are known by their predominantly French Canadian supporters, had been alienated by a budget that proposed a 15¢ hike in the price of diesel fuel for farmers, the backbone of their constituency.

For Joe Clark, the defeat was a crushing rebuff to his attempt both to reverse Canada’s pattern of heavy government spending under the Liberals and to chart a new national energy course. Elected on May 22 this year, he had, at 39, been the youngest Canadian Prime Minister ever to take office as well as the first Tory to head the government since John Diefenbaker in 1963. When they came to power, Clark’s Conservatives actually were six seats short of a full majority. But he made light of the difficulties. Said Clark: “We will govern as if we had a majority.” He also expressed the hope—forlorn, as it turned out—that the three-party opposition would give the Conservatives “a fair chance” to present their program.

He soon alienated their possible sympathy, however, with some unexpected moves. He showed a determination to sell off Canada’s national petroleum corporation, Petro-Canada, to private interests at a time when homeowners were showing anxiety at the prospect of severe heating-oil shortages. He has been criticized for his professed desire not to be come involved in next spring’s Quebec referendum on possible secession from Canada. Last month voter antagonism to this too casual style surfaced in two by-election defeats for the Conservatives, and by late last month their popularity in opinion polls had dropped to 28%, compared with 47% for the Liberals.

The Liberals are in an equally awkward position, following Trudeau’s resignation. They will have to decide whether to campaign with a lame-duck interim candidate, if Trudeau is willing, or hastily elect a new leader. Plainly, the Tories hope that voter irritation with these circumstances will rebound to their favor. In Washington, officials who have dubbed U.S. relations with Clark as “very, very good,” showed no dismay over last week’s upset, or any real disappointment with Canada’s basic stability. “We see no reason to believe that our relations will change,” one specialist said. “We are not witnessing an Italian situation.”

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