BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA
BY THE TIME this is published it seems certain that for days on end the House of Commons will have been locked in debate over the strangest proposal ever to be brought before a British Legislature. The proposal of a national plebiscite, in the midst of war, to release a Prime Minister from a pledge.
In the whole long history of British government, in all the story of democratic government, there has been nothing like this. Democratic Governments (though not British Governments) have taken both plebiscites and referendums; plebiscites to give them direction before legislation was passed (with the verdict not binding), referendums to approve or reject legislation already passed. Nowhere in democratic government has there been a case where the leader of a government, whether in peace or war, has taken a plebiscite to release himself from a pledge.
Leading up to this extraordinary proposition— so extraordinary that it has rocked the country— there were strange goings-on behind the scenes. First came word, about a fortnight before the session, that there would be some sort of referendum on conscription. Mr. King, apparently, had broached the matter in cabinet. But when the story got out—possibly as a kite—it was so contemptuously criticized that cabinet ministers began disowning it. The thing, it was held, was impossible.
Those who said it was impossible—including the ministers who shook their heads over it— didn’t know Mr. King. The Prime Minister, his plan opposed at first, withdrew with it into seclusion. For days Ottawa heard nothing of him; guessed only that he was working on something, that presently he would appear with that now blessed thing, a “formula.” A formula to solve the conscription issue.
In due course Mr. King reappeared. Reappeared with his same old plan; the said plan fashioned into a plebiscite to release him from his pledge. That most of the cabinet were either fearful or sceptical of his plan—four fifths of the ministers are for conscription—there can be no doubt at all. But Mr. King was able to impose his will. In the end all the ministers made their submission, the two last holdouts, it is stated, being Senator Dandurand and Mr. Cardin. Mr. King is the boss of this cabinet. And Prime Ministers are powerful.
How powerful Mr. King is, how he is the boss of his party as well as of his Cabinet, was shown a few days later. Mr. King had called a caucus of his party on the day following the opening of Parliament. When Quebec Liberal members, confronted on reaching Ottawa with the plebiscite plan, started an incipient rebellion the caucus was advanced a day. Mr. King’s decision was to stamp out this rebellion before it could get started—and he did. By the time the caucus ended the halls of Parliament were reverberating with the “hurrahs” of the men who had come to criticize and remained to cheer.
Why did they cheer? What assurances were given them? What undertakings? Or what threats were held over them? Were they told that if they didn’t give Mr. King his plebiscite Mr. King would give them an election? Asked to reflect whether they would prefer to have their people conscripted by Mr. King or by Mr. Meighen? No o*ie in Ottawa outside an inner ring knows the answer.
Whatever the result of the plebiscite, no doubt the Government expects to be able to ride the storm. Most people, even though they have gone to their dictionaries, don’t know that there is a vast difference between a plebiscite and a referendum. Yet there is. Under a referendum the people are asked to pass upon, to approve or reject, a measure or resolution already passed by a Parliament or Government. Under a plebiscite they are merely asked to express their wishes or opinion, without binding force, regarding what a Government or Parliament should do on a given question. In other words, a plebiscite passes upon a question before it is dealt with by a Parliament or Government, while a referendum passes upon a question (approving or rejecting) after it has been dealt with by a Parliament or a Government. A referendum is final and binding; a plebiscite merely directional.
THE MAN WITH A NOTEBOOK
Mr. King, carefully selecting a plebiscite, showed how he knows his politics. Had he selected a referendum he would have had to submit to the country either a (1) definite Government policy, or (2) a resolution by Parliament, or (3) an Act of Parliament. He would have had to stand or fall by something. In selecting instead a referendum he remains in the clear. No matter what the plebiscite’s verdict, it is a case for Mr. King of “heads I win, tails you lose.” If he gets his release from his so-called pledge he can say: “This is all I asked for; I didn’t promise conscription.” If he doesn’t get his release he can say: “The country is against conscription; this is a fresh mandate.” Thus no matter what happens Mr. King carries on. The Government remains in office.
Yet it may be that Mr. King—and this is the opinion of some veteran political observers—has betrayed himself into oversimplification. If the country votes overwhelmingly to release Mr. King —and thus for conscription—he will have to bring in conscription. In that case his plebiscite formula may bring him face to face with the thing he is seeking to evade, namely, resignation of key Quebec ministers.
There is the further possibility that Englishspeaking Canada will vote for conscription—by implication, at any rate—and Quebec against conscription. In that case Mr. King will be faced with a Canada split asunder, with all sorts of perilous possibilities. There is the danger further than an overwhelming anticonscriptionist vote in Quebec will overcome a conscriptionist vote in the rest of Canada, bringing with it the ugly, dangerous cry of a Quebec veto. Whether Mr. King thought of all these hazards and decided to risk them, isn’t clear. But they are on everybody’s lips in Ottawa.
Continued on page 47
Backstage at Ottawa
Continued from page 15
The Other Story
MR. KING’S apologists tell, of course, a different story. They argue upon “inside information” that if or when Mr. King gets his release he will seize avidly upon conscription, have a compulsory act in force before June, use it to expand Canadian troops overseas from an army corps to an army of two corps. Mr. King, while he may encourage such talk privately, unfortunately doesn’t go bail for it publicly. Telling Parliament about his proposed bigger overseas army, he also said this:
“When my Honorable friend (Mr. Hanson) asks me what I am going to do with respect to any expression of view which may be made by the people in connection with any reference which will be made, may I say to him that in seeking to get public relief from past commitments I am not going to make new and fresh commitments. In seeking freedom on the part of the ministry I am not I going to start in by seeking to tie my hands.”
Thus while Mr. King’s conscriptionist supporters can argue one thing in one part of the country and his anticonscriptionist supporters another thing in another part of the country, Mr. King—when the voting is over and no matter how it goes— will remain free to do as he pleases.
! He is committed to nothing.
Notwithstanding all this Mr. King’s conscript’onist supporters argue that everything must he for the best. Some of them go so far as to say that the conscription group in the Cabinet itself is so strong that a failure to introduce conscription would result in the break-up of the Government. Quebec, they hold, is going to give Mr. King his release, with Cardinal Villeneuve and Premier Godbout* leading the procession. The matter of delay and unnecessary risk and expense (it will be April before the plebiscite is over) doesn’t worry them at all. A June bride of Conscription is the thing, with the King Ministry safe, and everything fine for the Party. The Tories and Toronto and I all the National Government “cracki pots” will he baffled and out¡ manoeuvred again.
Meanwhile Parliament is a tragedy;
I shot through with strife, division;
! paralyzed by impotence. Not since I the conscriptionist debates of 1917 [ has there welled up such bitterness in ! the Commons. The Conservatives under Mr. Hanson, now out for “all out” was under conscription, are determined (at this writing) to keep the debate on the Address going until reinforcements reach them in the person of Mr. Meighen. The C.C.F. j party, for the most part, fight with j them. Because of parliamentary 1 regulations Meighen (assuming his election) can’t reach the House before February 15, so the prospect is a dismal one. What it means is that unless the Commons takes time out ! from strife for other matters there I will be desperate delay in dealing I with a number of vital questions:
; questions of supply, war administration, the budget and war taxes.
What it means as well is that Mr. King may not get finished with his plebiscite before the snow is off Parliament Hill. He must first get the Address passed, and then prepare ! a bill for both houses, and pilot the bill through opposition, and get into ; gear all the old machinery from the j election of two years ago. This will take time. There will be returning j officers, and deputy returning officers,
! and scrutineers, and polling booths ! and election clerks—all the complex j rigmarole of a general election, and much of its expense. The cost of taking the vote is likely to run $2,000,000 or more.
One serious feature of this strange plebiscite, or battle over a plebiscite,
! is that it has come at a time when the Canadian people are trying to raise a j war loan of $600,000,000. Those in j charge of the loan admit that it is far from good propaganda. They point
'Speaking at Montreal on January 26,
I Premier Godbout is reported by The Canadian Press to have said that Mr. King "has always been against conscription for overseas service, and with the example of Australia, who sent most of her troops outside of the country, he will not impose conscription.” “I think that conscription for overseas service actually would be a crime,” added Mr. Godbout.
The striking cover on this issue is adapted, by permission of the Director of Public Information, from a new Army recruiting poster painted by Eric Aldwinkle,
to the bitterness it has stirred up; to divisions and hatreds; to disquiet and unrest. They ask if such things can help them. It is known that sales of War Savings Certificates in some cases already have been affected adversely.
No Party Truce
WHAT EFFECT the plebiscite will have on by-elections is not clear at this writing. Conservatives, refusing in the first place to oppose Humphrey Mitchell in Welland are now talking of opposition; if the opposition is not forthcoming it will be because the party strategists do not wish to divide the anti-Government vote; permit Mr. Mitchell to slip in between the Conservative and C.C.F. candidates as a minority victor. At the same time, it has become fairly clear that many Liberals are going to vote against Mr. Meighen; throw their ballots behind the candidate of the C.C.F. There is no longer any such thing as a truce of the parties.
There is speculation in Ottawa, too, over the course of the somewhat unpredictable Mr. Mitchell Hepburn. There are those who, noting his early slashing attack upon the plebiscite idea, predict that he will get in behind Mr. Meighen and launch a general campaign against Mr. King in Ontario. These see Hepburn marching with allies such as Col. George Drew and others drawn from the famous Toronto committee for “total war” —a great many of them potent Liberals. Time will tell.
Meanwhile the tactics of the English-speaking Liberals, including members of the Cabinet, takes clear shape. They plan a campaign in the constituencies along the line that release of the Government from its “commitments” will mean conscription; that the country must therefore set Mr. King free if it wants conscription —and they say privately that Mr. King’s freedom will mean a conscription measure as early as next June. What Mr. King’s Quebec Ministers and Quebec followers are going to say, is not clear at the moment of writing.
The Speech from the Throne— somebody wrote a great “lead” for it —stressed more action in man power ; told of how “the Government’s policy of national selective service will be extended, as generally and rapidly as may be necessary, to effect the orderly and efficient employment of the men and women of Canada for the varied purposes of the war.” Actually at this writing the Government has no completed plan on the use of man power. For weeks a cabinet committee consisting of War Services Minister Thorson, Justice Minister St. Laurent and National Revenue Minister Gibson wrestled with a man-power policy without getting anywhere in particular. At this moment the problem has been taken from their hands and placed in the Department of Labor—with Mr. Humphrey Mitchell. Unfortunately, Humphrey Mitchell at this hour has to be more concerned with voting power in Welland than with man power for the war—and the manpower bill, stressed in the Speech from the Throne, is probably in some obscure pigeonhole. This, of course, concerns mostly industrial man power; has nothing to do with military conscription.
What the Department of War Services does to keep itself busy— how that man power has been taken from it—is not clear. Yet it has two deputy ministers drawing large salaries; and it has secretaries and clerks and offices; all the expensive trappings of a government department. Its chief concern appears to be the Bureau of Public Information; hut why the Bureau of Public Information, which has a competent director, should need the supervision of a minister and two deputy ministers and a corps of secretaries and assistants isn’t overly clear. Mr. Thorson, who has not yet had time to win his spurs, could sensibly he moved to some other cabinet position.
What is to happen to other Government measures and problems, heaven only knows. Some 400 Western wheat growers are said to be preparing to descend upon Ottawa to demand a higher price for wheat. That they are entitled to consideration, everybody agrees, hut no one knows whether the Government has a policy in the matter, or what the policy is, assuming that there is one. There is the matter of the budget; and no slight matter. The budget this year, from all accounts, will he for more than three billion dollars; but with this fantastic row over the plebiscite plan there is no promise of adequate consideration of the budget. The tremendous question of how we are to raise three billion dollars— how much of it we can raise by taxation and how much we shall have to borrow—is left by the wayside while members dispute violently over making Mr. King “free.”
And so with taxation measures. There was hint at one time that a ceiling on prices must mean a ceiling on taxes; but the thing is now by no means sure. Whether there will be new taxes, and what sort of taxes they will be, will probably be determined to a great extent by the success of the present loan. The loan, in other words, will reveal, or is expected to reveal, how much money is lying around in the country. Whether the plebiscite row makes a difference, remains to be seen.
Many other things are on the shelf ;
many things that ordinarily would press heavily for quick action. As it is, the plebiscite business holds the floor; will hold it even over the coming enquiry into untrained troops being sent to Hong Kong and equipment being late for Hong Kong. Mr. Ralston’s admissions of much amiss in this matter shocked the House.