AS PARLIAMENT plods through the Estimates it’s hearing the usual fulminations from the Opposition about “government extravagance.” This year they have a rather hollow ring. The current session has proved conclusively that no political party really wants to save the taxpayer’s money.
Doug Abbott and his parliamentary assistant Jimmy Sinclair have a pat rejoinder to rhetorical appeals for economy. “Tell us what government services you want cut,” they say and silence falls. But this spring, for the first time in many years, their challenge got an answer. W. Ross Thatcher of Moose Jaw has been [jointing out almost three hundred million dollars’ worth of services with which, he thinks, Canadians would be happy to dispense.
Thatcher is a plump, blond, thirtyfive-year-old hardware merchant who inherited a thriving business and a comfortable livelihood. His CCF colleagues, who have been taking a dim view of him for some time, intimate that this makes Thatcher a crypto - capitalist, a viper who somehow crawled into the bosom of socialism but who has no business there. Thatcher himself believes he is a far more typical CCFer, by Saskatchewan standards, than any parlor pink or trade-union organizer.
Be that as it may, he is a CCFer. Estranged colleagues are now spreading the story that Thatcher has always been a Liberal at heart, like his father. In fact, Ross Thatcher joined the CCF at the age of twenty, when he was working for Canada Packers near Toronto. On his return to Moose Jaw he helped to organize the party there. He has never voted
anything but CCF, and sees no reason to change. But he doesn’t see any sense or virtue in wasting money.
Not a single voice has been raised, in parliament, to support Thatcher’s argument. To give the Progressive Conservatives credit, they have at least refrained from attacking him. Not so the Liberals, one of whom called him “an absolute disgrace to Saskatchewan”; even less so his own party, which has gone to great lengths to disown him.
Luckily for his critics, Thatcher did make one suggestion in his first speech (in the Budget debate last April) which he now admits to have been a mistake. He proposed an income ceiling (instantly dubbed a “means test”) for old-age pensions and family allowances. Thatcher says now he tossed in that thirtymillion-dollar item without thinking it through, and wishes he hadn’t. All his opponents have fastened upon it until you’d think it was all he’d said; actually it filled only four short paragraphs in a forty-minute speech.
Privately, the members’ fury has been focused on a quite different suggestion—Thatcher’s plea to the House to get on with its work and stop trying to drum up another autumn session. A second session automatically carries a four-thousanddollar rise in pay for members of parliament. It costs the taxpayer something over two millions. Thatcher said, “I don’t think it’s fair to ask the taxpayers to pay the cost of another double session.”
In fact, Prime Minister St. Laurent has warned backbenchers that stalling will get them nowhere. If they can’t finish by a reasonable date this summer,
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Backstage at Ottawa
Continued from page 5
parliament will be adjourned (not prorogued) until September and they will have to carry on without further indemnity. However, that didn’t appease their rage against Thatcher.
“It’s all very well for you, with a hardware business to keep you,” they told him, “but you’ve no business trying to cut the rest of us down like that.”
* * *
One effect of Thatcher’s heresy showed up at once in the redistribution committee. At this writing, final arrangements for Saskatchewan have not been completed, but it’s apparent that the CCF will have no objection if Thatcher’s constituency is largely shunted into John Diefenbaker’s, which lies just north of it. Thatcher knows he wouldn’t have a hope of beating Diefenbaker. He has no intention of quitting, but neither would he be much surprised if he failed to get into the next parliament.
Meanwhile he is continuing to ask embarrassing questions. As a businessman Thatcher is revolted by the “dropin-the-bucket” attitude toward waste. He thinks one of the most dangerous features of a swollen federal budget is that it makes any saving seem trivial, any expenditure tolerable.
Thatcher still wants to know what we are getting for our money. In addition to the items he mentioned in the Budget debate (totaling $315 millions) he’d like more information on the following:
Why did the Department of National Defense make its own color film of the royal visit? The National Film Board’s version was the most ambitious and the most successful motion picture ever made in Canada. Why should the Defense Department feel it had to duplicate that outstanding job? What did the National Defense film cost? Why should National Defense have its own film-making unit at all, with a National Film Board spending nearly three millions to make films for all government departments?
What is the government spending on publicity? The Estimates show $10,461,641 for “films, displays, advertising and other informational publicity”; $6,987,136 for “publication of departmental reports and other material”; $1,982,675 for the CBC International Service. They do not show what is included in these figures, how much goes for printing annual reports and how much for departmental house organs; how much for “cold war” broadcasts to Iron Curtain countries and how much for the Latin American service.
Neither do they show any of the overhead, salaries, wages, office and
traveling expenses incurred by information offices of ten government departments. Salaries alone can be added up to $573,497 by a simple run through the Estimates with a pencil, but the figure is grossly misleading because it doesn’t include secretaries, stenographers, or living allowances. It doesn’t even cover all salaries of information officers; National Defense has one of the most elaborate and expensive publicity machines in the whole government service, but defense estimates show only three information officers earning a total of $11,532. The rest are in uniform and their salaries are lumped in with the cost of the armed services.
Why do we need more civil servants every year?
Why does parliament itself cost so much, quite apart from members’ indemnities and expense allowances?
* * *
This last question, the cost of parliament, is a perfect example of the harm done by the “drop-in-the-bucket” approach. The entire cost of parliament in a normal, or one-session, year is less than five millions, or less than one ninth of one percent of the whole federal budget. It really seems too small to argue about. Yet there is probably as much waste on Parliament Hill as anywhere else in the whole government service.
Mainly it proceeds from duplication. Almost everything provided for the House of Commons is provided separately for the Senate.
The House of Commons has its own post office, staffed by a postmaster, two principal clerks and three “clerks Grade 4”; total cost in salaries, $18,888. The staff is large enough to handle the mail of 262 MPs without visible strain, especially since it remains all year, whether parliament is sitting or not.
Nevertheless, there is a Senate post office across the corridor, staffed by a postmaster and an assistant postmaster ($6,380) to serve 102 senators, most of whom are seldom here.
The Senate reading room employs two curators ($5,808) to arrange and
guard its $3,500 worth of newspapers and periodicals. Thirty feet away the House of Commons reading room has a staff of six ($17,568) to look after the same newspapers and magazines plus another $1,500 worth. Even during the session you seldom find more than two or three people in either room—aside from the staff, that. is.
The Senate also has its own barber shop, its own chief and assistant chief of protective service, its own editor of i debates, its own chief translator and J its own chief of char service. Altogether this duplication costs about $40,000 a year.
In a budget of four and a half billion dollars this amount is scarcely visible to the naked eye. In the annual budget of parliament itself, however, it represents almost one percent of waste. Even if it is a drop in the bucket, it’s one drop (lie bucket doesrr’t need.
Reporters hesitate to write about these things because we ourselves share i in the benefits. Every member of the j press gallery gets free stationery, free ! telephones, free page and messenger service in a press room on the third floor of the House of Commons building. Correspondents of daily newspapers also get free office space, including desks and filing cabinets. They provide their own typewriters. All these items are lumped into the general overhead of the Parliament Buildings and do not show in the Estimates, hut they have been guessed at another thirty or forty thousand dollars a year.
Another reason for the silence is the discretion of MPs. Only a very courageous member of parliament, or one about to retire from public life, ever brings these matters up in public Those who have tried it have always found, by an odd coincidence, that the service they get in the Parliament Buildings deteriorates sharply. When they ring for a messenger, nobody comes. When they call a stenographer, they get either none at all or a girl who can’t read and write. Wise peaceable men who expect to be in politics a long time, and like to get service, prefer to let sleeping curators lie.
Thatcher isn’t a man to look for trouble unnecessarily, but he seems to have been pushed beyond the point of no return. His own party disowns him, the Liberals are lusting for his scalp, and the PCs (though they are least affronted of the three) will nevertheless enjoy the task of wiping him out. Nobody is on Thatcher’s side—except, just possibly, the voters.
Thatcher himself has been amazed by his mail. While parliamentarians were denouncing his “means test,” old-age pensioners were writing him, “You’re right—stick to it.” Liberals and CCFers alike predicted that he’d have trouble getting the nomination again in Moose Jaw, but his own executive wrote “Attaboy.” Of several hundred letters from various parts of Canada only two have been hostile.
Redistribution or not, it’s conceivable that the voter may agree with Ross Thatcher, and demonstrate the fact by re-electing him. If that does happen, it’ll he funny to watch the embarrassment of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. it
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