BACKSTAGE

The reckless good sense of one dedicated backbencher

BLAIR FRASER March 12 1960
BACKSTAGE

The reckless good sense of one dedicated backbencher

BLAIR FRASER March 12 1960

The reckless good sense of one dedicated backbencher

BACKSTAGE

AT OTTAWA

BLAIR FRASER

I HAVE BEEN getting into fairly heated arguments lately for suggesting, as I did in the last issue of Maclean’s, that the private member of parliament doesn't do much useful work.

One man who cannot understand this statement at all is Edward Nasserden, the Conservative MP from Rosthern, Sask. Nasserden is a lean, quiet man of forty-one who’s been a farmer in that constituency since he was eighteen, and a Conservative since the party chose Farmer John Bracken as its leader in 1942. What attracted him was not so much the choice of leader as the Conservative farm platform, developed under Bracken's guidance. Nasserden takes party platforms and statements of principle seriously, and he thinks his electors do the same. His job in Ottawa keeps him fully occupied.

“I’ve learned a lot. being a member of parliament.” he says. Every piece of farm legislation needs careful study, and Nasserden puts in long hours in the parliamentary library looking up previous debates on other farm programs, and trying to work out in his own mind all the implications of each new law that is proposed.

The fruit of all this labor emerged during the debate on the Speech from the Throne, a few weeks ago. Late one Thursday afternoon, Ed Nasserden rose in his place and uttered words that made some of his dozing colleagues think they were dreaming. Speaking of Conservative government policy, this Conservative backbencher said:

"If I understand this program correctly, it is the most retrograde step that

could be taken from an already established position. Moreover, the arguments used are unworthy of an informed ministry . . . The policy as announced has withdrawn every incentive to stability in the production and marketing of these perishable products (and) cannot help but be self-defeating . . . These facts are so self-evident that the chaotic consequences of this policy cannot escape anyone knowing the agricultural situation.”

Evidently Nasserden did not include, among this "knowing” fraternity, the Calgary schoolteacher who is Conservative minister of agriculture, the Hon. Douglas Harkness. In a testy speech a few days later the minister undertook to clear up the “confusion" which, he said, appeared to obscure his farm price policy. Harkness didn’t mention Nasserden by name, but it was plain he found the criticism highly unpalatable.

To Nasserden, the bombshell speech was no great matter — just his plain duty as an MP. It distresses him to be called a heretic or a dissenting Tory. He considers himself a wholly faithful follower of John Diefenbaker, and indeed he said so in his speech: "I believe the people of my constituency share with me a confidence in the present administration and its sincerity of purpose. Their belief in the prime minister’s integrity is still unimpaired.” But Nasserden does believe in all modesty that he, as a farmer, knows more about farm problems than the government does, and he feels absolutely certain that he and not Doug Harkness is voicing the opinion of the prairie farmer on the price support issue. By speaking out as he did, he hoped he might change the government’s farm policy.

According to all the textbooks on the parliamentary system, this idea should be as commonplace as Nasserden seems to think it is. In fact, it’s so unusual in Ottawa as to be almost revolutionary. Governments think backbenchers should be seen and not heard.

About two years ago on a train to Toronto, I happened to sit beside Fred Stinson, the young MP who had captured York Centre for the Conservatives in 1957. Stinson is a Toronto lawyer of tidy w'ork habits who likes to get things done, and he admitted that parliamentary life was driving him right up the wall.

"What am I supposed to do?” he asked. "Every morning I go to my office at nine o'clock, same as I do at home. By ten. I’m all through — I've got all my work done. How do l spend the rest of the day?”

Last week I called on Stinson to see if his opinion had changed in tw'o years. He said no. He can still handle all his constituency business, check Hansard, answer his mail, write five additional letters each day to total strangers in his riding to invite their views on public questions (he gets a fair response to this practice) and finish before the morning coffee break, with nothing left to do except listen. He thinks this is equally true for all private MPs who represent urban ridings on the government side, and he says most of them dislike it as much as he does.

"Mind you,” Stinson added loyally, "I haven't lost confidence that we can solve this problem. But we sure haven’t solved it yet.”

An MP who agrees, with a particularly wry grimace, is John B. Hamilton of neighboring York West. Hamilton is

forty-seven this year. When he was first elected in 1954 he too was one of the “young” members (forty is the bloom of youth in politics) and it was he who had the special duty of helping the youngsters of 1957, showing them around, telling them what to do. and from time to time comforting those who found a backbencher’s life something of a disillusion. Hamilton could do this cheerfully, because he himself had enjoyed the life. In his one term in opposition he’d been active, a valued member of a small "band of brothers.” During the first two years of Conservative rule he was even busier — deputy house leader, chairman of the new members’ caucus, then parliamentary assistant to the minister of immigration. He was so busy, in fact, that his neglected business in Toronto nearly went broke, and he decided he couldn't afford to be a parliamentary assistant again. So now, for the first time in his six years in parliament, John Hamilton is learning what it’s like to be an ordinary backbencher on the government side.

"I must admit it's rougher than I'd realized,” he says. What makes it rough is having nothing much to do.

But if that’s the way they feel, why don’t they follow Ed Nasserden’s example? Why don't they get up in the House of Commons and say what they think, instead of what they think the government thinks they think?

The answer is ambition. Two years ago it was commonplace to refer to the young Conservative members as “ambitious, aggressive men.” Today the two adjectives no longer go together. Those who are ambitious are not aggressive, and those who are still aggressive are not so ambitious any more.

The latter is the smaller group.

The opinion seems to be unanimous among his backbench colleagues that Ed Nasserden “did himself no good” by his outburst of candor. He attracted unfavorable attention, which is unlikely to be forgotten. Therefore it is assumed that he has disqualified himself as a future parliamentary secretary, or a minister of agriculture in the still farther future. He is in danger of having to spend his entire political life as a simple, private member of parliament — and it's taken for granted nowadays that this is a dismal fate.

Indeed, that’s the root of the trouble. For some reason, financial or other, nobody is content nowadays with the status of member of parliament. It’s either a step toward something else or a waste of time, in the eyes of an able young politician. If that could be corrected, and able men induced to run for parliament as a' sufficient end in itself, the Parliament of Canada might regain the ability to perform its most important function — as the only check, under our system, upon an otherwise all-powerful executive.

Officially, the MPs are supposed to make their views known for the government's guidance in the privacy of caucus. Actually they do nothing of the sort. "We spend most of our time in caucus talking about secretarial service, or parking space,” one glum young Tory said. “We are never consulted about policy, and hardly ever get a chance to discuss it at all.”

And since they gel little chance to discuss policy, they have no great incentive to study new legislation carefully. In fact, they feel no direct incentive to do anything at all. +