Backstage at Ottawa


Backstage at Ottawa


Backstage at Ottawa


AS LATE as November 12, not much more than two months ago, Prime Minister King said to the House of Commons:

“So far as I am concerned, without any consultation of the people on that subject, I do not intend to take the responsibility of supporting any policy of conscription for overseas service.”

Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding there is nothing here to warrant belief that Mr. King has changed his mind, or that he is likely to change it. Actually, on the basis of the best information, not Pearl Harbor, not Hong Kong, nor Mr. Churchill’s visit and speeches, nor Mr. Roosevelt’s speeches and budget, nor the arguments of three fourths of Mr. King’s ministers, have made any difference to his thinking. He is still against conscription. Against it at any rate to the extent of holding that it cannot come from his Government.

For something like two weeks conscription has been the be-all and end-all of the cabinet’s discussions. It has read and discussed reports of military leaders; read and discussed reports by man-power statisticians; watched the rising tide of conscription sentiment. It hasn’t acted. Its failure to act gets back directly and almost solely to one man. Mr. King.

At least ten of Mr. King’s ministers are either for conscription or would accept conscription. They are: Ralston, Ilsley, Power,

Howe, Macdonald, Mulock, Gibson, Gardiner, McKinnon, Mackenzie. But while these men have argued for conscription within the Cabinet, and argued for it privately outside the Cabinet, they have failed (thus far) to convince Mr. King. Failed to convince him that a pledge given two years ago, or even two months ago, isn’t binding now.

When it comes to a party platform plank Mr. King can cut a corner as fast as any politician, faster than most. But Mr. King, for some reason not clear, regards his pledge against conscription as something set apart; as unchangeable as the laws of the Medes and the Persians. Contrasted with his solemn perorations, his attitude is baffling. As baffling to some of his colleagues as to people outside.

The crisis in Mr. King’s stand (assuming the unexpected doesn’t happen in the meantime) will come when Parliament meets. Mr. Hanson, still acting as Conservative House leader, will move a conscription resolution. Mr. King, that resolution before him, will have to do one of five things:

1. Reject the resolution, put on his whips to

vote it down.

2. Decide to refer conscription to a national


3. Decide to hold a general election with con-

scription the issue.

4. Decide to resign, have somebody else form a


5. Decide to forget his pledges, bring in a conscription measure.

In Ottawa at this moment they are giving odds that Mr. King will accept the fifth and last alternative; that he will find a formula for conscription. It is suggested that Mr. King, a superb psychologist, plus no mean opportunist, will appear dramatically on a Quebec platform with Mr. Godbout, tell anticonscriptionists that he must be released of his pledge. It is suggested also that Mr. King will get around conscription by the ingenious process of extending the boundaries of Canada - “for purposes of the defense of Canada”

to Tokyo and Berlin. It is suggested that Mr. King will resort to some device of boards and tribunals before which people will appear to show what war or other work they are doing and whether they are doing the most useful work. And so on and so forth.

Any of these things may happen. The judgment of this Notebook is that the odds on any one of them happening and upon Mr. King espousing conscription are not warranted by the facts; that a more likely thing is that Mr. King, put under pressure, will come out for a referendum. The sort of referendum that Sir Wilfrid Laurier urged (and moved for in Parliament) in 1917.

Laurier in 1917, moving an amendment to Sir Robert Borden’s Military Service Act, argued that Parliament had no mandate to impose conscription, held that the people could be trusted, pledged his word and reputation that their verdict would be honored. With his own province and people clearly in mind, he said:

“I repeat that when the verdict of the people has been given there can be no further question, and everybody will have to submit to the law.”

Mr. King, it is well to remember, is an ardent disciple of Laurier. And while the referendum is anathema to most of Mr. King’s followers, and to Parliament generally, there can hardly be any doubt that Mr. King can have one for the asking. Party whips, even in war, can work wonders.

Meanwhile, the tide of conscriptioni8t sentiment breaks on Parliament Hill with ever-increasing force. What Pearl Harbor started and Mr. Churchill’s visit strengthened, Mr. Roosevelt's ‘‘all out” speech to Congress has given a force and momentum that leaves the Government thoroughly frightened. Day after day word comes to Ottawa of a mounting cry for conscription in the constituencies. Not since 1917, when Sir Wilfrid’s chief captains deserted his standard, has Ottawa seen anything like it.

The odd thing is that, apart from its policy on conscription, the Government’s war program is rolling tremendously. Mr. Churchill’s public description of it as ‘‘magnificent” was probably not

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Backstage at Ottawa

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more than courtesy. But Mr. Churchill is known to have made similar statements privately; was clearly impressed profoundly by the reports which he read and the things which he heard and saw.

And understandably. Here, for example, are a few things that have been done and about which the public, despite all Government’s highpowered publicity, seems to be unaware:

We have built and launched 140 corvettes and minesweepers. We have built and delivered 175,000 army vehicles; produced 14,000 Bren guns; delivered 9,000,000 heavy shells and 10,000,000 shell cases; produced and delivered 500,000 bombs and 150,000,000 pounds of explosives and chemicals. Canadians are now producing heavy guns, anti-aircraft guns, field guns, naval guns and tank guns; producing (apart from Bren guns) Browning aircraft machine guns, Vickers machine guns, naval machine guns and Lee-Enfield rifles, trench mortars, bomb throwers, and smoke projectors.

Also, despite much early grief, we are producing tanks. They are not the heaviest tanks, but they are good light and medium tanks, and we are turning them out at the rate of more than five a day, expect to be turning them out at the rate of ten a day by July. We are producing as well vehicles of all kinds; turning out universal carriers, armored, scout and reconnaissance cars. We produce one army automotive unit every three minutes through the whole of each twenty-four hours.

Not generally known is it that, after Pearl Harbor, Canada came to the rescue of the United States with a great deal of armament; nor gener ally known either that Canadian armament is today in Singapore and the Philippines and at the Panama Canal—just as it is in Russia and China and in England and Libya. Minister of Munitions Howe is probably well entitled to that autographed picture sent him by General

Chiang Kai-shek as a token of his gratitude.

That still more can be done—and will be well done—the best members of the Government agree. Up until recently expansion of war production was checked by the fact that while it was always possible to get steel priorities from Washington it was not always possible to get steel. Mr. Howe hurdled that obstacle when he went to Washington one day, lunched with Vice-President Wallace and got Canada the priorities of the United States Army and Navy. Now the steel—about one third of all we need—is crossing the border freely, and with it other basic war needs, so that all that is required to increase our war output is more plant and still

more skilled and other labor. Conscription, it is argued, instead of making labor scarcer would make it more plentiful; make it more plentiful, at any rate, if the scheme adopted was out-and-out selective national service.

Heavier Rationing

MEANWHILE rationing, and on a scale more severe than anything yet talked about or imagined, is on the way. Thus far, say those who know, we have been fed it in small doses—been gradually conditioned, so to speak—but the plan is more and heavier doses as we go along, with all our gadgets and creature comforts clearly “out” for the dura-

tion. There is the matter of rubber. Rubber stocks on hand are not more than sufficient for a year, and with the Japs thick in the midst of the Malayan rubber plantations a new automobile tire a year hence will be about as usual as a red Indian on the Island of Manhattan.

So much is rationing in the books that some of Ottawa’s economists are now saying that the prices “ceiling” may in time be not so necessary; that the inability of people to buy certain goods will in itself take a limited care of the danger of inflation. In the meantime the “ceiling” is there, though there are times when it is bumped so heavily it threatens to fall. Donald Gordon, for all the invincibility of his courage is getting a wonderful education in the intricacies and difficulties of practical business. He should be a good man to have around when the war is over —or at any other time for that matter.

Finance Minister Ilsley, the while, is toiling (with a vast staff of experts) on his coming war loan, speaks confidently of its outcome. Less sure is Mr. Ilsley regarding what he should do about his coming budget, and especially about taxes. Some of his advisers tell him that a ceiling over prices must mean a ceiling over taxes, but with Air. Roosevelt out to spend more than fifty per cent of U.S. national income for war and Canada spending but forty per cent, Mr. Ilsley is not so sure. What he is faced with, actually, is whether, in the event of Canada spending more of its national income, he should tax more or borrow more. Already he is borrowing at the rate— or plans to borrow at the rate—of $100,000,000 per month.

The political scene? Mr. King has put aside for the moment his cabinet

shuffling, but still hopes to get Alontreal’s Air. Brais into the ministry. His new ministers—Air.

Humphrey Alitchell in the Labor Department and Mr. St. Laurent in Justice—are working out well, which will probably encourage him to go further; to do something about Air. Cardin, for example, and perhapsput Mr. Crerarand Mr.McLarty into the Senate, replacing them suitably. Air. King, incidentally, has nine senate vacancies to fill—a great opportunity for a magnanimous and generous war gesture by picking a few Conservatives. But don’t count on it.

Air. Meighen’s election contest in York is being watched with interest; also—by Conservatives—with some anxiety. Their anxiety stems from fear that the Liberals, with no candidate of their own, will vote for the C.C.F. candidate; vote for him at all events in sufficient numbers to endanger Meighen’s return. Aleanwhile Air. Hanson will stay at his post as House leader; and meanwhile also nothing whatever has been done about getting a few able Conservative lieutenants to follow Meighen into Parliament. The Conservative party has not yet recovered from the shocks of the last three years. Even Air. Herridge, swearing allegiance to Meighen, has packed up and gone off to England, where he has a case before the Privy Council.

The length of the session? Nobody knows, and Ottawa doesn’t much care. Ottawa is more concerned now with mythical dollar-ayear men; with controllers, and experts, and technicians, and publicists. There are far, far more of these in Ottawa now than there are members of Parliament. And they make more of a difference.