Feds' Misfortunes on East Coast

Having a cabinet minister resign in a flurry of scandal is something no prime minister relishes.

Feds' Misfortunes on East Coast

Having a cabinet minister resign in a flurry of scandal is something no prime minister relishes. But Andy Scott's decision to pack it in as solicitor general last week underscored another unpleasant fact for Jean Chrétien: how the old Grit stronghold of Atlantic Canada has become a barren wasteland for the government. Tradition, after all, dictates that each province gets at least one seat at the cabinet table. By last week, Scott, who finally resigned two months after indiscreetly discussing government business with a friend on an airline flight, may have become the most mocked political figure in the land. The irony was that Chrétien viewed the Fredericton MP as the best of the bunch when he had to choose a cabinet member from among the three Grits who managed to win New Brunswick seats in the June, 1997 election. In the end, with Scott's resignation Chrétien shuffled Lawrence MacAulay, the low-key labor minister from Prince Edward Island, into the solicitor general's spot. And he turned to Claudette Bradshaw, a social services worker from Moncton, N.B., with 17 months experience in the House, to take over the labor ministry and Scott's job as New Brunswick's political minister.

Pickings are slim for the Liberals on the East Coast, after losing 21 of 32 Atlantic seats in 1997 while hanging on to a 155-seat majority in the House. Lately, they have taken heart from an August poll by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, which found that satisfaction with the government - which had dipped to 40 per cent before the election - now tops 62 per cent of decided Atlantic voters. But federal Liberal strategists still feel those numbers badly exaggerate their support. Their big worry is that the results of the last election represent a long-term shift away from their party, rather than simply a protest vote - and that the fiscally conservative Chrétien administration lacks the will to redress a growing sense of neglect Down East. Laments one worried Chrétien adviser: "We are on the verge of writing off Atlantic Canada for generations to come."

How times have changed. For most of the century, ministers from Atlantic Canada have held a disproportionate amount of power around the federal cabinet table - securing funding for job creation schemes, ensuring every outport and harbor had a well-maintained government wharf, and generally looking after the interests of their economically strapped region. Within Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government, Cape Bretoner Allan MacEachen was the patronage godfather in Nova Scotia, while Roméo LeBlanc, the New Brunswick-born fisheries minister who is now Governor-General, and Donald Jamieson, a Newfoundlander who held the External Affairs post, exerted similar influence in their provinces. When Brian Mulroney took power in 1984, he also loaded his cabinet with Atlantic politicians like John Crosbie, Elmer MacKay and Bernard Valcourt.

Things were no different when Chrétien's Liberals swept into power nine years later. The 1993 election left the government with a trio of East Coast giants: New Brunswicker Doug Young, who went on to hold the transportation, human resources and defence portfolios; David Dingwall, who inherited MacEachen's mantle in Nova Scotia by becoming the minister of public works and, later, health; and Brian Tobin, the hero of the fish war with Spain before resigning as fisheries minister in 1996 to become premier of of Newfoundland.

But for Atlantic Liberals, Chrétien's government was far different than its free-spending predecessors, which were so willing to pour billions into East Coast megaprojects and make-work schemes. Tobin, Dingwall and, to a lesser degree, Young, expended much of their energy trying to blunt the pain of federal cutbacks that hit their region particularly hard. Party strategists now concede they may have taken East Coast voters for granted. The government's 1997 election platform contained few policies targeted to help the region, despite the fact that Dingwall repeatedly warned that Atlantic voters felt they had shouldered more than their share of restraint measures. "They didn't give us a damn thing," laments a former Grit cabinet minister from the area. "The platform was appalling. We had no hope."

Seventeen months later, in spite of the improved polls, chances of convincing the easternmost provinces that Ottawa cares still seem slim. In Nova Scotia, the Liberal banner is now being carried by Cape Bretoner Alasdair Graham, the 69-year-old government leader in the Senate. He is a somewhat reluctant Liberal champion - before Chrétien asked him to become the party's political strongman in Nova Scotia, he was actually planning to lighten up his Senate duties so he could work on his memoirs. "There is no evidence that the government of Canada is treating Nova Scotia any less favorably than any other province," he insisted in an interview with Maclean's. To date, though, his major accomplishment is a rather obscure one - convincing Ottawa to upgrade Halifax International Airport.

All the same, it is generally conceded that Graham has done more to further the interests of his home province than MacAulay, the political minister from Cardigan, P.E.I. Meanwhile, Newfoundlander Fred Mifflin, the veterans' affairs minister, lobbied hard to ensure the government anted up $730 million last June for its new East Coast fishery package. But the driving force behind the deal was undeniably Tobin, who personally called the Prime Minister - and actually seems to have emerged as Newfoundland's de facto regional minister. In fact, government insiders say that both MacAulay and Mifflin would never have left the back benches if their party was not decimated in Atlantic Canada by the election. The same goes for Scott, the ranking regional minister until last week. "In my lifetime, our influence in the federal cabinet has never been this weak," emphasizes Donald Savoie, a professor of economic development at the University of Moncton.

That is worrisome news for an area always dependent on government help. The region fully understands that the days of federal handouts are long gone. "The priority is still job creation," stresses Tobin. "But what is needed are the kinds of incentives that will lead to long-term structural changes in the Atlantic-Canadian economy." Trouble is, the cabinet seems reluctant to funnel renewed funding into an area that turned its back on the government in the last election. These days, a minister from Atlantic Canada finds his words nearly weightless in a government with 127 of its 156 seats in Central Canada.

A case in point: the five-year push by Saint John Shipbuilding Ltd., owned by New Brunswick's Irving family, for federal support for Canada's shipbuilding industry. Scott championed that policy, which would help keep New Brunswickers on the job. But, sources say, Ottawa South MP John Manley, the fiscally conservative Industry minister, wanted no part of an arrangement that smacked of business incentives - even though his department has doled out millions to the high-technology sector in Ontario and Quebec. "There is an obvious double standard here," says one Chrétien adviser. "But the political will is not there to change things and Atlantic Canada just does not have the clout to make it happen anymore."

Scott's departure will only make that situation worse. Analysts are uncertain whether his resignation will hurt the federal party's popularity down east. But Liberal MPs from the area already know they are on their own when it comes to winning back the public's affections. The provincial parties certainly will not be of much help. In Nova Scotia, Premier Russell MacLellan is struggling to keep his Liberal minority government afloat. In New Brunswick - where an election is expected in 1999 - the Liberals hold 45 of 55 seats. But they lost two of three byelections in October in the first litmus test of the government's popularity since Camille Thériault took over as premier from Frank McKenna last May. In Prince Edward Island, the Grits are still running far behind the Tory government, which holds 18 of 27 seats.

Only in Newfoundland, where Tobin's tough insistence on an in-province smelter for the mammoth Voisey's Bay nickel project has shored up his popularity, are the Grits comfortably ensconced, with 36 of 48 seats. "We're down finally to one last, lonely, unattractive little Liberal clinging on by its fingertips to the Grand Banks, saying, 'Someone reach out and save me in this 11th hour,' " he is known to joke to friends, mimicking his famous rallying cry during the standoff with Spain in 1995. These days, a growing number of Liberals in Atlantic Canada fail to see the humor.

Maclean's December 7, 1998