Although Prime Minister Brian Mulroney began his national economic conference experiment with a plea for consensus, the first full day of discussions served more to demonstrate the deep divisions among government, business and labor.
The conference, the first attempt to bring together such a diverse group – 136 people invited from all sectors of Canadian society – is a crucial part of the Prime Minister’s strategy to implement his promise to broaden decision making in Ottawa.
While Mr. Mulroney and his advisors recognize the political risks of trying to negotiate in the full glare of national television, they are hoping the national airing of many viewpoints will prepare the ground for a tough budget in late May.
Finance Minister Wilson underlined his preoccupation with the national debt by announcing in yesterday’s keynote address to the weekend conference that he expects the deficit for the coming fiscal year to be higher than the $34.5- billion he predicted in his economic statement last fall.
The Finance Minister reiterated his commitment to cutting the deficit, mainly by reducing government spending. ”f government spending and borrowing were the way to achieve prosperity, we would have gotten there long ago,” he said. ”en years of stimulation and deficits have not solved our problems. They have stimulated only a mountain of government debt . . . which is now growing twice as fast as the economy.” That message won a speedy endorsement from businessmen, but almost no one else.
Rowland Frazee, chairman of the Business Council on National Issues, urged the Government to chop at least $5- billion from the deficit next year.
But the Government’s emphasis on the deficit was quickly attacked by Canadian Labor Congress president Dennis McDermott, who said the CLC represents ”he people who have been hurt the most.” Taking up Mr. Mulroney’s request to be candid, Mr. McDermott took a swipe at business groups for speaking with several voices while representing the same interests. “Business wears several hats from the anachronistic extremism of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business to the carefully crafted slick and sophisiticated approach of the Business Council on National issues. . . . Which entity are we dealing with – Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?” Labor representatives said the emphasis should be on job creation and full employment. Their emphasis on people rather than numbers was endorsed by other delegates, ranging from Emmett Cardinal Carter to Chaviva Hosek of the National Action Committee of the Status of Women.
The Prime Minister took great pains to be civil to the labor spokesmen – “We view the labor movement as an indispensible part of national growth”he said at one point. But it was clear that the union leaders were not interested in the consensus Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Wilson said they were seeking. “The preoccupation should not be with the deficit, it has to be with job creation,”said Robert White, Canadian director of the United Auto Workers, who added that an assault on the deficit will inevitably throw more Canadians out of work.
Mr. White’s jousting with Mr. Mulroney and some of the business spokesmen produced some of the few lively moments of the day. In a session on retraining, Mr. White said the Government has to work with all the players in each sector of the economy to develop ways of coping with the dislocation caused by technological change. “The Government really has a major role to play. You can’t on the one hand talk about getting the government off our backs and on the other hand talk about technology and training,”Mr. White said, adding that business leaders were “absolutely not correct”in saying Canadian industry is unproductive and that unions oppose technological change.
Mr. McDermott told reporters that business and the Tories “are being hypocritical if they expect everybody else to join in their anthem.”He said he came to the conference because Louis Laberge, president of the Quebec Federation of Labor, who has been criticized in labor circles for his chumminess with the Prime Minister, was more conciliatory in his approach than other union leaders. He said afterward that “Mr. Mulroney has done a wonderful job finding out what people want. . . . I’ve been seduced by the open mind of Mr. Mulroney.” There was more of a consensus among businessmen, especially when it came to their admiration for U.S. economic policies.
John Bulloch, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, argued that Canada should follow the lead of the United States in loosening controls on business rather than adopting the interventionist style common in Europe, where ”t’s easier to get a divorce than fire an employee.” He said the United States created more jobs last year than all Europe in the past 10 years. ”e have to compete with the Americans or slide into oblivion.” Edward Newall, chairman of Du Pont Canada Inc., praised the Prime Minister for his meeting earlier in the week with President Ronald Reagan and said lower trade barriers would be ”he single biggest step you can take to create new jobs.” Exports account for 3 million jobs in Canada, he said, and if Canada’s share of world trade had not dipped from 5 per cent to 3 per cent in recent years, ”e’d have no unemployment.”
Despite Mr. Mulroney’s efforts to stimulate a more lively debate, few of the presentations went beyond standard prepared speeches, provoking an angry response from Madeleine Delaney-Leblanc, head of the New Brunswick advisory council on the status of women. “I got somewhat the feeling that I was attending a long list of monologues falling on deaf ears,”she complained to the conference, adding that the concerns of women were being buried in all the talk of abstract economic issues. “I would have liked to have heard some new things.”
Unemployed Montrealer Andre Marcoux, 23, gave an emotional speech about the plight of the jobless and their despair at having no security. “I feel I’m in a straitjacket. . . . We’ve been asked to sacrifice ourselves for many years now.” Mr. Marcoux, who has been living on unemployment insurance payments of $118 a week since October, said he was invited to the conference at Government expense because he was known through volunteer work he had been doing in community radio programming. He said he did not know by the end of the first day if the conference would produce concrete results. ”’m here, ” he said of his own role, ”ut there’s a million (unemployed) people who could be here.” Ms Hosek warned that a lower federal deficit andfree trade with the United States would hurt women more than men. She said the highest-paying jobs for women are in the public sector and that women – predominantly immigrants – constitute most of the work force in industries such as textiles and footwear, which are vulnerable to free trade. ”he women’s economy is not the same as that of men,” she said.