RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN PARLIAMENTARY INSTITUTIONS.
Address by Mr. R. L. Borden, K. C., D. C. L., M. P., Leader of the Conservative Party in Canada, before the Empire Club of Canada, on Thursday, November 22nd, 1905.
Mr. President and Gentlemen,-
I esteem it an honour to be invited to say a few words to the gentlemen of the Empire Club on this occasion. The subject upon which I wish to speak is' the recent development of Parliamentary government in Great Britain as well as in this country. It may at first blush strike you as possibly a rather dry subject for such an occasion: But, after all, it is well that the people of our country should have a knowledge as intimate as possible of the methods by which the government of the country, is carried on and of the tendencies from time to time in the development of that system of government and of Parliamentary institutions in general.
Now, speaking of that development during the past two centuries in Great Britain, it has been said by a great constitutional writer that it has been " much more casual and accidental, much less necessary than is commonly supposed. It was not a necessary result of the growth of the spirit of liberty, but a very peculiar result of very special circumstances." Let us always remember, in considering the system of government which we have today, that the idealists of the 18th Century, the men who had certain definite ideals before them as to what free government in a free country should be, were aiming at exclusion from Parliament of those invested with executive power. In other words the aim of the English statesmen of the 18th Century was to separate the legislative and executive branches; and it was for that very reason that in the Constitution of the United States, as we have it today, the exercise of executive power is so especially separated from that of legislative power. The framers of that Constitution rightly understood this to be the aim and object of the English constitutionalists of the 18th Century; and basing thereon to a very great extent their own ideals, they inaugurated conditions of government in. the United States of America very far removed from the system which we have in Canada and in Great Britain at the present time.
Our system in this country as well as in Great Britain is government by party. This is sometimes treated, in fact very often, as a somewhat discredited system of government. And neither in this country nor in Great Britain is much said in favour of party government; yet it is, to a certain extent at least, the basis of the institutions under which we live; and until we can find something that will take its place, something that is better for the purpose, we must utilize the party system as best we can, make it as efficient as possible and introduce into the government of the country carried on by 'that means the highest and truest standards; of which we shall not be ashamed in the face of the Empire or of the world.
An English writer in speaking of this subject, a gentleman who has written a very interesting book which deals very elaborately with some of the matters of which I am speaking to you today-I refer to Mr. Sidney Low-has said in a book which he published last year: " The division into parties is, in fact, essential to the operation of our constitutional machinery. Our government is a system whose successful working pre-supposes the existence of two great parties and no more; parties each strong enough to restrain the violence of the other, yet one of them steadily preponderant in any given House of Commons." Party system has been said to depend upon the accidental deposition of the Stuart Dynasty in Great Britain and to the factions which arose in Great Britain two hundred years ago in consequence of that deposition. This seems to me rather fanciful. The division into parties or groups is almost inevitable under a government carried on' by Parliament. The group system, for example, has developed in France. During a certain period of twenty years, France had twenty ministries and seventeen different Ministers of Foreign Affairs. In Great Britain there has been some tendency in the same direction. There has, for instance, been the Irish Nationalist group; which, as you know, has given considerable trouble to the two great political parties during the past twenty years.
I do not for one moment pretend that evils are not attendant upon the party system. There are certain evils which are inseparably associated with our representative institutions. But we can at least say of representative government in Great Britain or Canada that it is more in the interests of the great mass of the people than any other system which has been devised by human wisdom up to the present time. Academic criticisms are sometimes made by gentlemen who have not, perhaps, been in very close touch with the methods by which party government is carried on. But I do not deny that certain criticisms upon that form of government have a very considerable force. For example, sometimes a Government may represent a majority of the votes in Parliament, but it may not represent a majority of the people of the country. Party system does necessarily exclude for the time being from participation in the government of the country a considerable proportion of the people of the country. The party system may exclude from any share in Government, from every great judicial office and every high public trust, one-half or nearly half of the population of the country for fifteen or twenty years, it may be, or even more. This has been more noticeable here than in Great Britain for the reason, perhaps, that governments in Canada exercise more influence over certain elements of the electorate and thus are more surely enabled to extend their term of power than is the case in Great Britain. The writer to whom I have just referred utters a very emphatic sentence in this connection. He says
" The spectacle of millions of free men, in a free State, habitually governed in opposition to their own will, and their own conviction, is so astonishing that we prefer to avert our gaze from it."
This consideration does not, perhaps, obtrude very much upon our thoughts, but when we come to reflect upon the conditions which are necessarily incident to party government in that regard, we must admit there is something extremely anomalous in such results. Now the essential feature of party government is the Cabinet system. Members of the Cabinet in this country discharge three functions. In the first place as members of the Privy Council they are advisers of the Crown and responsible for the acts of the Crown, which theoretically can do no wrong. In the second place as a Committee of Parliament they are responsible to Parliament. In the third place as heads of departments they are invested with administrative and executive powers, including the sole right to initiate expenditure of public moneys. No private member of Parliament can propose a motion or introduce a bill for this purpose. Under the terms of our constitution in Canada and by the constitutional custom in Great Britain, the assent of the Crown is necessary and that can only be given through the advisers of the Crown.
Now another very curious feature of the Cabinet system is that it is not, strictly speaking, a Committee of Parliament because it does not represent both parties. It is a partisan committee, it is a committee of one party in Parliament. Not only is it a partisan committee, but it is also a secret committee. You perfectly understand, of course, that my observations upon methods of government in this country have no partisan significance. I am dealing with conditions exactly as they exist, whether the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party may be in power. Up to, perhaps, a century ago, the great tendency of Parliamentary institutions in Great Britain was toward the transfer to Parliament of the enormous powers which had formerly existed in the Crown. And you will remember that even lifter Parliament acquired a very great control, the Crown through certain influences which it was able to exercise had a very considerable and a very important influence in the selection of the representatives of the people in Parliament.
The trend of the last sixty or seventy years and more especially, perhaps, of the last thirty or forty years, has been to shift that power from Parliament to the Cabinet. That has been remarked in Great Britain by many writers to whom I might refer if it were necessary. The same tendency is observable in Canada. Mr. Low, in the work to which I have referred, says: " Much of its (Parliament) efficiency has passed to other agents. Its supremacy is qualified by the growth of rival jurisdictions. Its own servants have become, for some purposes, its masters. The Crown is at least as powerful as it was when the Throne was occupied by a retired royal lady. The Cabinet is more powerful, and has drawn to itself many attributes which the Commons are still imagined to possess. The electorate, more conscious of its own existence under an extended franchise, wields a direct instead of a delegated authority. And causes, internal to the House itself, have deprived it of some of its functions, and limited its exercise of others." And then he goes on to observe that not only has this development taken place, but there has been formed in the United Kingdom what has been called a conclave of the Cabinet; that is to say an inner Cabinet; so that all the Ministers of the Crown do not possess an equal initiative in regard to the policy of the Administration or the measures which may be brought down. One illustration of this is in connection with the Irish Home Rule Bill introduced by Mr. Gladstone. It was supposed by those who followed him part of the way in connection with that measure that the Bill as a whole would be submitted to and be considered by the Cabinet clause by clause before being finally determined upon. But, as a matter of fact, the Bill was drawn and settled by an inner conclave, as it appears, consisting of Mr. Gladstone himself, Mr. John Money and possibly one or two other members of the Cabinet.
Let me quote just one word more in support of this view from the writer to whom I have already referred. He sustains the position that when the Government of Great Britain has once announced its policy and is supported by a sufficient majority in Parliament the debate which takes place in Parliament is sure to be ineffectual and does not exercise any real influence upon the fate of the measure. His words apply with equal force to the debates upon certain great measures in the Parliament of Canada in recent years: "Thus we have the curious fact that nearly one-half of the Legislature are not legislators at all, or only legislators on sufferance and on matters of no moment. They can neither make laws nor prevent laws being made. They can, it is true, talk about them while they are in the process of making; but so can anybody else. There was an Homeric battle series at Westminster, when the leaders of the Unionist Opposition raked the Home Rule Bill with their eloquence through the long-drawn days of the Session of 1893. But for all the practical effect these speeches had on the fortunes of the Bill in the House of Commons itself, they might as well have been delivered in St. James' Hall. The Cabinet drafts its measures, and submits them to the Legislature; which considers and discusses them, as a body of persons arranged in parties, not as a collection of individuals each entitled to have his own opinion on public policy and allowed some opportunity of carrying his views into effect."
These are the opinions of a great English observer. He has also spoken, as I have already said, of the inner Cabinet or conclave which exercises so important an influence in Great Britain. I do not think in Canada we have that development quite to the same extent, although it is certainly true that in recent years the consideration of very important measures has been directly delegated to sub-committees of the Cabinet, and in that way there is, perhaps, a certain analogy to the practice which obtains in Great Britain. But in Canada, on the other hand, there has been a full development of the party caucus. It is a curious feature of our form of government that the important debate upon great measures is a secret debate in caucus and not an open debate in Parliament. The debate, which settles the fate of a great measure brought down by Government to Parliament-the important debate which settles the fate of such a measure -is the debate in caucus and not the debate which afterwards takes place in the House of Commons. The latter is a debate which is necessary under our institutions. Those who are opposed, in whole or in part, to any government measure must make their views known in Parliament, because only in that way can they make them known to the country. But, as it has been truly observed, the debate in Parliament has little or no influence in determining the course which the House of Commons shall eventually take with regard to the measure.
Some years ago I was very, much impressed by certain observations of a gentleman from the West, a member of the House of Commons, who is not now living. His views with regard to the methods of Parliamentary government in Canada exactly correspond with those presented by Mr. Low. I refer to the late Mr. Jamieson, of Winnipeg. He said: " It would be a mistake to leave the legislation of this country in the hands of one legislative body. The effect of our system was to place a good deal of power in the hands of one man, the head of the Government. So long as he had the confidence of the House he was practically a dictator. If he were not a strong man then one or two of his Cabinet controlled the situation, made up their minds as to what should be done and then the policy was forced on the members who must either accept it or take the odium of differing with their party. Members generally follow in a matter they are uncertain about rather than vote against the Government. Under such circumstances an upper chamber is necessary."
Another gentleman, Colonel Tucker, lately member for the City and County of St. John, at the close of the Session of 1903, and after there had been a considerable debate upon certain railway measures brought down during that Session, said: " Everybody knew that measures were decided in the Government Council and in the cancus. What was done in Parliament was of no consequence. For nearly eight months the House was in session and all that was said there was reported in Hansard. This talk was all a waste of time. Everything was settled in the caucus and the Council." I remember very well that 'the late Minister of the Interior, Mr. Sifton, in replying to a certain proposition which I had made for the development of our transportation facilities, pointed across the floor of the House and said: " You never could carry it out. You never could get it through caucus." Obviously the important point in his mind, from his practical experience, was to carry it through caucus, not through the House; because party discipline is usually strong enough to make party followers adhere to what is decided upon by the majority in caucus.
One reason for this is, perhaps, the increasing complexity and magnitude of public affairs. Leaving out of consideration the strength of party allegiance, the private member is not always able effectively to consider or determine great and complex questions. He is obliged to entrust them, to entrust his political conscience in some matters, at least in matters of policy, to those who are his party leaders and who have made a study of such subjects. As Mr. Low says: " The modern M.P. understands the condition of his political existence so well that, in point of fact, he hardly ever does vote against his party on any party issue, when his own side is in office. In our modern practice the Cabinet is scarcely ever turned out of office by Parliament, whatever it does."
A very interesting letter was written to Mr. Low by the late Lord Salisbury some ten years ago and you will agree that Lord Salisbury's great eminence and experience in public life in Great Britain justly give to his observations on this subject the greatest possible weight and entitle them to our respectful consideration. Writing to Mr. Low after the publication of certain articles which the latter had contributed to the periodical literature of Great Britain, Lord Salisbury said: " I think you reason quite soundly in showing that, in respect to the larger issues, the House of Commons is gradually losing its power, between the Cabinet on the one side, and the electorate on the other. The power which the Cabinet has of acting upon the various motives which guide members of Parliament is so great that the majority is more and more becoming a blind machine; but this observation only applies to the deliberate and considered decisions of the House of Commons. If there is time for party pressure to be applied, time to bring into play the importunity of electoral associations, a member of Parliament who is inclined to be recalcitrant finds himself very powerless and is more and more disposed to yield." It is beyond question that these remarks apply with great force to conditions in this country as well.
Another power which a Government possesses over its followers is this: It can always intimate to them, as I believe it is said that Sir John Macdonald sometimes used to do, that the Prime Minister will very reluctantly be, obliged to ask the Governor-General for a dissolution if there should be any further difficulty about a particular measure then under consideration. I do not know whether or not my friend, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, has ever had occasion to resort to any suggestion of that kind. In Canada the power of a Government over its followers is certainly not less than in Great Britain; and I would be inclined to think it greater for two reasons. In Canada for public works in the various constituencies of the country we have very many more Parliamentary appropriations than they have in Great Britain; and another consideration is that of patronage, which in Great Britain is so happily removed from the sphere of party political action by the reforms which have been effected in their Civil Service. In Canada patronage is still an incubus upon members of Parliament, although apparently they are desirous that the system should be continued. For my own part, and speaking in this respect simply my own individual opinion, I would rejoice to see this country follow Great Britain and the later example of the United States in that respect, and take away from the party political machine the power to touch many important matters of patronage which now are dealt with upon the advice and recommendation of members of Parliament or of political associations.
Another striking feature which illustrates the increasing power of the Cabinet is this. Mr. Low points out that in Great Britain a unanimous resolution of the House of Commons, or a resolution passed by a very large majority has practically no effect unless the Government of the day is disposed to take the matter up. For example, he mentions the fact that resolutions have passed the English House of Commons for the payment of members of the House; for the limitation of he hereditary principle and for the legalization of marriage with a deceased wife's sister-in the later case upon an enormous majority; and that all these proposals have failed to be placed upon the statute book of Great Britain simply for the reason that the Cabinet declined or was not prepared to act.
In Canada, we have exactly the counterpart of this. In the Canadian House of 1903 a Committee, unanimous except with regard to one matter, reported certain important amendments to the election law and they have not yet been enacted. Mr. Logan of Cumberland introduced a resolution declaring that the British Preference should only apply to goods entering Canada at Canadian ports. The motion passed the House of Commons unanimously. Members of the Government spoke in support of it. Yet up to the present time no action has ever been taken by the Cabinet. The measure has not yet become law. Also in 1903 or 1904 the House of Commons unanimously passed a resolution declaring that it is desirable to prohibit the importation, manufacture and sale of cigarettes, and yet, if I am correctly informed, the law in that respect remains exactly as it was before the passing of that resolution.
Now, is there any moral to point from all this? In the first place there is very great responsibility cast upon the Press-the fourth estate. I do not for one moment suggest that the Press is not discharging its duty. I would not be inclined to agree that the party system as applied to the Press is the best system in the world, although it may be the best system in Parliament. The work of Parliament, the policy, the methods, the aims and objects of those who govern Canada can be made known to the people in some dim fashion, at least, by means and only by means of the Press. Then, there is a greater duty and a greater responsibility cast upon the electorate by reason of the very tendencies to which I have referred. It is necessary that the electorate, who can quickly check a Government in any policy or administrative methods--which are contrary to well established public opinion, should be vigilant and active.
That simply brings us to a text upon which I have often preached to my fellow-countrymen in Canada and upon which I intend to preach many times in the future, if I should continue in public life. The very nature of our institutions imposes upon every citizen the duty and responsibility of active interest in public affairs, of public service to the State; the duty of sharing in the public life of this country in whatever manner he may find his activities most useful. And, Mr. President and gentlemen, we never can have, we never can continue to have, those high standards of public life which we are entitled to expect in a country peopled by the stock from which the Canadian people come, unless every good citizen of this country is willing at all times to contribute a little of his time, his energies and his abilities towards giving us in Canada the very highest form of representative institutions which are possible and attainable in English-speaking countries.
I thank you sincerely for your kind and attentive hearing. To some, the subject may seem academic or even uninteresting, but I make no apology for it. One of the highest duties of citizenship is to comprehend and realize the methods and functions of Government. Our system is sufficiently complicated to justify attentive study.