The Mystery of the National Liberal Caucus


24 September 2001

I am delighted to be here tonight because we know about Allan J. MacEachen. My topic tonight is the mystery of the national caucus but the true mystery is really the mystery of Allan J., the mystery of his capacious mind, his very innovative and creative mind. And one never gets an insight into that mind and I see Sister Peggy Butts, a former Senate colleague, and Dr. John Stewart. We’ve all sat in the national caucus together. And the only time that you really understand the true genius of Allan is when you listen to Allan sum up a political circumstance that everybody else thought they knew as well or better than he. And he adds a dimension or a multilayered dimension that’s exciting and interesting. So we are gathered here once again for the 4th annual celebration at St. F. X. to celebrate a life in politics and most especially the political career of Allan J. MacEachen, the well-known political icon and legend of party politics.

Now, one lesson derived from the extraordinary works of Saint Francis Xavier himself is that while humility should characterize all conduct, timidity, he said, should not stifle the quest for truth, for hard truth. And so this exploration tonight of politics and the root of our democracy: I don’t think it could be more apt in light of recent shattering world events.

I have always believed, and I think I gained this from Allan, that the first task of politics, and the first task of a politician is to ask questions and hopefully good questions. What is, therefore, the essence of politics? Politics is the pursuit and the possession of power. We see that Hugh Winsor’s newspaper column is called “The Power Game.” It’s about power. Not surprisingly, we’ve always heard the repetitive cry from separatists, and it is always for more power. (Even though the more power you give them, the less they are satisfied. You can never appease separatists with more power.) For power, after all, is the magnetic attraction of politics. Power in the hands of the politician resonates between virtue and vice, and while virtue is the rational, the conventional reason for politics, all western philosophers agree on one common denominator, that power corrupts. All western masters of thought, architects of the western canon through the ages: from Plato to Saint Augustine; from Montaigne to Blackstone; from Burke to Fox; from Locke to Hume - and Dr. John Stewart is one of the great experts on Hume; from Mills to Acton to Berlin. They all shared one singular belief. The human condition is flawed and politicians no less and perhaps more so than others. Why? Because politics seems more measured by personal advancement, as Hugh Winsor pointed out, than by the march of progress. Politicians trade in ideas. They deal with power and are naturally, because they are so close to power, more given to excesses of ambition, preferment and even avarice. Mother Teresa, we were told, was ever critical of politicians and she admonished: ‘they did what they did for the love of power rather than for the love of people’. So too the nature of the human condition, which Isaiah Berlin called the crooked timber of mankind.

Power remains the great temptation; perhaps the greatest temptation. All masters of the western canon differ only on the means to curb political power. Self restraint, they agree, is illusory. Power without checks and balances, without principles of restraint, cannot curb the natural impulses of a politician. So the search, the endless quest by western thinkers was to find the exquisite equilibrium between political progress and personal advancement, between unrestrained discretionary power and rules, between arbitrary action and the rule of law. Politicians, these thinkers remind us, if left alone to their own natural devices, cannot but help themselves. They rigorously pursue ideas for personal advancement, to satiate their own personal needs and desires and pleasure. And power always needs company. One cannot be powerful alone. And please, if you’ll forgive the gender reference, these human characteristics, these human flaws, are no different whether it’s a man or a woman, especially in politics. A politician simply cannot function alone. Politics is a group activity, almost a team sport. A politician needs groups like he needs oxygen. Politicians simply crave groups and crave crowds. And crowds, according to the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, author of a magnificent work - I recommend it to political science students, called Crowds and Power - said, “crowds are inseparable from people. Politicians like people behave differently in crowds than when alone.” Canetti illustrated the pack theory of crowds. Crowds always follow certain rituals. Watch crowds applause, both spontaneous and prompted in parliament, or at the Air Canada Centre during a hockey game, or at a funeral or a wedding. Crowds become packs with ritualized behaviour. Such is the power and pull of packs and so the practice of politics is inseparable from the exercise of conducting and shaping crowd behaviour: directing the pack. And those that dominate, rise to dominate groups, see that the public is really a consumer and they use the same tools that shape and drive politics. And of course the power tool of all, the handmaiden of state power, is the political party.

Now what seems to escape even the true believers of democratic parliamentary governance is the endless daily conflicts over power rather than policy. Who decides? Who gets what? Rights have now become the lexicon but power really is the purpose. Parliamentary democracy marks the struggle for co-existence between the ancient power of the royal prerogative that now rests in our cabinet which is the executive prerogative within the parliamentary government, on the one hand, and members of parliament, on the other. With the conviction that power corrupts came the idea of alternation: the need for alternate party-led governments. Power was not to be the monopoly of the Crown’s party. The clash between liberty and power, between rights and rulers, could only be achieved when the monopoly of power could be alternated under transparent, acceptable rules or conventions of conduct.

Now the philosophic rationale of governance, the state monopoly over power of others was always the ever-elusive and conflicting twin goals of liberty and equality. That search for liberty and equality obsessed all the masters of the western canon. Only through true transparent power-sharing instruments could liberty or freedom be tasted and shared. A civic society was premised on equality. Only by dividing and sharing power could a creative tension be struck in a civic society. Regretfully, we bear witness that this ideal, this western ideal, this democratic civic idea has not even permeated the majority of member states of the United Nations. The Wilson thesis of self-determination was not coequal with democracy; never was. And so we have the United Nations still not really peopled with a majority of democratic states.

Now in the modern era in Canada, the heart of all political power rests in the darkest, most mysterious, least transparent, most obvious organizing organism: the national caucus. The caucus, in my view, is a rather opaque phenomenon that rests at the centre of our politics. Yet the caucus, given its apparent potency and power, is the least understood, most often by its own members. Caucus requires the most artful manipulation, especially in this media age as Hugh Winsor suggested, for the pursuit of personal and political power. To grasp the levers of state power requires art. And if the caucus is the child of the party, the thesis of political party, a balance rests as well on an independent party, independent from the caucus. The independent party, in turn, is premised on riding and party democracy, all to act as a counterweight to caucus power. Caucus power can be trumped by party power. Yet both are victims to the same orchestration to sustain the leader’s discretionary power, at the expense of even notional party or constitutional checks and balances.

From the start, parties or factions or caucuses had as their operating objective the restraint of the power of others. Or better, the diversion of power and the restraint on absolute power: the sharing of power between the few and the many; the ferment for equality. That was the first origins of political parties: taking power away from the Crown into the hands of the many. The earliest English structures sought to limit the royal prerogative, the monopoly of the King’s power, the heart of the king’s power that was exercised by the King and the King’s party: the royal party, the court party, the Crown party. That was the heart and that’s how the absolute monarch sustained his power. So the birth of the earliest party formations was based on the restraint, on checks and balances against arbitrary absolute discretionary powers that facilitated power sharing. Pulling power from the pack, from the royal pack, was an exercise in democratic reform.

The British historian - and John Stewart referred me to him a long time ago and he’s a wonderful source of party history - Lewis Namier, in his extraordinary work on the backgrounds of English members of parliament and their party system, took a look at this question. He made a careful study of members of parliament, the first essential study of members of parliament. And he concluded that members of parliament relished the checks and controls. And they relished their mutual watchfulness and jealousy against the executive which demanded, and I quote, “…respect for public liberty against despotism.” And he extolled the beauty, the excellence and the perfection of the British constitution founded on the rule of law, laws over men, laws to limit arbitrary power. That is what Namier said and it still holds true today.

Now enter the next seminal thinker, Montesquieu, the Frenchman, who so carefully studied and admired the British parliamentary system. He published in 1748, and I commend it to all of you, a book entitled The Spirit of the Laws, which recognized, again, that power corrupts. So he wrote these words: “…A monarch is ruined when referring everything to himself exclusively, reduces the state to its capital, and the capital to the court and the court to himself.” Then as now, parliamentarians clothed their lust for personal power in virtue, in policies, in principles, in values, in conviction, in civilization, in progress, all mooted to be for the benefit of others. Yet, parliamentarians conspire to mandates so vague or so general in nature as to allow maximum arbitrary discretion. Only they and their party are the virtuous vehicle. Only they could decide. Virtue, or the appearance of virtue, could hold parties together; humility and restraint were, however, the victims of party politics. Besides, “who could predict tomorrow’s priorities?”. we politicians would argue. So parliamentarians applauded themselves and we call ourselves honorable, all in the guise of selflessly pursuing power for others, not for ourselves. We call ourselves honourable because we’re not doing it for ourselves; we’re doing it for others. Virtue, therefore, became a monopoly, a commodity for a party. A tantalizing theme; a mantra repeated endlessly over and over again: we are the virtuous party. Trust us with power. The fewer restraints on our popular mandate the better. Such is the political nirvana, a mandate with few promises. The vaguer the contours of the election’s social contract with the electorate, the better. “Trust our virtue. Trust our discretion.” “Trust us” became the underlying current and theme for election clashes for power. And in a candid moment, the witty, great, Liberal Prime Minister of England, Lloyd George was overheard to say “I am a man of principle and my first principle is expediency.”

But I jump ahead of my theme. Blood feuds and vendettas racked and divided the earliest party formations discovered in the evolution of every western society. Always done, of course, in the name of virtue and honour. While political philosophers trace the travail of the human condition through the annals of war and economics or biography, the same political observers or historians or constitutionalists rarely take the time, with few exceptions, to trace the rise of the invisible influence of political parties, except almost accidentally. Read any history. Party politics is almost a footnote. This inattention to real power structures, resident with causes and parties, persists to the present day. The complexities of the caucus bred inertia, as Hugh Winsor pointed out in the media. It breeds inertia. It’s too complicated. We can’t quite cover that. Obviously, this shouldn’t come as any surprise. There is no surprise. So, why is that so? Why is the caucus not covered? So little is written or noted about the rise and the nature of caucuses of political parties. By convention and tradition, votes or records are not kept in caucus. Votes are not taken. This comes as no surprise because it is by design that the very heart of all politics, the caucuses of political parties, operate as semi-secret or secret societies. I only say semi because there are a lot of leaks from time to time but really they operate as secret societies. Keeping their debates and discussions shrouded, purposely, in secrecy. And this secrecy is justified. It is justified by the notion that only by secrecy, only by privacy, only by caucus privacy can candid divisions be discussed and a caucus consensus emerge. Only by open debate within the privacy of caucus can members hope to share power, to diffuse power. Such was the deal. The deal is: be secretive, be quiet, and you will share power. Decisions will be shared.

Determing the consensus of the caucus is relegated to the leader. And now the leader’s inner circle, armed with secret polls, can reject or scoff at any caucus consensus that differs from the executive. Yet progress and the advance of civic society has rarely depended on transitory public opinion polls. The proper study of mankind, as Berlin suggested, is not linear. To gauge underlying sentiment, to pull the pack in arduous different directions, requires energy, wisdom and conviction. The public outside the party and the caucus looks to the political structures for inspiration and direction, for decisiveness of action. We want our politicians to be decisive. We want them to take leadership. We want to have clarity of thought. That’s the public desire, the public sentiment; it is inimitable. We are repeatedly told that any political repository or repertoire of divisions and debates can only lead to loss of public support and political power. Liberty and equality is purposely overlooked or quashed in the bud, in the need to retain power. So the choice between public debate, real public debate and division of ideas, on the one hand, and internal cohesion and symmetry and the image of unanimity, on the other hand, becomes a fundamental pillar of party politics and of caucus solidarity. It is a closed circuit of logic.

Leadership, now, relentlessly seeks external and consummate consensus by any and all means. Policy, personal preferment, patronage, the most potent of all political aphrodisiacs, sharing even notionally the experience of the exercise of power, to be part of an all powerful executive, to sustain the executive at all of its manifestations, to feel the warmth of the flame of power, to hope to be part of that inner circle, to be saluted, to share the insider’s power stories with others, to brush against the emperor’s clothes or his valets, as some observe, has become a noble purpose or pursuit almost for its own sake. The pull of the pack, as Canetti said, is almost overwhelming. Of course, the ultimate desire of politics, like life, is to become immortal: to be remembered beyond death. To have a legacy, always laterally, becomes the paramount, if penultimate goal in the exercise of politics of any political leader. Do not forget me, for all that I have done for you, croons the last post of all politicians, satiated with wasted discretionary power. Happily poets remind us through the millennium that this, too, shall pass.

Now legacies have achieved in some western countries a rather garish level, reminiscent of ancient Rome. In the US, the presidential libraries avowed purpose is to brand into history the good works of each recent president for the benefit of revisionist history books. In France, each president leaves a colossal public work: the Pompidou Centre, Mitterrand’s massive national library in Paris. Mercifully, in England and Canada, portraits, statues, plaques and books, seems to suffice to match our more modest public sentiment.

Well friends, with that rather brief prologue (maybe not too brief), let me return to the topic of this lecture dedicated to Allan J. MacEachen, the master politician, the political organizer supreme, who served as such an effective advisor to prime ministers, as a cabinet minister (I think 11 portfolios in all), house leader, senate leader, master of the rules of parliament - both the senate and the commons - and, no less, a great master of that secret formation of parliament, the national caucus. The weekly meeting in caucus, where all elected Liberals from the House of Commons and all appointed senators congregate to perform their weekly ritual, in private, while the media watches glowering in the corridors, awaiting precise snippets of information to feed the indifferent instant news networks who are out there concocting the daily news. The national caucus has been so constructed and promoted to give the appearance and belief to its own members and observers and camp followers alike, the widest, most open debate affecting all people and all regions. That’s the premise. Yet like a tango, it is most artfully orchestrated as an exercise resembling more a military structure and a military command formation. Like the military, treason or disloyalty is the greatest sin. To artfully lead or pull away from the pack takes extraordinary talent and resilience and self confidence.

Every Wednesday when parliament is in session, commencing at 10 a.m., time is tightly rationed and carefully choreographed in the national weekly caucus. Reports of the house leader, the whip, the senate, followed by regional and numerous special and policy caucuses, often leaves less than an hour relegated to the twenty or so members who request an opportunity to address the caucus at large. Those members that are not given to the regular genuflections and congratulatory comments articulate a rather narrow, specific concern. Each member’s plea resembles more, if you look at it in historical terms, the form of an ancient petition to the crown: a problem that seeks redress. The leader, like the royals of old, decides which of any member’s petition he will even react to publicly. The raised dais, the seating structure, the format: all this lends itself less to open debate than to a formula for concise entreaties to the leader. And before each weekly meeting the leader’s entourage or cadre meets with the caucus chair to shape, anticipate and influence even more the caucus agenda. This ritual micromanagement of caucus consensus by the leader and his cadre operates in a strange way, and from time to time, when warranted, the electronic media is allowed a few moments to tape spontaneous caucus solidarity, despite the caucus cant of privacy or secrecy. Rarely is the veil of perceived wisdom or the agenda or the priorities of the executive pierced by the caucus, and only then by a concerted chorus of member’s concerns. On such occasions these members are briefly applauded as if any change in the national priorities established by the executive, or any change in the national agenda established by the executive, stands out as a singular victory, rather than the caucus doing its normal work, acting as a check on the executive.

Now in our system of government, any leader quickly understands after election that he can only retain the support and confidence of the house if he retains the leadership and support of his own caucus. This as been distorted to mean absolute support for any and all actions: all legislative initiatives of the cabinet introduced into parliament rather than just money bills or significant matters related to election mandates. The caucus contains numbers necessary to support the leader and his chosen cadre, and the confidence of the House. Without the support of the caucus, the leader as Prime Minister is naked before the Governor General who holds the prerogative power to determine who will be granted the opportunity to gain the confidence of the House. Hence the caucus and political power are inseparable. Under this self imposed paradigm, any disloyalty is thus automatically deemed to be self defeating. Any disloyalty, so called, has become the metaphor for loss of power. Now if the past is prologue, and Allan J. has been both a participant and a ring-side observer, he would argue most artfully, that the illusive loss of caucus confidence intentionally or unconsciously, was always the first slippery step on the slide to loss of political power, to political oblivion. An accidental loss of a vote on a money bill by Mr. Pearson in his absence in 1967, led to his decision to resign ultimately as leader and Prime Minister. Mr. Diefenbaker’s loss of caucus support ultimately led to his political demise as party leader.

Thus it came as no surprise that that master of political power Mr. Mulroney, an alumnus of this university, purposely set about to micromanage his caucus solidarity. Mr. Mulroney is appropriately considered, and should be considered a master of caucus control. We are told he used every personal and political wile, including daily use of his telephone rolodex, to note any caucus dissident and to immediately counteract it by contact, preferment, persuasion, patronage (both personal and familial), message or the ultimate threat, to be thrust from the crowd. To be pushed from the pack. And we are told that a previous lecturer, Bob Rae, when he became premier of Ontario, allowed at first - in a democratic fashion, an NDP fashion - a free and open debate in his caucus and his cabinet. But that soon changed - too late some say - to the tactics of caucus control, only to find that his caucus divisions had become so divisive and irretrievable, that it leads to his loss of power. Now some say, some observers say, Mr. Mulroney’s absolute control of caucus, even when public support dissipated, was the cause of the Tory downfall.

Parties go through cycles. Mr. Mackenzie King, the great Mr. King, always paid meticulous attention to caucus and party structures. His successor Mr. St. Laurent, on the other hand, allowed party structures to atrophy. Hence the Pearson-led rejuvenation of the Liberal party of which Allan J. was a key architect, involved a grassroots revolution against the old cadres of power after the disastrous defeat at the hands of Mr. Diefenbaker in 1958. Those that lead that revival, and AJ was one of them, believed that only a democratically-elected grassroots party could become a check on the parliamentary wing, on the caucus, in order to regain and keep touch with the public as an open pathway to political power. Democracy in the party, in turn, would revive and restrain the caucus, satiated with power, while discarding the old, out-of-touch leadership cadre. Work out or get out was the clarion call to the grassroots riding executives and caucus members. The reformed party, by its constitution, would guarantee the party a strong and independent voice and a check on the parliamentary wing, from policy to leadership. That was the reform of the Liberal Party. That was the notion of the reformed Liberal Party lead in part by Allan MacEachen.

Now the modern party structure based on democratic ridings and provincial layers has been transformed, under the present caucus system, from an independent and democratic check on policy and personalities in the caucus, as illustrated by Namier, with independent members as advanced by John Stuart Mill, to one based on a caucus-centred mindset. In this ever contracting circle, this centralization of power, policy and pluralism has given way to personality and personal advancement. And political progress to preferment. The classic role defined by John Stuart Mill of the individual liberty of members of parliament as a check on the executive becomes, perforce, sharply curtailed and reined-in, even distorted. Hold your nose, I’ve been told, hold your nose and vote the party line even though you don’t like it. For good reason, control of the public agenda has emerged as the highest form, archetypical of modern political life. And control of caucus forms an essential part of control of the political agenda.

Of course, the media brooks no dissent or division. The media can’t abide division. With rare exception the electronic media can only hold one idea at a time. And I’m not referring to the print media because I think the print media is much different. But the electronic media, unfortunately, is what people watch. They generally don’t read newspapers; they watch television. And the electronic media is too indifferent and mostly too inexperienced to evaluate differing points of view. So they only report on caucus clashes, on splits and dissents and division, all of which are politically damaging. This is an implicit acceptance of Canetti’s pack theory. Disloyalty becomes the metaphor for silence. So the contest for the daily control of the political agenda involves diffusion and absorption or distraction of problems rather than systematically solving any political problems that erupt. Get them off the table, clean them off, divide them, dissect them, but don’t deal with them. The media will always move on. Collateral damage is done to political institutions but don’t worry, the media will move on. It doesn’t have any attention span. The willing collaborators in this, as I said, are the media that have an attention span of yesterday’s headlines. The pack affect is seen in the media itself, where so many slavishly follow the other in this new, immediate universe of so many different voices. And when you turn to the various television channels, what do you find? It’s the same story told different ways, in different modes but it is the same story. It’s not new. So they follow each other. So the popular and the sensational displaces the complex or the difficult.

Now the tightest, most invisible ring around the caucus is around the leader circle. A revolving faction, not new, but largely unnoticed and mostly misdescribed. In this leader-led, leader-driven caucus, the greatest sin, the greatest treason, has been well articulated by Allan J. at his retirement dinner held in his honour that established this lectureship. Allan said, and I hope I do not rip Allan out of context, that the iron rule of caucus progress and preferment for any caucus member, and I’m quoting here, “…is to never find himself in the way of having to say no to the leader.” Criticism, carefully couched, kind criticism perhaps, but blatant negative attacks never. And AJ developed strong critiques within the caucus to almost an art form. So now both the caucus and the party appear orchestrated by the leader’s faction. Party constitutions are, or seem to be, discarded or eviscerated. The orchestration is more evident in the parliament ring than the party ring, and now the house leaders of both houses - the whips, the chairs, the chairs of the regional caucuses, the chairs of the committees (except public accounts) - are either appointed or if elected, indirectly assented to or orchestrated by the leader’s circle. Advancement of a private members bill, appointment as a chair, parliamentary secretary, chairs of committees and even as one whip recently proclaimed, invitations and trips abroad or invitations to dignitary’s dinners, depend on adherence to the whip’s line. Too often the chairs are appointed as a reward more for their compliance than their competence, more for their dependability than their independence. And now, with the most recent amendments to the parliament act, last June, even new additional compensation to members’ chairs and the like are essentially all but at the discretion of the leader. The number of discretionary compensations to members of caucus now exceeds 90(!), because of the new Parliament Act that was just changed a few months ago. Meanwhile, what’s the situation in England? Hugh Winsor referred to this in his column not too long ago. In England, the Mother parliament, the four line whip is only applied to questions of confidence on money matters, which is of constitutional significance, and questions significant to the electoral mandate. It’s limited. And then there are various other forms of whips but their four line whip, the big whip, is limited to the big, core issues. In Canada, virtually all votes are deemed questions of confidence. Free votes are sparse and misnamed, then numbered as a measure of a member’s scope of independence, rather than the reverse.

But let’s take a look back now, stand back and take a look at history. Has much has changed? Parties are as old as the bible. Tribes were the first natural political factions. Extended families became sources for both royalty and parties. The Western nation was forged when loyalty to the tribes was transferred to the king and country, and then to parliamentary democracy, and more recently above parliament to constitutions and the charter. So let’s dance through the modern era. But let’s pause for a moment in Medieval Italy, where no less a poet and writer than Dante wrote the Divine Comedy and the Inferno essentially as political discourses. And Dante lived in Florence and there were two great party formations - the Ghibellines and the Guelfs - who dominated Florence and the other cities of Italy. And the Ghibellines and the Guelfs held diametrically opposed views. The Ghibellines supported the absolute power of the Holy Roman Empire, with its secular leader, and the Guelfs supported the absolute power of the Pope. Nothing much has changed. This debate between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines were the seeds of the Hundred Years War and the Thirty Years War that so convulsed Europe. And we see echoes of it today in our recent unrest.

Let’s turn to England and the Act of Settlement in 1689. In 1689 the prerogative power was wrested from the Monarchy and from the king’s party, which led to democratic restraint of the royal prerogative by the elected members of parliament. Power was transferred from the crown to parliament and shared within parliament. This division of powers was applauded by Montesquieu and studied as the English model. Blackstone said that the checks and balances were a device in retaining political virtue. Parliament would act for the people; loyalty to crown meant loyalty to parliament. Parliamentary institutions would act as checks and balances against each other; within parliament the crown would share its prerogative with the cabinet, the commons and the lords, each acting as a check upon the other. These were checks and balances.

And so, they separated the law making powers in two. There was to be the lawmakers, the legislators, parliament and the courts. And the courts were to be separate and independent, all with a view to checking power. Fifty years after the Act of Settlement, Montesquieu wrote these words, “so the purpose of the checks and powers […] so that one cannot abuse power, power must be checked by the arrangement of things. A constitution can only be struck so that no one will be constrained to do the things that law does not oblige them to do or be kept from doing the things the law permits them to do. One must combine powers, regulate them, temper them, make them act. One must balance power, so to speak, to put people in a position to resist one another. This is the masterpiece of legislation that chance rarely produces and is rarely allowed to produce.” And so, the whole fight in powers which were to wrest power from the crown, from the executive into the hands of parliament through the party mechanisms.

With regard to recent times, I want to make one special note. At one time parliament was seen as a central organization in the country. And it’s interesting that in recent times the charter has displaced both parliament and the crown in public esteem, in every region of the country including Quebec. I believe there is a shift in public support for the charter as a unifying symbol due to the perception of parliament as a place of centralizing power while the charter is seen as a source of individual rights, of decentralizing power, of power sharing. Now this should not be taken to mean that the courts are to replace parliament or for the courts to carry on what they now define as the democratic dialogue with the people. Parliament is still meant to be supreme in this sense.

Our Fathers of Confederation organized powers based on the English system: the Liberal party in England, the Conservative party in England. But when they were first established, they were established for only one purpose. They were established, essentially, to get members of parliament elected. Both parties were there only to support the caucus and the leader. The heart of the party at that time revolved around the caucus. And Canada wasn’t alone. Let me just quote from Robert Menzies, author of The Prime Minister of England: “parliament might just as well not exist at present because legislation is first submitted to the caucus and once approval is given, then the subsequent debate in parliament becomes a mere formality.” Now MacKenzie King was obsessed by the caucus and he was obsessed - and if you read the MacKenzie King record you’ll see this - because he observed the disintegration of the Liberal party in England. And he did not want the Liberal Party of Canada to fall into the same trap of internal division. And so he, for one, was careful and meticulous about the caucus. Paul Martin Sr., who wrote an excellent biography, wrote this, that “…King saved his best oratory for the caucus and it was there to help mend intra-party differences regarding a particular policy.” King would share. His technique of caucus was to share his thinking, to share power or power decisions within caucus so that they could understand - members of caucus - and quarrel with his process of thinking. Again, let me just read something here. And I’ve read the King diaries this summer, not something I would do again, but it was interesting because the whole thing was studded with references to the caucus, and he said this: “the desirability of having our differences fought out in caucus. Next day I spoke to the caucus pretty straight from the shoulder.” Later on he said this: “I am saddened in my heart to see a great political party that has set the record like us over a century gradually disintegrating and getting to the point where it could totally disappear as did the Liberal party in Britain because they were not party men. Party men who were prepared to see that we had an effective organization.” So King was the master of micromanagement of his caucus. He even appointed the caucus chairman. Yet he relished open and robust debate within the confines of caucus and caucus secrecy in those days really meant caucus secrecy. And we are told he regularly wrote to party members in each riding to obtain a disparate grassroots opinion. He wanted to get a feel from the people in the riding as well as the members.

Now does this topic, and you’ve been so indulgent tonight, does this topic carry any relevance in these unpredictable times? Perhaps some lessons can be gleaned. Hopefully it draws attention to the deplorable state of critical debate and scrutiny in the Commons itself. Never has the Commons opposition been so divided, so weak and so totally ineffective. Never has the legislation or oversight role been so sloppy and maladroit. We sat in the Senate and we saw legislation coming across that hadn’t been properly scrutinized by the Commons, by either members on our side or by the opposition, and never have you seen such sloppy legislation. Never, in effect, have the checks and balances in parliament taken such a holiday. Meanwhile parliament is so divided and so fractious that it cannot even unite in the face of perilous common problems. Reform of parliament, I believe, should start with a very simple message and a very simple mission: Members of Parliament should act as Members of Parliament. Perhaps these recent earth-shaking events (the 9\11 terrorist attack) will serve to shake up lovers of parliamentary tradition, as all eyes will be turned once again to parliament. Divided when needed, say the masters of the western canon about parliament, but united when necessary.

The caucus remains one source of the solution to parliamentary reform and I have three simple suggestions. One, there should be no whips except on budgetary matters, money bills and significant matters of public policy or questions related to electoral mandates. Two, committee chairs should be selected by a more independent mode based on experience and competence, perhaps even seniority. Finally, allow one day a week for private member’s bills without any executive control or hindrance, and allow one day a month for private members to interface with the Clerk of the Privy Council in committee of the whole to hold the bureaucracy more accountable, which presently they are not. A profound danger, in my view, to peace, order and good government, lies in this centralization of federal decision-making in the hands of a very narrow executive that hasn’t changed in many years and in the bureaucracy. The power now resides in few hands in the executive around the leader and in the bureaucracy. It has become almost impossible with the modern complexity of government to oversee all these things. The system simply backs up. Parliament can do more. Over-centralization is inconsistent with and suffocates the principles of liberalism. All wisdom does not flow from one coordinated source within caucus. Caucus and party malaise and disillusion can set in. Received wisdom from one source is simply not wise. Wisdom is rarely found in polls which represent only one narrow snap-shot of public sentiment at a time. Rarely do the polls look outside the box. Parliamentarians can do so and they can do so with some inspiration.

Now any paradigm of acute centralization - in my view this is the Mulroney lesson - can ravage your party and caucus. Obsession with linear, bureaucratic arrangements harnessed with a preoccupation with agenda control cannot avoid neglecting issues until they fester and crystallize beyond easy reform. And worse, when the only need felt is to micromanage both large and small issues at the same time, the important is more often than not submerged with the trivial. And even a trivial division then becomes a major setback because of the paradigm of absolute control. Members of parliament should never forget that conventional wisdom always starts with the majority of one. Berlin defined liberalism as coexistent with pluralism. Regretfully, in recent times in my view, and this is a brief commercial, it is only in the Senate where open, extensive debates on matters such as Meech Lake, the Clarity Bill, the Nishga’a Treaty, the Extradition bill and the Citizenship Act took place. Almost by default, the Senate has displaced the Commons as a check on the executive due as much to the vacuum in the Commons as to the desiccated opposition. This brings me back to Allan J. MacEachen.

In 1979, it was Allan J. who rallied the caucus and the party behind Mr. Trudeau’s return. It was Allan J. when he became leader of the government in the Senate and leader of the opposition in the Senate after his retirement from the Commons, who quietly instituted significant reforms that allowed the senate to take its rightful place as an appropriate check and balance on the caucus, on the Commons, and on the cabinet. Almost immediately he objected to the long standing practice called pre-study where bills in the Senate would be pre-studied at the time of their introduction in the Commons, an amendment suggested by the minister quietly during the common’s legislative process. This practice, he believed and we agreed with him, undermined the constitutional duty of the Senate as a chamber of second, sober thought. As a chamber independent of the Commons, they would act as both a check on the commons and the executive. The Senate’s work should be visible and transparent for the sake of its own legitimacy and credibility, he argued over and over again in the caucus. Under his leadership, the Mulroney government was compelled to seek an election mandate on the Free Trade Agreement. Under his leadership, the GST was variously opposed not so much because of philosophic disagreements but because Allan felt, and we agreed, that the government lacked an election mandate for a massive reform of our tax system. In the senate caucus, he never sought to control debate. There wasn’t one time I can remember, and Dr. John Stewart was there and will affirm this, not once did he seek to control debate. On the contrary, he welcomed and relished the fullest and freest exchange of ideas. Then he would succinctly sum up in quite a brilliant and creative way, the consensus. Taking and weighing carefully all contesting viewpoints as expressed, and frequently amending his own views because of what he heard in caucus. Almost alone, he forced the national caucus and the Senate and the cabinet elect, to take notice that the Senate could not be relied upon as an invisible parliamentary rubber stamp. And since his time as the leader, the Senate has slowly regained a more appropriate place as a vital check and balance to both Commons and the cabinet.

You should recall that six out the sixteen days of the confederation debate concerned the Senate. Why? Because all Fathers of Confederation were searching to strike an appropriate constitutional check and balance role for the Senate against the Commons and against the executive. And it’s ironic that the two national parties so obsessed with the current status of the senate, the Canadian Alliance and the NDP, have both failed miserably in their own constitutional duties as a check and balance in the Commons. No wonder that their current distortions within their own caucuses have been based on the politics of personality rather than the politics of conviction which brought them both to parliament in the first place.

One final aside about the Senate. Academics have given undue and increased legitimacy to extra-parliamentary checks and balances. They have dismissed the Senate. They have encouraged the courts to displace parliament. Parliament, they preach, is no longer supreme. That topic, my friends, is the subject of another lecture. The title might be ‘How the Principle of Parliamentary Supremacy Under the Constitution was Undermined by Constitutional Lawyers.’ But that, dear friends, most indulgent friends, is for another day. Let me on the same note conclude where I began: the quest for truth. Truth, as Tolstoy the great Russian writer reminded us, has been, is, and will be, beautiful. Isaiah Berlin wrote that he did not know if this was so but, as he continued, it seemed near enough not to be lightly set aside. Thank you.


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