What is Wrong with Parliament?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 21 Nov 1963, p. 108-117
Newman, Peter C., Speaker
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Item Type
Sources for the speaker's book and the issue of revealing sources. The sense of aversion that's been expressed to a book written about a living public figure. The uniqueness of that response to Canada. Criticism about the title. The speaker's three reasons for his choice of title. Response to other comments about the book. A detailed discussion of the speaker's views regarding Parliament, politics, and politicians. Conflict between journalists and politicians. The speaker's views on specific political parties. Changes for the better under the Liberal Government. The dangers of oversimplifying the Quebec situation. A few words about the future.
Date of Original
21 Nov 1963
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Full Text
NOVEMBER 21,1963
What is Wrong with Parliament?
AN ADDRESS BY Mr. Peter C. Newman
The President, Mr. Arthur J. Langley


Before we say Grace, let us pause briefly. The citizens of Toronto have suddenly and tragically lost their Mayor and Chief Magistrate-and we of the Empire Club have lost a good friend and fellow member. Let us observe a moment of silence in tribute to his memory and in sympathy for his family.


Peter Newman is yet another example of how Canada has been enriched by the importation of bright, hard-working young men.

Born in Austria, raised in Czechoslovakia, he spent a good part of his formative years trying to keep one step ahead of the Nazis, finally fleeing through occupied France and thence to England in a small boat.

His Canadian background includes Upper Canada College, the University of Toronto, McGill, a Master's degree in economics, and service in the Royal Canadian Navy.

He came to Maclean's from the position of assistant editor of the Financial Post and has rapidly developed into one of Canada's foremost observers of the Parliamentary scene.

He is not really here today in his capacity, as an author, but rather as National Affairs Editor of Maclean's, and we welcome him warmly, as he addresses himself to the chal lenging topic, "What's Wrong With Parliament?"-Mr. Newman.


I don't pretend for a minute that Renegade in Power is the best book that could have been written about the Diefenbaker Years. But I firmly believe that the validity of such a book lies in the fact that important political events should be recorded from a contemporary viewpoint, as well as being exhumed half a century later.

Many of my critics say that I should reveal my sources. But I believe that it is the historian's duty to list sources and attribute exact references; it is, on the other hand, the jour nalist's obligation to protect the privacy of those who have befriended him with information. I wrote this book as a journalist.

As a matter of fact I had about a thousand sources. I tried to be so thorough that during one of my trips to Prince Albert, I even had my hair cut by Mr. Diefenbaker's fav ourite barber. I'd like to say that this intrepid bit of research yielded some pearl of insight into Mr. Diefenbaker's character. But actually, all the barber said was: "Well, John's always treated me right"-and it wasn't much of a haircut either. Fortunately some of my other sources were more productive.

The sense of aversion that's been expressed to a book written about a living public figure is, I think, probably unique to Canada-and due in large measure to a lack of literary sophistication in this country. Such biographies are commonpalce in the U.S. and the U.K.

The other criticisms of my book have been about my title Renegade in Power.

I'd like to use this occasion briefly to justify my choice. I picked the word "renegade" to describe Mr. Diefenbaker for three reasons:

1. Mr. Diefenbaker was a renegade in the sense that he went against the principles of Canadian Conservatism. The ordinary Canadian Tory who believed that his party stood for individual responsibility (free enterprise) and the British Connection, must have found his ideals placed in great jeopardy by the six years of John Diefenbaker's stewardship. Welfare payments increased 100% and Mr. Diefenbaker's opposition to the U.K.'s entry into the E.E.C. strained Anglo-Canadian relations to an unprecedented degree.
2. Mr. Diefenbaker was a renegade as well in the sense that Robin Hood was a renegade. That is, he tried to operate outside the power groupings of his time, attempting to take from the rich (provinces) and give to the poor. But like Robin Hood, he enjoyed only a short-range success. By aiming his appeal at the anti-Establishment, non-urban sector of the population, he balkanized Canadian politics and eventually lost his mandate.
3. Mr. Diefenbaker was also a renegade because, in my judgment, he became a traitor to his own cause. In the 1957 and particularly 1958 election, most Canadians gave a little of themselves to the outraged advocate from Prince Albert, because he then seemed like a man aspiring to become a leader with the clear sense of mission of a Winston Churchill. But once in power, he interpreted the people's acclaim as adequate proof of his greatness and thus betrayed the trust placed in him by the majority of the Canadian people. No other term but "Renegade", it seemed to me, summed up dramatically enough these assessments which my book makes of Canada's thirteenth prime minister.

I'm delighted that most critics of my book have noted that I tried hard to be fair to Mr. Diefenbaker. The Prince Albert politician did many worthwhile things while he was in power. It is possible, I maintain, to admire his ideals and his instincts, without respecting his performance. I think Mr. Pearson's troubles in these past months have demonstrated just how hard it really is to be the prime minister of this country. But that's enough about times past. Let's turn to the current political situation.

In the last few months in Ottawa I have sensed a feeling of profound uneasiness among thoughtful politicians of all parties. The most enlightened feel a terrible and mounting frustration at how little they're able to do in solving the country's basic and chronic problems.

Canadian politics seems to have changed focus. Instead of upholding some great principle or other, the parties now seem to concentrate all the skills they can buy on trying to manipulate public opinion.

In parliament, the Liberals harp continually about the mess left behind by the Conservatives, while the Conservatives never tire of pointing out that the Government is really carrying on policies originated by them, when they were in power. Both points of view are of course completely irrelevant to the business of managing the nation's affairs.

I would point out that the sickness of Canada's political situation cannot be viewed in isolation. There seems to be something wrong with the parliamentary system itself. Look at the western democracies. Italy seems incapable of supporting a working government of any kind. In France, democracy has temporarily been shelved. Even such quietly dependable nations as Norway, Holland, and Belgium are experiencing grave difficulties making their parliamentary systems work. Congress in the U.S. is virtually immobile. Only last Sunday, James Reston of the New York Times wrote: "Representative government itself is increasingly the object of ridicule in Washington. The men who have the power to improve it are either indifferent or helpless."

I don't believe that there exists a simple explanation for this malaise in the West. But I suspect that there is some correlation between the speed of technological advances and the apparent obsolescence of the democratic parliamentary system. At any rate, this is a vital challenge and Canada must soon overhaul its parliamentary system. If we don't, we may as well declare Parliament Hill a historic site with the politicians playing three performances a day to curious tourists.

The Canadian politicians are fond of replying to all this that it's not their fault-but our fault. The voters, after all, didn't give any party the majority on which our two-party system is based.

There is little doubt that the last two elections, indecisive as they were, did drastically change the voting roots of Canada's main political parties. Last April 8, country voted against city, catholic voted against protestant, the big town voted against the villages, people with higher education voted against the less sophisticated.

The result is that we have two provinces-Saskatchewan and Newfoundland-in which one of our two major parties has no seats at all. In the whole of the Prairies, the Liberals have only 3 out of 48 seats. Although 2/3 of the voters opposed the Diefenbaker government, only 42% of the electors supported the Liberal Party of Lester Pearson.

The Conservative Party, which throughout Canadian history has traditionally been the expression of the manufacturing interests, has under its present leadership become a rural and resource-based movement, with only a pitiful vestige of big-city support.

The New Democratic Party, which was supposed to be nourished by the agrarian background of the CCF, has lost its farm support and emerged instead as a declining but still important competitor with the Liberals for the loyalty of urban voters. My prediction for the NDP is that its representatives will forever tread the weary road of the splinter party, improving Canadian society, without ever actually governing it.

The Social Credit, which until June 18, 1962, was a semi-serious right-wing prairie invention, has now somehow become an instrument of French-Canadian disillusionment.

I believe that Social Credit is finished as a national force. At last count-this morning-there were six factions among the two dozen Social Crediters in the House. "Smiling Bob" Thompson, the leader of the second largest of these factions, is probably the most convinced and most convincing spokesman Social Credit has ever had.

How are the Liberals now in power at Ottawa really doing? The answer has to be: better.

After Walter Gordon's budget, the Party-so recently elected on the basis of its managerial competence-was totally demoralized. I remember one disillusioned Liberal coming up to me after the Gordon budget was beginning to fall apart, shaking his head and saying: "Donald Fleming's budgets may have been pre-Keynesian; but Walter's was pre-Cambrian."

But Walter Gordon has recovered considerably since then, and I for one am convinced that he will not leave the Cabinet during the shuffle expected this Christmas. He has two great sources of strength: Lester Pearson's unflagging personal friendship and broadly-based support within the Liberal Party organization.

Gordon remains an influential member of the Pearson cabinet. In most other cabinets, the minister of finance deliberately casts himself as a villain who holds up the spending proposals of his colleagues until they prove to him that their pet schemes are really essential. But in this cabinet, Gordon, instead of being the stubborn defender of the public purse, is the chief advocate of bold proposals for quick spending. This switch in the finance minister's traditional behaviour is supremely important in understanding the performance of the Pearson cabinet to date.

Under John Diefenbaker, cabinet ministers were angular men, self-contained in their ambitions. Spurred on by Diefenbaker's indecision, they fought him and one another with gusto. The result-particularly during the final two years of Tory rule-was an all but complete breakdown of cabinet decision-making.

With Lester Pearson at the head of the Privy Council table, the cabinet chamber has become a different place. It has acquired the low-key camaraderie of a Rideau Club dining room. The mood of cabinet deliberations is set by Pearson himself, and he tends to approach problems from a point of view that's more diplomatic than political or economic. The emphasis always is on "finding a way," on striving for compromise, whether or not it's the very best answer possible.

I've come to the conclusion that the Liberals' equanimity about the future borders on arrogance. Before 1957, most Liberals thought they were the only political party capable of giving Canada efficient government. After six years of Diefenbaker they believe they know it's true and they can't imagine that anyone will ever dare turn them out again.

One result of all this is that the floating vote-that is those Canadians who vote according to no set pattern-is the largest it's ever been -I would guess at close to 40 per cent of the electorate.

That's an important statistic. The Liberals were able to maintain themselves in power for 22 years before 1957, because they went into each contest with a hardrock voting margin of about 40 per cent, then during the campaign itself they always managed to increase this total by 7 per cent. In 1949, for instance, they jumped from 42 per cent to 49 per cent of the vote in the campaign. in 1953, from 43 per cent to 50 per cent. John Diefenbaker's great accomplishment of the 1957 campaign was to steal that 7 per cent jump from the Liberals. the Tories went into the campaign with 31 per cent and ended up with 38 per cent. This 7 per cent rule, incidentally, held true even for the great sweep of 1958. The Conservatives started the campaign with just over 46 per cent and received 54 per cent of the total vote.

One reason for the high level of the floating vote today is that our political organizers haven't yet found a way of capturing the loyalty of an important and growing block of voters: the inhabitants of the suburbs.

Even under the present distribution of seats-and don't forget that we're still voting on a population distribution based on the 1951 census-the next election will be the sixth under these outdated figures. But even under today's distribution the suburban areas of Canada now control seventy seats in the Commons. No one knows how this capricious element of the new voting population can be best appealed to.

The other element currently baffling the professional politicians in Ottawa is how to deal with separatism in Quebec. I was in Quebec City recently, and noticed that a local general insurance agent was advertising his services, in Le Droit, by using the slogan "WE INSURE EVERYTHING EXCEPT CONFEDERATION."

Despite the unrest that has developed under his regime, I believe Canada is very fortunate to have Jean Lesage as Premier of Quebec at this time. He is attempting to use the power of his government to divert the current wave of French-Canadian nationalism into the kind of positive action that would make Quebec a bulwark against U.S. cultural domination of Canada. I hope he succeeds.

I think it's dangerous to oversimplify the Quebec situation. One of the generally accepted facts about Quebec today, for instance, is that Rene Levesque is an ardent separatist. I question this assumption. Of course Levesque is a nationalist, but he's also (and I dislike the term) a leftist. The important point here is that all of the separatist groups are right wing groups, and I for one don't believe that Levesque could ever ally himself with such elements.

Finally, let me go out on a limb and say a few words about the future:

I predict that John Diefenbaker will receive a vote of confidence at the Conservative Party's annual meeting in February, and that he will lead his party into the next elec tion campaign. There are two main reasons for this: the opposition that exists to his leadership within the party is not polarized-it has not been able to fasten itself unto any alternate figure. Also, Mr. Diefenbaker is irrevocably convinced that he is destined to be Prime Minister again and he will not hesitate to harm his party's long term prospects in attempting to fulfil that self-imposed destiny.

I believe there are two trends on a collision course bound to explode into another general election campaign within the next twelve months:

1. Mr. Pearson is becoming more and more convinced that his minority position is intolerable, and that as long as Mr. Diefenbaker is the only alternative government available to the Canadian people, the Liberals can win a majority.

2. Mr. Diefenbaker on the other hand, is becoming more and more convinced that his position away from power is intolerable, and that as long as Mr. Pearson is the only alternative government available to the Canadian people, the Conservatives can win a majority.

Who will win such a contest?

I don't know, but I have a feeling that any politician who could somehow harness unto himself all of the antiDiefenbaker and the anti-Pearson feeling which now exists in this country, could win a landslide victory.

Now I think that accomplishes my non-partisan objective of getting everybody furious with me, and I'll sit down.


Thanks of this meeting were expressed by Mr. David Menzel, a Director of the Club.

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What is Wrong with Parliament?

Sources for the speaker's book and the issue of revealing sources. The sense of aversion that's been expressed to a book written about a living public figure. The uniqueness of that response to Canada. Criticism about the title. The speaker's three reasons for his choice of title. Response to other comments about the book. A detailed discussion of the speaker's views regarding Parliament, politics, and politicians. Conflict between journalists and politicians. The speaker's views on specific political parties. Changes for the better under the Liberal Government. The dangers of oversimplifying the Quebec situation. A few words about the future.