MACLEAN'S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

The most dangerous caucus in Liberal history may still save the Liberals

PETER C. NEWMAN November 2 1963
MACLEAN'S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

The most dangerous caucus in Liberal history may still save the Liberals

PETER C. NEWMAN November 2 1963

BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

MACLEAN'S REPORTS

PETER C. NEWMAN

The most dangerous caucus in Liberal history may still save the Liberals

IT’S LONG BEEN RECOGNIZED that parliamentary government in Canada has given way to cabinet government. But on a couple of dramatic occasions in the past few months the cabinet’s control seemed to crumble and this indicated that cabinet government may, in turn, be giving way to party government. The balance of power has begun to shift from the privy council chamber, where the cabinet holds its de-

liberations, to the caucus room, where party backbenchers have their say.

It was a Tory caucus eight months ago that overruled the majority of the Conservative cabinet to maintain John Diefenbaker as party leader. Far less dramatic, but equally important. was the Liberal caucus held during the three days preceding the current parliamentary session. The results of its secret deliberations prompted one Liberal cabinet minister to complain that it had been “the most dangerous caucus in Liberal history.”

Despite what the newspapers said, that caucus did not spend much energy in a revolt against the way Finance Minister Walter Gordon and Welfare Minister Judy LaMarsh have been handling their jobs; most Liberal backbenchers regard Gordon affectionately as the man whose organizational skill brought them to power, and Miss LaMarsh has already done so much to discredit herself that nothing the backbenchers might have added would have had much effect. Instead, some of the backbenchers, angered by the frustrations of having their careers endangered by policies they had no hand in making, demanded that from now on the caucus be consulted in advance on plans for legislation. The Liberal party machine swung behind the MPs’ demands when Keith Davey, the national organizer, made a strong, frank speech on the theme: “Whatever happened to the New Liberal Party?”

When one Old Guard minister set out to explain that it was constitutionally impossible for the cabinet to consult backbenchers ahead of Parliament, he was jeered into silence. In the end, Lester Pearson himself came out on the side of the backbenchers, and the caucus broke up in pleasantries. The importance of this caucus is that in the close cabinet-MP relationship to come, a new and important group of young politicians will become a part of the government’s decision-making machinery.

The Liberal caucus has its share of patronage-hungry duds. But it also encompasses probably the brightest group of MPs ever to appear simultaneously in a Canadian parliament. Among others, this elite (which has not yet become a clique) includes: Richard Cashin, Jack Davis, Herb Gray, David Hahn, Harry Harley, Pauline Jewett, Don MacDonald, John Munro. Jean-Luc Pépin, Gerald Regan, Maurice Sauvé and John Turner. What sets the group apart is that, unlike some cabinet members, these MPs don’t subscribe to the theory of Liberal rule by divine right. They believe their party must earn its mandate, and that it has not yet done so.

They’re vitally concerned with the deficiencies in Canadian society and, instead of championing the old-line Liberal idea of self-reliant individualism, they feel that society has a collective responsibility to help its citizens — but in a way that doesn’t create a numbing uniformity. (In this attitude they arc trying to tread a middle ground between the old-line parties’ charity-concept of welfare and a militant socialism. “What we need,” says Pauline Jetvctt, a former professor of political science, “is ... a reformed society that would demand some redistribution of income and a great deal more competence in the administration of the welfare.”

The members of this new group look on Lester Pearson as their champion and fiercely absolve him from the administration’s errors. They see the redefinition of Confederation and an accommodation with Quebec as the federal government’s most pressing task. “The time has come,” says Maurice Sauvé, former secretary of the Gordon commission and now MP for the Magdalene Islands, “to work out a new division of the respective jurisdictions of the federal and provincial governments.”

THE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BREAK EGGS

The attitude of the new Liberal wave to the ideas of the old Liberal guard was probably best expressed by Frank Underhill, the dean of Canadian historians. Underhill might be called the patron saint of these young Liberals, even though he’s much farther left than any of them have ventured. Speaking to a seminar at the close of the Kingston conference in 1960, the meeting that really began the Liberal revival and helped attract the bright new politicians to the party, Underhill said: “How do I feel now about Canadian Liberalism? Well, I’ve come here from the austerity of a leftwing radical party and I’m apprehensive lest what the advertisers call gracious living in this Liberal environment will be too much for me. There are too many Liberally minded people in this party w'ho still believe it’s possible to make omelettes without breaking eggs.” What the new' Liberals want to do is see that the eggs get broken.