Seven Years on Parliament Hill
In which a member of the Press Gallery puts his eye to the political kaleidoscope and discovers patterns both farcical and tragic
F. C. MEARS
MIDWAY in the career of the sixteenth Parliament and on the eve of its third session a glance back over seven years of Federal politics will present to Canadians a crowded picture of the vicissitudes of public fortune, of the ravages of time, of the insurgence and resurgence of certain modes of thinking, of the thwarting of well-laid plans, of fresh emphasis upon old problems and the emergence of new ones, of the endless procession of interesting actors across this stage.
A mere enumeration of statistics furnishes a ready indication of how eventful have been the days between the election of 1921 and the present time. In that period The Hill has seen two general electoral contests, three Parliaments and two Governments; at least fifty men have come to the Commons and gone, through defeat, resignation and death; nearly a score of Ministers, including two Prime Ministers, have suffered defeat at the polls, and seven others have resigned portfolios for health and other reasons; and, as a ceaseless assertion of its sovereignty, death has necessitated the appointment, within that period, of thirty-three men to the Senate.
That black beast of the party mind, a general call for a change, asserted itself in December, 1921, and the remnants of the war government were swept away. Those defeated consoled themselves with the reflection that the people did not vote for King but voted against Meighen, while the victors hugged themselves for joy and professed to see in the triumph a vindication of the Liberalism that was so rudely repudiated four years before.
The election of 66 Progressive members primarily capable of independent and concerted action was bound to bring important consequences. The attitude of the Progressive group was a constant annoyance to the Liberals who sought the aid of its members to retain power and to the Conservatives to achieve power, and the longer this third power persisted the more heroic became the alternate wooings and jiltings of the other two.
How the Progressives came in force to Ottawa in 1922 to purge partyism of its pretended pettiness; how they declaimed against Grit and Tory; how they charged betrayal of the farmer and surrender to St.
James Street; how they mocked
precedents and challenged tradition, assailed selfishness and beckoned the millenium, and then how they dropped in the mud the sponge of their purge by demanding a compendious list of special legislative concessions, the granting of which would obliterate any conception of a united country, united through needs and resources and means and problems that must be common to all, is part of our history.
Not that the Progressives did not render a service to the political system. They brushed some cobwebs from the brains at Ottawa and enabled their fellowlegislators to think more clearly. They unearthed some new menaces to the solidarity of the nation, located some new rocks for Premier King’s chart of 1919—now become a pocket compass—furnished fresh ammunition for the Meighen batteries trained upon Western aggression and blew some invigorating air into the Chamber. As session followed session, though, the list of benefits conferred by Progressivism just enumerated appeared complete, for Progressive was found to connote not much more than Different. It did not mean better, for the simple and obvious reason that the Progressives had the same weaknesses, the same proneness to err as their brother members, and the fact that their number has dwindled to a score in the present parliament proves at least one thing, that their message was not of salvation for all.
Whatever satisfaction may be appropriated by them, however, the Progressives can, at least, be credited with the unique achievement of having pulled down from the pedestal of power two Governments within a week. First, as an aftermath of the disclosures made before the special committee investigating customs irregular-
ities, during the closing days of the 1926 session the prairie people put Mr. King out of office. Then, after the enlistment of one or two Progressives on the side of that pestiferous uprising of the grandson of the “Little Rebel,” the newly formed temporary Ministry of Mr. Meighen was chased to the curtains behind which, figuratively or literally, Mr. Meighen had directed them. And with that short-lived Ministry went two or three political issues—constitution, freight rates and tariff —which only poor crops in the West and bad times in the East can restore and make real factors in an electoral contest or a parliamentary division. With the election of 1926 also went the effectual representation of Progressivism in Parliament. True, the Saskatchewan and Manitoba Liberals who displaced them in Parliament are still compelled to turn an indulgent ear to surviving Progressives in their constituencies but Parliament has for some time, at least, a surety against close votes which are a temptation to negotiation and bargaining.
Captains and Kings Depart
GONE, too, are some interesting personalities, many never to return. One of the most picturesque figures in Canadian public life has been that of Mr. Fielding, whose courage, integrity, tenacity and intense humanity have won for him the respect, even affection, of men on both sides of the House and on all sides of the. country. A respectful silence is the nation’s fitting recognition of the melancholy, the tragedy of a great sunset, of a faithful public servant for four years deprived of the glories of sunrise over a neighboring valley. The other colleague of Mr. King to resign because of illness was Sir Lomer Gouin, now Lieutenant Governor of Quebec. He was a man of great silences, silences sometimes deemed by his opponents to have more signi-
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ficance than Sir Lomer would admit. The high-light of his presence in the Parliament of Canada was the afternoon during a Budget debate in which Premier King had been taunted with surrender to St. James Street and with abdication in favor of the former Premier of Quebec. The stage was carefully set for Sir Lomer and at a crucial point in his unexpected contribution to the Budget debate, he stood out in the aisle and with his index finger dramatically pointed in the direction of Premier King’s seat he exclaimed: “They say I am the boss of this Government. There is only one boss, and he is there.” That was the breaking of a long and notable silence for one seated on the front Treasury benches.
Others of prominence in the “reserved” seats whose presence was an asset to the life of Parliament were: Rt. Hon. George P. Graham, now in the Senate, whose unfailing humor, ready wit and warm cameraderie won him the whole House; Hon. Jacques Bureau whose affability made him the butt of a large practical joke one session, the House, by quick and unanimous agreement, passing all his estimates without comment or criticism; Hon. Charles Murphy, who as Postmaster-General, one day performed a feat of chastisement upon Hon. J. B. M. Baxter, now Premier of New Brunswick, almost as complete and memorable as his famous attack upon Hon. Newton Rowell in the war days; Hon. E. M. (“Ned”) Macdonald, a valiant warrior in the old days, showing occasionally a trace of the old “self; Hon. George Boivin, whose tragic death following the trying days when in the House he defended himself and his Department against the charges of Hon. Harry Stevens, threw a deep shadow across the Chamber; Hon. W. C. Kennedy, Mr. King’s first Minister of Railways, whose promise of becoming one of the most, capable of that Cabinet was denied by death after only a few months of service.
On the other side of the House was Hon. T. A. Crerar, leader of the Progressive group for four years, the directness and incisiveness of whose speeches and whose winning personality made his tenure of that position a bright chapter and made his friends wish that the led had not made it so difficult for the leader.
Then, among the Conservatives, there was Hon. S. F. Tolmie, now Premier of British Columbia, from whose lips none ever heard a wrathy word escape, whose equanimity seemed imperturbable, whose kind, considerate manner made him a friend of the House. Mr. Baxter, already alluded to as having also been promoted to a premiership, was inclined to take himself seriously, to opine and orate instead of debate, to inject a legalism into his speeches; but he was vigorous, tenacious, courteous. There was the memorable day, though, when his courtesy was strained to the breaking point. A fellowmember from New Brunswick, Mr. Caldwell, like Mr. Baxter, a man of imposing physique, and like Mr. Baxter “handy with his mits,” injected into Mr. Baxter’s speech some adjectives which Mr. Baxter disliked. A reiteration of these interjections angered the present Premier of New Brunswick who promptly, in the midst of his speech, challenged Mr. Caldwell to a duel, the weapons being the bare instruments of the “manly art,” and the place, hastily selected, the lobby used jointly by Conservatives and Progressives. Imagine the excitement in the Chamber when members saw Caldwell dash out for combat, followed by Baxter as eager for the fray. In an instant spectators had formed a human “ring” and everything was in readiness for what would have proved a heavyweight encounter had not the Sergeant-at-Arms spoiled the show by arriving on the scene to “maintain the dignity of the House.”
Of private members no longer heard in
the House there is “Billy” Maclean, doyen of Parliament and unique for at least one reason that he, along with not more than one other member, shared the distinction of an almost solitary championship of the doctrine of public ownership, as applied to the railways and other utilities.
“Andy” McMaster, of Brome, must not be overlooked. His downright Cobdenism made him, seated on the ministerial side, the darling of the Progressives and eventually when he decided that he should go and sit where his views were, he angered the Prime Minister to the extent of the best budget speech ever delivered by the head of the Government. There was scholarship and literary charm in Mr. McMaster’s utterances, and his urbanity opened doors that might have been shut to his political views.
Mr. Meighen left a great void in Parliament. His classic purity of language, his cogency of argument, his phenomenal memory, his endless industry made it difficult to find a page of Hansard on which he did not appear. A mastery of the rules of parliamentary procedure and a quick grasp of the possibilities of any situation compelled his adversaries to be continually on the qui vive. None knew, sometimes not even himself, when he would drop a bomb in the enemy’s camp and deeply disturb a calm alignment of forces. And it was always the enemy. While, obviously, he had some warm personal friends in the House, Mr. Meighen was curiously incapable of understanding a member or a voter who differed from him on any public question. To his mind apparently there were never two sides to an argument—only one side, his side, which was right.
Another puzzle in his make-up was the amenities of which he was easily capable in private conversation and offstage and the startling readiness with which he divested himself of those amenities when he stepped into the Chamber. There was the battleground with none but the enemy opposite, and the dialectics, of which he had been made master, had been given to him for one purpose, to dislodge or shatter the enemy by proving to the country just how treacherous and cowardly and faithless that enemy was. The charitable view was not his. The generous word was a stranger to his tongue, except in an obituary speech often heard at the opening of each session when tributes are paid to the memory of departed members. Sentiment was as alien and distasteful to him as sentimentality. He was a man of prodigious intellect in a field where the demand is as great for qualities of heart as of head, and therein lies one of the reasons why Mr. Meighen does not now adorn the Chamber. He knew more of debate than of statecraft. His famous speech at the Winnipeg Convention was a strategic success but a tactical blunder. His performance at that assembly was one of the most effective political accomplishments in recent history in vindicating a policy, but it lacerated sores that were commencing to heal.
A Re-Created Cabinet
KALEIDOSCOPIC have been the
changes in the Liberal Cabinet within seven years. Of the entire Ministry of 1922, only seven remain to-day, including the Prime Minister, and of these seven only four have the portfolios with which they first entered the King Administration seven years ago. With the Prime Minister in the present Government are Hon. James Robb, Hon. Charles Stewart, Hon. W. R. Motherwell, Hon. J. H. King, Hon. Ernest Lapointe and Senator Dandurand who began with that Government in 1922, and of these, in addition to the Prime Minister, only Stewart and Motherwell and Senator Dandurand hold
the positions they were given in 1922.
In December, 1923, Mr. Fielding was compelled through illness to relinquish the duties of the Finance portfolio and Mr. Robb became acting minister, in addition to the latter’s other work, and Mr. Fielding ultimately resigned his portfolio in September, 1925, Sir Lomer Gouin resigned the Justice portfolio in January, 1924, and was succeeded by Hon. Ernest Lapointe, up to that time Minister of Marine and Fisheries. Hon. W. C. Kennedy, Minister of Railways and Canals, held that office only a few months before his death and he was succeeded by Hon. George P. Graham who, in turn, was succeeded in National Defence by Hon. E. M. Macdonald. In 1926 Hon. J. L. Ralston, another Nova Scotian, assumed the post of Defence. Hon. James Robb began as Minister of Trade and Commerce, but in August, 1923, became Minister of Immigration and Colonization, Hon. T. A. Low taking the portfolio of Trade and Commerce, and in 1925 Mr. Robb became Minister of Finance, Mr. Stewart, Minister of the Interior, taking over Immigration and Colonization temporarily.
Mr. Graham resigned the portfolio of Railways and Canals in February, 1925, to become first Chairman of the Tariff Board, his place in Railways being taken by Hon. Charles A. Dunning, former Premier of Saskatchewan. Mr. Lapointe’s promotion to the Justice portfolio in January, 1924, was followed in the same month by the appointment of Hon. Arthur Cardin as Minister of Marine and Fisheries. Hon. Charles Murphy, Postmaster-General, was appointed to the Senate in September, 1925, and as a general election came shortly afterwards, resulting in a heavy reverse for the Liberals with the defeat of a large number of the election Cabinet, including Premier King in North York, the portfolio of Post Office, like that of many others, was not filled by a permanent appointment until after the next general contest in 1926 when Hon. Peter J. Veniot, former Premier of New Brunswick, took the post.
Hon. Jacques Bureau, Minister of Customs, was appointed to the Senate in September, 1925, and that portfolio was not really filled until 1926 when Hon. William D. Euler, of Kitchener, was appointed. Hon. James H. King retained Public Works until 1926 when he assumed Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment and Health, he being succeeded in Public Works by Hon. John C. Elliott who had been Minister of Labor for a short time after the defeat of Hon. James Murdock. Mr. Elliott was succeeded in Labor by Hon. Peter Heenan, the present Minister.
Hon. Arthur B. Copp, .Secretary of State, was appointed to the Senate in September, 1925, and Hon. Walter E. Foster from the same province, New Brunswick, who was appointed his successor did not survive the election. In 1926 Hon. Fernand Rinfret of Montreal became Secretary of State. Hon. Thomas A. Low of Renfrew, who held the portfolio of Trade and Commerce from 1923, was defeated in the 192§ contest, and the post was not again permanently filled until after the 1926 contest when Hon. James Malcolm of Kincardine was appointed. Three others who were appointed to the Cabinet which appealed to the people in the fall of 1925 did not emerge with seats. They were: Hon. Vincent Massey, now Canadian Minister to Washington; Hon. Herbert M. Marier, of Montreal, who is likely to return to Parliament in 1930; and Hon. George N. Gordon, of Peterboro, who had been Deputy Speaker of the House. It was not until after the 1926 contest that the portfolio of Immigration and Colonization was recognized to the extent of a Minister with no other work, Hon. Robert Forke, former Progressive
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leader, being given that Department
More rapid were the Ministerial vicissitudes attending the brief Meighen regime in the hundred days of the summer of 1926. First, there was the temporary Government hastily chosen to take over the reins of office won by a close vote in the House. Then, when that Ministry was turned out within a week by a similarly close vote, many of these scattered to various parts of the country preparing for the general election to come in September. Just previous to the election Mr. Meighen announced another Ministry, avowedly an election Cabinet. How many then chosen never returned to Ottawa and how the others though elected to Parliament were not elected to Government is still fresh in the memory of most readers.
The turmoil into which the administrative work of the nation had been thrown by the quick succession of electoral and Ministerial changes is now past, and there is at least a semblance of stability of Federal government. How long will the people be satisfied with that stability or absence of political shifting? How long will it require the Conservatives to provoke a national call for a change of government at Ottawa? The next opportunity to test sentiment will be in the summer or fall of 1930. Then it is certain there will be more changes in the Liberal Ministry. Four or five colleagues of Premier King have, they are persuaded, earned a rest from active politics and they will retire. What new men are selected for their posts will be one of the factors in the next election. Another factor will be the kind of leadership then to be given to the two historic parties, and this question suggests some concluding remarks about the present leaders.
To lead them out of the wilderness, the Conservatives last year chose a ruddy Western warrior with an Eastern
orientation. Hon. R. B. Bennett, through a fortunate combination of law, finance and politics, had made a considerable success of all three. The heroic pitch of his voice bad been frequently heard in Parliament before the Winnipeg convention and before the Conservative cataclysm of 1921. He was the kind of member who was bound to be heard, for he always felt he had something to say, and that urge to speak has accompanied him into the sixteenth parliament. Some members used to murmur about the frequency of Mr. Meighen’s name in the pages of Hansard, but the murmurers had not read the Hansard of 1928. To be generous with Mr. Bennett, loquacity is his synonym for industry, energy unceasing. Moreover, a secret service squad, such as pursues the President of the United States, would have a fatiguing time of it keeping up with Mr. Bennett. To-day he is in Halifax, two days hence in Ottawa attending to correspondence, then to Toronto to a meeting, back to Ottawa for more correspondence, then out to Calgary or Vancouver and back to Ottawa, all within two or three weeks, and that itinerary may be repeated within two months. His mileage this year has exceeded that of the most nomadic Minister. Mr. Bennett seems to be taking bis new post seriously, giving to it all the abundant energy he possesses, also his urbanity, his dignity of carriage, immaculate attire, wide and thoughtful reading, an astonishing fluency of speech.
What more could be asked of a party leader?
If the Conservatives under “R.B.” fail to make much headway perhaps they might give some attention to their programme. They have tried two leaders in three years, two men in many respects the direct opposite of each other. Failure of these two to satisfy should prompt the party to have regard for something other than the personal equation. Mr. Bennett has not failed. He has not yet had a real
opportunity. That will come with the next general election. His qualities of heart and mind now in evidence will then be submitted to the real test, the test by which the country is governed.
How has Premier King emerged from these seven years? With the exception of a really needless defeat in North York in 1925 when he should have bowed to discretion rather than valor and chosen a riding where he had brighter chances, the Prime Minister has survived all the cataclysms, outridden many storms and is to-day conceded to occupy a much stronger position than he inherited in December, 1921. His emphasis in the last three years upon the constitution of Canada and the enhancement of the Dominion’s position in the eyes of the world, through her valiant part in the great war, has enabled him, in a measure to direct the eyes of many Canadians to external affairs. Fortunately there have been few domestic distractions to dim the distant view, except for the disappointing results of efforts to get more settlers and the persistent demand of the Maritime provinces for fuller recognition of their economic rights.
Mr. King has had fair sailing for about two years. The Progressives are no longer strong enough in the House to threaten his tenure of power, the constitutional controversy has cooled, the West has harvested big crops and little trouble is visible on the horizon. It is such an atmosphere of apparent contentment, though, that frequently is charged with the elements of a storm. The King Government in office now for seven years and with two more years in sight is bound some day in the not distant future to be menaced by “dry rot”, party lassitude, public tickling for a change; call it what you will it is a condition exceedingly difficult to avert or remedy. It is against that threat that Mr. King and the more astute members of his Ministry are now commencing to mobilize their energies.