Backstage at Ottawa

A POLITICIAN WITH A NOTEBOOK April 1 1932

Backstage at Ottawa

A POLITICIAN WITH A NOTEBOOK April 1 1932

Backstage at Ottawa

A POLITICIAN WITH A NOTEBOOK

Chairs are being dusted for the Economic Conference — the nerves of the Civil Service are on edge—and Disillusionment hangs o'er Parliament Hill

DISILLUSIONMENT hangs heavily over Parliament Hill. That stage of the session has been reached when, opening excitement over and galleries growing thinner, the House begins to feel its futility, becomes bored.

It is always the same. Every session begins with a blare of trumpets, with high promise, expectations. Order papers are cluttered with brave resolutions, with motions about everything; the Government’s programme is awaited eagerly; the Capital throngs with deputations.

Then the interest wanes. The brave resolutions are talked out or shelved; the motions produce little but stereotyped answers; the Government’s programme denies adventure; the deputations vanish. Everything trails off into thoughts of-going home.

The disillusionment this year has come sooner; is more widespread. It extends to the Ministry. Last year, and the year before that, there was implicit faith in the Prime Minister. Even Liberals, the most impenitent of them, stood in awe of him. Enthusiasts proclaimed him as a superman, the great engineer of politics and business who was going to conquer the depression.

Last session saw another stage. It was the stage when, doubt creeping in, everybody said we must stand by the Government, not interfere with the pilot on the bridge. Mr. Dunning, late great Liberal Minister of Finance, was the first to shout it.

Now is the third and last stage. With the roseate dawn of two years ago turned to a drab grey, politicians and press have become querulous, sceptical, often cynical. Some of Mr. Bennett’s old admirers entertain doubts. They begin to wonder whether he really is the great combination of lawyer, business man and economist that they had been led to believe.

These doubts perhaps are unfair to Mr. Bennett. For he has never had a chance. Like Mr. Hoover and many another, the current of the times has been too strong for him. A Coolidge or a Mackenzie King could be great in days of prosperity; just as certain financiers were great, and some industrialists. They never had to breast adversity. They escaped real problems.

Not that Mr. Bennett is blameless for what his critics call his deflation. He has been prone to cherish fetishes. Just now it is the balance of trade. There are those who suspect that Mr. Bennett confuses the balance of trade with the

balance of payments, which is a vastly different thing. But no matter. The point is that the thing has become his be-all and end-all in life, the touchstone of all his policies. Are imports up and exports down? Mr. Bennett forthwith rushes off to heighten some item in the tariff. Goods must be kept out at all costs. There is the balance of trade ! And so we have tariff making by order-in-council, schedules heightened by the stroke of a pen, day-to-day changes in valuations and classifications, and all other tariff intricacies. Ottawa, in all these years, has seen nothing like it. And neither has Canadian business.

And there is the suspicion of inconsistency, of a discrepancy between promise and performance. There was the case of the Disarmament Conference. Mr. Bennett talked about it like a Robert Cecil. It was a tremendous thing, vital. But when Mr. Bennett came to select Canada’s delegates, it was different. Sir George Perley is an amiable gentleman, the soul of honor, and Mr. Maurice Dupré is a cultivated young French-Canadian. But nobody believes that these gentlemen will take Geneva by storm, or make the slightest difference to the Conference. Sir Robert Borden would have made a difference, also Mr. Rowell. And one or two others; Mr. Meighen. for instance. But they remain at home.

It is this sort of thing that makes people wonder.

Mr. Mackenzie King, to give him his due, was careful about these things. He selected good delegates; went outside his party for them. And so with Mr. Meighen.

Mr. Bennett, for some extraordinary reason, has been different. His delegates abroad have been mediocre: and Ottawa still laughs over the tale, supposed to be true, of how, on the eve of his departure for Geneva last year, one of our envoys thought that he was going to the Disarmament Conference.

Then there is that Empire Economic Conference. Even Conservatives ask how Mr. Bennett proposes squaring his present tariff policy with the clear objects of the Conference. If, as he now holds, a favorable trade balance is paramount.

must take precedence over all else, then what will happen if, having given preferences to British goods, imports rise and the favorable balance disappears? In other words, if tariff making by order-incouncil is necessary to balance trade now. won’t it be just as necessary next year? And, if it does become necessary, imperative, what will happen to the preferences?

Mr. Bennett, at this Conference, will have to give as well as take. British politicians are not coming to Ottawa to ooze patriotic platitudes. They are coming to bargain. When Mr. Bennett was in London he held all the top cards. He could lay them on the table, ask Mr. Thomas and Mr. Snowden what they proposed doing. It will be different in July. Not Mr. Bennett this time, but Mr. Walter Runciman, will hold the trumps. Mr. Runciman will be able to say and those who know him feel sure that he will say it: “Here is your wheat quota, and here is your ten per cent preference. What do we get?"

The need of a favorable trade balance will hardly be an answer. Mr. Walter Runciman is not a “Jimmy” Thomas. He is a hard-boiled, hard-headed business man, plus an experienced politician. He will easily be the ablest man at the Conference. He will return home with something, or he will return without giving anything. There need be no mistake about that.

Meanwhile Ottawa, vastly pleased, prepares to play host to the Conference. More than 500 visitors will have to be cared for -Ministers from the Mother Country and from four Dominions, including, possibly, delegates sent by Mr. De Valera; under-secretaries and secretaries, experts and economists, tariff technicians and observers from various industries, lobbyists and journalists - all the usual hangers-on from everywhere. Mr. Bennett, after his Spartan fashion, intimates that the Conference is for business, that the social side will be subordinated; but Ottawa is hopefully sceptical. Up on Sandy Hill and down at Rockliffe more than one drawing-room is being expectantly refurbished; and over across the Ottawa River more than one golf club, hit by the depression, contemplates delegates seeking an afternoon and evening’s flow of sport after a hard morning’s flow of reason, thereby lessening the possibility of an extra assessment.

And Mr. Bennett, despite his ban on the social side, has $250,000 in the estimates to defray the Conference expenses. A lot of this, of course, is to pay the cost of getting up data,

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! but a great deal of it will be left over, j available for entertainment, to pay for the i odd dinner and for rooms at the Château.

! Sparks Street, made gloomy over that civil I service salary cut. prepares to look its best j again, looks forward to some Imperial shopping.

The Conference won’t lie over in a day. It will open with a plenary session, which will ' be an open talkfest, with everybody saying something yet managing to say nothing, but the real work will be done by sub-committees working secretly and reporting back to the main conference, which will meet even more secretly. Not until everything is over will the country know what has happened. That is, unless a Conference has as many leaks as a caucus.

Meanwhile, and not before time, a start has been made in preparing the vast amount of information necessary for our presentation of detailed proposals. The British will come well prepared. They are past masters of the art. Whether it be at a peace conference, or a disarmament con| ference, or an Imperial or economic one, j the British are there with a secretariat that I can produce anything upon any relevant ¡question at any time. “Come,” said j Clemenceau to Sir Maurice Hankey at j Versailles, “pull it out of that black bag of I yours.” And it was not for a vacation that I Mr. Leishing, Sir William Clark’s brilliant ; young first secretary, sailed from Canada ! for London more than a month ago. With more than one trunk well filled with data about Canada, he was off to the Dominions Office to help it prepare for this Conference.

Economy And Inquisitions

ABOUT these things, as about others,, Ottawa becomes restive. It is disturbed ! for example, about the future of unemployment relief: about the St. Lawrence Waterway ; about railways; about the Civil Service. It may be nothing more than reaction from two years of frustrated hopes, but there is none the less a mood to debunk, to challenge, to become weary of martyrs in hair ! shirts.

i There is the matter of economy. Everybody is for it, acclaims Mr. Bennett for ^ practising it. But many can’t reconcile the j spectacle of Ministers cutting ten per cent from the salaries of $2,000-a-yeay civil ser! vants while voting themselves $2,000 annually in lieu of free motor cars. This, it is felt, is scarcely in line with the principle that the measure of sacrifice is not what a man gives but what he has left.

These criticisms may be just or unjust. The point is that they exist, tnat they are held and expressed by many, and that they are not strengthening the Government. Outside Ottawa there may be little sympathy for the Civil Service; a feeling that it is overmanned, overwomanned. overpaid. The reply is that, admitting these things, the remedy is not a haphazard slashing of the services, with danger to efficiency.

There is a tendency, too, to rush in, only to find the place bad for angels. Thus, following the ten per cent cut for all civil servants, there followed a tendency to bow before the storm, to temporize and compromise, to yield ground. A statement in the first place that the cut was not permanent, that it would be lessened in the case of employees getting less than $1,200. j would have saved a lot of trouble. But these i statements were withheld until after everyj body, including the press, had raised a j rumpus. Thus they were made to appear ! like weakness, like a retreat from ground that had never been properly reconnoitred.

Meanwhile, what with memories of the spectacle of discharged members of the Air Force wanting to fight in China, a move to have the outside service returned to patronage. and an investigation into the administration of the Civil Service Commission, the nerves of the whole service are frayed. There is hardly a civil servant who does not expect that Damocles’ well-known sword will fall

upon him or her next. That it may fall upon j the heads of the members of the existing i Civil Service Commission is not at all j unlikely, it is, indeed, more than probable: | may have fallen ere this appears in print.

Meanwhile, greatly in doubt and tired, the House plods on. holds a multitude of ¡ investigations. Ottawa, in fact, is one grand inquisition. The House probes campaign funds, the conduct of Senators, Mr. G. N., Gordon’s back-concession indiscretions, the high price of gasoline, a lot of other things.

Greatest of the inquisitions and the most intriguing is the enquiry into certain ! Senators. Mr. Bennett, in his impetuous j way. told Mr. King there would 1» “three fewer Senators”—this as a consequence of j Mr. Meighen becoming a Senator—though it begins to look as though the Prime Minister was over-sanguine. Just at the moment the enquiry is going on, with Senator Meighen directing it from behind the scenes, but while he is an admittedly ideal man for the job, the task is proving harder than expected. The truth is that getting rid of a Senator without the aid of Providence is an extraordinarily difficult proposition, and the final chapter of the political tale of Beauharnois may get so tangled up with legal and constitutional technicalities that nothing very sensational will happen. We shall see.

Another enquiry shrouded in doubt is that into the railways—the job undertaken I by the Royal Commission on Transportation. The commissioners travelled, saw, and —according to reliable reports—grew bewildered. The Speech from the Throne said they would report this session, but so far they have not reported; and, if the inspired voices are to be believed, they aren’t likely to. The position at this writing is that Lord Ashfield — the most practical man on the Commission—is over in England, and that, apart from a lot of notes, the Commission hasn’t even begun to draft its report. Meanwhile, only one thing seems sure. It is that all talk of amalgamating the two railways has been dropped; dropped as political dynamite.

The St. Lawrence Problem

'“PHEN there is the St. Lawrence Water-*■ way. Since Mr. Bennett told the House that unless Canada was prepared to go ahead with the project at once, the Americans would give us up as a bad job and proceed to build the Albany-Oswego canal, which would leave us with the job of building the St. Lawrence all by ourselves, there has been nothing but rumors. Mr. Herridge, of course, continues talking with Washington’s Mr. Stimson, and Mr. Bennett has conversations with Mr. Taschereau, but what all the talk is about, or what it is leading to. nobody really knows. Nearly every week-end. reports come that a treaty has been signed and that it will presently come j to Parliament, but there is no way of confirming them. Still, if Mr. Bennett should walk into the House some day and ; lay a treaty on the table, nobody would be surprised. Mr. Bennett has a way of doing such things.

Nor does anybody appear to be sure as to just what will happen if a treaty is brought down. Party discipline, of course, would take care of the Conservatives; but it would j be different with the Opposition. We can imagine Mr. King piling sentence upon1 sentence, showing how Uncle Sam. by ! threatening to build the Albany canal, had ! frightened the Government into action. Frightened them —strange irony by threatj ening to make them do what they said ; Canada should do in that famous Winnipeg platform: build an all-Canadian waterway. Mr. Arthur Meighen. who must remember ! Winnipeg, would see the humor of that, i

Mr. Meighen, incidentally, has made a ! difference in Ottawa. This, say many, is a return from Elba, with brave, spectacular deeds to come. In clubs and lobbies whispers tell of a Meighen restoration, of Mr. Bennett ¡

glorified by Economic Conference achievement. being summoned to the House of Lords by a grateful Monarch. They are just whispers. Mr. Meighen, at all events will not speedsuch a fate. He will serve Mr. Bennett loyally, act toward him chivalrously, spurn intrigues and cabals.

This, apart from loyalty, would be the rôle of wisdom. Leading a Government at the next election— leading any Government —would be no tribute from good fortune; and Mr. Meighen has had enough of adversity.

Mr. King, meanwhile, makes occasional sorties from his well-known valley. Thus far, it must be said that they have been hardly successful. How he must hate the name Beauharnois! And Mr. King, certainly,

profits little from the Ministry's misfortunes. ! Timid in attack, lacking in iron or in capacity to get issues and problems by the throat, his opposition is ineffectual, his criticism spasmodic and feeble. The fire and steel went out of the Opposition with Charles Dunning.

So with nearly all to the left of the Speaker. Mr. J. S. Woodsworth alone has courage, the kind of courage Napoleon spoke of. But Woodsworth is not of the kind who can plan misery for a Government.

So the session—unless a St. Lawrence treaty comes along—will be brief. There is little legislation, few estimates to criticize, nobody to say much or to do much about anything. The 24th of May, at the latest, ought to see prorogation.