BACKSTAGE

THE GOVERNMENT’S SECOND BIRTHDAY A quick inventory of the pros and cons

BLAIR FRASER July 4 1959
BACKSTAGE

THE GOVERNMENT’S SECOND BIRTHDAY A quick inventory of the pros and cons

BLAIR FRASER July 4 1959

THE GOVERNMENT’S SECOND BIRTHDAY A quick inventory of the pros and cons

BACKSTAGE

AT OTTAWA

BLAIR FRASER

POLITICIANS disagree with each other so expertly in public, it’s always a shock to discover how nearly alike their private opinions are. But one way to prove that they don’t really differ much is to ask them for a frank appraisal, now that the Diefenbaker government has had its second birthday and its first major cabinet shuffle, of the assets and liabilities in its record.

1 put that question to a random sample from all three parties—maybe a dozen Conservatives including several ministers. three or four I iberals, a couple of CCFers. Their answers didn't sound at all the same. They used different words and very different emphasis, and they needed different sorts of prompting. But with the rhetoric left out and the prejudice discounted, the substance of what they all said was almost identical.

Among the assets, probably the greatest is the simple fact that the government did change in 1957. Even the Liberals now admit they were in office too long. Some Conservatives go so far as to say (though they probably won’t be saying it much longer) that they too ought to be turned out not later than the election after next, before they get too fat and complacent. CCFers of course agree with both on this point.

Recent weeks have produced some rather dramatic demonstrations of it. One parliamentary committee brought in a report that condemned in stinging terms the ‘‘inadequate’’ program of northern development — words that could be taken as criticism of the Liberal regime gone by, but quite obviously applied to the present government too. Another committee voted, in a division not entirely partisan, to demand some information that a Conservative minister had asked them not to insist upon. No bolts of lightning have fallen on either group yet. For a Liberaldominated committee to have given such a snub to the Liberal government, in its later years, was unheard-of.

A more positive asset in the government’s record is what the Conservatives like to describe as "our program of national development." There is little doubt that if Prime Minister Diefenbaker had to take to the hustings tomorrow. he would campaign again on something very like the 1958 “Vision." though he doesn’t use that word any longer. He speaks now of “a sense of national destiny," which he clearly believes his government has implanted. His followers are a bit more prosaic in their language, but in essence they say the same thing.

Liberals, of course, don't speak of

Conservative plans for national development or national destiny, except with heavy irony, and they don’t admit that Conservatives have any such program at all. But the things they mention one at a time, if laid end to end, add up to approximately the same things that the Tories present as a unified whole.

Ask a Liberal to name the best thing the Diefenbaker cabinet has done, and he's likely to reply: “The boost they gave to housing. We could have done it and should have done it, hut we didn’t and they did.” And if he is prompted and prodded a little, the Liberal will also concede that the Saskatchewan Dam is probably a good thing, that the plans for Maritime power plants are a good thing, that the grants to Atlantic provinces are an excellent thing, and so on. He will say these things are too disjointed and haphazard to deserve being called a program. and maybe he is right, hut he doesn’t argue against a single one of them.

In between assets and liabilities are some examples of “good things badly handled,” and here too there's a surprising amount of agreement among the parties. Most Liberals agree with most Conservatives that the rejection of the Avro Arrow, for instance, was a right decision.

“Of all the things that the government has done, that’s the one I'm most proud about.’’ said one Conservative back-bencher. But he was as ready as

any Grit to concede that the decision had been needlessly fumbled, clumsily executed and lamentably ill-explained.

There is even more unanimity among the parties on the government's worst single blunder. All agree it was the handling of the Newfoundland situation. Some Conservatives, and some Liberals too, think the government was right in refusing to send reinforcements for the RCMP when Newfoundland requested them; other Conservatives, including some in the cabinet itself, think this was a grave mistake. But everyone (not excepting the prime minister himself, by reliable report) concedes that the Diefenbaker statement on grants to Newfoundland, under Article 29 of the Terms of Union, was a blooper of the first magnitude.

Actually it wasn’t a Diefenbaker statement at all—the prime minister hadn’t even seen it, in full, until he got up to read it in the House of Commons. But this is not an excuse a head of government can use. Hansard shows the “final and irrevocable” finish of these grants by 1962 as part of a Diefenbaker speech, and that's that. Conservatives gloomily admit that it’s the most probable explanation of the sharp drop in the government's popularity that Gallup pollsters found in the Atlantic provinces.

There is less agreement on the causes of the Tory decline in Quebec, but it isn’t a partisan split — Conservatives are baffled, and even Liberals aren't too sure. Some say it’s lack of federal pat-

ronage, others that Duplessis has turned against the Diefenbaker regime after backing it last year.

But on one cause the parties do agree. They both say Quebeckers resent the lack of adequate, senior representation in the federal cabinet. All four French-Canadian ministers are in subordinate jobs; none has any apparent influence in cabinet, and none is an outstanding figure in his own province. Compared with the powerhouses from Ontario and British Columbia. Quebec’s group looks like a scrub team.

The prime minister knows this as well as anyone else does. The problem is to find a suitable man, inside or outside the present parliament, who can play the role of Quebec Conservative leader. Three names are commonly mentioned — Noel Dorion of Bellechasse, Jacques Flynn of Quebec South, and Deputy Speaker Pierre Sevigny.

Dorion has the reputation of an able, astute man. but unhappily he earned it in the service of Premier Maurice Duplessis. Flynn is intelligent, industrious and a very likeable fellow, but rather young and unassuming to be set up as a leader. Sevigny looks the most imposing of the three, to English-speaking Conservatives — a stalwart, handsome man who limps from a war wound, speaks both languages fluently, has an agreeable manner and a beautiful wife, and has never had any close connection with Duplessis. But for some reason French Canadians don't seem to take him seriously as leadership material. perhaps because he was a party organizer during the lean years and failed to produce any miracles. Only a gambler would venture to prophesy who will be chosen for the party build-up in Quebec, though it’s a safe bet that someone will, and soon.

But whaí about the real issues facing the nation? What about unemployment, inflation, taxes and monetary policy? Don’t politicians even talk about the things that really matter?

Of course they do. But these are the real problems, to which neither party has any easy answer; the opposition glibly blames the government for anything that seems to be wrong, but it has no clear alternative to suggest. In private. both sides recognize this. The Liberals concede, for example, that Donald Fleming’s budget was about as good as could be expected in the circumstances—though they do insist that the circumstances were a consequence of government incompetence.

That is the real issue, the issue of incompetence. Each party believes quite sincerely that it is more capable than the other, better able to carry out a policy that in principle is just about the same. And it’s because competence is the real issue that both parties pay so much attention to relatively trivial nincompoopery, like Ellen Fairclough’s unhappy collision with the Italian vote when she tried to restrict the admission of sponsored relatives.

Only two things are causing deep worry, as distinct from mere political concern. One is the financial situation, the weak state of the bond market and the apparent decline of confidence in the dollar. The other, and much the more serious, is defense. The general atmosphere of complacent confusion that befogs Canadian defense policy is beginning to frighten people on both sides of the House. If it ever starts to frighten the government as well, we may see some more changes made.