- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 1 Apr 1937, p. 308-317
- O'Leary, Grattan, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- Two aspects of Democracy: the place and the limitations of public opinion in democracy; the place of freedom in democracy. A look at some of the things that have been said about public opinion. The difficulty today for public opinion to determine with any degree of accuracy what government is about, and why that is so. The monetary question as an example. Why the speaker does not think that the solution for the problem of an informed electorate lies in education. Rather, it is a question of whether all of us can be educated into experts, and because that is manifestly impossible, it must follow that it is impossible for public opinion as such to constantly advise, influence or dictate to a government regarding what should be done about the questions which come before government day after day. Trying to create a pattern of public thought, to try and fashion some principle, or philosophy of government, to try to arrive at principles of sportsmanship, fair play, decency. Giving those in positions of responsibility a fair chance in carrying out policies within the principles we may devise. Mistaking public opinion as merely the functioning of propaganda for some special group or some special interest, and the consequences of that mistaking. The tendency toward group selfishness. Two or three recent examples of what the loss of respect for liberty may mean. Reference to two legislative measures adopted by two of our oldest and greatest provinces within the past weeks which strike heavily at the old principle of British liberty. "An Act Respecting Communistic Propaganda" passed in the Legislature of Quebec, and in Ontario, an Act to amend the Securities Act, with a discussion of each. Public reaction to these Bills. A word to the speaker's colleagues of the press with regard to freedom of the press. The speaker's wish to see more public discussion and debate regarding these two measures.
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- 1 Apr 1937
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- Full Text
- DEMOCRACY LIMITED
AN ADDRESS BY MR. GRATTAN O'LEARY
Thursday, 1st April, 1937
CHAIRMAN: The President, Major Gordon B. Balfour, K.C.
THE PRESIDENT: Gentlemen: It seems to me that our guest-speaker today need make no apology for his choice of subject. Probably no other problem is so vital for future generations, so worthy of our consideration today as that of Democracy. Mr. O'Leary has had unusual opportunities to make observations and give us his analysis of democratic institutions arid, what is more important, the future of those 'institutions. Twenty-six years ago he became a, member of the Press Gallery in the House of Commons. For the next fifteen years he occupied that position in addition to being correspondent of the London Times, and on the staff of that great newspaper of which he is now the Editor, the Ottawa Journal.
Mr. O'Leary is a constant overseer and a commentator on present 'day events. He is too well known altogether as a journalist, as a radio commentator, and as a public speaker to need .any further introduction from me. I have great pleasure in calling on Mr. O'Leary to speak on the subject: "Democracy Limited."
(Applause.) MR. GRATTAN O'LEARY: Mr. President and Gentlemen: It is told of Daniel that when he found himself in the lions den he went over to the most ferocious--looking of the lions and whispered something in his ear, whereupon the lion went into a corner and began to tremble violently. It is said that what Daniel whispered in the ear of the lion was that after luncheon he would be expected to make a few remarks. On occasions such as this I always sympathize with that lion. (Laughter.)
I am going to speak to you today on two aspects of Democracy. First, upon the place and the limitations of public opinion in democracy; and, secondly, upon the place of freedom in democracy. I am going to speak to you of these two things because I have a conviction that with the world being swept into a new era there come obligations to all of us to re-examine certain beliefs which we have accepted these many years.
I shall begin with public opinion. We were all told at school--it was one of the maxims of our school books--that public opinion was the voice of God, and that, I think, was nonsense. Sir Edward Grey, in one of his volumes of memoirs, said that after in experience of a quarter of a century in public life he had come to the conclusion that most of the mistakes made by governments in his time were made because governments thought that public opinion was a great statesman, when the truth was, as demonstrated by experience, that public opinion was not a great statesman at all. That, I think, under modern existing conditions in government is fairly true.
In these days when government has become so complex, when it has to grapple with such a multiplicity of subjects, when it is reaching out into our very private lives, it becomes extremely difficult for public opinion to determine with any degree of accuracy what government is about. Consider the multiplicity of questions with which government has to deal. You have world questions, international questions, national questions, provincial questions, municipal questions. In those circumstances it is practically impossible for the average citizen to know what government is about all the time, or to know all or much about all of its problems at the same time.
Let us take, for example, the monetary question. Does anybody suppose that the average man, necessarily concerned with his own interests, is in a position to give any government useful advice about what should be done regarding the monetary question? Three or four years ago at a meeting of economists in the United States, Professor Irving Fisher, of Yale, said that in his judgment only eighteen men in the world understood the money question, and immediately he sat down another gentleman rose up to challenge some of Professor Fisher's theories and to challenge them so successfully that it became obvious that the number of those who understood the monetary question had been reduced by one.
But, let us take as another example of the impossibility of the average man being able to help with advice with respect to these questions, the World Economic Conference that was held three or four years ago. Here was a Conference of all the great statesmen of the world, of all the technicians, of all the experts, commanding all the information that great research could make available for them. They met in London. They debated, they discussed, they examined, and at the end of two or three months what did they do? They brought in a report in which they said that after all of this debate and discussion they had succeeded in identifying the question. Well, I put it to you, if after all of this discussion and debate by the world's foremost authorities, the best that could be done was to identify the problems, how in the name of common sense is the average voter, the average elector, to be in a position to tell governments what to do about such problems?
I know that certain people say that the solution of this whole problem, the problem of an informed electorate, lies in education. I frankly don't think that it does. I remember two or three years ago Mr. Bennett making a speech on this particular subject at Pickering College. He was pleading for a more educated public opinion, for a higher level of education in our democracy, and he instanced as an example of what might come through failure of education what had happened to us with respect to our railway problem. He instanced the case of a National Transcontinental Railway. Well, obviously, the answer to that is that in 1904 and 1905, some very highly educated Canadians voted for the National Transcontinental Railway, just as in later years some very well educated Canadians voted for the Hudson Bay Railway. It is not a question of a high level of general education. It is a question of whether all of us can be educated into experts., and because that is manifestly impossible, it must follow that it is impossible for public opinion as such to constantly advise, influence or 'dictate to a government regarding what should be done about the questions which come before government day after day. The most we can do in a democracy, and I think democracy should give this matter increasing attention, the most we can do with respect to public opinion is to try to create a pattern of public thought, to try and fashion some principle, or philosophy of government, to try to arrive at principles of sportsmanship, fair play, decency; find the best men among us it is possible to find, place them in positions of responsibility and give them a fair chance in carrying out policies within the principles we may devise.
I submit to you that what we too often mistake for public opinion at the present time is merely the functioning of propaganda for some special group or some special interest, and that, I am convinced, has resulted in the group selfishness, the group government and the ever-mounting mountain of paternalism which we have with us today. And that tendency toward group selfishness, that tendency to mistake the highly articulate propaganda of certain groups and certain interests for public opinion, bringing in its train a constant increase of regimentation, control, classification, and so on, is having the direct consequence and evil of a loss of respect among our people for the liberty of the individual.
We have had two or three examples recently of what that loss of respect for liberty may mean. I should be the last person in the world to come before a Club of this character and speak to you a word against any particular government or any particular party, but I do want to make reference, within the scope of the subject I have taken for myself, to two legislative measures adopted by two of our oldest and greatest provinces within the past weeks, because these measures, I think, strike heavily at the old principle of British liberty which has prevailed, or prevailed at least to a great extent, in this country up to the present time.
I want to refer, first of all, to a Bill passed in the Legislature of Quebec, about a week ago, called, "An Act Respecting Communistic Propaganda." I hope you will permit me to read four clauses of that Act, in order that you may understand its implications. Clause 3 of that Act says: "It shall be illegal for any person who occupies a house within the Province to use it or allow any person to make use of it to propagate Communism or Bolshevism, by any means whatsoever." Clause 4 says "The Attorney-General, upon satisfactory proof that an infringement of Section 3 has been committed, may order the closing of a house against its use for any purpose whatsoever for a period of not more than one year." Section 12 says: "It shall be unlawful to print, to publish in any manner whatsoever, or to distribute in the Province any newspaper, periodical, pamphlet, circular, document, or writing, whatsoever, propagating or tending to propagate Communism or Bolshevism." And Section 13 provides: "Any person infringing or participating in the infringement of Section 12 shall be liable to an imprisonment of not less than three months, in addition to the cost of prosecution arid in default of the payment of such costs, an additional imprisonment of one month."
Gentlemen, I hold no brief for Communism. No one in this country has greater detestation for Communism than I, but that Bill is not aimed against Communism. It is aimed against liberty. There is not a line in that Bill defining what Communism is. The definition of Communism is left to the Attorney-General, and any social, political, economic or religious creed that he may dislike he may define as Communism and take action against under the terms of that Bill. Under the terms of that Act, the police of the Province of Quebec, acting under the instructions of the Attorney-General, might go into a church and if the sermon be deemed to tend toward Communism, might padlock that church.
This Bill is vicious for four particular reasons: It is vicious, first of all, because it enables a police officer to punish a man by padlocking his home before any court has found him guilty. It is vicious because it puts the burden of proof of innocence on the person thus attacked. It is vicious because it bars any appeal from the decision of a single judge of the Superior Court. It is vicious, finally, because it enables any police officer to seize any literature, not only of a Communistic sort, with the definition of Communism left to the Attorney-General, but also of a sort "tending to produce Communism." I submit to you that under that Act the Attorney-General of Quebec could go into your home and padlock it, if on your library shelf you had a copy of Karl Marx. He could go into any school, any college, any university, and padlock that school, college, or university, if he disliked a lecture by a teacher within those 'institutions. He could close McGill University. He could seize and padlock the premises of any man having in his possession, I venture to say, certain copies of Mr. Moore's magazine (MacLean's Magazine,) within the past three or four years. I don't know what might have happened to Mr. Bennett had he 'delivered his famous radio speeches from the Province of Quebec with that Bill in operation--and I am perfectly certain what would have happened to Mr. Bennett's brother-in-law, Mr. Herridge.
Gentlemen, this legislation isn't freedom. This legislation isn't freedom as we have had it in British countries for 250 years. If there be revolutionary movements in this country, if the state is injured, if any .man plot against the Constitution, we have laws with which to deal with these people, but to pass a law in a British country, arresting men, seizing their property, putting them in prison without any finding of guilt against them, that sort of thing is what is found today in Germany, in Russia and in Italy. It is the sort of thing found in lands where life has become a tragedy, and yet, the extraordinary thing is, and to some the painful thing is, that while that law has gone on the statute books of this country, practically no protest has come from the socalled liberty-loving people of this Dominion of Canada.
Now, I come nearer home. I come to legislation enacted within the past week in the great British Province of Ontario. I refer to an Act to amend the Securities Act. I am against that Act as a Canadian citizen for the simple and single reason that under it all rights which the ordinary citizen has had to sworn information being laid against him, with the responsibility which that sworn information involves, are thrown aside by its, provisions.
I am not a lawyer and I cannot speak myself with authority on this Bill, but a week ago when a copy of this Bill came into my possession, I went to a noted constitutional lawyer in Ottawa, a man who has no connection with any political party in this country, and I asked him if he would summarize for me the meaning and the implications of that Bill, and I am going to read to you now what he wrote. He said: "This Act means this: The Security Frauds Prevention Act is being changed into an Act to enable the application of inquisitorial methods to any person or corporation whatever, in order to ascertain whether any criminal, fraudulent, wrongful or improper act has ever been committed, or whether any person or company has ever secured any unfair advantage over any other person or company, concerning anything at all."
And he goes on: "There is no limitations upon the investigator's powers. He need not even believe that anything unfair or improper has occurred. No security nor sale -of security need be involved. All persons summoned before him must produce their documents or papers relating to any matter whatsoever, as the investigator may demand. The intimate details of the business and management of any corporation, whether or not a securities company, such as its investments, loans, borrowings, and relations with other companies may be examined into. This, whether there has been complaint or not against the company, whether by the public or by any individual. The investigation 'is at the whim of the investigator and there is no time in the past to which 'his inquisition may not be applied."
And, Gentlemen, that isn't all: "This investigator, under this Act, without any charge being laid whatsoever by any person whatsoever, may go into the office of a business, may seize its books, may bring in a report, assassinating the character of the person so acted against, blasting his reputation, and he is protected from every consequence of libel."
I submit to you that that Act is a blot upon the statute books of this British country.
Last night I listened to one of your distinguished fellow-citizens speaking on the radio and he gave utterance to what I thought was a penetrating thing. He said that lawlessness by a government is just as bad as lawlessness by a minority. He said that there is such a thing as rebellion by a government. I submit to you that these two pieces of legislation are lawlessness by the state, that they constitute rebellion against the Constitution and against British liberty by two arms of government in this country.
Yet, what has been the public reaction to these Bills? Only yesterday I picked up one of the great newspapers of Ontario and in that paper I read a justification of the Act passed by the Province of Quebec. They said "This Bill is to fight Communism and, consequently, no matter what interference it may mean with respect to the rights of the ordinary citizen, these things are necessary to fight this greater evil."
Edmund Burke, in one of his greatest speeches, warned against frittering away liberty to serve political expediency, and Thomas Jefferson, I think, gave expression to the same thing when he warned against selling the day to serve the hour.
And if we in this country submit tamely year after year to legislation of this character, then the time will come, inevitably, when we, too, will lose that heritage about which we boast so much.
I should like before taking my seat to say just a word to my colleagues of the press. There are newspaper publishers and editors in this country, apparently, who think that the freedom of the press was won for the sake of the press. Well, it wasn't. The freedom of the press was won for the sake of the people, and if the newspapers of this country are not prepared now to put aside party considerations and fight for that greater thing, the freedom of the individual, freedom for the ordinary man, then the day will come when the ordinary man will not fight for the freedom of the press.
I would like honestly to see more public discussion, more public debate, more public agitation, regardless of parties or governments, regarding these two measures. We Canadians are fond of telling ourselves that we love and reverence British traditions. I am sorry to have to believe that we don't love and we don't reverence the greatest British tradition of all. Freedom of speech means more than freedom of speech for opinions we like. It means freedom of speech, freedom of discussion, for opinions we detest. It means what a great French philosopher said it meant when he wrote to his antagonist
"I detest the things you say, but I shall defend with my life your right to say them."
I would commend to the Canadian people at this juncture in the world's history, that magnificent inscription over the portals of Edinburgh University: "They say? What say they? Let them say!"
And I commend to you too, Gentlemen, that mighty invocation of Milton: "Give me the right to know, to utter and to argue according to my conscience, above all other liberties." (Applause-prolonged.)
THE PRESIDENT: Mr. O'Leary, may I thank you on behalf of the whole of Canada, on behalf of the whole of the British Empire for your address today. It is most fitting that this should have been the forum for an address of this character. You have long been regarded as a watch-dog of liberty in Canada. I trust that this alarm which you have given us today may awaken us to look after our own property, the most sacred property we have, British liberty, arid to stop the robbers from taking what they now propose to take. I thank you very much, Mr.