Where Politics are stranger than Fiction

BLAIR FRASER June 25 1955


Where Politics are stranger than Fiction

BLAIR FRASER June 25 1955


Where Politics are stranger than Fiction


NOBODY was more surprised than Harper Prowse, Liberal Leader of the Opposition in the Alberta legislature, when Premier Manning made a Prowse speech the pretext for a snap election. But though surprised and therefore unprepared, Liberals and Conservatives are nevertheless pleased. To them the sudden election suggests that the land deals exposed by Opposition MLAs at the last session, and others they intend to probe at the next one, have put the Social Credit Government on the run. They think Social Credit strategists want the election out of the way before again facing the legislature and the Public Accounts Committee.

Prowse’s charge would have been serious enough if it had been seriously meant, but it wasn’t.

He was speaking about a recent amendment to the law which forbids Alberta MLAs to have any “contract or agreement” with the crown, or to accept any public money other than certain specified exceptions. Before Easter the Government brought in a revision of this act and unobtrusively added a new item to the list of these exceptions. From now on, MLAs are expressly permitted to have accounts with and borrow money from the Provincial Treasury Branches, a local banking system set up in 1938 by the late Premier Aberhart.

Prowse made the obvious point that if these accounts and loans were only now being made legal, they must have been illegal before. If Social Credit MLAs were already dealing with the Provincial Treasury Branches, had they really been eligible to sit before this amendment was passed? Indeed, he suggested, there might even be some question

whether recent legislatures had ever possessed a quorum of properly eligible MLAs. Wasn’t it possible that all legislation since 1938 was technically invalid?

Prowse told me later he didn’t seriously challenge the provincial laws of the last seventeen years. All he’d meant was, “here we go again with sloppiness, careless administration, disrespect for law.” He thought that if Alberta laws were attacked on this ground in court, the judge might well rebuke the Alberta Government for constitutional untidiness but would be unlikely to penalize the whole province by canceling all its recent legislation.

Social Credit ministers and MLAs, however, took Prowse’s charge as if it were a major indictment. Premier Manning adjourned the legislature at once, and Social Credit members went into a four-hour caucus.

Next day a curious sequence of events took place. F’irst AttorneyGeneral Lucien Maynard made a long speech, arguing that the Liberal charge against Alberta’s recent statutes was preposterous. Then Premier Manning got up to say the “preposterous” charge was so grave as to warrant an immediate appeal to the people, by a government not yet three years away from its last election.

Onlookers are still asking themselves why.

OF THREE possible explanations, the least convincing is that the Social Credit Government simply meant what it said. If Social Crediters do take seriously the attack on their legislation, the way to test the question is to appeal to the courts, not to the Continued on page 82

Backstage in the West


electorate. If Alberta laws are in fact invalid now, they’ll be no less invalid after another election. It may be, though, that Social Crediters think this “constitutional issue” will do them the same service as the Byng controversy did for Mackenzie King in 1926—provide an alternative to an otherwise inescapable issue of maladministration.

A second possible reason is that Social Credit MLAs may be uneasy about their personal liability. The Alberta Legislative Assembly Act provides that any person who sits or votes in the legislature when he is not eligible to do so shall forfeit two hundred dollars for every day’ he so sits and votes. 'This penalty may be recovered by “any person who sues for the same.”

So far as is known the Opposition has no definite proof how many Social Credit MLAs have had accounts or loans with the Provincial Treasury Branches, but there seems to be little doubt that the number is considerable. The branches were set up as part of Premier Aberhart’s attempt to put Social Credit into practice and, to many Social Crediters, it was a point of honor to place their accounts with this new “hank.” To them this would be no more a “contract with the crown” than buying a CNR ticket. Whether it is equally innocuous for an MLA to get a loan from a provincial bank, in which loans over a certain small amount are authorized by a government-appointed Loan Board, is a question that has not been examined until the current election campaign. But if a court should rule that these transactions do make an MLA ineligible to sit, some MLAs might find themselves in an expensively embarrassing position.

A third possible explanation for the snap election—and Liberals and Conservatives hope this is the true one —is that the Social Credit Government wants a quick new lease of life before any more questions are asked in the Public Accounts Committee.

Last session the Public Accounts Committee turned the spotlight on a series of land deals. The details are summarized elsewhere in this issue (see The Prairies’ Political Preachers, page 24) but the common factor in most of them is simple: shortly before the

Government buys a piece of land at a large price, someone else nips in and buys it from the previous owner at a much smaller price. Question: did the shrewd buyer have a tip that the Government was about to buy? And if so, from whom did the tip come?

The next session of the legislature will probably reveal more deals of the same kind. In the last few months information has been coming to Opposition MLAs and to Edmonton and Calgary newspapers as it never came before. Sometimes of course it turns out to be mere gossip, but sometimes the information stands up. Hugh John Macdonald, Liberal MLA from Calgary and chief “prosecutor” at the Public Accounts Committee last spring, is already equipped to ask some questions that may prove embarrassing.

THESE EMBARRASSMENTS to Social Credit would be more encouraging to the older parties if they themselves were not in such disarray on the prairies. West of Manitoba, the old national parties which are so regal and serene in the east have almost vanished from sight. In recent years they tend to be regarded as quaint survivals of

an earlier period of evolution, luce the duckbill platypus or the three-toed sloth.

To make matters worse, the older parties have developed a habit of squabbling among themselves.

Except for the Alberta Conservatives, who are so weak they have never won an election in all Alberta’s fiftyyear history, all the older parties on the prairies are split by internal wrangles of this kind.

Of the four groups (two parties in each province) Saskatchewan Liberals are the strongest. They hold ten of the fifty-two legislature seats and in the 1952 election they got more than forty percent of the popular vote.

But of the four they are perhaps the worst riven by internal quarrels. The cause of the dispute is, as it has been for years, the dissatisfaction of some Liberals with the old entrenched Jimmy Gardiner machine.

The Rt. Hon. James G. Gardiner, federal Minister of Agriculture, has been the mogul of the Liberal Party in Saskatchewan ever since he took over the premiership from the Hon. Charles Dunning in 1926. Dunning tried to keep control of the provincial party and run it from Ottawa, but Gardiner wouldn’t let him. But when Gardiner himself went to Ottawa in 1935 he succeeded where Dunning failed, by retaining his power back home. Until the collapse of the provincial Liberal regime in 1944 his authority was never seriously challenged. Since then it has been challenged repeatedly but not quite successfully.

The most recent attempt was at the Saskatchewan Liberal convention last November, called to choose a successor to Walter Tucker who had returned to the federal field. Gardiner’s chosen candidate was Dr. L. B. Thomson, director of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act. Anti-Gardiner forces rallied behind Alexander Hamilton McDonald, the thirty-six-year-old RCAF veteran who is MLA for Moosomin.

McDonald won and great was the rejoicing in the anti-Gardiner camp. Apparently some of Gardiner’s enemies thought they had cast him into outer darkness and that all they had to do was proceed to Ottawa and instruct the federal Liberals that henceforth Liberal patronage and campaign money was to be channeled through them and not through the Minister of Agriculture. If that was their idea, they got a rude awakening. Gardiner, they discovered, is still very much in the picture.

Some Gardiner men were replaced in local party jobs at the outset but these switches didn’t seem to have much effect. Last spring several of these new officials, who had thought

they were being recruited for a thorough housecleaning, resigned in disgust. According to them, “Jimmy Gardiner has taken Hammie McDonald completely into camp.” McDonald’s rejoinder is that he never set out to destroy the Gardiner forces—that his intention from the outset was to heal the party’s wounds and rally all factions to work together. But if that was the case, his own backers at the convention didn’t know it.

Two months ago reports were rife that the Saskatchewan Liberal Party was about to split wide open. Those rumors now seem to have been exaggerated, but they were by no means groundless. The internal wear and tear has been considerable, and the provincial Liberals’ morale is at a new low.

SASKATCHEWAN Conservatives cannot be as badly divided as the Saskatchewan Liberals, for a simple arithmetical reason—there is only one Saskatchewan Conservative in the legislature and only a judgment of Solomon could divide him. In recent months, however, there have been many Conservatives in and out of Saskatchewan who devoutly wished for a Solomon to come along.

Robert Kohaly, the lone Conservative in the Saskatchewan legislature, won a by-election in Souris-Estevan after the death in 1953 of the sitting Liberal, J. E. McCormick. Nominally it was a Conservative gain from the Liberals; actually it was a saw-off between the two old parties to beat the CCF.

Kohaly did well in the legislature. Alvin Hamilton, of Saskatoon, provincial leader and full-time organizer of the Conservative Party in Saskatchewan, worked with him as a combination of coach, speech-writer and strategy consultant, and between the two of them they put on an impressive one-man show. Considering that Kohaly was the first Conservative to be elected to the Saskatchewan legislature since 1934, the party had good reason to feel encouraged by its progress.

And then, alas, the whole effort collapsed. Kohaly announced, for some reason known only to himself, that he was considering an offer to become the leader of the Social Credit Party in Saskatchewan.

In the end Kohaly decided not to “go Social Credit” but to remain a Conservative. By that time, though, the damage was done. As a gleeful CCFer in Regina remarked, “When a girl is propositioned, if she really means ‘no’ she ought to say so right away. If she thinks it over for a couple of weeks and then says ‘no,’ people tend to get a wrong idea about her.” ★