Backstage at Ottawa
THE MAN WITH A NOTEBOOK
IT IS with National Government as with famed Finnegan — on again, off again. A few weeks ago, with one of the periodic surges of public criticism, it seemed definitely on; now, with the criticism seemingly subsiding, it appears to be definitely off. Where it will be a month hence, or two months or six months hence, no one pretends to know.
What is known is, that a few weeks ago National Government had powerful friends; that some of these friends were very close to the cabinet; that some-others of them-—outside the cabinet—came to Ottawa, talked to Mr. King.
They didn’t want National Government in the party sense; in the sense, that is, of a union or coalition of the parties. They urged merely that Mr. King strengthen his cabinet by enlisting a few new. stronger men, regardless of party. Some of them are said to have mentioned Mr. Bennett; to have urged that Mr. King cable him to return to Canada to help win the war.
Their argument—so the story runs—was that such a gesture by Mr. King, dramatic and generous, would strike the public imagination, kill off suspicion of partisanship in war effort, galvanize the country into more resolute war unity. Mr. Bennett, it was said too, coming from direct work with Mr. Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook, would bring to Mr. King’s side useful knowledge, ability.
What Mr. King said is not known. What is known is that shortly afterward Mr. Lapointe stood in the House of Commons and pronounced an anathema upon National Government. Mr. Lapointe, it is told, spoke without consulting Mr. King (which seems odd); was entirely “on his own.” But whether he was declaiming merely against National Government in a party sense, or was forbidding the banns of any sort of a National Government—including a cable to Mr. Bennett—is not clear. What is clear is, that Mr. Lapointe, his speech regarded by some as a sort of ultimatum to Mr. King, killed—for the time being, at any rate—National Government talk. Mr. King, for his part, has been silent throughout. What he thinks—or plans—is known only to himself.
The Retiring Mr. King
MR. KING, in fact, is the most secluded, the most taciturn and least publicized, of war leaders. Apart from his appearances in the House, few people see him. Mr. King meets his cabinet, and more often the ministers who belong to what is called the war cabinet, and sometimes he sees individual ministers on war and other matters. But he has no intimates.
Mr. Lapointe, who has been his Quebec captain ever since he first became Prime Minister, sees him more often than the others, and Mr. Crerar, who was in the Union Government of 1917, and who has become a sort of elder statesman, talks to him occasionally.
For the most part, however, he stands apart and alone, keeping his own counsel, reaching his own decisions.
Laurier House—the old home of Sir Wilfrid—is his castle, and no one dares to cross its threshold. Long ago the Ottawa newspapers decided (at Mr.
King’s own request) to respect his privacy, so when he entertains—which is very seldom now—no mention is ever made of it. In Laurier House, his 17-year-old dog “Pat” his only companion, he lives and works and studies in complete, almost monastic, seclusion.
Mr. King used to lean heavily on the late Dr. Skelton. Skelton it was who advised him on all imperial and foreign affairs, who kept him in touch with London and Washington, and with the developments in foreign chancelleries; and many of his speeches on world and Empire affairs showed clearly the Skelton touch. With Skelton gone— it was the heaviest blow that has come to Mr. King in years—he has become more lonely than ever; more aloof from working associates.
Yet, despite all this aloofness, Mr. King’s ascendancy over his cabinet and party, and indeed over Parliament, is greater now than at any time in his career. Mr Bennett was sometimes called a dictator; had something of the dictator’s instincts. Yet, as every Ottawa politician and newspaperman well knows, Mr. King’s mastery over his cabinet is greater than was Mr. Bennett’s, even in R.B.’s heyday. Mr. King learned a.lot from the “iron under the velvet glove” methods of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Mr. King’s relations with the press are odd. He only seldom holds a press conference, yet he remains on friendly terms with the Press Gallery, even with the correspondents of newspapers that are his strongest critics. Thus recently, when the Gallery held its annual meeting, he turned up for the traditional get-together, spent nearly two hours with the correspondents. Unlike Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. King doesn’t read the newspapers with his breakfast; few newspapers go to Laurier House. But he has his secretaries clip editorials and articles from all the leading papers— the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and The Financial Post, the Montreal Gazelle and Ottawa Journal, the Ottawa Citizen and Winnipeg Free Press—and these he reads daily in his office.
He is sensitive to criticism. Thus his recent attacks on the Montreal Gazette and Toronto Globe and Mail—replies to their editorial criticisms—were delivered with a vehemence greater than anything he has ever put into his war speeches. Coming from one who, in his day, was a fairly vigorous political propagandist—he used to edit and write most of the old “Liberal Monthly'—it seemed a curious performance. Part of the enigma, of the odd compound of kindness and hardness, of the contradictory, baffling personality that is Mackenzie King.
Candor In the House
PARLIAMENT, meanwhile, has been doing much better. With the Opposition’s criticism more searching and more informed—one or two of its younger members, notably Mr. Diefenbacker, have been surprisingly effective —the Government has been much more frank, and a deal less complacent, than in the past; has given the House a fairly detailed report of where our war effort stands.
The report, let it be said in all fairness, is by no means all bad. The now famous report of Mr. H. R. MacMillan— a report actually made to Finance Minister Ilsley so that he might budget for his war appropriation—showed bottlenecks and delay, and perhaps inefficiency, in production of aircraft and ships and tanks. What has been overlooked is that the same report showed efficiency, indeed high achievement, in other branches of the war effort; that, in
other words, seventy-five per cent of the report was good.
Mr. Howe, as Minister of Munitions . and Supply, has been bearing the brunt of the Opposition’sattack. Mostly — though with one or two regrettable lapses — he has borne it well. Where and when he has appeared at his worst, the fault has been his own temperament; in his propensity to make incautious statements and predictions; in failure to check optimistic promises given him
by subordinates. Again and again Mr. Howe has been compelled to back track on his past statements; to admit that his promises of months ago were not justified by facts.
Yet the House of Commons, generous in its better moods, admits Mr. Howe’s abilities; acknowledges his good work.
It realizes that he has given everything he has to the war effort; that his mistakes have come from a headlong vigor that enquires perhaps too little of consequences; that Mr. Howe, in short, has a disposition to gamble dangerously. When, therefore, Mr. Howe, his nerves worn thin by searching criticism, broke out into rather violent criticism of the press, the House was more sorry than resentful. It liked Mr. Howe better when, in an unusual burst of humility—which in Parliament is the beginning of wisdom—he declared that never again “will I make predictions in this House.” If Mr. Howe, say impartial critics— if Mr. Howe could only learn to be a little less stubborn, a little more inclined to take advice, what a great war minister he would be !
Which brings us to the odd story of H. R.
MacMillan. At this writing Ottawa veterans are laying wagers that Mr.
MacMillan will be going home.
They may, of course, be wrong But why they are thus wagering is a long story, and involved; but the long and short of it is that Mr.
MacMillan, an extraordinarily able man, used to having his own way, got lost in the tall, dark, deep forest which is political Ottawa. Mr. MacMillan failed to realize that Ottawa is a “listening gallery,” that its walls have ears. He didn’t know that private conversations in the Chateau Laurier’s rooms in the evening aren’t private; that men are apt to make “confidential” memos of them; and that the confidential memos become veritable chain letters.
Too many of Mr. MacMillan’s “confidential” conversations, whether real or imaginary, got around Ottawa. Some of them, critical of the war program and effort, were passed on—with possible enlargement in the passing—to ministers. There came tales—most of them doubtlessly silly— that Mr. MacMillan was a sort of “Fascist,” that he scorned the democratic processes of government; other tales—equally silly—that he was being groomed as Conservative leader. Gradually there grew up around Mr. MacMillan a lot of distrust, some fear, suspicion. Ministers, while they conceded his ability, and praised it openly, didn’t overly like him.
When Mr. Howe was in England, Mr. MacMillan—at i the request of Finance Minister Ilsley—reported on the Department of Munitions and Supply. There was nothing underhanded about it; the report was for purposes of budgeting. But Mr. Howe didn’t like it. He liked it less when Mr. MacMillan advised scrapping Federal Aircralt— Mr. MacMillan, apparently, did this verbally. When Mr. Howe refused to take Mr. MacMillan’s advice about Federal Aircraft and turned down some of his other recommendations, the two men were at loggerheads.
Mr. Howe, as Minister of Munitions and Supply, issued an order forbidding officials of the department which included Mr. MacMillan—to give interviews, or to make statements to the press, or to make speeches about war policy. Mr. MacMillan, departing for Vancouver, countered by a statement in his own handwriting saying that he would return to Ottawa if he was given a worth-while job to do.
Mr. MacMillan returned to Ottawa. Whether he was given worth-while work to do is not clear. The Government accepted priorities control, which he had asked for, but Mr. MacMillan, apparently, wanted not merely priorities control, he wanted as well somebody who would be boss
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of the Munitions and Supply Department; a sort of general manager who would be over its various directors-general, and who would be responsible only to the Minister. Mr. AJacMillan got his priorities board, but not his general manager; was left, so far as can be discovered, to be one of the many men in the Department who have no particular authority over all or any of the others.
When in the House of Commons, Mr. Howe seemingly went out of his way to rebuke Mr. MacMillan publicly, to declare that “I wish Mr. MacMillan would be more consistent in his reports” (an extraordinary statement for a Minister to make about one of his officials), Ottawa was astonished. It was still more astonished when there came no word, no sign, from Mr. MacMillan. Is this man, it was asked —is this man as tough as he was supposed to be?
Thus the story of Mr. MacMillan. All admit his great abilities. Many hold that he has saved the Munitions and Supply Department millions. His difficulties are part of the old story of the businessman’s ignorance of Ottawa. Of its strange, complex ways.
More cheerful is news of regained health by the Minister of National Defense. Colonel Ralston. Colonel Ralston, giving his best to the war effort, and it is a good best, has no enemies in Ottawa. Of all the ministers, he is the most frank with the House; the least complacent; the quickest to admit mistakes and seek advice. For weeks he went about with a crutch, suffering the acute pain of sciatica, but he never shirked the most arduous duties, appearing in his place in the House regularly, appearing at the desk of his office in the Defense Department at eight o’clock in the morning, and often remaining long after midnight. The new four-month training scheme—with single men of twenty-one liable to be called up—is his policy. He would be the first to admit that it may have flaws; though he would argue that it is the best in the circumstances—with emphasis on the circumstances.
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"X/TUCH in the headlines these days is Mr. Ilsley. This tousle-headed, minister isn’t a financier, doesn’t pretend to be, but Ottawa admits that he may well be making a fairly good job of shepherding the finances of the war. His original war appropriation bill—for $1,300,000,000— grows steadily with the weeks. Mr. Ilsley began the growth by adding an extra $150,000,000 to it. Next came an overlooked item of $57,000,000 for the cost of Storing wheat. Next another $30,000,000 to bonus acres without wheat. That brought the war bill for the year to $1,537,000,000; the war bill, that is, with a few other things tacked on.
Where or how Mr. Ilsley proposes getting the money, remains to be seen—the budget, at this writing, is yet to come. He will get most of it by higher existing taxes and some new taxes; the balance of it by borrowing. The coming war loan—probably with us in July—will ask for $750,000,000. The Bank of Montreal’s Mr. Spinney—much in evidence in Ottawa these days—is helping with the details. Meanwhile Deputy Minister of Finance, Dr. Clifford (“Cliff”) Clark has been journeying back and forth between Ottawa and Washington; seeing Mr. Roosevelt’s Mr. Morgenthau. He may shortly have news about exchange.
The session will last until well into May; perhaps longer. Whether it lasts long enough for Mr. King to bring in a measure dealing with the St. Lawrence Deep Waterway—which Mr. Roosevelt is grappling with vigorously—remains to be seen. Mr. Roosevelt clearly means business.
What else? There is strong support for the appointment of Dr. Manion as High Commissioner to Eire. The “forgotten man” of politics, Dr. Manion is seen much about Ottawa; his political past, apparently, put well behind him. His appointment, it is thought, would be a gallant gesture by Mr. King—the sort of chivalrous thing which, right now, might be good for Canada.