NOT SINCE the early 1930s, the young days of the Bennett regime, have Conservatives been able to look back on a session of parliament with so much satisfaction, nor Liberals with so little. The Government has been in trouble often enough but this is the first time in twenty years the Conservative Opposition has been able to take full advantage of it.
During the long fight over his Defense Production Act the Rt. Hon. C. D. Howe learned the answer to his oft-quoted question, “Who’s to stop us?” The answer, it turns out, is “parliament.” Evidently it doesn’t matter that the Opposition is heavily outnumbered if, as on this occasion, the Opposition is manifestly right.
The issue was simple enough. Mr. Howe wanted to make his Defense Production Department permanent instead of temporary, and nobody quarreled with that. But, said the Opposition, this didn’t mean he had to make permanent the extraordinary dictatorial powers that were conferred by the Defense Production Act when it was passed in 1951 as an emergency measure.
Mr. Howe disagreed. He has never relished the prospect of going back to parliament for a renewal of his authority. Four years ago when the present Defense Production Act was being debated, Mr. Howe was asked on a radio press conference why he objected to making the life of the act three years instead of five.
“That would mean coming back to parliament again in three years,” said the Minister, “and I’ve more to do than spend my time amusing parliament.”
Presumably that is why, when the re-enactment of the Defense Pro-
duction Act first came l>efore the cabinet last winter, Mr. Howe’s draft amendment ran to only eight lines -one section raising the minister’s salary in line with other cabinet salaries, and one declaring that “Section 41 of the said act (the section that said the act would expire next duly 31) is repealed.”
Gabinet raised no objection on the two occasions when the bill came up for study before being submitted to parliament. Apparently nobody at this stage gave the matter much serious thought. Mr. Howe has had powers of this sort most of the time for sixteen years and Canada is still a free country.
But when the resolution to introduce the bill was debated in the Commons, Howard Green, Conservative MP for Vancouver-Quadra, put forward a suggestion: Why not insert in the Defense Production Act some provision whereby the government would be obliged to submit the act, or at any rate the extraordinary powers it contains, to parliament for review from time to time?
This struck several ministers all of them, in fact, except Mr. Howe as extremely sensible. When they came to think of it, they agreed that emergency powers should not be made permanent and removed from parliamentary review. At this stage the bill had not yet been introduced; the Prime Minister, in whose name it stood, said the Government would “give consideration to the views which have been expressed here” in drafting the text of it, and the resolution went through without further challenge. The bill could then have been rewritten along the
lines of Howard Green’s suggestion without the slightest loss of face for the Government. Had the whole matter come up a few months earlier, this is what would have been done.
Continued on page 65
Backstage at Ottawa
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 6
Meanwhile, though, there had been another cabinet crisis which hadn’t come before parliament at all—a crisis that had nothing to do with emergency powers but a lot to do with the Rt. Hon. C. D. Howe. This was the Homeric contest between Mr. Howe and some colleagues led by the Hon. Walter Harris, Minister of Finance, about the scheme for a gas pipeline from Alberta to eastern Canada.
Mr. Howe had accepted the TransCanada Pipeline Company’s scheme for government underwriting of their all-Canadian route, and he expected the cabinet to honor the undertaking he had given. This the cabinet refused to do. Other ministers, notably Walter Harris, felt the taxpayers were being called upon to put up millions in order to remove all possibility of loss to a small rich group of private operators who would remain in complete enjoyment of any profits that might accrue.
But the pros and cons of the TransCanada Pipeline scheme itself soon paled into insignificance. The real issue was the personal authority of C. D. Howe. He had given his word; he felt his honor as well as his prestige to be at stake. He fought like a tiger to have his promise kept by the Government, at one stage appealing directly to his old and close friend the Prime Minister. He failed. The rebels were victorious. Mr. Howe was more than angry: he was badly hurt. All spring he kept muttering in his beard about the "young punks” who had taken over the running of things—he thought it was time to get out and let "the Junior League” take charge.
This was the state of affairs when the Defense Production Act came back for reconsideration. Again, perhaps by unfortunate coincidence, it was Walter Harris who led the opposition to the C. D. Howe amendment. But this time neither he nor anyone else wanted to risk a head-on collision with the angry old giant C. D. Howe.
Mr. Howe had been talking about resigning from the cabinet; and that t he "Junior League” could have borne without dismay. But what scared the daylights out of them was that Prime Minister St. Laurent began to talk about resigning too. Not because he took Mr. Howe’s side in the Defense Production Act argument, but just because he was distressed by the dissension in his cabinet; the PM spoke as if his own usefulness was at an end and he had better retire.
Liberals probably count it the greatest single triumph of the session that they talked him out of this discouragement. Before the filibuster ended Mr. St. Laurent had not only decided, he had publicly proclaimed that he would remain party leader until after the next federal election. Some Liberals believe—and they may he right that this firm commitment more than offsets any damage the party suffered from the Conservatives’ successful attack on Mr. Howe’s Defense Production amendment.
However, the advantage was gained at great cost. The Defense Production debate had to be allowed to drag on and drag on until the party’s prestige was far more deeply committed than it need have been. What in March would have been a mere change of
mind, or at most a graceful acceptance of Opposition suggestions, became in July a major victory for the ConservaLives and a humiliat ing dish of crow for Lhe Liberals.
ÍL was mid-June before Mr. Howe gave an inch. Then, after much persuasion, he rose as the House opened one day to make an announcement: in order "to ensure effective parliamentary control" over the Defense Production Department, the Government intended to add a third section to the amending bill. It would provide that all orders-in-council passed by authority of the act should he tabled in parliament at the earliest possible moment; that a notice of motion for repeal of any such order, if signed by any ten MPs, would be debated in parliament within four days thereafter.
From the standpoint of political advantage, the Conservatives would probably have been smart to grab this offer and let the hill go through. It would give them opportunity for a field day, at every session of parliament, on their favorite theme of the Government’s "arbitrary and dictatorial" power. As one minister remarked later, "No matter how careful we are in drafting an order, you can be sure that one or two phrases or clauses would slip through each year which the Opposition could make to sound bad.”
"They can ride us all they like about dictatorial power now and it’ll be forgotten by election day,” said another Liberal strategist. "But if they were guaranteed a chance to do the same thing at every session, they might make a lot of people believe it in the end."
No Bargain—No Truce
On the question of principle, though, the Conservatives felt that the "Howe compromise” went nowhere near the root of the matter. It was not enough, they felt, to confront parliament each year with a series of accomplished facts. The powers requested were emergency powers and should continue to be considered as such and parliament must have the periodic task of reviewing the extraordinary authority thus delegated, not merely the end products of it. Also, some Conservatives reflected that since the Howe offer was unconditional and not a bargain, they might get the benefit of it anyway while continuing the fight on the issue of principle.
So for all these reasons they brushed aside the Howe offer and the filibuster went on another three weeks before the next break came. This time it came from Solon Low, national leader of Social Credit.
Conservatives had moved an amendment to send the hill hack to the standing committee on banking and commerce, for a report on the advisability of separating permanent from emergency powers. This the Government could hardly accept, since it would mean letting the whole thing go until next year—when another such filibuster theoretically could be carried past the expiry date of the present Defense Production Act.
But Solon Low, without moving any amendment, made the same appeal ; directly to the Government: do it now. Bring in an amendment to place a time \ limit on certain sections of the act—he | named the sections—and let the rest of it be permanent like the department itself.
As soon as Solon Low finished speaking Prime Minister St. Laurent went across the House to speak to him. The Government was much interested in the Social Credit proposition, said the Prime Minister; had the same tiling been suggested by the official Opposition it would have been accepted. Solon Low took the hint, consulted Opposition Leader George Drew, discovered that if the Government were to make such an amendment of its own accord the Opposition would feel that the essential point had been won.
Unluckily, C. D. Howe had already spoken on the Conservative amendment and said that, although amendments might have been considered at some earlier date (he didn’t say when), now "the situation has reached the point where the Government must insist that this legislation be passed.” It took more comings and goings, and more persuasion from colleagues who wanted the question settled on a reasonable basis of compromise, before Mr. Howe got up in the House and announced that the Government would introduce at the committee stage an amendment along the lines of Solon Low’s proposal. He did not then give full details but he had already drafted the amendment and opposition parties had seen copies of it.
From the standpoint of the public interest, therefore, the episode had a happy ending. From the Conservative Party’s standpoint it was even happier, a victory all the sweeter for being so rare. As for the Liberals, most of them are amply consoled for their apparent defeat by the fact that the unbeaten and so far unbeatable team of St. Laurent and Howe is publicly committed to play for the Liberal side again in the next general election.
Only a tiny minority of Liberals— but a minority that does exist—sees this commitment as a loss and not a gain and thinks it would he better in the long run to have a change of leadership now rather than later. This feeling is not disaffection, certainly not hostility, either to the Prime Minister or to C. D. Howe. It is, in a way, the opposite—a personal concern for the two giants and their standing in Canadian history.
Let’s end this great era at its peak, the dissidents argue. The last session of parliament showed the Government is losing some of its cohesion, some of its old sureness of touch. Let’s not wait until the deterioration goes any further.
They admit the Liberals might be defeated under new leadership, though they think maybe a term in opposition would do the Liberal Party more good than anything else. But anyway, win or lose, they’d like to fight on a platform of the future rather than of the past. ★
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