BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

How The PCs Muffed the Currie Report

BLAIR FRASER May 15 1953
BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

How The PCs Muffed the Currie Report

BLAIR FRASER May 15 1953

BACKSTAGE at Ottawa

How The PCs Muffed the Currie Report

BLAIR FRASER

M. J. COLDWELL, CCF leader, stopped at our table in the parliamentary cafeteria the other day to tell a joke on himself: “I was speaking in the House a few minutes ago. At one point I said rather rhetorically, ‘In saying this I am speaking not only for myself but for all the members of this group.’ When I turned around to point to chis host of supporters, how many do you think were there? Not one. Not a single man of them in the House.” That wouldn’t happen often to Coldwell, who is one of the best speakers in the Commons, but it does underline the outstanding characteristic of the pre-election session. Parliament has been boring itself to extinction ever since last November. Never have so many talked so much to so few.

Parliament opened on Nov. 20 and adjourned for Christmas on Dec. 17. That entire interval of four full weeks was spent debating the address-inreply to the speech from the throne, with one amendment and two amendments to the amendment. One hundred and fixty-six speeches were made on any topic the speakers felt an urge to discuss — seventy-four Liberal, forty-four Conservative, twenty-one CCF, fourteen Social Credit and three Independent. Lest you suppose this means the CCF and Social Credit groups were relatively taciturn, remember that there are only thirteen CCF members and ten Social Credit.

Having thus filled eight hundred and eighty-two pages of Hansard with nothing in particular the MPs might have been expected to get down to business. Not at all. The first item for debate when the House reconvened on Jan. 12 was a resolu-

tion setting up the Defense Expenditures Committee to examine Defense accounts in general and the Currie Report in particular. It took two weeks of palaver to get that resolution passed.

Not until Thursday, Jan. 22, two months and two days after the opening of the session, did parliament get around to debating any Government legislation. Four weeks later the j budget came down and we heard the ¡ debate on the address-in-reply all over again— ninety-nine speeches occupying most of parliament’s time for three weeks.

The result was that the MPs came back after Blaster tired, bored and cross, with the real work of the session still ahead of them. All the esti, mates, four and a half million dollars’ worth, had to be crammed into one exhausting month, plus almost all the year’s legislation.

ASK ANY MP why they talk so interminably this year and he will answer ‘‘Because of the election.” j No one has explained why elections should have this effect. In spite of the fact that the members are too bored to listen to each other, they seem to think the voters are listening. There’s evidence suggesting that this isn’t so.

Not long ago an Ontario MP, whom we’ll call Jim, met a neighbor from his home town here in Ottawa. Not only do the two men live on the same street, they are colleagues in the same profession.

‘‘Hello, Jim,” said the neighbor, ‘‘what are you doing here?”

Slightly taken aback the MP replied: ‘‘The House is in session, you know.” Continued on page 95

Backstage at Ottawa

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 5

“Oh,” said the neighbor, still looking blank. “Who is the MP for our district, anyway?”

“I am,” said Jim, and went away to brood.

LIBERALS are convinced that one really hot political issue, the Currie Report, has been pretty well smothered by the Opposition’s strategy. They think the Conservatives outsmarted themselves.

Liberals had been dreading the climactic moment when George Currie would answer the $64 question: “What did you mean by that phrase ‘General breakdown of administration, supervision and accounting’?” They knew Currie; they knew he wouldn’t have made a statement like that without some documents to back it up, and they had no idea what the documents were.

But when the Defense Expenditures Committee opened in February, Liberals could hardly believe their ears. There was George Currie on the stand: there were half a dozen top Conservatives—but the Conservatives weren’t saying a word. Day after day they sat there without asking a single question.

Conservatives had figured it all out. Liberals, they reasoned, v/ould try to discredit George Currie, but they could only do that on cross-examination. They couldn’t open fire on him themselves, since he was their own choice for auditor of Defense accounts. So the Conservatives decided to keep quiet, let the Liberals do all the talking and give them no chance to crossexamine.

One impartial observer has described this Conservative decision as “the greatest political blunder since Confederation.”

George Currie, this observer says, came to Ottawa expecting to be questioned. He had fat files of documents on almost every paragraph of the report. Having spoken his piece in the report itself he didn’t feel obliged to volunteer any more information, but he was ready and willing to answer questions. The questions never came.

What the answers would have been, whether they would have been damaging new material or mere accounting quibbles, we shall never know now. The Conservatives chose to settle for what they had already—a troop of hypothetical horses and a handful of hackneyed phrases. The Liberals are relieved.

THIS WAS supposed to have been the ninth and last parliament to be adorned by the dean of the House of Commons, the Hon. Charles Gavan Power, MC, who has been MP for Quebec South for thirty-five years last Dec. 17. Chubby Power is probably the only man in Canada who can have a senatorship whenever he wants one—he could have entered the Valhalla of political warriors any time in the last five years, and he had decided to do it this summer. Nine general elections are enough, he figured, and all his friends were told that Chubby was through.

But while we reporters were composing his political obituary the corpse was climbing out of the coffin. The closer he got to the actual moment of quitting active politics, the less he liked the idea. At the moment of writing he still hasn’t made up his mind officially, but his backers in Quebec South have stopped worrying about finding a new candidate. They’re sure Chubby Power will run again.

Perhaps the change of mind began when his chief organizer journeyed to

Ottawa to consult the Liberal Powers That Be about the problem of succession. “We don’t want Chubby to go,” he said.

“Chubby can go any time he likes,” the organizer was told. “If anybody has earned a rest in the Senate, he has.” “But who can we run in his place?” “Ah, that is your problem,” said the Powers That Be. “You’d better ask Chubby.”

Power suddenly realized that it would be more trouble not to run than it would be to run. At least, that’s what he told friends. But they suspect that what really changed the mind of the old war horse was simply the smell of powder. With an election coming up he couldn’t bear not to be in the thick of it.

Chubby Power probably knows more of what is going on in parliament than any other individual. As a former cabinet minister, senior by many years to the men who are regarded as senior men today, he still has the confidence of his old colleagues to a degree far beyond that of the average private member. On the other hand, because he is a private member and not a resident of Olympus, he hears far more about what goes on among backbenchers than the cabinet ministers do. People are continually calling on him for political advice.

They also call on him because it is fun. Chubby Power is one of the few genuine wits in a profession that grows more and more sobersided.

Once Mackenzie King was in Quebec City and asked to be taken to see the grave of his grandfather King —the “other” grandfather, the one who fought for the “loyal” side in the 1837 rebellion. Grandfather King was a professional soldier in the Quebec garrison and is buried in a Protestant cemetery there.

Prime Minister King remarked, with facetious regret, that he supposed his revered grandfather had been a Tory.

“Don’t worry about that, sir,” said one of the local politicians. “This cemetery is in Chubby Power’s riding, and you may be sure he’s been voting them all Liberal for thirty years.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, Mr. King,” said Power, “hut this is a Protestant cemetery. We play fair down here—we always vote the Protestant cemeteries Tory.”

His thirtieth anniversary in parliament came almost exactly three years after he had resigned from the cabinet on an issue of principle and demoted himself to the status of private member. Answering felicitations on that day, he said he’d been thinking of writing a book.

“I would perhaps put it in the form of a homily—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—and I would entitle it Back to Front and Back Again. I would tell of the long and painful progress down five rows of seats to the front benches, and I would tell also of the short and rapid and sudden transition from a private car to an upper berth.”

Last Dec. 17 was his thirty-fifth anniversary, and again the eminent in all parties chorused their tributes. Chubby Power’s reply contained several quotations. One was from Winston Churchill, speaking to the British House in March 1945:

I have only two more minutes to speak, and I will devote them to my noble friend, the father of the House. He is a comparatively young father of the House; he still has many years of useful life before him . . . But unless in the future his sagacity and knowledge of the House are found to be markedly superior to what he has exhibited today, I must warn him that he will run a very grave risk of falling into senility before he is overtaken by old age. ^