SMILE! THERE’S A CAMERA IN THE HOUSE
Should proceedings of the House of Commons be televised? To find out what kind of show it would make, SUSAN DEXTER spent a week watching what goes on. Here’s what you’re in for if MPs get the word
RECENTLY, THE great debate about televising the proceedings of the House of Commons was resurrected. Those opposed said it would turn parliament into a circus; those in favor, including Opposition Leader John Diefenbaker, said it would, if anything, change the House for the better.
The talk went on and on. But no one seemed to be considering what the TV camera would see — and what it wouldn't see. To he fair, it wouldn't see the work done in cabinet, caucus and committees; it wouldn't see members at work, or at play, in their offices. But surely it would show exactly what happens in the Commons chamber.
To find out what a camera could bring to your television screen from parliament today. I spent a week observing the debates. Here's what I saw.
MONDAY, 2.30 P.M. Question time. Some 135 of the 265 members are
present. Papers rustle and members talk as the Speaker calls the House to order after the daily prayer. George Mcllraith, the soft-spoken government House leader, announces that the Christmas vacation is to start in 17 days. Frank Howard of the New Democrats jumps to his feet and tries to catch the eye of the Speaker, Lucien Lamoureux. “The honorable member for Skeena,” intones Mr. Speaker. “I wonder,” asks Howard, a look of boyish innocence on his face, "whether the minister has taken into account the fact that some honorable members already may have gone on their Christmas vacation?" Mcllraith doesn’t reply, the House bursts into laughter, some members pound their desks in approval and the Speaker recognizes another questioner.
3 P.M. MPs start drifting out of the chamber. George Hees, the ruddyfaced contender for the Conservative leadership, is first to go. He stands in
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Pickersgill: “Oh, what a phony”
his place, hows formally to the Speaker, turns, walks hack past the five rows of desks, through a curtain at the side of the chamber and disappears.
As Hees leaves. Opposition Leader Diefenbaker is into his second minute of a question to Immigration Minister Jean Marchand. It concerns three Yugoslavian ship-jumpers, two of whom have been deported. “I ask the minister to give serious consideration to this situation because surely we in Canada do not want to drive back those who have left Communism.”
MR. SPEAKER: “Order, please.” MR. DIEI;ENRAKER (hurt): “Mr. Speaker, you rose to interrupt me . . .” MR. SPEAKER: “Order, please. I rose because I felt the question had been asked at that point.” Diefenbaker sits down. Marchand answers his question. Diefenbaker promptly asks another.
3.20 P.M. The House moves into discussion of a guaranteed income of SI05 a month for old-age pensioners. Between $260 and $300 million is involved. Health Minister Allan MacEachen is on his feet for 28 minutes by my watch. Only five cabinet ministers are left in the House. (Some are designated each day for “House duty” just so cabinet ranks won’t be completely depleted after question time.) Prime Minister Pearson and Minister of Finance Mitchell Sharp sit alone on the front row. looking like two deserted birds on perches, both leaning their heads tiredly on their left hands. About 10 minutes after MacEachen starts talking. Pearson begins twirling his ear piece (used for translation). Sharp notices his leader's fidgeting, moves over to sit beside him and the two laugh and talk together.
George Chatterton (PC, EsquimaltSaanich) picks up his pipe, and takes up a position behind the curtains, leaning his head through to hear what MacEachen is saying. (Smoking is forbidden in the House itself.)
Harold Danforth (PC. Kent) moves from desk to desk on the Conservative side of the House, joining five different groups of his colleagues in their jokes and conversations, looking for all the world as though he is circulating at a civil-service cocktail party.
MacEachen is still talking.
Chatterton returns to his seat and asks MacEachen two questions. Once they are answered, he resumes his post behind the curtains.
There were 80 reporters in the press gallery at question time; now, only five remain. Lubor J. Zink, a columnist with the Toronto Telegram, has his reverie broken — he’s a left-hand head-leaner, too — as MacEachen concludes his speech and his fellow Liberals pound their desks in applause. Zink straightens up. pauses, and walks out.
4.20 P.M. Danforth. his wandering complete, leaves the House.
“Not many people will get $365 more per year,” Social Credit Rally member C. A. Gauthier is saying. “However, there will be a lot among the patronage handlers, the Liberals, some families I know.”
About a dozen of the 31 members remaining in the chamber protest. One says, “Come off it.” Another shouts. “Come on.” A third yells. "No.” But Hansard, the daily record oi parliament, reports all this hubbub in its prosaic but time-honored fashion as simply: "Some hon. members: "Oh. oh.’ ”
As Gauthier continues in French. Michael Starr. Conservative House leader, sits wiggling Diefenbaker's empty chair. He doesn't bother to put his translation device in his ear until Margaret Rideout, the only bit of female color on the government side of the House (Judy LaMarsh is away this w'cek) calls across to Fisheries Minister Hédard Robichaud. “He’s crazy,” she says, gesturing toward Gauthier. Starr picks up her remark and puts in his ear plug. Three minutes later, he leaves for a smoke.
My scorecard for Monday — newspapers read: five; question time lasts 50 minutes; the old-age pension resolution passes after six hours and 20 minutes; private conversations during debate: dozens: unrecorded asides: at least seven; House attendance: less than a quorum of 20 members four times (though no one even objected to that).
Three breaths and a gasp
TUESDAY, 2.30 P.M. Question time. Immigration Minister Marchand finishes his reply to John Diefenbaker on the ship-jumpers. He sits down. Diefenbaker, his hands on his hips, walks back and forth by his desk, occasionally stabbing his right index finger and gesturing with his glasses. “The minister has added to the cloud of doubt which surrounds the actions of his department,” he says. Jack Pickersgill, now minister of transport but once minister of citizenship and immigration, brings up what he feels to be a skeleton in Diefenbaker’s closet — the admission of George Christian Hanna during the Diefenbaker regime (Pickersgill had been roasted for not admitting him) and Hanna’s later deportation as an undesirable. “I am glad to see the Minister of Transport back in the House again,” says Diefenbaker, his voice oozing sarcasm. “Oh, what a phony,” Pickersgill rejoins, as he settles back in his chair in disgust.
Robert Thompson, leader of the Social Credit, is not so succinct. In fact, he manages the I mgest singlesentence question of the week — one concerning the Canadian position on Rhodesian sanctions. It lasts for I 12 words, three breaths and a gasp.
L. M. Brand (PC. Saskatoon) expresses concern that the report of the advisory council on physical fitness and amateur sport is five months overdue. “I will be glad to check immediately.” says MacEachen, "and advise my hon. friend when he may expect to read this exciting document.” (Gentle titters heard in the chamber.)
3.20 P.M. The House resumes its consideration of medicare. Just before debate begins, Margaret Rideout leans forward to MacEachen. who’s re-
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CAMERA IN THE HOUSE continued
Impasse—and a charge of blackmail
sponsible for getting the bill through the House, and hands him a white packet. MacEachen opens it. takes out a pill and quickly swallows it.
That evening, during debate on three bills involving the boundaries of Saskatchewan. Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. Gilles Grégoire (Ind., Lapointe — and leader of the Quebec separatist party Ralliement National) gives the House a lesson in geography. Gordon Churchill ( PC, Winnipeg South Centre) is not impressed: “If I buy a summer cottage on the shores of Hudson Bay at latitude 60 and present it to the honorable member, will he move there and live in it?” GREGOIRE: “Perhaps not.”
EATER, CHURCUIEE: “If the hon.
member will not adhere to the rules ol the House, he should be named.” SOME HON. MEMBERS: “Oh. oh.” (If the Speaker named, or expelled, every member who strayed from the subject at hand, not even Gordon Churchill would be left in the House.)
MUCH LATER. “Would the hon. member permit a question?” asks Churchill, GREGOIRE: “If it is an intelligent one, yes.”
MUCH, MUCH LATER. CHURCHILL: “. . . If there is a vacancy in the Centennial program for a farce, 1 think the hon. member should apply for it.”
As Churchill sits down, 1 score it this way — cigarettes sneaked during action: 15: newspapers read: two;
rounds to Grégoire: two; rounds to Churchill: two; final whispered word from Jim Stewart, a reporter with the Montreal Star’s Ottawa bureau: “I'm not going to sit here and listen to this junk.”
Grégoire vs the House
WEDNESDAY, 2.30 P.M. Labor Minister John Nicholson suggests the House meet in special session the next morning to consider emergency legislation to end the costly British Columbia longshoremen's dispute. Independent member Gilles Grégoire moves to adjourn the House to discuss a matter of urgent public importance—clearing the St. Lawrence of ice to ensure winter shipping into the port of Montreal. He is ruled out of order.
Defense Minister Paul Hellyer takes 105 minutes of House time this afternoon, reading a 65-page prepared text on armed forces unification. (Speech-reading is verboten, but even articulate MPs break the rule often and are rarely reprimanded for it.)
5.50 P.M. House leader Mcllraith is in earnest conversation with Grégoire.
6 P.M. Mcllraith asks for unanimous consent to hold the special session on the BC strike the next morning. Grégoire quickly refuses. "(St. Lawrence I ports must be kept open, otherwise no consent,” he says. (Without unanimous consent, the government’s strike-breaking bill will be delayed until Friday — the regulation 48 hours after notice is given.) One after another, Davie Fulton, Mcllraith, Michael Starr. Nicholson, Tommy Douglas and George Hees urge Grégoire to reconsider his position.
A Conservative shouts over to Mcllraith to get the minister of transport into the House to promise action to Grégoire.
MAURICE ALLARD (Ind.. Shcrbrooke): "... one cannot heal one wound by opening another ... a deficiency is not corrected by extending a disaster."
GORDON CHURCHILL: “. . . I have a special influence with |Grégoire] . . . because we arc such good friends and 1 appeal to him to give his consent."
Grégoire refuses. Mcllraith. his face flushed, accuses the Quebec member of blackmail, and the Speaker calls it six o'clock, which means the House automatically adjourns until the following day . . . unless Grégoire changes his mind. Grégoire is on his feet, appealing to the House: "A question of privilege.” Mcllraith wants to hear what he has to say. but the rest of the members are too angry to let Grégoire continue, MR. SPEAKER: "There is no consent." Grégoire shrugs and walks from the House. As the Speaker's procession files from the Commons. Davie Fulton. Commons Clerk Alistair Fraser and John Stewart ( L. Antigonish Guysborough) crowd around McPraith's desk, trying to figure a way around the impasse.
Wednesday's score — members fallen from favor: one: strikes settled: none; reporters delighted: all those who w'anted to work late that night: Christmas cards addressed: 428.
THURSDAY. 2.30 P.M. Question time. The BC strike was settled just before the House met. So much for Grégoire.
Cape Breton coal - miner member Donald Maclnnis asks about lay-offs in the Sydney steel industry, claiming the reason for the unemployment is to be found in the program of the minister of finance.
INDUSTRY MINISTER DRURY: “The
assumptions made by the hon. member are completely unwarranted, false, and unfounded.” Mitchell Sharp is about to rise and defend himself when External Affairs Minister Paul Martin shakes his head. Sharp sits down. Mcllraith cautions Maclnnis: “You must obey the rules.” Michael Starr gets after Mcllraith: “Why should he
when you don’t?” And the Speaker intervenes: “We must have order.”
Faint hope. It is Transport Minister Pickersgill's day for House duty, and he sits and giggles and wiggles and cackles his way through the day and evening, interrupting other speakers 34 times in all. and generally causing good-humored confusion. He even manages to stop Diefenbaker eight times in 10 minutes. (At one point, a member calls out that if Pickersgill continues interrupting, he should he banished to the Senate.)
4 P.M. DIEFENBAKER: "It is not for me to enter into anything of a controversial nature.”
SOME HON MEMBERS: "Oh. oh.”
5 P.M. Donald Maclnnis says that while he is required to accept what the minister of health was saying, he doesn't necessarily have to believe it. About six members shout. “Shame.” Maclnnis stops and surveys the Liberal ranks across the chamber. His eyes light on former Immigration Min-
CAMERA IN THE HOUSE continued
“Sit down, sit down,” yelled the whip. The Liberals roared
ister René Tremblay, who resigned after he was given a special deal on the purchase of some furniture. “The former minister is saying 'shame,' '' claims Maclnnis, though Tremblay hasn't said a word. "When you consider why he is a former minister in this House, I think he has a great deal of gall to say shame.'' Tremblay and
another Liberal demand he withdraw his remark. He refuses.
5.05 I\M. The vote on medicare, "('all in the members," says the Speaker. Almost everyone in the House promptly gets up and leaves for a last smoke before returning to vote. The division bells ring as the whips hustle about rounding up stray mem-
bers. In about 10 minutes, the House is almost tilled — 185 members are present and they bang their desks as the whips take their seats. First up is an opposition amendment calling for a start on medicare on July I. 1967. instead ot 1968 as the government proposes. Members rise in their places in order as the vote is recorded. Con-
servative support for the early-start amendment is to no avail — the government wins.
Then a second vote begins, this one on the main government bill including commencement in 1968. Four Conservatives leave the chamber, apparently not wanting to turn around and vote for a bill that includes the later starting date. "Sit down, sit down." yells the Conservative whip. Eric Winkler, to the jeers of the Liberals who sit united and unmoving in their places. All the Conservative rebels except Jack McIntosh (Swift Current-Maple Creek) keep going. Winkler’s lace reddens as the Liberals laugh and bang their desks. Medicare passes.
9 P.M. Stanley Knowles, the veteran New Democrat from Winnipeg North Centre, is attacking the low-incometo-qualify provision in the old-age-pension increase as being a return to the means test.
"Mr. Speaker, may I ask the hon. member another question?" asks Pickersgili. KNOWI.ES: "I hope I get 50 minutes tonight to make up for all these interjections." PICKERSGILI.: “I am sure the hon. gentleman would rather illuminate the House in 40 minutes than leave us in darkness for 50 minutes." KNOWI.ES: “Mr. Speaker, I am not responsible for the minister's state of darkness." Everyone likes that, even Pickersgili. He giggles.
Ihursday's scoreboard — parties embarrassed: one; bills passed: one; Pickersgili ¡an isms: countless.
FRIDAY, 1 1 a..vi. Question time. Reid Scott (NDP, Danforth) is persisting in trying to make a speech about housing. Mr. Speaker is persisting in telling him to stop. Colin Cameron (NDP, Nanaimo-Cowichon-The Islands) finally turns to give Scott some whispered advice. But Scott’s microphone is on, and when the loudspeakers boom torth. "Ask them [the government) when the hell they're going to get off their — ,” the House bursts into laughter. Hansard, not willing to be party to an indelicacy, bowdlerizes the remark. Historical record will show that Cameron suggested: "Ask them if they will get off their rear ends."
1 he remainder of Friday drones on.
That afternoon, 1 took refuge in the press gallery lounge. My mind swarmed with the interminable time-wasting, the good fun and the bitterness, the legislation passed seemingly in spite of the members, the dullness of most days, and the rules made to be stretched, if not broken. My own reaction, after a week of playing camera, was to ask myself, "Who'd watch such a generally rotten show on TV?” But if anyone did, parliament could never be the same, for once the public is allowed to see what really goes on in the private club called parliament, they'll never allow it to continue in its present form. ★