What Does an M.P. Do?
Back benchers or front benchers, they all have to work and some of them work very hard
A. G. DEXTER
BETWEEN campaign expenditures and the cost of operating the electoral machinery, upward of three million dollars is spent in this Dominion every time the electors are called upon to choose the men or women who will make our laws at Ottawa.
And having selected the law-makers, the taxpayers of Canada pay another two millions annually to make the legislative machine run smoothly. Of course, the actual cost of Parliament varies from year to year with the length of each session, but an estimate, based on the average of several years, supports the view that it costs the public at least twenty cents for every word uttered in the House of Commons from the moment Mr. Speaker utters the opening prayer until the Black Rod knocks on the green baize doors to summon the faithful commoners to the Senate and prorogation.
Is the cost too high? Do our Members of Parliament give us service for our money? These are questions which the older folk sometimes answer cynically and which frequently are debated by university students and others of the younger generation, but about which, like the weather, nothing ever is done.
We pay our law-makers a salary of $4,000 per annum; give them railway passes for themselves and their families on all lines in Canada, and, in addition, pay their expenses to and from each session. Do we get our monev’s worth? There is abroad in the land a disposition to criticize and belittle the mission of the back bench0” in Parliament—the “run of mine” private member. You may search Hansard and consider yourself fortunate if you find him making more than one speech in a session and you will note that this speech, far from holding the house enthralled or deflecting the policy of the government, seemed to fall unheeded like a summer shower. He had the right to speak; no one wished him to do so. He spoke, and his fellow members put up with it, sighing thankfully when he finished.
Judged by standards of rhetoric, by the power which he exerts in his contributions to the various questions under discussion, the private member is not, perhaps, worth his keep. But this is a most unreasonable and short-sighted standard by which to measure him. The private member may be tongue-tied in the House of Commons; he may look a dullard but he plays his part in the government of the country and plays it well. Moreover, if he were not public-spirited and something of an idealist he would never stick to his job, and there would be countless by-elections called after the first session of every Parliament to fill the vacancies caused by those who had had their fill of public life and longed for the comparative quiet and repose of commercial or professional life.
Much is written of the luxuries with which a devoted people surround their legislators. The Houses of Parliament which crown Parliament Hill, are beautiful beyond words and the interior is furnished not unlike an exclusive millionaires’ club. There are private rooms for the members, usually two to a room and each room is furnished with desks, telephones, buzzer buttons, and a couch. If a member desires to dictate a letter or a speech, he pushes a button and in due course a stenographer appears. There is a splendid restaurant overlooking the Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River. There is a barber shop in the basement with equipment for steam or electric baths. Scattered about the building are lounge rooms and committee rooms, and to these, probably, will be added, in the near future, billiard-rooms and a gymnasium. The largest library in the Dominion is at his disposal and every important newspaper from coast to coast is on file in the readingroom.
To a casual visitor, the House of Commons seems to lack nothing to make life enjoyable. It would appear as if a member had nothing to do but loaf about this fine building all day long, sitting in the house and listening to good speeches, resting in the lounge rooms, dining splendidly in the restaurant, attending occasional committee meetings, and, finally, strolling a few hundred yards to the Chateau Laurier to sleep. Unquestionably, no distant field appears more green or more inviting than Parliament. As a member one is “somebody;” one goes to State balls, dines with His Excellency, attends receptions and important functions of all sorts and varieties.
Closer observation, however, reveals rather important flaws. Take the case of a highly trained and successful business executive, now retired and become a member of Parliament. R. C. Matthews, Conservative member for Toronto East centre, is such a one. Before retiring from business life he was the active head of R. C. Matthews and Company, investment bankers. Before his election, Mr. Matthews perhaps thought that being a member of Parliament was more an honor conferred upon one by one’s fellow citizens than a call to a position of great responsibility. If so, he is now a disillusioned man. Discussing the day-to-day life of a member of Parliament with the writer, he pointed out the tremendous mental and physical strain of listening attentively to six hours of debate five days in the week. The house sits from three till six o’clock in the afternoon and from eight till eleven o’clock in the evening. Consider the average business man. He usually does his share of the talking in his business hours, and once a week, or twice at most, he goes to church and listens to a sermon. Rarely does a sermon exceed more than thirty minutes and if so, complaints are usually forthcoming. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon for the business man either to let his mind wander from the discourse, brief though it be, or fall into a gentle doze.
Now Rt. Hon. Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister, and Hon. R. B. Bennett, leader of the Opposition, are accustomed to speak continuously for two or three hours; and the other 242 members of the Commons, excluding Mr. Speaker but including the cabinet ministers, are all allowed forty minutes in each debate in which to address the House.
Mr. Matthews points out that a member of Parliament must listen attentively to all speeches, particularly the important ones. He cannot doze or permit his thoughts to go wool-gathering. He may prop a newspaper in front of him, but while he appears to be reading he also is listening. Yet this only fills in his afternoons and evenings. In the morning he has a committee meeting. There are more than a dozen select standing committees set up each session to deal with various matters and every member is on one or two of them. In these committees the work is done by private members who must inform themseives fully on the subject matter of the business in hand in order to bear their share of the work.
Committees meet at 11 a.m., but long before this the private member must read his mail and dictate his letters. Now, a member’s mail averages from thirty to fifty letters per day, and when a lobby is in progress it may run as high as 200 letters per day. All letters must be answered! This is the first rule in successful politics, and the most senseless communication must be acknowledged at suitable length and in a happy vein.
It is right here that Mr. Matthews finds the greatest difference between the business executive and the member of Parliament. The business man finds his mail on his desk, neatly opened and ready to be perused and answered. The member finds his mail in his box in the House of Commons post-office, opens it himself and reads it. The business man presses a button, his private secretary in the next room immediately responds and dictation is underway at once. The member presses a button or telephones, and about fifteen minutes later a stenographer—-not a private secretary but a young lady who takes dictation from several members—appears. It may be, and often is the case, that she is busy elsewhere when he wants her, and if so, he must wait. When she comes, he or his room-mate may have a visitor and further delay must take place.
There are usually two or three false starts before the mail is disposed of. Later in the day the typed letters are brought to him; he signs them, puts each in its envelope and drops them in the mail chute. He then files away his correspondence.
But suppose, as sometimes happens, the member does not find the stenographer suitable. If it were his own business he would promptly discharge her and employ another, but matters are not so simple on Parliament Hill. The member has nothing to do with the hiring or firing of the help. It is provided by Mr. Speaker, and he may take it or do without just as he pleases. To get a different stenographer sometimes requires many interviews and considerable wire-pulling.
Yet this is not the half of it. There is much business to be transacted if the private member represents an urban constituency. Once an election is over, the good member becomes the representative of all his constituents, Grit and Tory, Labor and Progressive. Many business men have chores to be done at Ottawa and invariably they rely upon their member to act in their behalf. These chores have to do with the adjustment of financial matters arising out of disputes over customs duties, income and sales tax imposts, the granting of mining, timber and pulpwood or water power concessions, the gaining or removing of tariff protection. These are all of the greatest importance and, in order to be pressed to a successful issue, require painstaking and persistent effort on the part of the member. He must become acquainted with the higher branches of officialdom at Ottawa and must play his cards well, for the reason that a private member has little power to injure a deputy minister or the head of a large department branch. He cannot compel favorable action, but can obtain a hearing and discuss the matter in detail.
Many of the members who have a great deal of this kind of work thrust upon them, and Mr. Matthews is one, speak of the government officials in the highest terms of praise. They find that there is not a little red tape to be negotiated— an intricate way of going about business— but this is due to the fact that every government action is subject to criticism in Parliament, and in handling an item of business the officials are guided not only by the desire to reach a decision, but also to anticipate and forestall adverse criticism.
Furthermore, every member is besieged by constituents with requests for appointment to judgeships, post-offices, or posts in the Civil Service. The extent to which representations of this kind are made is not commonly known. When a King’s Bench judgeship fell vacant recently in Winnipeg, more than thirty candidates sought the appointment. Most of them wrote to the private members and requested their friends to do likewise, and several came to Ottawa and conducted personal campaigns.
It is in this work—done behind the scene and not reported in Hansard—that the private member contributes his full measure of service to the Dominion. Many of the problems which he solves by negotiation are of more importance than the lesser bills which are discussed with great pomp on the stage of parliament, and are reported at great length in the daily press. Indeed, there are many great services done in this field by the private member.
He Talks Not, but He Does Work
JS. Winnipeg McDIARMID, South, has Liberal never M.P. made for a speech in the House of Commons, and yet, because of his experience as a member of the Winnipeg municipal council, he was successful in ending a dispute of long standing between Winnipeg and the Federal Government in regard to the payment of high pressure water rates on Dominion Government buildings in that city. It may sound trivial, but the sum of money involved would yield in interest annually more than double Mr. McDiarmid’s indemnity. Then there was the question of the need for an anti-dumping duty on shingles. The Government was rather favorably inclined and the anti-dumping duty would have been imposed, thus increasing the cost of shingles throughout Canada, had not a few private members, of whom Mr. McDiarmid was one, taken an active part in the discussion. Some of these members were engaged in the construction trade and knew the shingle manufacturers of the United States. The question turned entirely upon whether or no these manufacturers were dumping shingles in Canada, and in no time accurate information was obtained and placed before the government. The case for the duty was destroyed and an increase in building costs was prevented, although nothing was published about it.
The services of the private member are many and varied. Few people know that Hon. H. M. Marler, a member of a former parliament, ^ drafted the West Indies Trade treaty at the request of the then government, or that the original idea of improving trade relations between the West Indies and this Dominion was conceived by Hance Logan, a private member from the Maritimes. Almost all the credit for the rapid exclusion of Orientals from the fishing and other industries on British Columbia belongs rightfully to A. W. Neill, a private member from Vancouver Island. The customs investigation of 1926 was initiated by Hon. Harry Stevens, a private member.
As a matter of fact, many private members work as hard, if not more so, than the cabinet ministers, and the effect upon their nerves and their health is very marked. It is always toward the close of a long session that the most bitter debates and stormy scenes occur. Members are suffering from overstrain, and the slightest provocation, a misplaced word, is sufficient to call forth a tempest. When the session of 1926 ended in a political crisis and a general election, there were more than ten private members in hospital.
As for the cabinet ministers, their ability to stand up under the strain of administering a department of the government and of answering for their actions in the House of Commons, remains a mystery to most of the back benchers. As a rule they are men of sound physique and unbounded vitality, but to those who view the political arena at Ottawa from close quarters, it is quite obvious that they suffer severely from overwork in session time.
When Hon. Ernest Lapointe led the government for two months in the gruelling session of 1926, his health was so poor that a doctor was kept in constant attendance in a special gallery of the Commons. The sudden death in the summer of 1926 of Hon. George Boivin did not come as a surprise to those who watched him in the Customs Inquiry committee. To the writer’s personal knowledge, he rarely left his office in the House of Commons before three o’clock in the morning. Those who remember the election campaign of 1926 will recall Rt. Hon. Arthur Meighen, pale and gaunt and worn. He spent several days in bed endeavoring to shake off an illness brought on by overwork. And Mr. Meighen was perhaps the hardiest and healthiest man in the House of Commons. He used to remark that when he got up in the morning he felt as if he had just returned from a month’s holiday.
Even the Prime Minister, whose vitality seems proof against all demands of office, narrowly escaped a breakdown in 1927. The cumulative effect of the election campaigns of 1925 and 1926, and the heavy session coming between, left him prostrated. Had the 1927 session not ended in April, he would scarcely have been able to carry on, and certainly would have been compelled to abandon his part in the Confederation Jubilee.
As a common rule, cabinet ministers take better care of themselves than private members. Last session when everyone was fagged and the House had a fit of nerves almost daily, it was remarked that Hon. Charles Stewart, minister of the Interior, seemed as fresh and chipper as a schoolboy.
Not Baby Kissers
OW do you do it?” someone asked. “Well,” said Mr. Stewart, “the fact is, I have no system. But I try to get in nine holes of golf every morning before 9.30, and I usually do my worrying in my office and not at night.” He recalled Walpole’s phrase; “I put off my cares when I put off my clothes.” Most of the cabinet ministers are ardent golfers and they endeavor to keep their minds clear and active by playing match games. The best players are Hon. Dr J. H. King, and Hon. J. C. Elliott. Mr. Lapointe is learning.
The member of Parliament, whether a cabinet minister, a party leader or a back bencher, differs vastly from the individual he is fancied to be. He is not a hand-shaker, a back-slapper, or baby kisser. He is probably a good mixer and certainly is a hard worker. As for his salary of $4,000 per annum, he could easily disburse the whole of it in his riding, without using one dollar for personal expenditures. Every member meets with a hundred and one calls for donations which he cannot evade. He must subscribe to every church building fund, every baseball and hockey club. He must donate cups and trophies and he must bear no inconsiderable share of the expense of “whists,” “euchres” and “dances” put on by the ward associations. His election expenses exceed $1,000 on the average and the insufficiency of party campaign funds is notorious.
Not infrequently he becomes interested in a particular subject and pursues it persistently year after year. George Coote, U.F.A., member for Macleod, made a hobby of the automobile tariff. He collected information and brought it to the House of Commons, and finally after three years of effort the government took action.
There was once a member of Parliament who became convinced of the danger of keeping flower-pots on the outer ledges of windows. He introduced legislation prohibiting this practice, but it invariably failed of enactment because Parliament was too busy with more important matters. The member is now dead and since his death nothing has been heard of flower-pots.
L. P. Bancroft, Liberal-Progressive member for Selkirk, has devoted his public life, apparently, to two very different matters. For three years he has endeavored to remove the residence qualification in the Election Act in the cases of university students, school teachers and ministers. General elections are usually held in the autumn, and these electors are disfranchised because they have just left their homes and cannot meet the continuous residence clause in the act. His other hobby is binder twine and here he seeks to decrease the margin of error in the length of twine per bale allowed under the statute. He has finally convinced the government of the necessity of amending the Election Act but the binder twine problem promises to keep him actively employed for many years to come.
Parliament, of course, is not an assembly of perfect men, and it would be untrue to present every private member as a mirror of virtue. Not all are as industrious and as conscientious as those who have been mentioned. If the Canadian people by some happy chance could elect a House of Commons composed altogether of men like Matthews, Coote, McDiarmid, Bancroft, and Stevens, the long-standing controversy as to the efficiency of democratic government would be stilled for all time. There are misfits and there are second raters. Unless a member has character he is unable to avoid the steeps and pitfalls with which life on Parliament Hill is strewn. He is, after all, a privileged person; even the law regards him with an indulgent eye and he can break it with comparative impunity.
In former days, private members, unless ambitious and desirous of cabinet rank, seldom exerted themselves. Like Omar they often made it a habit never to be deep in anything but wine. Drinking, perhaps, has chained more first-class men in public life to mediocrity than has any other single factor. Old timers still tell stories of Nicholas Flood Davin, one of the greatest orators who ever graced the House of Commons. They tell of how hê used to wander through the streets of the capital, delivering orations in the market-place to the unbounded astonishment of the farmers. One recalls Sir John A. Macdonald’s humorous and fatherly warning to D’Arcy McGee— “There is room in a cabinet for but one drunkard,” he said.
These are not “the Good Old Days”
CHANGING political conditions have done much to enhance the status of the private member. In the good old days when party government was in complete ascendancy, the activities of the private member, particularly in the government party, were restricted. The cabinet ministers looked after the public business, the private members kept their noses out of affairs of state which were transacted by their betters, and remained within the buildings ready to vote down any feeble onslaught of the opposition. There was not much debating in former Parliaments as we have known it in the last two decades. Cartier once boldly declared that the best argument he knew was to “call in de members.” Much time was devoted to fulsome and allembracing partizan abuse, and charges of maladministration, graft and corruption were hurled about with truly astonishing freedom.
However, with the growth of political independence and the gradual breaking down of partyism, recent parliaments have included a large body of members not pledged to any party and they have succeeded in subduing party strife and concentrating discussion upon public issues rather than on party records. Nevertheless, it still remains the fact that large numbers of private members consider their responsibilities adequately discharged if they succeed in being on hand to vote for their party on important division. They play an insignificant part in the proceedings of Parliament and are rarely in their places unless the division bells are ringing. So it is that on an average day the House of Commons contains row upon row of empty seats and upon rare occasions there is difficulty in drumming up a quorum.
The drone in public life is disappearing, however, and the prospects are that the private member will grow in importance