Backstage at Ottawa
Further pungent paragraphs concerning the strategies and the personalities of the parliamentary struggle at the Capital
A POLITICIAN WITH A NOTEBOOK
THE halfway mark of the session has brought its inevitable stocktaking, and the estimates—friendly, hostile, judicial, as the case may be—of the Prime Minister and his achievements. Mr. Bennett, having had his first real bap-
tism of fire, has been analyzed and psychoanalyzed by friend and foe. It was one thing to experience the first exaltation of victory, to go through a special session with fault-finding all but a sacrilege. It is another and quite different thing to account for eight months of stewardship, with promissory notes falling due, and an Opposition pitiless in its scrutiny, and rooters less vociferous in the galleries. Mr. Bennett, thwarted by circumstances, is making this discovery. Plagued by problems and enemies, and sometimes afflicted by friends, his portion is now the test of the trials and realities of office. It is what Disraeli once described as the difference between courtship and possession.
Eight months of this testing have taken toll from Mr. Bennett. Outwardly he is the picture of health and vigor—bronzed, clear-eyed, alert; but less visible things tell the price that is being exacted by the worries and responsibilities of the Premiership. He himself does not complain. Extraordinarily resilient, buttressed by an indestructible faith in his star, he insists that he is in perfect shape, declines to play the martyr in a hair shirt.
“More Valorous than Prudent”
TT IS an attitude more valorous than prudent. Late on the night of the day when Mr. King made his four and a half hour speech, Mr. Bennett was attacked by appendicitis. Physicians were summoned, diagnosed his case, forbade him going to Parliament. Mr. Bennett vigorously protested. Finally, after the doctors insisted, he consented to be examined the next day before the House met, promised that if he had a temperature he would not appear to answer Mr. King.
He didn’t keep his promise. On the next day, he wouldn’t even let his temperature be taken. Suffering from a night of pain, and with little food, he brushed aside his colleagues, laughed at their advice. Like the veteran actor whose credo is that no matter what befalls the show must go on, he declared that he would make his speech no matter what the consequences. There would be no fears from his friends or jeers from his foes that to Mr. King’s attack he was unable to give an answer.
As Mr. Bennett rose in his place that afternoon and his followers cheered thunderously, few guessed the
strain under which he was laboring or the risk that he had incurred. Nor did his critics realize the reason for his seeming weakness in attack. Occasionally, there were flashes of the old tempestuous power, but more often there were tired sentences, a weariness and absence of drive which only a few understood.
Yet Mr. Bennett, putting on a brave front, if showing traces of care, carries on with the same zeal and terrific force which he displayed at the outset. He is still Minister for External Affairs, Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, acting Minister of Labor in the House. It was hinted to him, all but urged by his friends, that he secure a Finance Minister—preferably Mr. Meighen; that he free himself of the burden of leading the House, leading his party, and administering three departments. His answer was an expressed determination to frame and put through this year’s budget, personally to put into motion the economic policies which he promised, to go to this summer’s Empire Economic Conference and renew the proposals of his Government.
Mr. Bennett’s resolve is to make himself personally responsible, to stake his own career, as it were, upon the success or failure of his cause. If he succeeds, if his policies triumph, then he and he alone will be the victor. If he fails, then the failure will be his own, and his own reputation will suffer.
'T'HIS strength of Mr. Bennett is, to the Opposition, his weakness. It is what Mr. King has seized upon, with all the cunning of a keen tactician, to present the Prime Minister before the country as an autocrat, a dictator, a Canadian Mussolini. It was this note upon which he played, and to which he returned again and again, throughout the early weeks of the session. His strategy was, and is, to make Mr. Bennett into a sort of Golliwog, to craftily and subtly insinuate an unattractive and dictatorial and dangerous Prime Minister into the public mind.
An industrious member of the press gallery took the pains to compile from Mr. King’s speeches the following pyramid, or rather Eiffel Tower, of designations applied by him to Mr. Bennett:
“Rough” “Coercive” “Combative” “Belligerent" “The Great I Am” “Government is His” “ One-man Government’ “Is Coercing Parliament” “Is Fighting And Blasting” “Is Subverting the Cabinet” “This Government is His Own” “The Force of Might, not Right” “He is the Alpha and Omega All” “He Is Coercing Other Countries" “He is Driving Things Through House” “He is Coercing the British Government” “Laying Down the Law with Threats of Force” “An Attitude of Assurance and of Arrogance” “The Methods of the Blaster and the Gunman” And while Mr. King professes to think all these things Mr. would have the
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of him, Mr. Bennett counters by picturing Mr. King as a political chameleon, or, to vary the metaphor, as a politician who is something new often and nothing very long, one who has all but exhausted the capacity of change. Thus, dancing through Mr. Bennett’s speeches are words and phrases like these: “Appeals to passions and prejudices,” “a would-be seer,” “deliberate misrepresentation,” "subject to whims and caprices," "changes his mind overnight,” “an oleaginous and saponaceous manner of speaking,” “an empty rhetorician,” “a master of circumlocution,” “a creator of distrust and suspicion,” “an exaggerated ego,” “a practitioner of platitudes and deceptions.”
Each tries to combat the propaganda of the other by a more pleasant picture of himself. Mr. Bennett’s description of what Mr. King calls autocracy is that he is merely “frank,” “plain,” “blunt,” “firm,” “dignified,” “a practical business man,” “shunning circumlocution and uncertainty.” These are actually the Prime Minister’s words taken from his speeches.
Mr. King, on the other hand, likes to think of himself as a sort of Gladstonian Liberal, and while he does not openly say so, he leaves a subtle but unmistakable implication that he is one who values spiritual things, that he is a man of peace, an internationalist, an achiever of national, Imperial and world unity; that his mission is to allay sectional and racial and religious prejudices, to protect the people's liberties, to fight for the underdog, to succor the weak, the distressed and the oppressed.
Yet these curiosities of temperament and this Parliamentary game notwithstanding, Mr. King and Mr. Bennett get on famously. Mr. King is the more adroit, the more astute of the two. He has the gift of selling himself to the public; also of selling himself to the press.
A few weeks ago there was the annual meeting of the Parliamentary press gallery. There was a free-and-easy luncheon, and, following a traditional castom, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition and a few veteran journalist M. P.’s were present and spoke. Mr. Bennett, as usual, was serious. Quite gravely he proceeded to lecture the correspondents upon their duties, upon their misdemeanors, to point out when and where and how often newspapers made difficult the path of statesmen.
Then came Mr. King. Mr. King was once a reporter, and» in the company of newspapermen, never forgets it. So on this occasion, seeing a chance, he seized upon it, and, essaying the rôle of a journalist, took up the cudgels for the press. In a neat five-minute speech he proceeded to set Mr. Bennett right, to point out that nine times out of ten, in cases of misreporting, the politicians and not the reporters were wrong. It all made a great hit with the gallery, was a score for Mr. King.
The Premier’s Human Side
nPHE truth is—-and this session has X emphasized it—that Mr. Bennett knows little about the popularity game and cares less. More than that, Mr. Bennett has shown that he is not overly particular about the House of Commons. Thus, for hours at a time the Prime Minister absents himself from his seat, spends his afternoons and most of his evenings in his office dealing with matters of administration. Mr. King, meanwhile, either watches over his flock in Parliament or sits chatting or planning with them in the lobbies.
It is not that Mr. Bennett lacks the social instinct or that he is a snob. There are times when he unbends graciously,
and when, in the company of a few friends, he talks most charmingly and entertainingly.
Nor does Mr. Bennett permit immersion in his administrative duties to close his mind to the lighter things of life. Thus when, not long ago, an Ottawa impresario required certain local support in an effort to bring the New York Metropolitan Opera Company to the Capital, it was Mr. Bennett who, solicited curiously enough by that veteran Liberal, the Hon. Charles Murphy, promptly offered the necessary guarantee to ensure such a musical event.
Nor is this the only evidence that behind Mr. Bennett’s aloofness and abruptness there is an ordinary and sometimes lovable humanity. He votes dry, talks dry, drinks dry, but it has been left for an American writer to disclose that he has a liking for chocolates, keeps a box near him during work; while it has been recently revealed that, among his other talents, Mr. Bennett is a considerable cartoonist. When, not long ago, a delegation appeared before him, the Prime Minister sat with a pad worked constantly upon it. The delegates probably flattered themselves with the belief that Mr. Bennett was taking copious notes of their words of wisdom. What he was actually doing was a competent job of cartooning the various delegates and speakers.
CO MUCH for Mr. Bennett. What of ^ the other parties? While the Liberals have their trials and tribulations over what they should do about the tariff, about taxation, and about other matters, the Progessives bear a cross of their own. They, too, have their schisms. Their first trouble arose when they discovered apostates in their ranks, Tories in disguise. The result has been a failure of the Progressive caucus to reach common ground, a failure evidenced in their inability to devise a sub-amendment to the Speech from the Throne, subsequently revealed in hardly less striking ways. The Tories of the flock emerge as Milton Campbell, of Mackenzie; A. M. Carmichael, of Kindersley; W. T. Lucas, of Camrose; and William Irvine, of Wetaskiwin. All ran either as independents or as U. F. A’s, but evidently with the Tory benediction and support, and are now allegedly more in sympathy with Mr. Bennett than with Mr. King.
The result is that the Progressives, like some others, incline to pussyfoot on the tariff. Their old battle-cry, the banner under which they fought so valiantly after 1921, has been cast aside, and in its stead there is talk about our monetary system, about the need of bank reform, of deflation, of an abandonment of the gold standard. Thus Mr. Coote, of Maeleod, one of the ablest of the U. F. A’s, actually brought forward a proposal to abandon the gold standard, to cease raising loans in foreign countries, and to allow trade trends to take their course. There is not one chance in a million of such a plan being accepted, but its very suggestion is a revelation of the advanced lines of economic thought to which the once moderate party of Mr. Crerar has advanced.
More radical, too, are the Liberals. It is the history of Liberalism that it is more liberal in opposition than in office, and in this case history is but repeated. Mr. King is once more crusading for the “plain people,” rallying his legions against the “trusts and combines” and “plutocratic wealth,” and he is crusading with all his old adroitness and skill.
One of the ablest of his new captains— the session’s most distinguished find—is Captain Ian Mackenzie, the Scots-born member from Vancouver, conqueror of Harry Stevens. Mackenzie is that almost extinct thing in Parliament these days, a fiery old-fashioned orator. His eloquence is of a type that was popular in Parliament thirty years ago, but the House listens eagerly to his rhetoric and applauds it uproariously. Should Mackenzie’s mind turn out to be as active as his tongue, then the time will come when he will be accepted as a major Parliamentary figure, as a new force in politics.
rT"'0 GET back to the Government. Mr.
Bennett, notwithstanding all his divorcement from ordinary earthy things, is by no means incapable of the practical game of politics. Ottawa, for example, puzzles just now, and rightly, over what has taken place in connection with the Canadian National Railways terminal project in the city of Montreal. The story is a curious one. Two years ago the Canadian National plans, devised by an eminent British engineer, were approved by the Government and Parliament, and the necessary money provided to carry out their construction. Then, when all was going well, came Mr. Camilien Houde. Mr. Houde who, in addition to being mayor of Montreal, is the leader of the Conservative party in the Province of Quebec, objected to the scheme. Precisely why Mr. Houde objected, or on whose behalf, is not clear; but at all events his opposition carried him to the extent of securing a New York engineer to draw up a rival plan, a weapon which Mr. Houde used in an effort to get Mr. Bennett to cancel the scheme already well under way by the Canadian National engineers.
Mr. Bennett declined. With all of the newspapers of Montreal, English as well as French, opposing Mr. Houde, and with all of the business and industrial interests opposing him as well, the Prime Minister decided that discretion was the better part of valor, that he shouldn’t interfere.
Rebuffed and a bit humiliated, Mr. Houde wasn’t vanquished. He was so far from being vanquished that what happened in the intervening months may be told thus:
1. Mr. Houde secured the right to have the City of Montreal appear before the Board of Railway Commissioners to show why the Canadian National should not proceed with its Eastern Belt Line, an important integral part of its terminal project.
2. The Board of Railway Commissioners having ruled in favor of the Canadian National, Mr. Houde appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, his complaint being that the Railway Com-
mission had not given Montreal opportunity to develop its case.
3. The Supreme Court of Canada having thrown out his appeal, holding that the Board of Railway Commissioners had given its decision after a full and fair hearing, Mr. Houde next appealed to the Governor-in-Council, which is the Cabinet.
4. The Cabinet, presided over by Mr. Bennett, decided in favor of Mr. Houde, held, in effect, that the Supreme Court of Canada was wrong, ordered the Board of Railway Commissioners to again hear Mr. Houde.
To those backstage in Ottawa, this decision of the Cabinet is significant. What it is held to mean, frankly, is that Mr. Bennett has strained a point to help his Quebec political ally, to make it a little easier for him to face Mr. Taschereau when the guns get going in Quebec. Mr. Houde had staked much of his reputation on this Montreal terminal fight. He had told his friends and supporters that he would stop the National plans. If he had failed to do so, his prestige in the coming Quebec battle would have been seriously impaired.
As it is, Mr. Bennett’s decision temporarily heightens Mr. Houde’s fortunes, a fact which Mr. Houde is not slow to proclaim. Not only does the Quebec Chieftain boast a partial victory over the Canadian National, but his claim, and the claim of his friends, is that this is but the thin end of the wedge, that it means the ultimate rejection of the National terminal scheme as a whole.
Meanwhile, appearing simultaneously and quite significantly, is this item in a Montreal newspaper. It is so clear that all who run may read:
“A complete accord of the Conservative forces in the Province of Quebec has been effected, with the Rt. Hon. R. B. Bennett, Prime Minister of Canada, and Mayor Camilien Houde, leader of the Provincial Opposition, co-operating in every respect for success of their political cause.”
Concluding with the session itself, it has been more monotonous than memorable. Casualties have depleted the ranks of both parties of their best fighting captains. Mr. Malcolm and Mr. Moore, two of Mr. King’s ablest lieutenants, have been forced out of commission by illness, while on the Conservative side Mr. Stevens is still sorely missed. Finally, as proof that adversity likes a shining mark, Administrator Duff has just emerged from the Valley of the Shadow, while the health of Mr. Speaker Black leaves something to be desired. When prorogation will come is not known, though from present indications it will be well into July.
Then, of course, will be the Imperial Economic Conference. It will be the largest and greatest gathering of its kind that the Capital of Canada has known, and how it will measure up with Old World hospitality remains to be seen. When Dominion Premiers go to London they are met as conquering heroes. Their stay there, indeed, is one long losing battle against an overpowering kindliness; and only time can tell whether, when upon arriving at the Chateau Laurier, British and over-sea delegates will find roses on their bedroom chiffoniers, plus a decanter of whisky—which is the good old British custom. Already, however, two floors of the Chateau have been optioned for their use which, in addition to being something by way of a beginning, may well save the country a pretty bill for taxis. For these Empire conferences