ARTICLES

What politics needs most— MORE LAUGHTER

As an MP at Ottawa and a PM at Regina the Hon. Tommy Douglas has been a witness—and a contributor—to some of the all too rare moments of fun in Canadian public life. Now he pleads a rollicking case for

March 28 1959
ARTICLES

What politics needs most— MORE LAUGHTER

As an MP at Ottawa and a PM at Regina the Hon. Tommy Douglas has been a witness—and a contributor—to some of the all too rare moments of fun in Canadian public life. Now he pleads a rollicking case for

March 28 1959

What politics needs most— MORE LAUGHTER

As an MP at Ottawa and a PM at Regina the Hon. Tommy Douglas has been a witness—and a contributor—to some of the all too rare moments of fun in Canadian public life. Now he pleads a rollicking case for

The House of Commons was tense as the Brengun debate raced to its climax. For days charges and countercharges had been hurled across the chamber and a minister of the crown had threatened to “knock the damned block off” anyone who questioned his integrity. Dr. R. J. Manion, whose rapid-fire Irish oratory had earned him the nickname of Gatling Gun Manion, had just taken his seat after excoriating the treasury benches. The government had put its fate in the hands of Gerry McGeer, the unpredictable Irishman from Vancouver, who rose to speak with every eye fastened on him.

The irrepressible McGeer looked first at the speaker and then at his fellow-countryman, Manion. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “it’s not easy in forty minutes to overtake Irish suspicion traveling at two hundred words a minute!” Suddenly the

tension was dissipated and the entire House rocked with laughter. The bitterness that had held the Commons in its grip for days was dissolved and a normal perspective was restored.

When I was elected to the House of Commons in 1935, a member of long standing gave me some advice. "Never go in for flippancy,” he said. “The Canadian people like their public men to be serious; they treat all humor as indicating you’re a lightweight.” While I appreciated this counsel at the time I’m afraid I have come to have less and less regard for it with the passing years. From Richard Sheridan to Winston Churchill the great debaters have driven home their most cogent arguments with flashes of humor or telling repartee—although I must confess agreement with Gerry McGeer who once said to me: “My most crushing rejoinders have been made

on my way home after the debate was over.”

Prepared speeches and press releases have tended to make our parliamentary speeches indescribably dull. This was not always so—as anyone knows who has taken the trouble to read some of the debates in which Sir John A. Macdonald took part. Even in our own time there have been occasions when laughter echoed through the House and relieved the dreary monotony of parliamentary debate.

I recall the budget debate in 1936 when R. B. Bennett, then leader of the opposition, was winding up his speech in a mighty peroration. Suddenly he was brought up short by the sight of Finance Minister Dunning nodding his head in vigorous agreement. “What,” growled Bennett, “you agree with me?” “Yes,” said Dunning. “That’s one true statement you’ve made today.” Like a

flash Bennett came back: “If that were said about you, it would be a high average.”

Another day Bennett was speaking on the Wheat Board Act and was waxing indignant over the government's action in setting aside the operations of the Wheat Board by order-in-council. When Bennett was angry he reminded one of nothing quite so much as a steam engine in striped pants. Most ministers left him alone but Minister of Agriculture Gardiner interrupted frequently like a small terrier tackling a grizzly bear. Suddenly Bennett stopped and glowered at his wouldbe heckler: “May I remind you,” he rumbled, “that you are in the House of Commons and not back in Saskatchewan talking to the rural rustics!” Gardiner let this pass but not so a Liberal member from Saskatchewan who demanded an apology. “I wasn’t talking to you,” said Bennett. “Perhaps not,” said the prairie member, “but I'm one of the rural rustics from Saskatchewan.” A benign smile spread over Bennett’s usually somber countenance as he replied, “I can assure the honorable member there was no need for him to prove it.”

For all his apparent irascibility Bennett loved a good laugh and appreciated a quick retort. One day I was arguing that the minister of agriculture had made certain commitments because I had stood at the rear of a hall in his own constituency and heard him make this particular promise— whereupon Gardiner said, “You couldn’t have

been there—I didn’t see you.” My reply was: “Mr. Speaker, I must point out that, like the minister of agriculture, I am not very conspicuous even when standing on my tiptoes.” This reference to Gardiner’s diminutive stature pleased Bennett immensely and he later came over to congratulate me. However, he was less complimentary on another occasion when I was speaking on the plight of western agriculture. Several Liberal members from Saskatchewan chorused, “What do you know about it? You’ve never farmed!” I retorted, “True I’ve never farmed—and I’ve never laid an egg but I know more about making an omelet than any hen that ever lived.” Bennett’s comment as he passed my desk later that day was, “Douglas, that was a good reply but I’m afraid you got it out of a book.” Perhaps I did, but if so 1 don’t recall it. After all it has been said that originality is the art of remembering what you hear and forgetting where you heard it.

Few people ever thought of Mackenzie King as having a well-developed sense of humor; yet under that enigmatic exterior there lurked a love of fun. At a private dinner given for the provincial premiers in 1945 I heard King make one of the wittiest impromptu speeches I ever listened to. When I commented on this to him afterwards he said, “Douglas, when I first entered public life I had such a horror of being misquoted that I wrote out all my speeches with the result that I have come to rely upon a manuscript. I realize

now how much one loses in spontaneity and humor. Never tie yourself down to a manuscript if you can possibly avoid it.”

During the question periods in the House King’s spontaneity sometimes came out of hiding in spite of himself. There was the time William Esling, a Conservative member from British Columbia. was questioning the prime minister regarding the activities of the Sons of Freedom. Most people know that the Doukhobors originally settled in Saskatchewan where they have become hard-working and highly respected citizens. But a sect known as the Sons of Freedom had broken away from the main group and whenever they wanted to protest against constituted authority they would take off their clothes and parade in the nude. With sub-zero temperatures in the winter and mosquitoes in the summer, it became increasingly apparent that Saskatchewan was not the most desirable place in which to practice this strange rite and so the sect had moved to British Columbia.

Esling reminded the House that for days he had been urging the government to stop these demonstrations but no action had been taken. He said: “Mr. Speaker, I have on my desk a letter from one of my constituents and I put his problem to the Prime Minister. I ask him what he would do if he stepped out on his porch one morning and found three naked women standing on his lawn.” Without so much as

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Parliamentary wits who rocked

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a change of expression King said, ‘T would send for Mr. Bennett and Mr. Woodsworth.” When one recalls that like King, Bennett was a bachelor and Woodsworth was a Methodist minister, one can understand the mirth this sally evoked.

One member with whom few cared to match words was Agnes Macphail. In the corridors she was the soul of kindness but on the floor of the chamber she was a holy terror. Her voice was deep and resonant, making the average male members voice sound like the twittering of a sparrow in a tempest—and woe betide him who incurred her wrath.

During a debate on defense estimates she was objecting strenuously to the heavy expenditures for armaments. A member who was noted for his prowess in playing the bagpipes, to the annoyance of those benighted souls who had no ear for music, interrupted to say, "And how would you defend Canada?” “I'd have you march up and down the shore playing your bagpipes,” replied the irrepressible Aggie.

Well known is her cutting retort to a youthful newcomer who called out in the course of her speech, “Don't you wish you were a man?” “Yes,” she said sweetly. “Don't you?” The laugh that followed pursued that young man for years.

Jacobs’ quick comeback

One of the brightest wits in the House before World War II was Samuel Jacobs, member for Montreal-Cartier. He spoke seldom but his interjections were devastating. One member was holding forth on the folly of continuing the CNR as a government-owned railway. He recounted how the Grand Trunk and Great Northern railways had gone bankrupt and were reorganized as the Canadian National Railways with all the deficits that had ensued. “Mr. Speaker,” he cried, “what good thing can be said for this white elephant?” “Well,” said Jacobs, “it has a grand trunk!”

Geographical rivalries loom up from time to time in parliamentary debates. There was the occasion on which a Nova Scotia member was holding forth eloquently on the grandeur and glories of the Maritimes. “Mr. Speaker,’’ he orated, “the Maritimes produce more fish per capita than any place in the world; they eat more fish per capita than any place in the world. And, sir, fish make brains.” The speaker sat down amid vociferous applause from the Maritime members. Up rose Dr. Michael Clark from Alberta with a twang that smacked of the foothills. “Mr. Speaker, the member who has just taken his seat says that the Maritimes produce more fish and eat more fish than any place in the world. He also says that fish make brains. My only comment is that the Lord Almighty certainly put the fish where it was most needed.” The westerner needed police protection for at least three days until

the ire of the Maritimers had subsided.

Another group who enjoyed lauding the merits of their constituencies were the members from Toronto the Good. One day when at least eight of them in succession had pontificated on the wonders of thdir magnificent city they were followed by a member from Quebec. “All day." he said, "I have listened to the members from Toronto tell of their wonderful city. And I agree it is a very charming place. I spent a week there last Sunday!"

The most fruitful source of parlia-

mentary humor, however, is to be found at Westminster. The British House of Commons has established a tradition of short speeches interspersed with witticisms and trenchant phrases. Sheridan’s comment on a newly appointed minister who had appeared in a Windsor uniform was, 'There goes a sheep in wolf's clothing." He dismissed the haughty Pitt with the sentence, “There but for the grace of God goes God.” Sir Winston Churchill later purloined both these sallies for his own use but Sheridan originated them.

Listening to Harold Macmillan from the visitors’ gallery I was treated to a series of brilliant epigrams which Clement Attlee later described as “smacking too much of the midnight oil.” Be that as it may, they stung the Labor benches to fury; for as someone has said, “An epigram is a half truth stated in such a way as to irritate the people who believe the other half.”

Churchill was perhaps the greatest master of the devastating retort during his active years in the British House of Commons. In 1952 I sat in the gallery

listening to a Labor back-bencher asking Churchill innumerable and somewhat irrelevant questions. It was apparent to all except the questioner that the prime minister was running out of patience. Finally the member requested information regarding the government's progress in nuclear research to which he got only an evasive reply. "Does the prime minister realize that I am greatly concerned about this matter?” came the supplementary question. Churchill slowly pulled himself up to the dispatch box. “Mr. Speaker, I am aware that the honorable member is concerned about many things —some of which are completely beyond his powers of comprehension.” That ended the questions.

The one man in the House who could trade blows with Churchill on fairly even terms was Aneurin Bevan. the Welsh orator. Early in 1945 I heard Nye open the debate on the coal and fish shortage which was causing considerable hardship in war-torn Britain. In Canada the opening speech would have been replete with statistics quoted ad infinitum ad nauseam. Bevan began his speech with one devastating and unforgettable sentence. “Mr. Speaker, this island is a lump of coal set in a sea teeming with fish, and only a man with the organizing genius of Mr. Churchill could arrange to have a shortage of both of them at the same time.” Could anyone have said more in fewer words?

Humor in public debate is a sign of social maturity providing it is used not merely to entertain but also to enlighten. A speech doesn't have to be dull in order to be sincere. Let's not be afraid of laughter—it may prove to be the salt of sanity in a mad world.

In 1936 I witnessed the Nazi rally at Nuremburg where Hitler reviewed his goose-stepping storm troopers with his arm aloft at the Nazi salute. I shivered as I listened to the chorus of Sief> Heils booming from the hypnotized crowds. What a difference to reach London a few weeks later where Sir Oswald Mosley was seeking to emulate his German counterpart. A great meeting was staged in Albert Hall. At a pre-arranged signal the band stopped, the lights went out and a solitary spotlight played on the blackshirted figure of Mosley with his arm raised in the Fascist salute. Out of the awed silence came a cockney voice. “Alright, Oswald, you may leave the room.” The ensuing laughter helped banish the menace of Fascism from the British Isles. For it was true then and still is that laughter is the most potent weapon for dealing with tyrants, phoneys and fanatics. ★