BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

The Grits Get Stuck With a Fork

BLAIR FRASER’S August 1 1952
BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

The Grits Get Stuck With a Fork

BLAIR FRASER’S August 1 1952

The Grits Get Stuck With a Fork

BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

BLAIR FRASER’S

LOOKING back at the first half of 1952 it seems a quiet uneventful year. No visible snag projects from the calm stagnant waters of Ottawa’s political pond. The session was tedious but amicable and already few people can remember anything much it did.

Yet 1952 brought Liberal morale lower than it had been since the war. It would be too much to say the average Grit expects to lose the next election ihe certainly doesn’t) but at least the idea has crossed his mind. As one backbencher remarked on the morrow of the British Columbia debacle, “It looks as if our sentence to this salt mine might be paroled.” That was before the Quebec election, but Quetec provincial elections needn’t mean much one way or the other. Win lose or draw against Maurice Duplessis, the Literals know that Louis St. Laurent can hold Quetec in a federal contest. Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and four out of six federal by -elections are a different matter.

L1 VEN before the by-elections in May some Literals were beginning to feel a draught. One of them, having pointed to the fact that a Gallup Poll in April showed Literals still with forty-eight percent of the vote against the Progressive Conservatives’ thirty percent added: “Of

course, that poll was taken before the budget.”

It’s an irony of fate that the budget should have started the decline in Literal spirits. Few taxpayers really expected any change—and if they had, the Prime Minister himself warned them two months before

that they needn’t. If the budget speech hadn’t made that flat announcement of a six percent tax cut the new rates wouldn’t have caused a ripple.

All Doug Abbott needed was a paragraph explaining that this socalled cut was a reduction of the current rate of taxation, but that total taxes for the calendar year 1952 would be a little higher than those for calendar 1951. And the final irony is that he did put in such a paragraph but nobody knew it.

On budget night, for the convenience of reporters, a “sealed room” is set up in the Parliament Buildings. It operates like a minnow trap. Newsmen can get in and get a copy of the budget speech to study, but they are not allowed out again until the Minister of Finance starts to read the speech in the House and thus releases it for publication.

This year, at least two hours before Abbott got up to speak, irate reporters were telling Finance Department officials that the so-called tax cut was a phony. Several of us had just finished making out our own incometax returns for 1951 and noticed that the 1952 totals were higher. For the first time it dawned upon the bureaucrats that the speech might be considered misleading by some people. They rushed out to warn the Minister and advise him to put in a clarifying paragraph. He did.

But nobody in the Press Gallery was paying any attention. Reporters, still bristling, were all batting out overnight stories based on the original mimeographed text, and strongly implying that the Minister of Finance had tried to fool the public into thinking Continued on page 3S

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taxes were coming dow-n but that we (the vigilant alert correspondents) had been too smart for him.

Another thorn, or prong, in the Liberal side was the famous serving fork for the armed services. And again there were elements of irony.

Ever since 1939 the standard basic criticism of National Defense has been “too little and too late.”

That’s no excuse, of course, for ordering sixty-two thousand serving forks for sixty-eight thousand men. It turns out that fourteen thousand five hundred serving forks will be enough for the ninety-five thousand men we have now and for all the rest who might join in the first nineteen months of a hypothetical war.

J. M. Macdonnell, Progressive Conservative financial critic, knew he had hold of a good solid item that everybody could understand when he turned this one up, and dramatized it byproducing a fork in the House of Commons. As he said later to the Defense Expenditures Committee: “This is one of the few" cases where one gets a close-up. and one is left with the uneasy feeling that there are many other cases which we have no means of checking.”

No doubt this is true. Certainly, bythe Defense Department’s own admission, mistakes were made in ordering the 37,250 worth of serving forks which now suffice the armed forces. But C. M. Drury, Deputy Minister of National Defense, made the whole thing sound much more sensible when he explained it.

In the first place he recalled that on Feb. 5, 1951, the Minister of National Defense had outlined a new defense program which included “the administrative staff, training establishments, depots, stores, clothing and equipment to provide for rapid mobilization in a total effort.” Nobody challenged that principle, then or since. Drury also pointed out that normal peacetime stores of practically" everything had been cleaned out for the Special Brigade, then newly arrived in Korea. They had to be replaced, a twelve months’ supply for mobilization had to be provided, plus an additional nine months’ supply to cover the gap between orders and delivery of future stores. Everything, therefore, was ordered in greater than normal quantity.

Serving forks were specially affected by the urgencyof that period, because construction of new barracks was not keeping pace with the rest of the preparedness program. New barracks feed the troops in cafeteria style, where one serving fork is enough to serve several hundred men. Old barracks require the family-style messing of World War II. with food served out by the senior man at each table. In them, one serving fork is required for every six men. If Canada had had to mobilize in 1951 this would have been the proportion required. Since then, of course, the new barracks have been built, the cafeteria system has become general, and fourteen thousand five hundred serving forks are plenty. That’s why the original order was reduced.

But by the time Drury got this explanation on the Defense Committee record the serving fork had become a symbol of army extravagance and inefficiency. National Defense has the most elaborate and expensive publicity machine of anygovernment department. but it is not equipped to deal with the department’s mistakes.

More serious than either of these things, at least with rural Liberals, was the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and the Agriculture Department’s bungling in the handling of it.

In the Saskatchewan election campaign there was very little mention of the foot - and - mouth plague. CCF speakers felt, probably rightly, that the western farmers didn’t want any more public fuss about it. There was always the fear that publicity might further delay the removal of that U. S. embargo which is costing the Canadian cattleman so much money. But CCFers feel quite certain the foot-andmouth bungle had an effect on Liberal fortunes in Saskatchewan.

The effect must have been increased, not diminished, by the clumsy efforts of Liberal backbenchers in Ottawa to absolve the Government from blame. Listening to them in the Agriculture Committee you were reminded that these people had never been in Opposition, had never before felt outnumbered or beset by circumstance, and didn’t know how to deal with that unpleasant but commonplace situation. By the same token you were reminded that these Grits had been in office a long, long time.

Progressive Conservatives said privately the Liberals could have got out with little damage if they had let the responsibility fall squarely on the individuals in charge. -Dr. Thomas Childs was (and still is) head of the Federal Veterinary Service. Even before John Diefenbaker wormed out of Jimmy Gardiner the telegram from Childs forbidding the laboratory tests which belatedly" identified the plague as footand-mouth disease it was obvious Childs was the man responsible for the late diagnosis. Progressive Conservatives admitted that, if Gardiner had let Childs take the blame, the Opposition would have had little to say.

Gardiner chose to defend Childs and accept full responsibility—an honorable decision, but one which dispersed the blame all over his own department and to some extent over the whole Liberal Government.

Those are some of the negative reasons for the low morale among Liberals. There is also a positive reason. They think the Progressive Conservatives have improved.

“Howdo you account for the new George Drew-?” a Liberal MP asked over coffee in the cafeteria one morning.

What was new about George Drew?

“He’s acting human for a change. You take the Ontario county by-election. I don’t remember Drew making anyspeeches or getting any publicity. He just dropped around, talked to little meetings in people’s houses, shook a lot of hands and tried to make friends. And look what happened.” (Michael Starr. PC, won the formerly Liberal

There is not yet any evidence that Liberal headquarters shares this revised opinion of the Progressive Conservative leader. Liberal campaigns are still relying hea vil y on smearing Conservative candidates as “Drew's men.” But since theyhave used this technique in eleven by-elections and have lost nine of them it is possible their strategy may be reviewed.

Not that anyone on the Liberal side (or manyon the Conservative, for that matter) would really expect George Drew to beat Louis St. Laurent in a general election. But both parties —the Liberals with alarm, the Conservatives %vith a sudden wild hope —are beginning to wonder if the recent election results do indicate a change of political climate. After all, in politics nothing succeeds like success. ★