In praise of a good politician

Douglas Fisher April 2 1984

In praise of a good politician

Douglas Fisher April 2 1984

In praise of a good politician


Douglas Fisher

Early in February three retired politicians died—Earl Rowe, James Sinclair and Allister Grosart. They were substantial men when I first got to Ottawa as an MP in 1957. Rowe, a Progressive Conservative, had been elected to the House 12 times. He was its dean. Sinclair, a Liberal, was the grandest orator of my first session. Grosart, another Tory, was emerging as the first of the moderns in advertising to address campaigning fully. Rowe and Sinclair were rogues—vivid, even ribald at times; Grosart was more reserved and intellectual. Each was an achiever, above the ordinary.

It was the nearness of their deaths and their key roles in politics that drew me to their obituaries. Those obituaries were remarkably skimpy, as was any kind of associated comment. It was as though Rowe and Sinclair were notable only for their daughters (Jean Wadds and Margaret Trudeau). And the circumstances of Grosart’s heart attack on Jan. 16 while he was driving his car on a freeway were judged more interesting than his role as architect of the Gargantua of all victories in a general election—the Diefenbaker sweep of 1958.

How unhistorical, how Canadian! It’s all today, tomorrow and next week. No time to savor yesterday’s people of worth. It was bootless to blame the quick and the young for such brusqueness with the honorable as they depart.

Then the House suddenly honored Stanley Knowles. In one swoop of a motion he was given a place “at the table” as long as he shall live. It was a grand, sentimental gesture, laid on by Pierre Trudeau. It made me blink and wipe away tears of joy. Wonderful! And I knew that hundreds of others, especially on the Hill and in Winnipeg, Knowles’s home town, felt as I did.

Perhaps at some time after he came to the House in 1942 Knowles turned down or gave brief shrift to the request of a student, a reporter, a constituent or a plain citizen from anywhere. I never witnessed such, nor heard of it, in over 27 years of close or near association. Over decades more mail came to him than to any other MP. No other MP—not the Chief or Jack Pickersgill or Allan MacEachen—put in the busy hours Knowles did. In the chamber or the lobbies, in the caucus, while writing let-

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.

ters, chatting, imparting, he was always gracious, never mean or gruff.

Twelveto 15-hour days in his favorite rooms and halls were his working norm, always. He took few holidays. He never seemed to slump or be far off the mark until a stroke slowed him down in 1981. It was on a trip with him to Europe in 1963 that I first learned that he’d known he had a form of multiple sclerosis since 1947. He outworked a dozen of us on that journey, yet he ate so sparely. His wrists were like a child’s.

It’s an axiom about achievement in politics that one must have stamina and endurance. None of the politicians I’ve known has matched Knowles there. And, remember, his was never a grim, dour presence. He has had zest, always. Even today, as we pass, he’ll grin, pull my elbow and say: “Would you believe? I forget things now.”

None of us is ever perfect or perfectible. Knowles has had his shortfalls and

7n one swoop of a motion Stanley Knowles was given a place “at the table ” for as long as he shall live’

his critics. The House is almost always partisan and bent toward nastiness. And Knowles has been a lion for his party, although I can’t recall a veteran MP who has been more fair. He has hated partisan trickery. His omniscience about correct procedure and his highly publicized stands against larger pay and pensions for MPs have always riled a portion of the House.

When I think of Stanley Knowles I often reflect on a number of “what ifs ... ?” No one I’ve observed in politics has been more dedicated, harderworking or brainier. His analytical flair in hard subjects surpassed that of Diefenbaker or David Lewis. Knowles could have mastered monetary and fiscal policy or the constitutional complexities and popularized them, much as he did pensions or the role of the opposition by putting it in three words: check, prod and replace.

What if he had decided to take the lead in economic analysis and policy? If he had asked others in his caucus to mind the parliamentary store while he put his great talent to leading his party? The Waffle radicals within the NDP

in the early 1970s sometimes decried Knowles. Rather than building a mass movement across the country, he had made Parliament work—for the Liberals!

The pattern in parliamentary affairs is that the House always deals with something before it that is to be approved or rejected. In a House with a clear government majority the winner is certain. And traditions, dear to Stanley Knowles, hold that each item of business be treated by a member or by a party caucus as distinct: that is, to be appraised and voted on according to its merits. When there’s a minority government that fears defeat, this tradition becomes its rack of pain. An opposition group that holds the balance of power has clout. At times, for example in 1973, David Lewis, Knowles and the NDP used the situation to pull several items they sought from the government, including Petro-Canada.

It’s great strategy so long as the government wants to survive. In 1963, in 1974 and again in 1980, minority governments were defeated. NDP MPs, marshalled by Knowles, voted them out. It was obvious that all three subsequent elections would not be to the NDP’s advantage. To those of his party who knew this and counselled evasive tactics, Knowles would argue that it was not right to refuse to vote, to miss a vote or to vote contrary to your views just to avoid an election. The Liberal handlers of their caucus such as Pickersgill and MacEachen knew well Knowles’s integrity and consistency and, untroubled by like scruples, they sprang their traps.

Another criticism of Knowles bubbled up after he expressed his deep appreciation two weeks ago to the Prime Minister for making him an honorary officer of the House. Much recent pressure for reform of Parliament has been reaction to the Prime Minister’s lack of interest in Parliament and to the shift of focus and influence to the PMO-PCO. That is, we’ve moved in the past 15 years from cabinet and parliamentary government toward a presidential one. And here was Mr. Parliament thanking Mr. President.

But such a criticism only illuminates the integrity and graciousness of Stanley Knowles. He loves the House, and his life there has been a service to us all. He’s a symbol and reminder of so many others who have served or serve there.

Douglas Fisher is a syndicated columnist for The Toronto Sun in Ottawa.