The right royal way to study a problem

At least Mulroney is reluctant to abuse commissions, the longest-running trough in Canadian history

STEWART MacLEOD January 15 1990

The right royal way to study a problem

At least Mulroney is reluctant to abuse commissions, the longest-running trough in Canadian history

STEWART MacLEOD January 15 1990

The right royal way to study a problem


At least Mulroney is reluctant to abuse commissions, the longestrunning trough in Canadian history


Just as a precaution, you might want to fasten your seat belts, because we're about to pour praise-even if it's more of a pittance than a paean-on Prime

Minister Brian Mulroney. And in light of the press he’s been getting, this startling swerve could lead to many as-yet-undefined shock syndromes.

Forget, for the moment, that it wasn’t a great 1989 for the Prime Minister—what with Meech Lake, the new Goods and Services Tax, the never-to-go-away abortion issue, Via Rail cutbacks, fishing industry disasters and, last but not least, stumbling into the Organization of American States in time to help George Bush play Christmas rock"music for Gen. Manuel Noriega.

But of all the criticism he faces, none has been more persistent than that involving the pork barrel and patronage. And, let’s face it, he has shown a rare streak of generosity towards his personal and party friends. Numbers are hard to come by, but the patronage appointments lie somewhere between Tory estimates of “a thousand or so,” to the opposition’s 2.9 zillion.

Okay, that’s the out-of-mind background. The praise can finally begin. And let's hear three cheers for Mulroney’s apparent reluctance to abuse royal commissions, the longestrunning trough in Canadian history.

I hope we’re not being premature here, because the government last fall did set up a “Royal Commission on a National Transportation System for the 21st century.” The timing was a bit odd since Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard had just cut Via Rail service in half— but, then, this government has limited experience in the RC business.

Believe it or not, prior to this, there were only three federal royal commissions at work—studying drugs in sports, development on the Toronto waterfront and reproductive techniques. There has seldom been a period in Canada’s history when so few politically ap-

Stewart MacLeod is Ottawa columnist for Thomson News Service.

pointed commissioners were travelling around the country collecting recycled facts.

They used to be grand make-work projects.

Cynical, you say? Well, we’re here to tell you that the transportation inquiry was the 449th royal commission appointed since Confederation. And, by my count, it’s the 76th to study some aspect of transportation. Little wonder that Bouchard said his announcement “could make people smile.”

What makes people positively giggle is the fact that the Tories set up their own Rail Passenger Action Force after the 1984 election, and the following year it heartily recommended “rekindling the excitement of train travel.” At that time, Bouchard, then a parliamentary secretary, predicted “a vigorous new passenger system to meet the needs of Canadians into the 21st century.” Now he’s known affectionately as Barney Rubble.

But we’re in danger of straying here. The whole point of this epistle is to pay homage to the Prime Minister for, so far, not following the example of his predecessors in appointing royal commissions to camouflage every problem that bedevils him. Sure, he likes to stonewall in Parliament until forced into action, but that’s cheap. Royal commissions, as a source of

employment and information, are darned expensive.

When former Liberal finance minister Donald Macdonald was appointed in 1982 as head of a 13-member commission on “economic union and development prospects for Canada,” he was paid $860 a day, which ain’t bad. The commission recommended a free trade agreement with the United States, which suited the new Tory government just dandy, and Macdonald was last seen as Canadian High Commissioner in London, adjusting Mulroney’s tie in Madame Tussaud’s.

Incidentally, it would take most of this magazine to define the legal and historical requirements for a “royal” commission. But the accepted criteria are whether it comes under Section 1 of the Inquiries Act and, of course, what the Prime Minister feels it should be called. Royal has a nice regal ring to it.

Of the 10 or so commissions appointed by Mulroney, most have been for very specific purposes, into air and railway crashes, for instance. Not like the old days when they were set up to avoid parliamentary questioning and delay decisions.

The 20 apiece established by John Diefenbaker, in six years, and Lester Pearson, in five, covered just about every major problem in Canada, with a particular emphasis on the movement of grain. And what they missed with their 40, Pierre Trudeau looked into with his own 40.

One royal commission, which Diefenbaker established to head off a serious strike, went on, so help me, for nine years. The Lord alone remembers what it finally said.

Apart from transportation, we have spent a great deal of our own money peering into the mysterious world of broadcasting. The RC in 1928 set up by the ministry of marine and fisheries managed to travel to 25 Canadian cities, 10 foreign countries and hear 164 submissions for the princely sum of $42,000. That’s almost identical to what was spent in 1895 by the royal commission to inquire into the enumeration of half-breeds in the Northwest Territories.

A real cheapie was the 1902 commission on the tobacco trade, all for $2,000. Unfortunately, no price is listed for the RC established to find out why, in 1896, the federal election in a Northern Ontario riding was held on a date different from all others; the report has also been lost.

In fact, it’s amazing how many royal commission reports can no longer be found. Some were known to perish in the parliamentary fire of 1916, but many others simply disappeared perhaps withering away for lack of interest.

So, we’ll never know why a look into railways and transportation in Canada managed to spend a whopping $335,000 back in 1916. Or how the government could find a chairman with the name of Arthur Surveyer in 1931 to look into a possible canal across the isthmus of Chignecto.

Unless, of course, Mulroney suddenly appoints a batch of royal commissions to find out for us. Perhaps we shouldn’t have mentioned it.

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.