BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

Should the Backbenchers Pipe Down?

BLAIR FRASER December 15 1953

BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

Should the Backbenchers Pipe Down?

BLAIR FRASER December 15 1953

BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

BLAIR FRASER

Should the Backbenchers Pipe Down?

IF PARLIAMENT passes one piece of major legislation before Christmas the Government will be delighted and some of its more cynical members will be astonished.

The one important bill that Liberais still hope to put through before the adjournment is, of course, the new housing legislation making it easier for home builders to borrow money. They want this law passed so that civil servants and bankers can get to work on the mechanics of the lending program.

Bureaucrats don’t always have to wait until a law is passed before getting ready to execute it. More often than not the preparations can be made in the confident expectation ] that the law will go through parliament exactly as drafted.

In housing, though, parliament has a creditable record for constructive i criticism. Most housing legislation : since the war has heen thoroughly ! chewed in committee and has often come out with substantial changes, j Therefore only the merest preliminary work can be done until parliament is through with the current housing bill and yet these preparations must be started soon if the bank loans are to be available for the 1954 building season.

On the other hand, not even the most case-hardened Grit would argue that such an important bill should be rushed through parliament without. thorough study and debate by the Opposition. So the prompt and ' OTrtcn#rh~nisposaJ~7)i uie nousing law, which looks like a matter of general I public interest, really depends on Í when the House can get through debating the Address in Reply to

t he Speech from the Throne. If that annual oratorical orgy isn’t finished by the time these words appear in print, there’ll be little hope for the housing bill before Christmas.

Obviously both the Government and the Opposition would prefer to finish the empty speech-making and get to work. Why then should there be any doubt about it? Because there is no way of shutt ing up those loquacious backbenchers who are all ready to agree that speeches should be fewer and shorter, provided they themselves can talk for their full forty minutes apiece.

IF THE HOUSING BILL should be shunted into the New Year by backbench oratory, three Cabinet ministers will derive a certain wry comfort from the calamity. They are the three who have heen working to change the rules of parliament

Brooke Claxton, Walter Harris and Jack Pickersgill and they will naturally lie able to make good use of a new example in persuading their more inert colleagues to support them.

Claxton is the most pessimistic of the three (and also, by no coincidence, the oldest in parliamentary service). One of his first speeches when he was a brash young backbencher himself was an essay on parliamentary reform to which no Cabinet minister paid the slightest attention. Claxton now says, of any suggestion for reforming the rulety ‘'I’ll believe if when I see it.”

However, pessimism hasn’t prevented him from working at it, and Harris and Pickersgill are more sanguine. They

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think this session really will produce the only change of rule that could make a real difference a firm, simple, workable method of limiting the time spent on each debate.

If that happens, we shall no longer have to wonder whether a major bill can be put through at a convenient time or whether it will he swamped in a sea of verbosity. God speed the day.

This session is a good one at which to introduce the change because although there is little controversy there is a lot of work. By mid-December the Government hoped to have ready all of its new legislation except the budget and the bills for amendment of the Bank Act (a very big job). The other bills will number only about forty compared to the fifty or so passed at. the last session, but they will in the main be longer bills. Even without the Griminal Code and the Bank Act, it’s thought that the 1953-54 legislation will be about the same in actual volume of words, or number of sections, as the more numerous bills of last winter.

Cabinet ministers have been telling reporters (not without a touch of malice) that the bills are of unprecedented dullness and that the Press Gallery will writhe with boredom all winter. But. if this ordeal helps to produce a new set of rules it will be worth enduring.

MAYBE) it’s just wishful thinking but some Conservatives have been speculating on the possibility that the Liberal Party might have to face the next general election with a virtually unknown leader.

Canada has been taking it for granted for years that when Prime Minister St. Laurent retires his successor will be either Mike Pearson or Doug Abbott.

But now the indications are that Abbott intends to leave not only the portfolio of E’inance (as he has publicly announced) but the whole world of politics. Elis friends say he is determined to go either to the Bench or hack to private law practice. And once Abbott gets out of the political harness which he has never really liked (and which his wife has liked a great deal less) it would take a miracle of persuasion to get him back again.

As for Pearson, he would just as soon work for United Nations or for NATO as for the Canadian Government. When NATO was looking for a secretarygeneral some years ago (the job that Lord Ismay took) Pearson would have accepted the offer if Prime Minister St. Laurent hadn’t appealed to him to stay on at External Affairs. Lord Ismay is expected to retire next spring. If the job is offered to Pearson again the Prime Minister is unlikely to intervene a second time.

If both these momentous retirements from public life should take place, the likeliest candidate for the succession to St. Laurent would be Walter Harris, the able lawyer from Markdale, Ont., who is Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. Harris is a rising star in Ottawa, an unobtrusive but competent man who is much admired by those who know him. These are still relatively few and Harris is not the glamorous sort, of public figure who would make an instantaneous impression on large throngs of voters. He will have to make himself known by

fairly slow degrees to the great mass of the electorate.

Such a change in the Liberal leadership would radically alter the betting odds on the next general election.

Aside from the choice of a party leader Liberals seem to have decided that Jean Lesage, the forty-one-yearold infant of the St. Laurent Cabinet, is to be built up as the next federal chieftain in the Province of Quebec.

Lesage is now Minister of Resources and Development, a department which was shorn of several important functions at the very moment that Lesage took it over. However at a testimonial banquet for Lesage in October and in the presence of a stunning array of Obérai bigwigs, Doug Abbott publicly proclaimed that Lesage would be the next, and the first Canadien, Minister of Finance (he was Abbott’s parliamentary assistant before entering the Cabinet).

Finance is hardly a popular portfolio but it’s the sort of test a young politician needs. One indispensable quality of leadership is the ability to make unpalatable decisions without losing public support. Abbott’s personal popularity, which has remained high despite his equally high taxes, is the sort of proof a sceptical politician wants before he chooses a leader (incidentally Mike Pearson’s persistent refusal to leave the painless post of External .Affairs is his biggest liability in the leadership race). If Lesage can impose the taxes on tax-conscious Quebec and still remain a strong political force then the Liberals will know they have chosen well in French Canada.

GEORGE MclLRAITH, Liberal MP for Ottawa West, stopped me in the parliamentary cafeteria the other morning with a mildly belligerent air.

“You wrote a piece last year about election expenses,” he said. “If you want to see an election expense return that contains every five-cent piece a candidate spent, go and take a look at the one I just handed in to the returning officer.

“There’s only one thing missing. The Election Act doesn’t allow us to pay clerical help on election day so the girls all work for nothing on that day. Later they get a ‘present’ of eight dollars apiece. Rut except for that, which comes to about two hundred dollars, you’ll find not; a nickel left out.”

Sure enough, Mcllraith’s election expense account turned out to have a detail and candor which is unusual, to say the least, in these statutory documents.

His total receipts were given as $10,847.55, and his total expenditures balanced that sum to the penny. This was not surprising, since a balance of $1,737.55 had been contributed by the candidate himself to his own election fund. He got the remaining $9,110 from sixteen contributors, in chunks ranging from $3,200 (from a Liberal lawyer who has since become a senator) down to ten dollars from a local bakery.

More than half of all his expenditures ($5,662.05) went for advertising and about three thousand dollars of that were spent in the two Englishspeaking dailies. Two radio stations got only about five hundred dollars between them.

Mcllraith had six committee rooms. One of them cost $450, another only $54.50. However, a local theatre charged him $931 for a single meeting. His election telephone bill was $206.39. Stenographers and clerical help (not counting the election-day present ) came to $1,025.

All these are fairly typical campaign expenses, and a typical total, for a city riding. Not many of Mcllraith’s col-

leagues made out their returns with the same frankness, though, and it’s doubtful if the average of declared expenses even for city ridings would be half as much as that. In fact, many of them are double it.

FIRST FRUITS of Robert H. Winters’ new regime in the Public Works Department turned up within a month of his Liking over the portfolio. Public Works building contracts in excess of fifty thousand dollars, and repair and maintenance contracts over twenty-five thousand, are now published by the de-

partment in periodical press releases.

This new “operation candor” will probably draw more criticism of Public Works contracts than they have had for years. A mimeographed document will remind the Opposition that $149,713 is to be spent on a public building at Huntsville, Ont., and $252,371 on “additions and alterations to public building” at Lachute, Que. The Press as well as the parliamentary Opposition will have its targets conveniently set up, and the experience of Defence Production (which has been doing the same thing for years) indicates that

some targets can prove to be major embarrassments (the famous teapots, neckties and serving forks were all included in regular press releases from Defence Production).

However, although the new Minister of Public Works will doubtless face his critics in the House with a proper combination of loyal indignation and embarrassment, his real task will be made easier. The ancient mess in Public Works will be hard enough to clean up under the best conditions but not quite so hard if the public knows what’s going on.