BACKSTAGE

“Just wait until we’re in opposition!” the Liberals always boasted. Well, let’s see what they can do!

BLAIR FRASER July 6 1957
BACKSTAGE

“Just wait until we’re in opposition!” the Liberals always boasted. Well, let’s see what they can do!

BLAIR FRASER July 6 1957

“Just wait until we’re in opposition!” the Liberals always boasted. Well, let’s see what they can do!

BACKSTAGE

AT OTTAWA

BLAIR FRASER

One morning several years ago I dropped in on a young parliamentary assistant, recently appointed, who was having his first good look at Big Government from the inside. He was working on estimates, one of those thick looseleaf volumes that contain all the spending plans of a government department, and his mood was one of exasperation.

“Oh how I would like to be in the opposition,” he said “These poor Tories don't know where fo look. It isn’t their fault—they've been out of office so long, and so many things have changed in the meantime, there is no way they can tell what to shoot at any more."

He gave the volume of estimates a petulant shove.

"Boy, we would know' where to look.“ he said. “We would know muscle from fat. We would know who was trying to get away with what. If we w'ere in opposition—m-m-m!”

That conversation was a rather extreme example of a Liberal daydream which, in the eight years since the great Liberal landslide of 1949, has been commoner than you might think. Many a back-bencher and more than one cabinet minister would admit, in the frankness of after-dinner chat, that the Liberal government was too strong and had been in pow'er too long for its own good. My young friend, the parliamentary assistant, was not the only Grit, nor the most eminent, who used to think wistfully what fun it would be to sit on the other side of the House for a

while. There were so many targets that the opposition didn't even see.

I don't mean graft or scandal or even impropriety of any major kind, not at all. What these death-wishful Grits yearned to expose was not a chamber of horrors, but an accumulation of junk in the attic.

"How can I tell the opposition what to attack in my department?” a cabinet minister once asked, only half facetiously. “They keep harping on the things we do best, telling us to do them even better. The things we do badly they don't even notice.

"Why don't they go after our Ossification Division, for instance? It is absolutely useless, it should never have been set up in the first place, and the director is a pompous imbecile. Why don't the opposition demand that 1 abolish the whole silly outfit?”

Why not abolish it himself, without waiting to be prompted?

“Because a minister can't do that sort of thing—not often, anyway. A minister is supposed to stick up for his department. He's supposed to defend it in parliament, beg for it at Treasury Board, make speeches about how wise and efficient it is. If I went around firing everybody who isn't any good, morale in the department would go to pieces—I'd have a sitdown strike on my hands in no time.”

Needless to say, this w'as not a serious conversation, but the minister was speaking the exact truth just the same.

In a private business the mere pressure of competition keeps this sort of thing

from getting out of hand. No such pressure affects a department of government. If an item is passed by the Treasury Board (and Treasury Board normally passes an item which has been passed before, if it hasn't been increased too much) and if the opposition doesn't know which items are which, there is nothing to prevent a useless division from going on forever—or at least until government and opposition change places, which until lately seemed like much the same thing.

Of the many Canadians who voted for "a stronger opposition." 1 don't suppose many had precisely this change in mind. But a stronger opposition is certainly what we've got.

Indeed, considered in those terms, the Liberals have not been as hard hit by the decimation of the cabinet as they seem to be when considered as a government.

Right Hon. C. D. Howe, for instance, was a giant on the government side— one of the ablest executives in Canada, a genius at getting things done. Howe would have been no help at all in opposition. He'd have gone to sleep. Howe's talents and interests are in doing things, not in arguing about how they should be done.

Much the same thing is true of Bob Winters, the young engineer who was Minister of Public Works until his defeat in Queens-Lunenburg. Nova Scotia. Winters spent twelve years as a member of parliament but never quite got used tq thinking of himself as a poli-

tician—he is an engineer, and engineers don't like politicians.

Even as a minister. Winters had the unusual weakness of being open to conviction. When he listened to the arguments of the opposition he was sometimes moved to think that maybe they were right. This is bad enough for a politician when he is in office; out of office, it is fatal.

Milton Gregg in New Brunswick

and Hugues Lapointe in Quebec have a similar defect of character—they are both too good-natured. Stuart Garson of Manitoba is a keen debater, but maybe a touch too keen (too academic, thaj is) for commando duty in the House of Commons.

Of all the defeated ministers Walter Harris is probably the worst loss to a party in opposition. No spellbinder, Harris has nevertheless a gift for brief, dry. factual rejoinders that have a deflating effect on other people's oratory. He has also, as Minister of Finance, acquired an intimate knowledge of the workings of government which would have been invaluable.

Not only the Liberals but even more the Progressive Conservatives take on different shapes and sizes when you try to picture them on the other side of the House of Commons.

Some of them. too. have been handicapped by good nature during their long years in the wilderness. The most notorious example is. ol course, J. M. Macdonnell. who has been financial critic ever since he was first elected in 1945. In that role he himself has been criticized, and always for the same fault—too gentle. You would often suppose that he didn't really disagree with the Minister of Finance, that he too could see the practical problems facing the minister and even sympathize with the attempt made to solve them.

More commonly, though, the Conservative MP has been the opposite tvpe. Only one. Hon. Earl Rowe, had ever held office before, and he only for a few months in 1935 at the tail end of the Bennett regime. The rest have been bred and born in the briar patch of opposition, and some are rather prickly customers.

That is speaking of the older hands, of course, the veterans of the twenty-second and of previous parliaments. More than half of John Diefenbaker's cohorts in the new parliament are new men. Some, like Dick Bell of Carleton. are well known in politics even though newcomers to the House of Commons — Bell was national director of the Progressive Conservative Party through several of its leanest years, and qualifies as a combat veteran thereby. Others are complete strangers outside their own communities, not only to the general public but even to their own colleagues.

Sorting out this throng and separating the men from the boys will be quite a task. Even more forbidding, since every politician thinks of himself as cabinet timber, is the thought of selecting a government from among its ranks. This problem is always complicated by the divergent claims of ability and seniority.

There is one comfort, though. Seventeen vacancies in the Senate, and half a dozen ambassadorships that are either open now or soon to become so, give any party leader a certain freedom of movement. Such consolation prizes will go far to soothe the lacerated feelings of frustrated statesmen. ★