Backstage at Ottawa

Backstage at Ottawa

BLAIR FRASER August 18 1956
Backstage at Ottawa

Backstage at Ottawa

BLAIR FRASER August 18 1956

Backstage at Ottawa

Why the steel strike gives the Liberals nightmares

BLAIR FRASER

The United States steel strike has probably caused more alarm and despondency in Ottawa than in any part of the U. S. Liberals are afraid that by choking off the supply of pipe for Trans-Canada Pipe Lines Limited the strike may keep the pipeline issue alive until the election campaign next year.

They knew, even without a Gallup Poll to tell them so, that the pipeline battle in parliament had done them some damage in the country, but this didn't worry them unduly. They were confident that if the western section of the line went into operation next winter the pipeline would cease to be an issue. With Alberta getting a market for its natural gas, the prairies getting cheap fuel and Ontario and Quebec looking forward to the same benefit very soon, the voters directly affected would all be in favor of the project. The rest would have forgotten all about it by 1957.

So ran the Liberal thesis. It was plausible enough but it depended on one fundamental assumption— that there would be no furthei hitch of any sort in the building of the line. Even before the U. S. steel strike there were some pessimists among the Liberals, even in the cabinet itself, who wondered whether they weren’t taking too much for granted.

"What keeps me awake nights,” said one of them in mid-June, “is the thought of something like this: the Trans-Canada Pipe Lines company, for some reason beyond its own control, is unable to finish the line from Alberta to Winnipeg this season, and can’t pay back the eighty-million-dollar loan by next April. So we have to foreclose and take over their assets for ninety percent of the cost—that’s what the agreement says. But they go to court and contest the foreclosure, and they turn up some clause or phrase in the fine print of the agreement that we haven’t even noticed.

“Wouldn’t that be lovely, in the middle of an election campaign?”

Defense has been a fairly important issue at this session of parliament, as it has been in most years since the war. But after hours of time and millions of words devoted to the subject it is still very difficult to find out, either from Hansard or from private conversation, exactly what fault the opposition has to find with the broad lines of the government’s defense policy. All they say—as George Drew said recently in the Commons — is that they want the matter discussed in a parliamentary committee.

There is always, of course, the general charge that the Liberals are wasteful and extravagant, that the armed services are inefficiently supplied and inadequately equipped. It’s when you begin to ask what, precisely, should be done about it that the embarrassing silences fall.

What should be done with the “extravagant” defense budget? Is it too big? Too small?

How about the armed services themselves? Should we have a bigger army, or navy, or air force? What fundamental changes, if any, should be made in their structure or their relation one to another?

Is the public really hostile to conscription?

Parliament has left such questions open for years. Lately some other and even more specific questions have been raised outside the House. It appears that parliament will leave them open too. From time to time opposition speakers have quoted the trenchant criticisms that General Guy Simonds has directed against the service of which he was recently Chief of the General Staff, but whenever a Liberal MP has risen to ask: “Do you support Simonds’ view?” the opposition man has hastily backed away.

General Simonds has described the recent expenditures on the Canadian allweather fighter, the CF-100 Mark V, as a waste of money. This opinion, whether right or wrong, would be extremely unpopular in the Conservative constituency of York West where dwell most of the A. V. Roe aircraft workers who make the CF-100. It would also outrage the Royal Canadian Air Force, its veterans, its auxiliaries and its admirers. These facts are more than enough to establish the Simonds thesis as a political hot potato which no party cares to touch with a pair of tongs.

Less obvious, but not far below the surface, are the political implications of Simonds’ attack on the structure of the Department of National Defense. He has stated that the Canadian Chiefs of Staff Committee is "packed" to protect the government against the receipt of unpalatable advice (Maclean’s, June 23).

Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee is General Charles Foulkes, who was Simonds’ predecessor as Chief of the General Staff of the Canadian Army and who stands very high in the government's esteem. Other members are the deputy minister of national defense, who used to be a civilian and is now an air vice-marshal; the chairman of the Defense Research Board, a civilian; and the three chiefs of staff, two of whose services benefit greatly by large-scale outlays on machines and relatively small outlays on manpower.

Simonds says, almost in so many words, that this six-man group habitually indulges in buck-passing, log-rolling and a systematic diffusion of responsibility. It is hard to imagine a graver charge—or a critic better qualified to know what he is talking about. Nevertheless it seems highly unlikely that any official answer will be forthcoming, or that Simonds himself will be cross-examined by any professionally qualified body, or even that the issue will be thoroughly debated in the House of Commons. For the basic criticism that underlies all of Simonds’ charges is a criticism of Canada’s manpower policy, or lack of it. This is the unpalatable advice from which the government is protected by the Chiefs of Staff Committee. This is the reason for that primary emphasis on machines rather than men of which Simonds and other retired generals complain.

General Henry Crerar, who led the Canadian forces overseas during the reinforcement crisis of 1944; General W. H. S. Macklin, who as adjutant-general had the ungrateful task of finding volunteers for Korea—all the professionals, in fact, who are free to speak say much the same thing, that Canada must have some kind of compulsory national service before she can have an effective defense policy.

No political party cares to take the responsibility even for raising this question, let alone answering it. This is why we are unlikely to learn, through parliament or any of its agencies, just what the facts are about manpower policy and what the services really think should be done.

After each outburst from a retired general, unnamed "official sources” in the defense department give out unofficial comment. They usually begin by saying that the critic, whoever he is at the time, is really a rather stupid or prejudiced fellow. (They ignore the question why, if he’s so stupid, he was allowed until so recently to fill so high and important a post.) Then they go on to explain that modern military opinion disagrees with him—that conscription, in the minds of really up-to-date soldiers, does more harm than good and has no real military value.

If parliament were to set up a committee for a thoroughgoing enquiry into defense policy, there would be opportunity for some of these up-to-date soldiers to put their views on the record. This is one reason why no such enquiry will be held. If the up-to-date soldiers who oppose conscription exist at all, they are remarkably hard to find.

Much commoner, if not in fact universal, is the view expressed by Simonds, Macklin, Crerar and others. Equally common is the curious illusion of military men that there is no deeply rooted hostility to conscription in Canada— that if it were not for the cowardly silence of the politicians all citizens of whatever language and background could be persuaded to endorse compulsory service.

Not long ago 1 spent a pleasant evening chatting with some young army officers. They all thought it would be possible, and relatively easy, to convert Quebec to conscription by a well-directed campaign of propaganda.

“In French or English?”

In French, naturally.

“Can you name one French Canadian, of any public stature at all among his own people, who would even accept your case himself, let alone lead a campaign in favor of it?”

It was evident that this question had never occurred to them. They had thought of a vigorous campaign in the press, on the radio, on the platform, without ever asking themselves who would write the editorials, make the broadcasts and the campaign speeches.

“Maybe we can’t do it at all without taking control of the press,” said one with a laugh.

It was a facetious remark—he didn’t mean it, and he knew I knew he didn’t mean it. Nevertheless there was just enough seriousness in the jest to make me think that the political conspiracy of silence is having some very bad effects on both sides of the argument.