Mr. Blair Fraser, formerly Ottawa editor of Maclean's Magazine and now editor-in-chief of the magazine, is generally recognized as one of the authoritative writers on Canadian politics. So much so that he was chosen by the Encyclopaedia Britannica to write its section on Canadian government and politics in the 1960 issue of the Year Book.
In his column, "Backstage At Ottawa With Blair Fraser", in the March 12th issue of Maclean's Magazine, Fraser begins with these lines:
"I have been getting into fairly heated arguments lately for suggesting, as I did in the last issue of Maclean's, that the private member of parliament doesn't do much useful work."
Mr. Fraser then goes on to discuss one particular member who doesn't seem to fit into this category — Edward Nasserden, Conservative M.P. from Rosthern, Saskatchewan. Nasserden is a man who takes his job as representative of the people, seriously. After very considerable boning up on the matter of farm policy, he arose in the House during the debate on the Throne Speech and set off a small charge of dynamite by roundly criticizing the government's (his party's) farm policy. Said he:
"If I understand this program correctly it is the most retrograde step that could be taken from an already established position. Moreover the arguments used are unworthy of an informed ministry...".
As Fraser points out, Nasserden quite seriously believed he might persuade the government to change its policy for one that might truly be in the interests of the farmer — at least according to Nasserden's lights. And, following the theories of our democratic way of governing, there should be nothing astonishing in this. Yet such a step is unheard of in Ottawa. "Backbenchers" (the rank and file M.P. occupying no post of importance in the party hierarchy) should be seen and not heard — except when called upon to support the party's governmental policy.
Having dealt with the case of the forthright and nervy Nasserden, Fraser then goes on to discuss two samples of the orthodox backbencher.
Fred Stinson is a Toronto lawyer who brought York Center constituency into the Conservative fold back in 1957. Fraser met Stinson at that time and Stinson told him: "What am I supposed to do? Every morning I go to my office at nine o'clock, same as I do at home. By ten I'm all through — I've got all my work done. How do I spend the rest of the day?..."
Meeting Stinson recently, Fraser asked him if the situation had improved. Stinson's answer was negative. He didn't like it and there were a lot of other government backbenchers who didn't like it any more than he did.
Then there is the sad plight of John B. Hamilton, Conservative M.P. from York West. After being active in a number of minor posts, he retired to the back bench in order to give more time to his business. He doesn't like being a backbencher either. "What makes it rough is having nothing to do.", Fraser quotes him as saying.
Mr. Fraser then goes on to delve into the root of the trouble.
"But if that's the way they feel, why don't they follow Ed Nasserden's example. Why don't they get up in the House of Commons and say what they think, instead of what they think the government thinks they think? The answer is ambition. Two years ago it was commonplace to refer to young Conservative members as "ambitious and aggressive". Today the two adjectives no longer go together. Those who are ambitious are not aggressive, and those who are still aggressive are not so ambitious any more.
The latter is the smaller group.
The opinion seems to be unanimous among his backbench colleagues that Ed Nasserden "did himself no good" by his outburst of candor. He attracted unfavorable attention which is not likely to be forgotten... He is in danger of having to spend his entire political life as a simple private member of parliament — and it's taken for granted nowadays that this is a dismal fate. Indeed that's the root of the trouble. For some reason, financial or other, nobody is content nowadays with the status of member of parliament. It's either a step towards something else or a waste of time, in the eyes of an able young politician. If that could be corrected and able men induced to run for parliament as a sufficient end in itself, the Parliament of Canada might regain the ability to perform its most important function as the only check, under our system, upon an otherwişe all-powerful executive.
Officially the M.P.'s are supposed to make their views known for the government's guidance in the privacy of caucus. Actually they do nothing of the sort: "We spend most of our time in caucus talking about secretarial service, or parking space" one glum young Tory said. "We are never consulted about policy, and hardly ever get a chance to discuss it at all.
And since they get little chance to discuss policy, they have no great incentive to study new legislation carefully. In fact they feel no direct incentive to do anything at all."
Mr. Fraser, as we have remarked, knows what he's talking about when it comes to behind-the-curtain activities in Ottawa. Our rank and file M.P's are party yes-men!
Whose fault is it if the representatives of the people, picked by the people at the ballot box and paid by the taxes of the people to serve them, become just so many figures to be counted in order to support or defeat a motion in the legislature? The fault is ours. We, the people, once having listened to a suitable number of election speeches and having slipped a ballot into the box (about as futile a gesture as could be conceived of today), are quite content to sit back and grumble and complain when we begin to feel the squeeze put on us by a powerful government executive.
The businesş of running the country is actually ours. The men in Ottawa are there to make laws, pass them and see that they are enforced to the benefit of the people. If the people's interests are being neglected or menaced then it is up to the people to tell their representatives to do something about it.
The men in Ottawa (and the women) are human beings and quite prepared to bow to the pressure of public opinion once this pressure is exerted. But if the pressure instead comes from small groups with special interests contrary to those of the people, if the M.P.'s don't get any support from the people, then naturally they are going to bow to that other influence.
One of the purposes of the Union of Electors, through its publications, is to urge individual citizens to use the written or spoken word to make their individual wishes known to the member from their constituency.
When the backbenchers find they are being urged and exhorted and pressurized — and supported — by the folks back home, they'll then have some incentive to stand up like Ed Nasserden and Charlie Van Horne (we have him on another page of this issue) and tell the executive of the government things it doesn't like to hear when it acts contrary to the good of the people.
It's up to us folks to make our personal representative, the man from our district feel thot he's the most important man in the land — more important than any minister because he represents directly the people; and we can do this by keeping in touch with him by letter, letting him know what we think and what we want.
This is what our movement is striving to bring about — and informed people who will act to protect their interests.