Reflections on Contemporary Politics in Canada


9 February 2000

Thank you. Obviously, I am very moved by that introduction. You now know me better than I do. I just want to say this to Lowell, in the case he felt pressed for time, I’d be glad to yield some of mine so you can continue.

Mr. President, and distinguished members of the Senate, Privy Council and this community and this dear province, where I started my life as a conscious person, in the Baptist parsonages of the Annapolis Valley: Black Rock, Berwick and Waterville. Of course, it is an honour for me to have been invited to give the third MacEachen Lecture. The first, as you know, was Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario. Second was Frank McKenna, the glamorous former Premier of New Brunswick. Now myself.

I come here in the spirit of exuberant ecumenicism, and on a flood tide of nostalgia which rises from fond memories of mortal combat on the playing fields, and decades of partisan struggle on the hustings and in the trenches of party politics. I recall, during my student years at Acadia University as a member of its football team, some 60 years ago, there was no more formidable foe than St. Francis Xavier. No greater joy than in defeating St. F. X. No greater despair than losing to them. I recall only three names of all the teams that I played against in all the rugby games of the seasons. They were Pat Cadogan, Butch Finney and Tarp Walsh, all from St. F. X. And of course, what Cadogan, Finney and Walsh represented to me in my athletic career at Acadia, the honourable Allan MacEachen represents in my political career in the Tory party. I will not dwell too long on this other than to illustrate my personal respect and regard to him as a public man and adversary, by offering a single example.

When, as Minister of Finance, he introduced his first if not his last budget - my memory is unclear on that - I was the only person in Canada, not a member of the government caucus or valenced constituency organization, who spoke well of it. I was in Alberta at the time the budget came down, speaking in Edmonton. I think there must have been of the two hundred people present, a hundred of them must have been dentists. When the media found me, they asked the question "what did I think of the MacEachen budget?" I spoke well of it. My opinion was considered so remarkable and original, it was published the next day on the front page of the Toronto Globe and Mail, CAMP PRAISES MACEACHEN BUDGET. But I believed there were things to be said for that budget, in my opinion. First, since the entire financial community appeared to be against it, I realized there must be something right about it. Second, the budget represented an obvious effort to establish an improved sense of equity and fairness in taxation policy with a conspicuous attempt at closing those loopholes so often talked about. I would have thought it would be popular. Perhaps it was, among the voiceless, but not for those who were doing the talking.

In my reading of In Pursuit of the Public Good, the collection of essays marking the retirement of Allan J. MacEachen, fondly assembled by Tom Kent, I note the predominance of scholars, historians, political scientists, and non-political scientists. It’s an interesting collection. It reminds me of my combative life because I’ve gone to war with almost every one of them at one time or another. When I read Professor Bliss, for example, describing Mr. Diefenbaker as the "eccentric old coot prattling on about a Bill of Rights for Canadians," I felt myself comfortable in the company of these superior minds. Not because I agreed with Professor Bliss, but because, obviously, I knew Mr. Diefenbaker, as obviously he doesn’t. As you know, I had great struggles with Mr. Diefenbaker. I learned from him. He was a lot of things. He was eccentric, but he wasn’t "an old coot, prattling on." I realize the value of historians as interpreters of events. But you know, you can’t change the facts of these events. I had a further confrontation with another of the contributors to In Pursuit of the Public Good, who was an economist, and he wrote that the extension of unemployment insurance benefits to fishermen or fisherpersons, as you say down here now - had been the result of intensive lobbying by the provincial premiers of Atlantic Canada. This assertion, of course, was intended to confirm this region’s entrenched habit of special pleading, and its insatiable search for federal hand-outs. I wrote then that the economist was wrong, that the expanded benefits were almost entirely the achievement of Jack Pickersgill alone. And that the Maritime premiers were either mute on the proposal or opposed to it. The primary source for this is Pickersgill himself, in his memoirs. The secondary source was the lack of any evidence of any direct involvement of the premiers. These views were published in my column in the Toronto Star. Soon after I received an injured letter from the learned professor of economics which was not to contest my point, but charging that I had made a lot out of nothing. And that I had so offended his wife that she had set fire to the newspaper and burned it to ash. Then I became aware of the fact that I had become known for my incendiary opinions.

On another occasion, I was flying in an airplane, looking out the window as, you know, time goes slowly, and somebody said would you like to read the Financial Post, which is something I almost never read. But in desperation, I’ll read anything. So, I got it out and there was an article in there which said that Robert Stanfield, who is reasonably well known here, had endorsed the two nations, or "Deux Nations" theory, which explained why the Tories had lost the 1968 federal election. As a matter of fact, this was not true. Stanfield had never supported "two nations" and the Progressive Conservative Party had never endorsed it. Stanfield had nothing whatsoever to do with it, and it had nothing whatsoever to with the result of the election. The only Tory who had ever seriously mentioned it, as a matter of fact, was that eccentric old coot, John Diefenbaker. As somebody, (I think it was the American humorist Josh Billings) once said, "There ain’t no use in knowin’ so many things that ain’t so."

From my partisan redoubt, what I saw in Allan MacEachen was first and foremost a formidable partisan. I mean that as a compliment. I would like to have thought of myself in the same way. I can’t envision a functioning democracy without partisanship. Even if in some way it’s only a matter of the ins and the outs; both dweedle-dee and dweedle-dum or, as Harold Laski once said, "mimic warfare." Nevertheless, there have to be "ins," there have to be "outs." If there is only government, and no opposition, then there is one monolithic party of the state and all the rest are supporters, or else they are enemies of the state. This is so self-evident we often forget it. We dis-remember the political party system, pretend it doesn’t exist, or has been suspended, or that it is not what it used to be, or has been magically replaced by public opinion polls or by rational common sense. Many of us have marginalized the role of the parties in the democratic process that we enjoy or sometimes enjoy. That is a mistake.

For all my active life in Canadian politics, I have thought of myself as a party-man, one party or another - as one who is devoted to the party system in its natural, if not sublime compatibility with parliamentary government in the British tradition. Political parties make the political system work. They lend legitimacy and authenticity to representative democracy. I’m not saying that the party clubhouse is more important than the party caucus room, but I am suggesting there can’t be a caucus room unless there’s a clubhouse. This view has coloured my life in politics and does even now, as I write about politics, remain with me. Parliamentary democracy didn’t impress Thomas Carlyle; he preferred strong government ruled by strong men. Carlyle’s hero was Oliver Cromwell, mine is Winston Churchill. I have a theory about all this. The importance of political parties is in direct proportion to their role in the democratic society, according to the recognized importance of the public agenda. The more vital the agenda, the more important the role of the parties. I suppose in Monaco or Liechtenstein or Luxembourg or Andorra, the parties are of lesser importance. I don’t even know if they have them, or whether there is party politics, as there is party politics in, say, the United States or in Russia.

The first premise of my theory is quite simple, that the most significant and vital contribution the political parties make to the democratic process is choosing who leads. That’s what they do best. It may even be all they do today, but what they do no one else can do in the best interest of a democratic society. I’ve tried often to imagine some other way we could do this, deciding who is going to lead. Of course, the people decide ultimately who leads, but the party decides those whom the public will choose to lead. That’s a big job. It’s a vital job. I used to try to think of a better way to do this. I thought one way would be to assign the responsibility to the editorial board of The Globe and Mail. But once I reached that conclusion, then there was another national daily newspaper, with another editorial board, The National Post. There is something to that, because the editorial boards of both The Globe and Mail and The National Post think that’s what they do anyway - decide who leads. But some would see the wisdom of having these great organs of public opinion make that decision, regardless of the parties. If we did so, we would have restored the two-party system, The Globe and Mail Party and The National Post Party, each competing for public support in favour of their candidate. Sooner or later there would be a third party, The Toronto Sun, which would clearly be seen as a regional party whose position would be that the decision as to whom should lead should be made by the paper’s sunshine girl. This proposal would be advanced in the interests of striking a blow against elitism.

One of the great examples of the importance of the role of the parties is in 1940 during that enormous crisis in the British parliament. I would say, if you could get people, young people, to look at that, then they would understand the vitality and the true importance of the party’s role in government, in parliament, in politics. I’ll run it by you very quickly to make my point. You had Britain involved in a losing war. You had a weak government, an appeasement government. The government didn’t really believe in the war. You had a situation in which the American Ambassador had told his President that Britain was finished. You had the ruler of the Soviet Union convinced Britain was finished. You had a sudden German incursion into Norway and they ran the British out, and there was an uproar in parliament. There was a debate, followed by a motion of censure against the government. The government, the Tories under Chamberlain, had a majority of 200 seats. Before they got to the vote, the Prime Minister (Chamberlain) spoke and here’s what he said about the vote of censure. He said, "I have friends in this House and I’m going to call upon my friends," a terrible speech. The vote was taken. Instead of a 200 majority, Chamberlain had 81. He went to the King and said, "I’m going to form a coalition government. I’m going to invite the other parties in." He goes back to his office, contacts the leader of the Labour Party, which was the official opposition, and asked "would you agree to enter a national government?" And do you know what they said? They said, "Our party is having a general meeting at Bournemouth and we can’t tell you the answer. We have to consult the party." Chamberlain then went to Lord Halifax and Churchill, and he said to Halifax, "You are really the most popular choice in my opinion." He said this in the presence of Churchill. And Halifax said, "But I’m in the House of Lords. I don’t see how I could lead Parliament sitting in the House of Lords." Churchill said nothing. Then the phone rang. The Labour Party said "We will not serve in a national government under you." Chamberlain then went to the King. Here are the circumstances: Chamberlain didn’t want Churchill. Most of the Tory Party didn’t want Churchill. The King didn’t want Churchill. But the party system worked. Chamberlain’s own party had rebuked him and Labour wouldn’t join him in a coalition. The inevitable choice then became Churchill and the rest is history. The simple fact is that the system worked. If you didn’t have political parties, if you didn’t have a party tradition, if you didn’t have people who were loyal to their party and who had the courage of their convictions, you would have had a different result. And I think we would have had a different history.

I remember once talking to Prime Minister Diefenbaker. This was during - Allan may remember this - the nuclear arms issue, the Bomarc missile crisis, whether or not we should allow nuclear arms in Canada. The Conservative Party was discussing the issue at a meeting of its executive. I recall the Party wanted to take a vote on it. They wanted to vote by ballot. We had a debate and then we had a discussion about whether it should be on the ballot and adjourned the meeting. I said to Mr. Diefenbaker, "Why don’t we just let them vote?" He said, "If as many as a half a dozen stood against me, I would have to resign." Well, you know, then he made this marvelous speech about not having a ballot. He said, "you know where I stand, I want to know where you stand." So, they had to stand. I think five people stood. I have always been impressed by, first of all, the British experience where the parties were all consulted, that their leaders didn’t have the right to make decisions on their behalf, even during that time of tremendous crisis.

I used to consult with Mr. Diefenbaker. When I first became national President, I went and sat beside him, in his office, and he showed me his mail, "That’s all from people out there. They are all very warm and encouraging and supportive." So I said, you know, there should be some indication from you sir. The Party would like to know what your intentions are." He said, "I can’t quit. I can’t resign." When I asked why? he said, "Well, there’s nobody to replace me." I said, "well, how do you know?" "Because" he said, "I’ve asked them." He said, "I’ve asked Roblin, I've asked Robarts. I’ve asked Stanfield: would you be interested in leading the party, and if so will you run?"

That’s not quite the way we do it and of course and had they run, I think he’d still be there. But I said, "Well, what about Hees and Fulton?" He said, "No, I know them, they’ll never do." But he said, "the problem with Robarts, and the problem with Roblin is that they have no experience in Parliament." So, he truly didn’t have any successors. Then, we got to grievances, to the fact that the Party was allowed to vote by ballot on the issue of leadership review. And, of course, more than 50% voted for it, that’s a lot more than six. And he didn’t do anything.

All along I was inspired by the fact that, if you had a principle and it involved the party, and a democracy is the party which recognized the value of the people in the party - there are some people here who went through this with me - Senator Atkins - we worked together day after day after day, and he knows and I know that many wanted it to be an attack on Mr. Diefenbaker. I never mentioned his name. Not once. Now we did have a code name for him, it was Charlie. We told people we wanted to enforce the principle that if you had the right to elect leaders you had a right to dismiss them. Furthermore, it was a broad right held by the party and not by the caucus. We got a good tailwind out of that, in the party. We got young people involved, and Mr. Diefenbaker left in sorrow and angry with me and remorseful and never forgave me. And I drove him nuts because, you know, I kept bouncing back, and there I was and there he was. And it was very unfortunate and very unhappy. And to me it’s not a happy thing because he did agree to the Maritime resolutions in the 1957 election which were crafted right here in the Maritimes by Maritime MP’s. And I remember him saying to Hugh John Fleming, who was then the Premier of New Brunswick. Hugh John spoke to Diefenbaker, who was then the leader of the opposition, "John, you can do that, just say yes." "No, no," Diefenbaker said "I can’t do that. I’ll have to talk to Les Frost (Premier of Ontario) first." Fleming said, "My God John," he said, "does Les Frost call you and ask you what to do?" Finally, Diefenbaker caved in and did it. I wrote speeches for him in 1957, and then he became Prime Minister. I wrote speeches for him (Lowell, you’ll appreciate this), and he said to me, after he became Prime Minister, "You know, your stuff is not as good as it was." Why? Because we were no logner attacking Allan MacEachen!

Getting back to Camp’s theory, I think we have a party system that is a little out of sync, a little dysfunctional. I’m not too pessimistic about it, however. What we need to revive the party system is an end to this current economic atmosphere, that everything is up and going to stay up. I’m not praying for bad luck or anything like it, I’m just saying that party politics is out of style. People have convinced themselves, in most parts of this country, that they don’t need politics, that it’s a luxury, or an affectation, or a pain in the neck. The fact of the matter is, we can get along without parties and politics, until we need it. And when we need it, say a break in the market, you’ll find a lot of people will suddenly have a renewed interest in party politics. But we live in this golden age, and while we do we’re blessed by innocence. Those who have no memory, have no fear. They have a lot to learn. The Americans today feel like the Egyptians once felt, as the Romans once felt, as the Victorians once felt, as Wilfrid Laurier once felt. The world was theirs to conquer and to hold and keep.

I have been speaking on contemporary politics in Canada today, and I have a question. Where are the Parties? Where are the Liberals? (Allan?) The permanent government; the models of efficiency and professionalism, of stability and competence? How’s that for a laugh? Where are the Progressive Conservatives with their trumuluous, adventurous and independent spirit, their profound sense of the nation and destiny? And the New Democrats. One could weep for the New Democrats - the nation’s conscience, the tireless advocates of the forgotten and unremembered. But the truth is, in this lingering hiatus, we could turn an old phrase familiar to everyone: "Politics if necessary but not necessarily politics." We are all learning for the present to live without it. We are no longer these days sustained or enriched by experience and memory or even by nostalgia. There is no public memory alive of economic ruin or the devastation of war. There aren’t very many people left who remember the depression, who remember the war, and who were shaped by that experience that gave us this remarkable sense of community and interdependence that we came to know in the 1940s, and the 1950s and the 1960s.

Hobsbawn, the Marxist historian said, "the past is another country." Now, the present is measured by our stock portfolios, improvement in our RSP’s, in this endless bull market, with low inflation, high employment levels, and our freedom to put aside our civic responsibility as citizens, and so arcane a subject as party politics. But the parties will return. The parties will continue to decide who leads. And the time will come again when the country will need them, as they have always needed them, whenever the country is in crisis. It only takes a collapse in the stock market, or a crisis in national unity, before the country wakes up and looks to the party system and to its leadership. That’s why I think we all should continue to invest our time and our energy and thought in the business of politics. It was always good to me. Even when we were jousting with Allan, and pretending we’d won the odd round, it was still the best game in town. It was fun. It was enjoyable. And the one thing, the blessed thing you got out of it was that if you were in politics you got to know the country, you got to know your neighbours, to know who you were living with and working with. There is no substitute for that experience. I think, we should be of good hope and good spirit and watch the tides, because they do change.


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