MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Why cheer Carter and boo the bi-bi?

When we're all experts, it’s easy to be critical of a royal commission

BLAIR FRASER April 1 1967
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Why cheer Carter and boo the bi-bi?

When we're all experts, it’s easy to be critical of a royal commission

BLAIR FRASER April 1 1967

Why cheer Carter and boo the bi-bi?

Backstage in Ottawa

When we're all experts, it’s easy to be critical of a royal commission

WHY DID the Carter Commission on Taxation, after taking twice as much time and spending twice as much money as anyone had contemplated at the outset, escape serious criticism for its protracted labors and then get deferential, almost reverential, treatment when its six-volume report was finally published at the end of February? And why has the Dunton-Laurendeau Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which has not yet equaled the Carter Commission’s four years, been known for a year already as the Bye-and-Bye Commission, and seen its recommendations mocked and disdained in advance?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. Tax structures are a mystery to the average citizen, as deep and dangerous as nuclear physics. It was no surprise, it was even a kind of reassurance, to learn that the experts got lost in the impenetrable jungle of Canadian tax laws, even as you and I. They’re human too, we thought, and felt better for it. Then when we found they were suggesting that the poor should pay less and the rich pay more, our approbation was complete. We didn’t need to know why or how they agreed with us.

The Bye-and-Bye Commission has suffered a fate almost precisely opposite. Far from being baffled by the problems of a dual culture, the average Canadian knows exactly how to solve them. The 20 million of us may have 20 million different answers, but each is sure his answer is self-evidently correct. To spend time and money looking for others, or even documenting the one we know in our heart is right, is a palpable waste of the taxpayer’s money.

This much of the B-and-B’s trouble was unavoidable. So were the caravans of cranks and the cascade of cliches set off by the public hearings. But unhappily, some of the commission’s methods — especially its questionnaires — tended to confirm rather than correct these inevitable misgivings. Most unhappily of all, the worst of these methods were the very ones

with which the press came into direct contact.

Of several questionnaires circulated among journalists I went through only one, but colleagues assure me it was typical. At a guess I’d say at least one third of the questions had not the remotest relevance to bilingualism or biculturalism. Worse, at least one third were so naïve as to be infantile.

An example of both groups ran something like this:

“On what sources do you chiefly rely for your information?”

The interviewer was to tick one of the following replies: “Cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, backbench MPs, informatica officers, other sources.” No tick was provided for the only answer that made any sense: “It depends on the story.”

But even the relevant questions are often useless. One I saw had to do with the British North America Act and all the answers provided would have given comfort to a Quebec separatist.

Another cause of doubt was the commission’s inability to meet its own deadlines. We heard a year ago that stern orders had gone out to complete Volume I by September 1966, and the rest of the report by Christmas. By September the rumored deadline had been shifted to February. Now it’s said to be June, but realists are already talking of another September.

To newsmen whose professional skill is meeting a deadline every day, these shortfalls are self-damning. They can see the difficulty of writing hundreds of thousands of words on schedule, and the greater difficulty of having each paragraph passed by a committee, but they can’t quite understand it or excuse it. The failure guarantees the commission a bad press.

This is unfortunate. There’s good reason to believe that many B-and-B reports will be uniquely valuable. They will bring precise facts into a territory ruled until now by unsupported opinion. No matter what the commission recommends, and whether or not its recommendations are accepted, this solid body of work will still be useful. But its chances of being quickly approved or appreciated by the Canadian public are virtually nil. BLAIR FRASER

BLAIR FRASER