An outspoken attack on the policy that is making the portfolio of finance a passport to the grave
A. G. DEXTERJanuary151930
Do We Kill Our Finance Ministers ?
An outspoken attack on the policy that is making the portfolio of finance a passport to the grave
A. G. DEXTER
FIVE finance ministers have held office in the past decade. Two are dead. A third retired to private life broken in health. The others held the post for so brief a period that they might be considered never to have been in office at all.
The sudden death of Hon. J. A. Robb, one of the greatest of our finance ministers, brings Canadians face to face with the question: Can they afford to go on in the future as in the past, permitting the financial administrators of the country to be broken down by overwork? Do they desire to prolong a condition wherein to promote a man to be minister of finance is to confer upon him one of the greatest honors in the gift of the nation, accompanied by a death warrant?
Consider the record.
A Crushing Burden
IN 1919, Hon. Sir Thomas White retired from the ministership of finance a physical wreck. There followed a brief administration by Sir Henry Drayton. Then came Fielding, and within fifteen months of taking office, the “little grey man” was an invalid, fated to eke out a few years of life, bedridden and in pain, and then to die. Then came Robb. With the exception of a short period in 1926, Mr. Robb held the portfolio of finance for seven years. Today he is in his grave.
He died as a direct result of overwork. Two years ago he wanted to lay down his office. His doctors told him then that he could not long continue to stand up against the pressure of his duties as minister. But the appeals of his colleagues proved too strong for him and he hung on—with the inevitable result. During the illness in Toronto which preceded his death he worried unceasingly about the business of the department. In the delirium which goes with pneumonia, he thought he was working in his office in the East Block. Most of the time he thought he was at a meeting of the treasury board where departmental estimates are reviewed by the finance minister. Part of the time he was bitterly fighting with a minister whose estimates he regarded as being too extravagant.
No one, of course, is compelled to accept the office of finance minister. There is nothing compulsory about it, and it is not on record that a prime minister ever had difficulty in finding willing candidates. It is on record, however, that prime ministers have failed time and again to get the man best fitted for the office. Why? Because big business men in Canada, in contrast to the rank and file of the population, know the responsibilities and burdens which the office entails.
If Canada in the future is to be served by finance ministers as capable as those who have guided the destinies of the Dominion in the past, public opinion must demand a change in the way the finances and the fiscal policy of the Dominion are administered. Otherwise the death toll caused by the overstrain will continue.
There is, in reality, nothing remarkable in the mortality of recent years among finance ministers. Men cannot reach the summits of office in a government until they are well advanced in years. To be a minister of finance, one must have a record of success in the business world, or in politics, or in both. Fielding achieved the post at the age of forty-eight, Sir Thomas White at forty-five, and Robb at sixty-four. In each case, their physical power was declining, and their recovery from the severe and prolonged strains of office—strains which come in every session of parliament and in every election campaign—was slow and halting.
Canadian people do not realize the responsibilities which devolve upon a minister of finance. Contrast the work of Mr. Robb in his last year of life with that of the greatest executive official in private enterprise in the Dominion. Mr. Robb had to look after an income of $450,000,000, which is more than the combined income of the two great railway companies of Canada. He had to supervise the expenditure of $390,000,000, or something more than $1,000,000 per day. That works out at $690 per minute or eleven dollars per second. Every second of the day and night, the Dominion government spent eleven dollars and Mr. Robb, in the final analysis, was responsible for it and had to answer to parliament for it.
There are few corporations in the world with an annual income and outgo equal to that of the Canadian Treasury. But the managing director of such a corporation will be found to be in a vastly different position from that of the Canadian minister of finance. To begin with, he will be responsible only to a board of directors, and through them to a limited number of shareholders. He will run his business to suit himself, see the people he desires to see, and decline to allow his time to be frittered away by lobbyists and office seekers. When he makes a decision it will be final, and when his day’s work is done he will not have to make speeches at public meetings, attend banquets where the food is too abundant, and in other ways “mix” with the people.
A Tremendous Task
A MOREOVER a minister of finance is -*-*-*not concerned only with a single business enterprise. If he is doing his job, he must keep his finger on the pulse of all Canadian commerce. A crop failure in the west is a warning signal which he must consider carefully. Months before the effect of a crop failure is felt in eastern Canada, the minister of finance must be trimming the sails of Federal fiscal policy, reducing expenditures, paring “estimates” of future expenditure to take care of the time when Federal revenues will decline. If a reparations conference breaks down in Europe, the average Canadian would not be really interested, but the man on the quarterdeck at Ottawa must weigh the result upon Canadian business. Instability in Europe would mean reduced purchasing power, a decrease in Canadian exports and a lessening of our trade. No one in the Dominion was more interested than the minister of finance in the recent crash in prices of stocks. In fact, a good minister of finance must keep closely in touch with every world event which might affect the financial position of the Dominion.
If he could give his time to his work unreservedly, the task would be easier. But a minister of finance, in addition, must be a politician. Not only must he shoulder the responsibility of controlling the throttle of the greatest financial institution of the country and of constantly scanning near and distant horizons for signs of change, but he must listen to the claims and the importunities of party followers, find jobs for hungry constituents, be careful not to injure the prestige of party supporters by policies which, however wise and in the public interest, may be disagreeable to certain communities or groups of powerful individuals.
There may be a disposition to question the statement that a minister of finance is responsible for all government income and expenditures. It is true that there are sixteen other cabinet ministers in charge of departments, which are authorized by parliament to collect and spend money. But anyone familiar with the machinery of government on Parliament Hill knows that the finance minister must supervise the “estimates” of the expenditure of every department before these “estimates” are submitted to parliament.
Keeping Tab on the Spenders
AND none better than Mr. Robb could ■L*have told of the hours of expostulation, often of entreaty, which a finance minister must go through in his unceasing effort to keep down expenditures. Even after parliament has granted money to the departments, the minister of finance must exercise unceasing vigilance to make certain that appropriations are not exceeded. In regard to revenue, much of the burden of collecting taxes rests upon the shoulders of the minister of national revenue. But here again the minister of finance must bear the final responsibility, for the obvious reason that upon him devolves the task of making expenditure come within revenue, of administering the public debt, and of keeping the credit of the nation good in the money markets of the world.
The Canadian people have become so accustomed to the pre-eminently sound financial position of their country that they rarely pause to consider how it was achieved and how much it means to them to have it continue. And yet, if through unwise financial administration at Ottawa or reckless extravagance the financial standing of Canada should be impaired, the flow of money into the Dominion for commercial investment would cease and prosperity vanish. In recent years, Canadians have experienced unprecedented prosperity. But while the citizens counted their increased incomes and companies declared larger dividends, the minister of finance was looking forward to the maturity in the next four years of more than one billion dollars of public debt. He must decide how this huge sum was to be redeemed; how much of it must be passed on to be borne by succeeding generations. Those who were closely associated with Mr. Robb knew that never an hour passed that this problem was not present in his mind.
In addition, a minister of finance must administer a department of government which is directly concerned with the commercial institutions of the country. He controls the chartered banks, under the Bank Act; the trust and loan companies; the insurance companies. The Federal Rural Credits Board, recently created, is under his jurisdiction, and this Board alone will soon be doing more business than most of the loan companies.
The Tariff Act, under which the customs duties are imposed, is one of his charges, and amendments to it can only be made upon his motion in parliament. There are 1,214 items in the Tariff Act, each one of vital consequence to some Canadian industry. The struggle over the tariff proceeds unceasingly and in it the minister of finance is the central figure. In recent years the burden of the tariff has become so great that a Tariff Advisory Board has been set up to hear complaints. But this Board has no power to do more than hold an enquiry. The responsibility for decisions remains as always with the finance minister. He must present all tariff changes to parliament and defend them from attack.
"pOR six months of the year he is
chained to his seat in the House of Commons. He is the dominant figure in the budget legislation and is constantly under fire. Then, too, he must ever be on guard to protect the National Treasury. If he were absent, it might easily happen that the House of Commons would endorse a motion entailing the expenditure of public money. Motions of this kind constantly are arising and a minister of finance must maintain ceaseless vigilance, if his fiscal plans are not to be blown to the four winds.
Actually what has happened in Canada is that the administration of the finance department at Ottawa has not been changed to meet modern conditions. The department is operating much as it did thirty years ago. But the responsibilities of the minister of finance have grown with the country. In 1896, when Fielding came to Ottawa, the revenues to be looked after were $37,000,000. Today the revenues are $450,000,000. The expenditures then were $38,000,000 against $390,000,000 today. The public debt in 1897 was $332,534,131, or less than the income for last year. The debt today is $2,500,000,000.
Consider how the finances of other countries are administered. The Secretary of the Treasury in the United States is responsible for a much greater amount of money, but he is not concerned with the business of tariff making, nor does he appear in Congress. The functions which break down the health of Canadian ministers of finance are discharged in the Republic by committees of Congress and the Senate.
In Great Britain, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is infinitely better off than is the Canadian minister of finance. His tariff worries are few, because, in the main, Great Britain is a free trade country. Moreover, he is relieved of the important but humdrum duties of constant attendance in parliament and of hearing innumerable deputations, by his undersecretary, who is a member of parliament and a deputy-minister in the true sense of the term. Had Sir Thomas White possessed the services of an undersecretary, his health almost certainly would not have been undermined. He might have accepted the leadership of the Conservative party when it was offered to him at the time of Sir Robert Borden’s retirement, and the subsequent political history of Canada might easily have been changed. Likewise, had Hon. J. A. Robb been relieved of the endless petty worries of office by an undersecretary, he undoubtedly would be alive today.
Six years ago, when Fielding was stricken, there was a popular outcry against the near-sightedness of parliament in not providing him with a private car. The aged statesman, it appeared, had travelled to the Maritimes in a lower berth. The truth, however, is that a much more far-reaching reform in the machinery of government is necessary.
There can be but little doubt that we ought to adopt the system of under-secretaries used in Great Britain. This would relieve ministers from the unbearable pressure of detail, make for more efficient administration and create a capable body of young men who would be available for portfolios in the future. No doubt it would cost some money, but even on the purely monetary basis the return would probably far outweigh the expenditure. And, more important still, it would conserve for the benefit of the country the talents of those men of experience whom we can ill afford to lose.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.