Even the Canadian Caper could not pull Joe Clark out of his difficulties. Canadian voters, disappointed in what they perceived to be a weak and inept leader and resistant to his tough economic austerity measures, have returned their flamboyant elder statesman to power. Pierre Trudeau has said he will be only an interim prime minister -- until his Liberal Party finds a new leader. But, given his solid victory and his obvious zest for the political life, it would not be surprising if he decided to stay on center stage.
He inherits pretty much the situation he had left to his successor only nine months ago: high inflation, growing unemployment, whopping budget deficits, and provincial conflicts -- in the West as much as in the East -- which tear at the fabric of Canadian unity. the question then remains: Can the Canadian Government put together a belt-tightening program to reverse the disturbing economic trends as well as work out formulas of power-sharing that will keep peace in the Canadian family? To his credit, Prime Minister Clark faced up to the issues. But he apparently moved too frontally (some would add callously), given the fact that his was a minority government. In hindsight, it would have been better politically to be more compromising -- a stance, however, which Mr. Clark perhaps felt he could not afford if he was to demonstrate strong leadership.
Mr. Trudeau, ironically, will have to move in some of the same policy directions even though it was he who helped engineer the downfall of the Progressive Conservatives. Take the key issue of energy. Canadians are the world's most profligate users of energy in per capita terms. Yet they are shielded from OPEC's price increases because of the low price of their domestic oil and generous government subsidies to refiners. Today they pay less for fuel than any other industrialized nation. Hence even Mr. Trudeau will have to put in place a policy of higher prices that begins to reduce energy consumption and the enormous oil-price subsidy which has been adding significantly to the nation's budget deficit.
As for Canada's regional cleavages, Mr. Trudeau, a strong federalist, has already highlighted the issue by his statement that Canada "is more than the sum of its parts". The challenge continues to be that of uniting the nation under common political and economic goals. Not only is there the movement for separatism in Quebec, which will hold a referendum this spring on the question of "sovereignty and association." Today the western regions, notably oil-rich Alberta, also are chafing under perceived inequities and demanding a basic reapportionment of power within the Canadian confederation. It will take all of Mr. Trudeau's long-admired political skills to find compromise solutions to these divisive tendencies.
To outsiders looking in, Canada's problems seem to parallel those afflicting some other industrial democracies -- a lack of discipline, not enough initiative and drive, too much spending, too little commitment to a national purpose. Whether the enduring Mr. Trudeau can instill a new spirit of sacrifice and working together in the wider interest -- whether, indeed, he can fire up even himself to fresh approaches -- remains to be seen. Only one thing can be said at this point: When Canadians want a change of government, they do it quickly.