Can Government Do the Job?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 28 Nov 1974, p. 126-137
Wagner, The Honourable Claude, Speaker
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Item Type
A short review of what other federal politicians chose as speech topics. The speaker addresses the Empire Club of Canada "as a politician, a man of government, now in opposition, to ask some questions about the drum we are all beating, and to pose directly, … the question of whether or not the time has come to not only change the music, but perhaps change the instrument." The speaker questions whether or not the present government can govern, whether they can meet the needs of today's society, and the apprehended needs of tomorrow. A critical discussion follows, of governments in general, and then specifically with regard to Canada, based on various questions posed.
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28 Nov 1974
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
NOVEMBER 28, 1974
Can Government Do the Job?
CHAIRMAN The President, Sir Arthur Chetwynd


Distinguished head table guests, ladies and gentlemen: Our guest speaker today is the Honourable Claude Wagner, in his time citizen, lawyer, member of the Quebec Government, provincial Attorney General, Minister of Justice for la belle province, jurist, and since October 1972, Member of Parliament in the federal House of Commons. He is a forthright and outspoken individual.

Those who read Hansard, the official record of the Parliament of Canada in action, may have seen that our guest was quoted last week as saying, "in his budget speech, John Turner has done for economic leadership what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door canvassing."

In his role of legislator and jurist, he has been one of a comparatively small number of Canadians who have had a hand in both the writing and the execution of the law, an experience which one must conclude is wont to provide a balanced view of the subject and the responsibility.

Perhaps he would now agree with Herbert Hoover who said, "If the law is upheld only by government officials, then all law is at an end." I am sure that with the interesting experience of his career to draw on, he could also comment on Thomas Jefferson's statement that "The execution of the laws is more important than the making of them."

Lawyers and governments go together, perhaps because laws and governments must inevitably go together. Laws provide order. Without order there can be no freedom, certainly the most precious commodity of the western world.

Mr. Wagner was born in Shawinigan, Quebec, in 1925 and went to school in Shediac, New Brunswick, Drummondville and Chambly in Quebec. He went on to take his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa. After completing law at McGill University, he was admitted to the Bar in Quebec in 1949.

In 1961 he became Deputy Chief Crown Attorney for the district of Montreal, and following a period when he served as Vice-President of the Quebec Society of Criminology, and taught criminal law at the University of Montreal, he was sworn in as Judge of the Court of Sessions in Montreal in 1963.

In 1964 Mr. Wagner became Attorney General for the Province of Quebec and on June 4, 1965 he became the first Minister of Justice for that province.

Our guest speaker is obviously a man of conviction, for like another well-known individual by the name of Winston Churchill, he crossed the floor (metaphorically speaking!) and in October 1972 was elected Member of Parliament in the federal riding of Ste. Hyacinthe, under the banner of the Progressive Conservative Party, being re-elected in the most recent election. He is a member of the Opposition's "Shadow" cabinet, and it is well known that he will be urged by many to seek the leadership of the Conservative Party when Mr. Stanfield steps down, as he has said he will do within a prescribed time.

There are many worrisome forces at work around us, both internationally and nationally-a shrinking world, fast-growing population, rapid inflation, a changing international power system, an unstable international monetary situation-to mention just a few. With so much experience and service behind him and with so much challenge inevitably ahead of him, we are fortunate that we have a man of stature to ask himself the question, which is the title of his address today: "Can Government Do the Job?"

Il me fait grande plaisir de souhaiter le bienvenue a cc Canadien distingue, A cette assemble aujourd'hui, dans la Ville Reine. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to present to you the Member of Parliament for Ste. Hyacinthe, Monsieur Claude Wagner.


Mr. President and Chairman, members of the Empire Club: It is good, Mr. Chairman, to be here and share the hospitality that the Empire Club has shown with equanimity and sincerity to men of differing political persuasions and spokesmen for many concrete and abstract causes.

It is interesting to reflect for a moment on the messages that other federal politicians chose to share with you when they had an opportunity to stand where I am standing today.

When David Lewis spoke with you in January of 1973, he began his remarks by congratulating the club on its decision to admit women. In November of '72, Real Caouette indicated that he could guarantee more Social Credit seats outside Quebec if the people of English Canada would stop voting against his party.

Provincial premiers, national political leaders, our Prime Minister, aldermen, mayors and others from government have all come before you to share their views and seek to impart those views to you in an attractive and endearing fashion. And, I think you know, that by and large, they have meant what they said and were sincere in the way they said it.

So, aside from my desire to come here and reassure Toronto that the Maple Leafs really can do the job and that next year could be the year for the Argos, I had just a bit of mild trepidation when your president invited me through our mutual friend, Senator Walker, to share my views with you, and express my concerns both frankly and directly. It occurs to me, you see, that next to the members of the National Press Gallery who listen to politicians daily, and next to the politicians themselves, the Empire Club must be the most experienced politician listeners in the land.

Mr. Chairman, if tolerance were the supreme virtue, this club's place in heaven must surely be assured. For, I guess you have found, as most responsible politicians are beginning to find, that lately, politicians of all parties at all levels have a tendency to say the same thing. Indeed, one can conjure up the old varsity initiation right of crowding hundreds of students into the same phone booth, when picturing the headlong rush of politicians to stand on the same ground, board the same train, and sit in the same circle.

Let me be pretty direct in saying that I damn myself as directly as I damn others, and admit that often the pressures of campaigns and elections create situations where politicians find that the voters just won't listen to a new and different beat of the drum! So, they all beat the same drum. It is no wonder, therefore, that in 1974 the drum is becoming worn and the beat more than just a little hollow.

I come here then, Mr. President, as a politician, a man of government, now in opposition, to ask some questions' about the drum we are all beating, and to pose directly, by the way, the question of whether or not the time has come to not only change the music, but perhaps change the instrument.

I think that politicians have a duty, whether they are in government at the federal or provincial level, whether they are in opposition or not, to ask a very basic question, which when you think about it, is not all that naive or abstract.

Simply stated, I ask whether government is doing the job of governing? I ask whether government can meet the needs of today's society which involve, as well, the apprehended needs of tomorrow.

I ask this question, because I believe it to be at the root of international economic difficulty, at the base of localized and regionalized recession, and at the very foundation of social upheaval and decay. Let me be more specific.

The stock market is said, by many, to react as much to governmental initiatives and political circumstances as it reacts to economic realities and shifts. That being the case, can any of us, regardless of our political affiliation or business pursuit, think of one western world government that has, either through its action, its leadership or its sense of purpose or direction, contributed anything significant to a potential upswing in the market? I doubt that any among us could.

Let me pose another specific question. Government is supposed to embody man's hopes and aspirations, and in some way, move to make those aspirations something real and attainable.

Can we list on the fingers of one hand any governments that pursue, in the western world, a philosophical or principled programme that, when viewed in its entirety, embodies something noble, something meaningful, something purposeful for mankind as a whole? I doubt it.

And let me tell you something. This was not always the case.

There was a time, not so long ago, when an honest man or woman could associate with government a set of values and appreciations that meant something in his or her day-today life. There was a time when the businessman could expect from government the same responsiveness and care that he had to exercise as a simple means of survival. Groups of nations could associate, with confidence and hope, with allies who shared many of their hopes and dreams, and were strengthened in their own resolve through that association. Politics was a real conflict of ideas, a true intellectual battleground where men and women of good faith could advance their own arguments and strengthen their approach through responsible critiques of the approach of others.

There are many who say that the media have not only fundamentally changed the substance of our domestic political drama, but the reality of international affairs as well.

I say only that that argument is a cop-out-a lame duck excuse offered by statesmen and leaders who somehow believe that the quality of their actions has been reduced by the televising and recording of those very actions. And I think, Mr. Chairman, that it is time for men and women from all walks of life to pause for a moment and ask directly for a little bit of substance and a little bit of conviction in our domestic and international politics.

Statesmen can posture from today till tomorrow, they can develop their own unique and flamboyant style of saying nothing in more cute and attractive ways every day, but the reality is that the basic alignment of our world order, the basic values of our western democracies are being challenged and threatened by an oil-supported and communist-scripted world block that has, while the west chooses to posture and vascillate, made strides of immeasurable proportions in attacking our fundamental rights to nurture values and precepts of freedom that free men and women have died for and fought for for years.

Without getting into the specifics of the particular issue, I asked myself more than just a few questions, as I hope did all of you, when our country chose to express no view on the admission of a terrorist organization to debate at the United Nations. I didn't ask myself these questions in terms of pro-Arab or pro-Israeli, but rather in terms of whether we had reached the point of withdrawal from the defence of some basic morality and human decency in this world to the extent of having no view to express on this type of issue.

I asked myself what this means about government. I asked myself what this means about the continued ability of government to mean something, mean anything, to honest and decent people who support government with their tax dollars and give governmental authority its appropriate respect.

You know, the Watergate phenomenon, be it in its American form, in its developing Japanese form or in any form, is really a western phenomenon, both in the impact of its discovery and the revulsion on discovery. Whether we admit it or not, whether we are prepared to say so openly or not, I think that most of us take the political process pretty seriously, and do so because it seems to offer a rational, logical and equitable way for men and women, business and labour, right and left, Liberal and Conservative, consumer and businessman to get along in a decent and orderly fashion.

Similarly, we have put the same faith in the United Nations, and the international interaction and dialogue it is alleged to represent and imply.

I submit most respectfully, that much of the anxiety in our society, much of the uncertainty in the business community, much of the fear and trepidation on the international scene, stems from a shocking and frightening realization that "the Emperor has no clothes". The system has nowhere to go. Governments are failing.

They are failing in the enforcement of law, and failing in imparting respect for that law, be it domestic or international. As for getting along together, it is naive to expect business and labour to play ball with any government that increases its own spending 24% in one year while calling on others for restraint.

Government has little to offer the labour organizer who has seen success after success through the blackmail of an industry, a community, a nation, or even a world trade alliance. It has not begun to seek out the alternatives to a social change governed now through threat and counter-threat and an economic chaos of the worst order.

In many countries, including our own, foresight and planning, reality and conviction have been replaced by the worst type of ad hoc brokerage politics that buys one group this week, another next, without ever conceiving of what the future holds, for all of us. Internally, we are a nation today where the sectorial politician, the politician who plays his or her game group by group, interest by interest, seems to garner the ultimate success.

The reality of this process, however, is a result that not only allows for enemies and class distinctions, but demands them as the fuel for continuing the activities of the system.

Internationally, nations stand alone, in the western world, without friends they can count on or values they can share. Most are divided from within in terms of values, divided so hopelessly and so recklessly that they could not possibly hope to share any values with any ally.

But there are some people, both within and without our nation, who do not suffer from these divisions, at least in any perceivable fashion.

The monoliths of China and Russia stand, while apart from each other, united within themselves and enlarging their spheres of influence and support continuously. The Warsaw Pact stands prepared not only to advance the balkanization of Europe, but stymie the legitimate liberalization of its own member regimes. And while NATO, as a counterbalance, provides the west's instrument for mutual balanced force reduction and detente, we dither over the value of an armed force to protect our sovereignty and carry out our international responsibilities. Indeed, we dither even about a force with the capacity to bring aid to the civil power, here in Canada, when and if that is necessary. And the continued vitality of extreme groups on the left and the right makes our dithering in this area sorrowful and naive.

We are denuding ourselves of the instrumentality to support our values and our truths. We do so, because officially, in any event, we have no values and seek no truths.

And that's why I ask whether government can do the job--the job of nation building that still faces Canada, the job of world building that still faces mankind.

I ask whether we have not now reached the point when we must toughen our resolve to thrash out social and national values--and then work towards their right to exist within the international community.

I ask whether the men and women who earn their wages, invest their profits, pay their taxes and cast their vote do not now deserve more from government than posturing and dodging.

I ask whether the first responsibility of the politician is not now to say clearly and forthrightly that government must either mean something real to Canadians, or lose its reason for existing, its raison d'etre both at the federal and international level.

I ask whether firm positions on tough issues are not the very substance that Canadians should exact from their political servants, both within and without any of our political parties.

I submit that we must not be ashamed to say that social order, respect for law, personal initiative and opportunity, all stem from the same basic view of the state as servant of, the individual and not vice-versa.

I submit that equality of opportunity, freedom of enterprise and social equity stem not from government without values, but from the firm conviction and will of men and women who are proud of their values and prepared to leap to their defence.

I submit that social harmony, peaceful social change and evolution require a firm commitment from government that no one group, union, industry or conglomerate shall hold the public interest at ransom for its own self-seeking or selfish pursuit.

I submit that a nation can mean little to its own citizens when it says little and stands for less to the peoples of the world.

I submit that there is justification for a business community being restless and uncertain, when government offers no leadership, direction or guidance.

You know, during the debate on corporate taxes and in the debate on the government's oil policy of '73, 1 was consistently impressed by the number of men and women from the business world who said to parliamentarians in writing and directly that we can tolerate new regulations, we can face new restrictions, but all we really want to know is when the hell are the politicians going to decide on the rules of the game? That plaintive cry is not limited to business, but is representative of our society's aspirations and yearnings as a whole, and not that unrepresentative of the general drift that afflicts world politics and international economics. And, in my view it is high time that government began to deliver, high time for government to deliver some global systematic planning in the area of resources and food, high time for government to deliver in terms of taking business and labour into its confidence before decisions are made, high time to deliver in terms of meeting international commitments and obligations.

It's high time for the petty nationalists to be replaced by the thoughtful nationalists, who know the value of a border in matters of culture and identity and the equal value of an international friendship and relationship of mutual and broader import to all.

It's high time for the government bureaucracy to face the very market pressures the world around it faces, so that it might deal with the reality that it is structured to serve.

It's high time for the image-makers and style designers to leave the political process more open to the people who care about ideas more than hairstyles and substance more than image.

It's high time for a reintroduction into our politics of the dynamics of debate and idea warfare, the dynamics of a meaningful political and intellectual process.

When we have the courage to let politics re-embrace substance and ideas, we will have the guts to defend substance and ideas as a nation within the scope of our international role. When we debate and define social justice at home, we will search it out and seek its advancement abroad. When we assert that men and women in politics can have conviction and belief, we can defend rights of men and women to their beliefs within the international community.

I say to each and every one of you, that while my party can face criticism for the weaknesses and shallowness that all parties in our system have, from time to time, been charged with, it remains an instrument for invigorating our national political process and infusing that process with something of value and meaning.

Canadians who care about the fidelity and effectiveness of our political process have a duty to examine the instruments available to our nation in the assertion of its national values and the attainment of its national goals.

We are doing that in our party--as I hope others are within theirs.

Of one thing, however, you can be certain. The political party that embraces the direct politics of the idea, the party that sets before our nation principles meaningful to the human dignity and self respect of Canadians, the party that cares enough for the value of the process we call government to advance some values itself, will be the political party to re-awaken Canadians to the vitality and instrumentality of their system and society. The party that embraces a clear set of values about the quality of the individual, the service that the state must render every individual, and the inviolability of the public interest against minority or sectional interests will be the party to give Canadians both hope and optimism during the tough economic times ahead.

The nation that embraces that political party will be in a position, commensurate with its own size and commitment, to offer to other nations an opportunity for the pounding out of new common interests and values, a new international sanity and a socially just and justifiable social and world stability.

I would like to think that Canada and Canadians view that as a challenge worth pursuing and a goal worth attaining. I would like to think that the Progressive Conservative party, led, as it is today, by a man who has brought integrity, substance and sincerity back into the Canadian political arena, defeat or no defeat, is also a party prepared to pursue both that domestic and larger challenge. It's the type of challenge thinking men and women owe their nation a moment to consider. It's the type of goal Canadians deserve to attain through the party and government of their choice. It's the type of choice Canadians have a right to have. Thank you.

Mr. Wagner was thanked on behalf of The Empire Club of Canada by Mr. John Fisher, 1st VicePresident.

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Can Government Do the Job?

A short review of what other federal politicians chose as speech topics. The speaker addresses the Empire Club of Canada "as a politician, a man of government, now in opposition, to ask some questions about the drum we are all beating, and to pose directly, … the question of whether or not the time has come to not only change the music, but perhaps change the instrument." The speaker questions whether or not the present government can govern, whether they can meet the needs of today's society, and the apprehended needs of tomorrow. A critical discussion follows, of governments in general, and then specifically with regard to Canada, based on various questions posed.