T. A. LOW: Business Man in Politics

Low’s constructive changes and drastic economies have created a sensation at Ottawa

SCOTT I. DUTHIE June 15 1924

T. A. LOW: Business Man in Politics

Low’s constructive changes and drastic economies have created a sensation at Ottawa

SCOTT I. DUTHIE June 15 1924

T. A. LOW: Business Man in Politics


Low’s constructive changes and drastic economies have created a sensation at Ottawa

SITTING in one of the galleries of the House of Commons and looking down at the Treasury Bench where the Ministers sit, if you were asked:

“Which is the Minister of Trade and Commerce?” you probably would say:

“Well, that man is not, anyhow”—and that man would be Thomas Andrew Low.

For a Minister of Commerce, logically, should look hard and severe. He should be large, pompous looking, and wear his moustache and glasses with an air of wisdom and truculence. He should look wise and pontifical and fall into the Napoleonic attitudes of those great magnates who sit behind rosewood desks in spacious rooms and glare at you as great captains of industry do when you enter their offices and it seems miles from their desks to the door.

But T. A. Low looks none, and does none, of these things. He is the kind of mild-mannered, pleasant, middle-aged man that you will often see in the front rows at the first night of a musical comedy, or perhaps the sort of prosperous, at-ease-with-the-world gentleman that you will sometimes find nibbling a sandwich after a jolly tramp over the links. There are men, so-called students of phrenology, who wouldn’t give him control of the blotting pads in the Department of Trade and Commerce, let alone control of the department.

Yet this jolly-looking, unpretentious politician, who is just what he is and affects no nonsense, was not chosen for his post inappropriately. He has been in commerce all his life and in politics the most of it; is as near a combination of successful business man and pretty successful politician as Parliament has seen in years.

We are all of us familiar with the stories of men who rise to be legislators in the halls where they once ran errands. We are equally familiar with the square-jawed, steely-eyed individuals who rise from office-boys to be heads of mighty organizations with activities encircling the earth. T. A. Low is no such Heaven-sent prodigy. On the contrary, he had all the opportunities of the average Canadian boy. His parents were Irish and Scotch—an unbeatable combination; he was educated in the public and high schools; and though he never had a silver spoon in his mouth, and never was graduated from a university, he had a good, sound, thorough education in the rudiments of business. He had a penchant for business, anyway. Before he left Quebec City, where he was born, he sold papers on the streets to earn his own pocket money, and after he moved, or was moved, to Renfrew— at the age of eight—he turned most of spare moments into pennies.

Martin Russell was one of the early, romantic lumber kings of the Ottawa Valley whose mills were located in Renfrew. Young Low, still in his teens, just fresh from high school, secured a job with Russell. It wasn’t much of a job; yet Low, who was not then even dreaming of becoming Canada’s Minister of Commerce, was ambitious, hard-working and pleasant, and Russell, who had a warm Irish heart and an appreciation of thrift and industry, took a liking to him. He took such a liking to him, and Low so continued to deserve it, that Russell promoted him from one post to another; and when the old lumber king finally passed out Low, who had all the details of the business at his finger tips and quite a bit of cash and good standing with the banks, took over the industry.

Thereafter the story of Low has been partly the story of Renfrew. With M. J. O’Brien and the Barnets and the famous “millionaire” hockey team of 1909, he put the Creamery Town on the map. Renfrew never produced the tall chimneys of Montreal or Toronto, and on either Yonge street or St. James street Low might have been a small toad in a big puddle; yet he was never a Main street Babbitt. He was one of the first men in Eastern Ontario to grasp the meaning of electrical energy in terms of industrial development and to introduce power for commercial purposes in Renfrew. He was associated with a few progressive citizens who built up the woolen industry of the town, now represented by three factories; he became head of the Renfrew Flour Mills, Limited, which to-day commands a market as far east as the Maritimes and which has English connections; and he became president of the Renfrew Electric Products, Limited, the Renfrew Manufacturing Company, Limited, the British-Canadian Export Company, and the Renfrew Refrigerator Company —makers of the famous Barnet refrigerator. Low did all of this without fuss or ostentation. He had no use for spectacular methods; his activities were divorced from

the smart tactics which too often are mistaken for enterprise, but which the public discerns in the end, to the discredit of business. He worked quietly and effectively; he cut his financial coat to suit his financial cloth; he had a faith in himself and the country that rested upon a grasp of realities; and he never depended upon Governments or upon any kind of paternalism or favoritism to push his undertakings along. As a consequence he became a power in his community, a citizen who was looked up to; trusted by labor, respected by his associates—regarded as one safe to bank with or upon.

Getting Into Parliament

TN CANADA, unfortunately, business men of Low’s calibre don’t often bother with politics. But Low was and is different. To begin with, he is Irish; and there is something in the Celtic nature that impels toward public life. So in 1908, when the late Aaron Wright, who had redeemed South Renfrew in 1900 (it has been in the Liberal column ever since) was rewarded with the postmastership of Renfrew town, Low made his appearance on the Ottawa stage. These were the brave days when Laurier and Cartwright, Aylesworth and Sifton, Lemieux and Fielding, were the lamps of Liberalism, and beside their immense illumination Low,

still in his thirties, shone but dimly, Yet although not a power in Parliament he was solid in his constituency, and ip the 1911 holocaust of his party in Ontario he safely weathered the storm. Greater men, including George P, Graham, did not, and when Sir Wilfrid tried to reforip his ranks and bring Graham back to the House, Mr. Low came gallantly to the rescue and handed him overSouth Renfrew. Low then went back to his desk and forgot all about politics; and it was not until 1921t after Isaac Pedlow, who succeeded Graham in the constituency in 1917, had retired, that he made hi§ reappearance in the House.

There were misgivings when Mr. King called him from the ranks to a ministership without portfolio. There were still further murmurings when King handed him over the increasingly important post of the Department of Trade and Commerce. Business men in politics are always suspected by politicians. Mr. Asquith, when asked during the war to take more business men into his cabinet, contemptuously replied that he spent most of his life as a lawyer getting business men out of trouble. And that represents the view of the average professional politician toward the successful man of business. Politics, the lawyer-politician will tell y-ou, is a trade unto itself. And he will add.that it is knowledge of the science and art of government, which touches life in all its phases, not knowledge of business, which touches life in only a few of its phases, that is vital to political achievement. But the war upset this theory. The work of the Geddes brothers in England, of the Schwabs and the Dawes in the United States, as well as of the number of business men who put life and vigor into war administration in Canada, knocked the legend of the lawyer-politician into a hoary heresy; and in 1921, for, the first time in a quarter of a century, a man with actual knowledge of business -was given charge of the Department of Commerce. That man was “Jim” Robb; and when Robb made good and took over Immigration, Low, another business man, succeeded to the post.

Low as Administrator

TT IS perhaps too early to pass finally upop A Low as Trade and Commerce administrator.’ Yet his work in the Department, judged non-’ politically and impartially, has been vigorous, conspicuous and potent. Sir Richard Cartwright and Sir George Foster, Low’s two most outstanding predecessors, were distinguished parliamentarians and orators. They could make speeches on trade on the slightest provocation. They could talk theories of commerce, till their auditors were dazzled by their eloquence. And they could issue resounding and inspiring calls to the, country to take its place among the nations of the, world. But they too seldom got down to realities. They could split hairs for hours over the meaning of thç balance of trade, and knew everything about Protection and Free Trade; but they never got much past the abstract, and were precious little use to the man who wanted an order, say, for blankets or boots in Europe, or Australia or South Africa. Low shunned the abstract and got down to realities. A business man himself, he saw at once that if the Department was to function usefully it must get into actual touch with business men; and this he proceeded to do. So he started his regime by getting a first-hand knowledge with sources of trade in the home field, as well as of those in active business of producing export goods. He went West and looked personally into conditions; he held conferences with business men; he checked up export figures to foreign countries -where Trade Commissioners are located; he measured the work of Trade Commissioners by their achievement of actual results; and above all, he wielded an axe upon red-tape wherever it put restrictions upon business. Whether he has been wholly or even partially successful must remain largely a matter of controversy, but here, at least, is some record of what he has done:

(1) He established definite communication between Trade Commissioners abroad and the Minister, and gave them to understand that their continuance in the service must depend upon what they could show in results.

(2) He established a more clear-cut policy of publicity, to the end that the whole country might better understand the importance of developing foreign trade.

(3) He established closer co-operation between the Ministry of Finance and the Department of Trade and Commerce, looking to more speedy action in all international commercial matters, treaties and arrangements.

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T. A. Low: Business Man in Politick

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(4) He brought about closer co-operation between his department and the Canadian High Commissioner’s office, in order to secure the speediest possible action in all matters of Imperial trade.

(5) He established closer contact between his department and the Board of Grain Commissioners in the matter of handling the Western crop.

(6) He gave personal attention to the better marketing of wheat; and in consequence of his representations to the Economic Conference he removed discrimination against Canadian flour, in competition with American, in the matter of ocean rates.

(7) He effected important economies in his department.

Had every Minister in the cabinet retrenched as Low retrenched, ordinary expenditure would have been cut to the bone. Low grasped the simple problem that the only way to economize was to economize. He saw that he had a department which was badly overmanned and overwomanned; and he promptly applied the axe. He made up his mind that there would be no increases of expenditure in bis department except it be for capital outlay or by statutory advances. Consequently he made a personal examination of the staffs of all the branches under his charge, and made a regular Mussolini sweep of some of them. He swept out scores from the Statistics Bureau; he reduced printing costs wherever and whenever possible; he abolished overlapping wherever he found it; he gave several highly paid but ineffective officials a blue envelope; and he cut departmental subsidies to the limit.

It takes courage to do these things. They invite political complications; there are the dismissals that have party reverberations back home; there are the pleas and the supplications of the “man who saved the party” to be encountered; there is the pressure and “pull,” the cajolery and the threats of party friends and party foes to be overcome. But Low never wavered. He simply put himself in the place of the business executive who must cut down overhead, and he cut.

A Politician Notwithstanding

YET Low, despite his rigidity as a business-like administrator, can play the game of politics. “He nurses his constituency well,” charge his opponents, and his secretaries will admit with despair that the indictment is true. No Minister grants more personal interviews on matters of small import. His Renfrew and his Ottawa offices are always open to the elector he represents. Deputations may wait, state documents stand for signature, if one of the “boys” from the Creamery Town wants to see “T. A.” Thus, during the recent Australian trade negotiations, when important Ministers from the Antipodes were waiting in his office, a panic-stricken private secretary found him over in the Department of Agriculture searching old records for the registration of a pure-bred colt belonging ✓•to a constituent.

And he loves the political game. Political meetings in the Renfrews are still the hectic affairs of the last quarter of_ a century. Nomination meetings are still the big mass meetings where every candidate appeals to the electorate, and where more oft than not physical combat vies with verbal shafts in the persuasion of opponents. On such occasions, when “Tom” Low, “Tom” McGarry and '“Doc” Maloney meet in mortal combat in the Renfrew skating rink, it is a sight for the gods of battle. And it is then that Low’s Irish comes to the surface, and life for him is happiest. One of Low’s strong points is his urbanity as a political canvasser. Mr. Graham Wallas in his “Human Nature in Politics” reveals the part that_ a genial canvasser may play in moulding political destinies; and it is certain that Low’s genial smile and hearty handshake have been potent factors in keeping South Renfrew Liberal. His friends tell a good story upon him in connection with his last campaign. One night Low and a car-load of speakers reached a remote village. As they entered it _“T.A.,” who had driven twenty-seven miles in the front seat with the driver, jumped out to call upon a family at the

outskirts. The balance of the party drove on to the small hotel. When Low entered a half-hour later he greeted the inmates with his usual handshake, giving an especially hearty slap and a “glad-tosee-you-again” greeting to one young fellow who was standing in the inn lobby. The latter grinned bewilderedly, looked around and said: “Gosh, I guess he’s crazy.” Low had canvassed his chauffeur.

Yet Low’s is not the handclasp of the professional politician. It is the greeting of the naturally friendly man; of a man who loves his fellowman, and foi whom it is as natural to be genial as to walk. He is said to be honorary president of more Boy Scout, Hockey, Baseball, Lacrosse and Rural School Associations than any other member of the House; also said that a Conservative opponent once thanked the Lord that the babies of Renfrew had no votes.

As a Parliamentarian

IN THE House of Commons Mr. Low has taken no conspicuous part. He made but a single speech in his two first sessions, and that a bold defence of high protection which hardly helped his party. But Parliamentary government, despite what Macaulay said, is not all government by talking; and Low revealed other talents. He revealed that he was a competent organizer—a rare thing in politics these days—and Mr. King soon made him a generalissimo of his party. It was whispered at the time that Mr. Charles Murphy, who fashioned the Liberal Convention, and remained a sort of Chief of Strategy thereafter, did not relish the choice, but notwithstanding this, and despite that Low began his regime by losing the by-election of Lanark, he continued to hold the post.

It is a post not without difficulties. In the old days when men like Tarte and Sifton and Rogers and Pugsley showed genius in party organization, and were looked upon as Napoleons of strategy, conditions were different. There were only two parties then, with the battle lines clearly defined. To-day a party organizer’s tasks are both complex and manifold. He has to guard against internal schism—always a possibility. He has to deal with a third party—sometimes an ally, sometimes a foe. He has to meet the frontal attacks of the official Opposition. And he has to watch out for guerilla fighters who harass his flank. Mr. Low is not a Napoleon, but he is a cunning party strategist. It is one of the things that induced Mr. King to invest him with more power.

Politically, Mr. Low is what is known in Ottawa as a Liberal realist. That is to say, a man who calls himself a Liberal, but who does not permit his political traditions to divorce him from realities. In other words, a Liberal of the school of James Robb and Sir Lomer Gouin; an individualist, a materialist, a Protectionist. To Liberals of this type radicalism, Utopianism, collectivism, or anything that smacks of State Socialism or Paternalism, are anathema. They are Conservatives—although they will not admit it—of the good old-fashioned school.

Personally, Mr. Low is the plain, average man. He essays none of the Caesar-like poses of the politically nouveau-riche. He does not go about with Atlas upon his shoulder. One is unable to find a single eccentricity about the man, except the eccentricity of not having anything eccentric about him. He is Vox Populi, Old Subscriber, Pro Bono Publico, Everyman, The Man in the Street, Constant Reader. The kind of man one can appreciate and understand.

He is not a rhetorician. One gathers, indeed, that he despises rhetoric. Like “Jim” Robb, he is a plain blunt intelligence, believing that two and two make four; and if the opposition says it is five, then the opposition is, like Mr. Bumble considered the law, an ass. There is nothing nimble or subtle or Meighen-like in Low. He is a man who likes to lean heavily on the most substantial sort of platitudes; he worships the obvious; he is a creature of facts, a materialist politician who believes that a bird in the hand is worth all the words in the densely-timbered dictionary.

Last, but not least, he has the saving grace of humor. It is very easy to overrate a dull, plodding and learned man; just as, in the opinions of many, the contemporaries of Edward Blake exaggerated the merits of that sombre encyclopaedic statesman. It is just as easy to under-estimate the merits in statecraft of one who laughs and jests and unbends in every social situation which affords him the excuse. Tom Low hates pomposity, and is both lively and informal. His work, punctually and conscientiously discharged, is always put first; but when that is done, and well done, he gives play to the lighter side of his temperament. In a word, he combines what Stevenson called “a little judeecious levity” with qualities as solid as are possessed by any man in public life to-day. And he possesses this very great advantage over many men whose success in politics has been rapid. His head has never been turned; his unaffected good humor has never been deflected; his swift promotion has left him the same simple and merry companion that he was when he first entered the Commons.

As Minister of Trade and Commerce he has no easy task. Twenty or even ten years ago this department was regarded as a sinecure. Our international trade had not achieved its present-day astonishing expansion, Canada was not a factor in the commerce of the world. To-day all that is changed. Canadian industry has doubled and trebled since the war; Canadian products are invading every land; Canadian manufacturers are competing with the producers of all the world. As a consequence, it is vital that the Department of Trade and Commerce should march abreast of the times, that it should be alert to Canadian opportunities, and that, through information, advice and wise regulations, as well as through its far-flung agents, it should help manufacturers in the great battle of trade. In that task, thus far, T. A. Low has done well.