BACKSTAGE

Questions the Liberals wish they’d never asked

BLAIR FRASER December 7 1957
BACKSTAGE

Questions the Liberals wish they’d never asked

BLAIR FRASER December 7 1957

Questions the Liberals wish they’d never asked

BACKSTAGE

BLAIR FRASER

AT OTTAWA

OTTAWA BUREAUCRATS, who are

second only to Scotsmen in their enjoyment of jokes on themselves, are asking each other this riddle:

Q. Why is the American missile like a civil servant?

A. Because it won’t work, and you can’t fire it.

When parliament opened the Liberals were looking forward with relish, and the Conservatives with some anxiety, to the daily question period. Nine ex-ministers with up to twenty-two years of experience lay in wait for the C onservative neophytes, ready to expose their ignorance with penetrating enquiries. Nearly a hundred back-benchers, muzzled for years by the rigid discipline of a party long in office, exulted at the prospect of getting up whenever they liked. Right from the start the question period, which used to take about twenty minutes a day, expanded to an hour and a half.

Some of the longer heads in Liberal ranks wish now that they had never started this habit. Instead of breaking down the new Conservative ministers, the question period is building them up.

George Hees, minister of transport, is the outstanding example. Hees is being hailed on all sides as the big surprise of the new government, the man above all others who has done better than anyone expected. He has indeed done well, as nobody can deny, but in addition to his own ability he has had one great and fortuitous advantage over his colleagues.

Among the Liberal opposition are not one but two ex-ministers of transport, Lionel Chevrier and George Marler. Both are very active parliamentarians, both have been mentioned as possible contenders for the Liberal leadership either now or in the future,

both know a great deal about the Transport Department and all its complicated works. This, plus the fact that he gets all the back-bench questions about CNR layofis, ferries, wharves and similar local matters, gave George Hees about five times the normal share of questions each day.

No minister has to answer questions without notice. All ministers have the help of the competent, hard-working advisers who last year made the Liberals look smarter than they do now. George Hees, unlike one or two of his colleagues, has had the good sense to trust his officials and work with them wholeheartedly. They have done wonders at getting him quick answers to difficult questions, and the results in the House have been spectacular.

Other ministers have done the same on a more limited scale. Davie Fulton, though he runs both Justice and Immigration, has had fewer questions than several colleagues but has handled them conspicuously well — most onlookers think he has shown up the ablest man in the cabinet. Howard Green in Public Works has to answer for the housing program, and he makes a tremendous impression of candor and good will. Labor Minister Mike Starr fielding the hot ones about unemployment and Doug Harkness giving the facts about agriculture both come out as bigger and better public figures just because the Liberals keep nagging them.

Even when the odd question is muffed it doesn't do much harm. George Pearkes got tangled in some of his early replies about the joint command of North American air defense, and the authority of American generals over Canadian armed forces. He was able to straighten it out all right in the end. Some Liberals still hope to make an issue of it. but that is beside the point— the point is that Pearkes himself suf-

fered no damage. He continued all the time to look like a transparently honest gentleman who had no wish to mislead anyone about anything.

Over-all, the Liberals have set up a contrast that does them little good. They argue indignantly, and cite Hansard to prove, that the Conservatives really withhold more (and more important) information than the Liberals ever did. But what the onlooker remembers is the pained patience, the air of condescension with which some Liberal ministers gave out their late and little scraps of information. Compared to them, the typical Conservative minister seems a model of frankness, his life an open book.

Against these unexpected gains from Liberal tactics, the Conservatives have to chalk up a few setbacks. Not all cabinet members emerge intact from the daily skirmishes. Oddly, among the ones to lose skin from time to time are the key men of the Conservative team— Donald Fleming, finance minister, and Prime Minister Diefenbaker himself.

In Fleming’s case it is partly an effect of his debating style. He annoys opposition members by his habit, when asked a question, of making a political speech that does not contain the answer. They express their annoyance by baiting him as often as they can. which is quite often—one parliamentary reporter has described Fleming as “the Conservative Party’s self-made goat.”

But Diefenbaker gives as many overstuffed answers as Fleming does, and Diefenbaker is noted for his skill in debate. The reason for the woolly replies is that he and Fleming get the hard ones, the policy questions that no civil servant can answer for them.

One case in point was Solon Low’s question to the prime minister about the export of natural gas. Would the

new government honor the promise made by C. D. Howe to permit TransCanada Pipeline Company to sell Alberta gas to the United States?

If the prime minister had answered yes, both the Liberals and the CCF could have had a devastating time quoting his own words back at him. This was a deal he had denounced in words about as strong as the rules of parliament allow. He had made it perfectly clear that no Conservative government would feel bound by such a promise.

So he didn’t say yes. He didn’t say no, either—he said the whole matter would be referred to the Borden commission, set up as parliament opened to study all problems relating to sources of energy. But for the time being, his answer had the same effect as a flat no. It meant Trans-Canada’s American customers no longer had an assured supply of gas.

Alberta MPs of all parties were equally dismayed. They didn’t make much fuss about it in parliament because they wanted to make it easy, not difficult, for the prime minister to change his mind—but we haven’t heard the last of this by any means.

Donald Fleming’s tough questions up to now have mostly been about trade —what, if anything, he proposed to do to achieve the much-publicized goal of shifting fifteen percent of Canada’s imports from the U. S. to the U. K. But these are only the beginning. The real troubles of the minister of finance will come as he unfolds his plans for raising the revenue to pay for the Conservative program, while at the same time cutting taxes.

When the Conservatives came in they had real hopes of saving hundreds of millions by reduction of wasteful spending, notably in the Defense Department. They are finding less waste than they expected, and fewer ways of saving money without cutting muscle.

A bigger chunk was saved by the decision to drop the CF-100’s Mark VI. That development program would have cost sixty million dollars in the next two and a half years. The net saving will be less than that, because more money will have to be spent producing the older Mark V, but it may mean a cut of thirty to thirty-five million in the defense budget for next year. Another ten million or so will be saved by curtailments in the militia training program, but, with minor exceptions, that’s about all.

So far, that’s about all. The other apparent savings aren’t real—e.g., the Mid-Canada Line of early warning stations is now almost finished, thus “saving” about ten million a month, but other bills will be coming due instead. Altogether it’s unlikely that the cuts will equal the increases in pay, granted last summer.

Meanwhile, the revenue outlook is bleak.

A few months ago. the estimate was that the growth of Canada’s economy would ensure about two hundred million dollars more revenue next year, at existing tax rates. That would have given a minister of finance considerable leeway, to cut taxes or raise expenditures or both.

Now, that estimate is sharply lower. No increase in revenue is expected; instead. there may even be a drop of a hundred million or so.

This is one reason why the talk of a winter election persists. It will be difficult, to put it mildly, to produce an election budget for 1958. ★