VARIOUS ASPECTS OF THE OTTAWA SCENE
AN ADDRESS BY
BLAIR FRASER POLITICAL OBSERVER, MACLEAN'S MAGAZINE
Chairman: First Vice-President, Mr. Sydney Hermant
Thursday, January 12th, 1950
Members and Guests of The Empire Club of Canada We are to hear an address today by Mr. Blair Fraser, the Political Observer for MacLean's Magazine in Ottawa. A Maritimer, Mr. Fraser taught school for a year following his graduation from Acadia University. He began his career as a journalist with the Montreal Star, following which he spent ten years on the editorial staff of the Montreal Gazette, where he became Associate Editor. In 1943 he joined MacLean's Magazine. Mr. Fraser has also done special broadcasting for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. While with MacLean's he has covered the Prime Ministers' Conference in London in 1944, the United Nations Organization Meeting in San Francisco in 1945, the Paris Peace Conference in 1946. Mr. Fraser, himself, however, says that his main job is covering politics and national affairs in Ottawa.
Those of us who know Mr. Fraser through his broadcasts and through his articles in MacLean's, look forward to an intelligent, dispassionate and keenly analytical account of the various aspects of the Ottawa Scene, with which he is so familiar.
Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen
I got a letter the other day that horrified me. Somebody wrote in about an article we ran on book censorship. He agreed with the article, he said; Canadian censorship was silly, utterly ridiculous. Then he said
"What's behind it? There must be a pay-off somewhere."
Somebody's doing something I don't like--he must be a crook. All politicians are crooks anyway. Who's bribing this man? You can see the pattern in his mind.
Now that's a rather extreme example, but I find a streak of this attitude in most people. I'm sure my correspondent would agree with me, as everyone in this room would agree, that democracy is the finest form of government ever devised by man. We accept that as a platitude, a bromide.
But most of us don't quite mean it. We talk about democracy as if it were a dream, an ideal still to be achieved, instead of a system that's been working for 150 years. We pay it lip service in the same breath as we damn politics and politicians, the methods and the men that make it work. We're like a man who gets terribly sentimental to the tune of Mother Machree, and hardly ever sees his own mother because he's ashamed of her grammar.
I don't think this is good enough. Here we are in the middle of a cold war that may well be the decisive engagement--pray God the only engagement--in World War III. In every free country in the world democracy is under fire, has enemies internal and external. If we're going to defend democracy effectively we have to know what it is and defend it as it is, not as we think it ought to be.
Heaven knows any political reporter gets to be an authority on the drawbacks, the limitations of democracy. We see it day in and day out in its kitchen clothes, with its hair down and no make-up on. But I for one believe, and I hope today to show, that the limitations are not the politician's fault. They're our fault, the fault of the electors. Of all the disabilities in our political system, and they are many, I can't think of one that isn't imposed by the voter.
First, let's look at personnel. What kind of man does democracy attract, to run its machinery? What kind of man is the average M.P.?
Right away you come to Limitation Number One. Parliament's often called a representative assembly, a cross-section of Canada. It's not. Practically all its 255 members are self-employed men--mostly lawyers and farmers, a few doctors and engineers and insurance agents. Almost no employees, almost nobody who works in private life for salary or wages.
That can be a serious handicap. Your M.P. has to make a conscious effort of the imagination to put himself in the place of the employed man, to study the problems of the average worker. But who's to blame for this occupational imbalance? The employers. If they as a class really believed in democracy, an employee could afford to run for Parliament. He wouldn't be throwing away all of his security as he must today; he wouldn't have to run an economic risk so forbidding that not one employee in ten thousand will take it.
Aside from his job, what's the character of your typical back-bencher? What's he like, as a man?
It's fashionable to sneer at him, as you know; he's the butt of most political stories. But having seen a good deal of him over the past seven or eight years, I've found him a pretty decent fellow.
As a general rule he's the joiner type. He usually has a background with a service club, or the Masonic order, or some such organization. Quite often he's had an apprenticeship without pay in municipal politics.
Evidently, then, he's a man who enjoys the sense of leadership in his community. Of course we all do, in a way, but most of us are not willing to pay the price--we don't like to be dragged out to meetings in the evening, or to be loaded up with committee work. The M.P. pays that price.
Why does he go into politics? Certainly not to make money-almost all M.P.s lose money in politics, or at least make less than they could by staying out and tending their own business. Most of them go in because they like it.
I was talking to one last night. "I like this life," he said. "Most of these fellows tell you they're in politics to serve the public. In my case, that is strictly hooey. If I weren't here I'd be back riding the plough and milking the cows, and I like this a lot better."
Even in his case I don't think it's entirely hooey that he wants to do a job for his community. I think the average M.P. is, or was, an idealist at heart who went into politics partly, at least, because he wanted to serve his country.
Mind you, I don't want to build up the back-bencher into a Sir Galahad. He has his faults like anybody else, each one his own set, and one or two faults seem to be pretty common among politicians.
For one thing--there are a lot of honorable exceptions to this, but it's a fair generality--he isn't particularly noted for his sense of humor. He tends to take himself and his party pretty seriously. At a meeting last summer in a small Ontario town, I listened to one candidate holding forth on the glory and grandeur of the Liberal Party.
"The Liberal is a reformer," he said. "I say this in all reverence, but the greatest of all reformers, the One Who died on the Cross-He was a Liberal. And why? Because He was a friend of publicans and sinners."
I wouldn't call that a typical example. But if you read Hansard, you'll see that a fair number of M.P.s don't always realize when they're being funny.
On the whole, though, your back bencher is a pretty likeable fellow-and the fact that he can stay likeable is a credit to him. For what happens to this man when he's made the great decision to run for office?
By nature he's usually a man of sincerity and candor. He finds himself pitched into a world where sincerity is difficult and candor is almost impossible. We voters have too many prejudices. Every time he opens his mouth he has to remember not to offend the Catholics or the Protestants, the English or the French, the labour unions or the farmers--about the only man it's safe to ignore is the landlord, or lo, the poor Indian who has no vote. The one thing no public man can afford is to be completely f rank.
We had an example five or six years ago, when the. Family Allowances Act was introduced. Mr. Bracken immediately denounced it as a political bribe. Mr. Drew said in effect the same thing, in even stronger language.
Now that was a candid, almost instinctive reaction shared by thousands of Canadians. It was shared by a great many Liberals--even, I think, by one or two members of the Liberal cabinet. But all these people added up to a minority of the voters. Most of us liked the idea. Progressive Conservatives had a caucus on it. John Diefenbaker and Howard Green came out in favour of the bill--Diefenbaker said he was going to vote for it anyway, no matter what the party did. Most of the other members, at the outset, were more inclined to share the view expressed by Mr. Bracken. But the more they talked, the more they realized that the voters weren't likely to agree with them. If you look up Hansard you'll find, I think, that not a single Progressive Conservative vote was cast against Family Allowances. They had one diehard at the caucus who couldn't be persuaded to vote for it, but he was persuaded to stay away. And for five solid years now, the party has been trying without much success to explain that they were always in favour of Family Allowances and that any quotations to the contrary are malicious slanders.
That was an Opposition crisis. The Liberal backbencher has a worse problem--he has to adjust his conscience between his voters on one hand and, quite often, his government on the other. Theoretically the government can't do anything its members won't support; actually it's very difficult and takes a lot of courage and hardihood to stand up against a Cabinet decision.
It's done, though, from time to time. A few years ago the Ontario ministers, two of them in particular, slipped a tariff increase into the Budget. It wasn't noticed for a while, but when it finally did come out in the news, the prairie members rebelled. Ralph Maybank of Winnipeg led them into the Minister's office to announce that if that tariff boost were left in, the western Liberals would have to vote against the Budget and thus turn the Government out – they had enough votes to defeat it.
Well, they won. The Government backed down, with a very bad grace, and took the tariff item out of the budget resolutions. But it was a long time before the high brass of the Liberal Government forgave Ralph Maybank--I'm not sure they've entirely forgiven him even yet.
You may say that kind of thing, at least, isn't the voter's fault. Surely that's the fault of the government, the fault of a group of men so long accustomed to power that they think they have a right to steamroller any kind of disagreement.
But why has it got this power? Why can't our back bench M.P.s be more independent?
Because we the voters, in our infinite wisdom, insist on voting the straight party ticket. We don't vote for Joe Smith or Tim Jones, the men running in our own counties; we vote for Louis St. Laurent or George Drew or M. J. Coldwell. That's not wholly true, of course--there are a few ridings that vote, year in and year out, for a popular individual--but in the main, election trends are national trends determined by leadership. The quality of the local man is a secondary factor. He may have ideas of his own, but if he knows what's good for him he fits them into the pattern of government policy.
This habit of ours has another unfortunate result. Both the older parties tend to hand their safest seats to their weakest men. Once they make sure the party leader is protected, they seem to care more about quantity than about quality--if they have a seat they can really rely on winning, they don't waste a strong candidate there. They put their best men into the doubtful ridings, and of course the other party does the same. You know what that means--in one riding you have a bitter choice between two men who both deserve to be elected, and in the next riding you find two men who both had better stay home.
And so our idealistic M.P. finds himself, right at the start, with a few more compromises to make and frustrations to endure than he bargained for. But as he gets into the swing of his first election campaign, he runs into an even worse moral dilemma. He find he can't be strictly law-abiding and still hope to be elected.
The Canada Election Act is probably, now that we're rid of prohibition, the most hypocritical document on our statute books.
It's full of sanctimonious prohibitions that protect the voter from all kinds of corruption, even such insidious seductions as a free glass of beer or a free taxi ride to the polls. One section specifically forbids the provision of any hired conveyance to bring the voters out.
But alas, the voter is not only self-righteous, he is also lazy. If he doesn't get a free ride to the poll he won't go there at all--at least, a pretty solid percentage of voters won't. The test of a good political organization is ability to get out the vote; the way to get out the vote is to have plenty of cars on hand, and to know exactly where to send them in the last hour of election day. Those cars have to be hired; their drivers have to be paid, and pretty handsomely too. The candidate can't do this without breaking the law, and he can't get elected without doing it.
The honest M.P. ducks this dilemma by trying to know as little as possible about the actual mechanics of his own campaign--he tries not to know who pays whom for what. He has an official agent, the man designated in the Election Act as responsible for paying all election expenses, but unfortunately this official agent has to be careful not to know too much, too. He turns in an official list of expenses which are duly published after each election, but the list contains on an average about 25ofo of the money actually spent.
So he, too, doesn't know. I interviewed an official election agent last summer, asked him where the campaign funds came from. "I haven't the faintest idea," he said. "I know very little about politics and I don't belong to any party; I'm acting as old Joe's agent because we've been friends a long time and he asked me to."
Remember that old statuette set of the three monkeys, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil? The first two are a portrait of a candidate and his official agent.
Another thing that gives your average politician a slightly furtive air is the whole question of campaign funds. You know how they're collected--in the main they come from wealthy individuals and corporations, they're collected at headquarters by a small group of very senior operators, and they're then doled out to the various constituencies on a basis of need. If a candidate has any money of his own, he has a hard time getting any from the party; if not, he gets it all.
I really think most M.P.s would be willing, perhaps they'd be glad to have the party finances all down in published and audited books. Certainly a good many of them would. But who really shudders at the idea? Why, the contributor. The man who puts up the money. Let the politician bear all the blame and shame of these undercover financial operations; the contributor wants to be free to sneer at them in peace, and also to collect the favors he expects without having anyone drawing embarrassing inferences.
That cloud of secrecy and shame around political party finances is a bad thing for democracy. It really gnaws at the security of an honest politician--I don't mean his financial security, I mean his inner confidence. It leads to a kind of petty blackmail that crops out at odd occasions.
Do you remember five years ago when Parliament was raising its own pay from four thousand to six thousand? The first draft of that bill, as you may recall, omitted the Senate--the government figured the Senate was pretty comfortable already. Well, there was a terrific storm of indignation in the Red Chamber, all kinds of threats to defeat the bill, denounce the Government and so on. But I understand the Government's intention wasn't really shaken until a couple of Senators who'd operated as treasurers, and fund collectors, began to pull out their little black books and mutter about what an interesting story these notes could tell if they fell into the wrong hands.
But we can't expect to be rid of this kind of thing until we, the voters, stop demanding campaign services the campaign spectacles that can't be financed in any other way.
Now our new M.P. gets into Parliament at last, and there he meets his final disillusion. He'd dreamed of acting as a statesman, making speeches that would sway the course of policy, dealing with the nation's business on a lofty plane. In fact he finds that nobody wants him to make a speech at all, that when he does speak very few members listen, and that he spends most of a long hard working day just answering his mail. He finds that his job is to look after the interests of a never-ending queue of individual voters, and to get any spare time for real national affairs he has to work day and night.
Even the most eminent of M.P.s soon learn that this is the most vital part of their function. A chap said to me the other day "You know, it's very funny to sit in at Treasury Board these days (Treasury Board is the three-headed watchdog on government expenditures) and listen to Mike Pearson, the great international statesman, fighting like a terrier for a new wharf on Manitoulin Island."
I've been outlining a few of the handicaps--not all, just a few--that we voters impose on our public men. Now, what do we get as the end product of this democratic machine? These are the pressures, these are the influence we create to turn our representatives from honest judicious men into timorous timeservers with a guilty conscience. Do those pressures work, in fact?
The answer is no, they don't. We get, gentlemen, a great deal better government in this country than we deserve.
I'm not talking about policy. There can be all sorts of opinion about rent control and income tax and devaluation and international trade. I'm talking about the character of the men we entrust with these responsibilities, and it can only be described as amazingly good, amazingly high. The leaders of political activity in this country on both sides of the House of Commons are men of ability, integrity and judgment. We the people are able to hire, for anywhere from six thousand to eighteen thousand dollars a year, brains and energy that industry couldn't hire for two or three times that.
Here in Canada we're particularly fortunate, too, in that nearly all of these men retain their humility. They aren't victims of that slight megalomania, that tendency to rank oneself as a Very Important Person, which seems to be an occupational disease among the politicians of some democracies. The Prime Minister of Canada has no bodyguard; he goes out to lunch every day alone, comes over to the Rideau Club and sits down at a club table wherever there happens to be a vacant chair. People in Ottawa admire Mr. St. Laurent for many qualities, but for none more than this total absence of self-importance, the naturalness and even diffidence that he preserves in his high office.
Gentlemen, don't let's sell democracy short. And don't let's be content with the sonorous platitudes of First-of-July oratory, don't let's be misled into cheap cynicism because our system has faults. Sure it has faults. Democracy can be improved, has been improved, must be improved all the time if we're going to win the battle that's going on all over the world. But it won't be and can't be improved until we, the electors, change the demands we impose on it. You often hear people say our politics would be fine if we could only get better men to run for office. I think if we get better men voting for them, the ones we have might do a better job than you'd think.