September 18, 2009
Fisher's last Sun Media columnThe Sun's sage on The Hill bids adieu
It's time to go, probably past time.
My bent, as I write this last column for the Sun, is to be laconic about it. This skimping on sentiment probably stems from my early life in a railway family and years as an ordinary soldier in WW II. Saying farewells became banal.
My string as a columnist commenting on Parliament began with the late John Bassett's Toronto Telegram in 1961. When the Tely died in 1971, I moved to the new Toronto Sun, courtesy of the late Doug Creighton, its founding publisher, and editor Peter Worthington -- both fine men to work for.
I was an MP -- the CCF member for Port Arthur -- when I sought to write a column. I did it not because I wanted a personal platform for politicking but because I was drowning in debt from the high costs of being an MP.
We were paid $10,000 a year, with $2,000 more to cover expenses (the highest-paid bureaucrats then got about $26,000). Out of this, we had to pay for two residences -- one in our riding, one in Ottawa. We had to pay our considerable long-distance phone bills -- including collect calls from constituents!
And although we had unlimited railway travel passes, these only covered the cost of a day coach seat, not a berth for overnight travel. So the frequent trips back to the riding -- and driving within the riding -- were costly.
What's more, freshmen MPs were packed two to an office where they shared a secretary -- half a day each. I was the first MP in modern memory (in 1960) to ask for better pay and services, for which I was roundly criticized.
My columns went over well enough that I decided not to contest the 1965 election. I moved from House membership to membership in the parliamentary press gallery. Forty years later, I had outlasted all who were there when I joined -- reporters and columnists like Charles Lynch (Southam), George Bain (Globe and Mail), Blair Fraser (Maclean's), Norman Depoe (CBC TV), Judith Robinson (Telegram), Grattan O'Leary (Ottawa Journal), and many more.
I sometimes shudder when I consider how long I've been "columnizing," and how much I've written -- more than 2,400 columns for the Sun, running past 3 million words.
Any limits on content or opinions were my own. The editors at both the Telegram and Sun were excellent in their restraint when dealing with my copy -- except those few times when they worried I might get them sued for libel.
I carried the opposition MP's mentality into journalism. Over the years, my opinions have been more critical than approving of whatever government has been in power. By choice, I didn't bring the NDP banner with me, in contrast to the late Dalton Camp, a Progressive Conservative in his columns as he was in life.
Because the Liberals were in power more often than the Conservatives, I've sometimes been tagged as anti-Liberal. If I am, it started back in the 1930s in reaction to my father's deep respect for Mackenzie King and his party, and deepened during the wartime conscription crisis. And aging of course has made me more conservatively-minded.
The arrogance of government, its overwhelming control of Parliament, and the opposition's weakness were a big theme during my four parliaments as an MP -- much discussed on the Hill and in the press. I carried that theme with me to the press gallery and have often written about it.
After nearly 50 years, I can only say that government has become immense, the prime minister's office is vastly bigger and more powerful, more attention than ever is paid to party leaders and in particular to the prime minister, and the House of Commons -- whose weakness we bemoaned back
in my time in it -- has withered almost to insignificance. Stephen Harper is more supreme and absolute in the government, cabinet, House, and the country than John Diefenbaker was in my first House in 1957.
Today's MPs are easily as able and hard-working as during the Diefenbaker years -- as well as better educated and provided with far better facilities and support services. Paradoxically, they play a far smaller,less important role than MPs of yore, undermined over the years by a hardening of caucus discipline and by the swelling cadres of aides and spin doctors in the offices of the prime minister and the other parties' leaders.
Diefenbaker and Lester (Mike) Pearson were the last two prime ministers to spend a lot of time in the House of Commons beyond the daily oral question period. In their day there was usually substantial attendance during passage of significant legislation.
Pierre Trudeau changed all that. He was frank in saying that time spent in the House was both a waste and a bore for him. His ministers took his cue, and after 1968 one rarely saw more than two ministers in the House other than during question period. Then evening sittings were ended and an
annual schedule for sittings and holidays instituted. Any sense of camaraderie dried up.
The growing irrelevance of the House as the dramatic, dynamic stage of the federal parliamentary system can be traced to this downward shift in attendance and participation. Today, not even the volatility of minority government jacks up interest in what goes on in the House, outside of
Who's listening anymore to the debates we do have? Very few, although they are televised. Few listen, few report on legislative talk. Instead, the news media and politicians concentrate on the theatrical, often farcical, tussles of question period.
Hansard, the printed record of the House, never sold well. Today it is largely forgotten, outmoded by a televised House and political websites and blogs. In short, the floor of the House is a meaningless stage except during that British parliamentary holdover -- the 45 minutes of highly-organized, ultra-competitive nastiness called question period.
The influence of cabinet ministers has declined most of all.
There were 22 in cabinet when I came to Ottawa 49 years ago. By the end of Jean Chretien's regime, the total was up to 39, a considerable dilution.
Only one ministry still stands out: Finance. No longer do major cabinet ministers dominate a region or a field of particular importance. For years we've had no agriculture minister with the reach that Gene Whelan had just 30 years ago, no labour minister as important as Bryce Mackasey. It is unimaginable that we'll again see a minister as dominant in western Canada as was Jimmy Gardiner from 1935 to 1957, or one like C.D. Howe, all-powerful in the realm of business and industry.
Cabinet government has given way to prime ministerial government, and the main power centre is in the dovetailed operations of the Prime Minister's Office and Privy Council Office. PMO-PCO now has a staff of many hundreds. Compare that to the 20 or so who served Pearson, or the dozen who
staffed Mackenzie King's PMO.
If my comments so far suggest I'm dour and negative about the trends in our politics and government, let me point out that since 1957, governments have been creative and experimental. There has been an immense number of daring and wide-reaching initiatives.
The welfare state was largely completed by the end of the Trudeau period. There were many federal innovations for the economy as well as for culture -- art, music, recreation and sport. Scores of federal boards, Crown corporations, foundations, and agencies were created and financed, and beginning with Brian Mulroney's government, many Crown companies were also done away with.
Ad hoc, non-governmental organizations framed and fostered many of theseideas and programs. As a consequence, it is hard to think of an interest the federal government hasn't dealt with, from subsidizing kids' hockey equipment to providing better wheelchair scooters for the elderly.
What's more, although the House of Commons doesn't count anymore when it comes to debating important matters such as federal-provincial relations or the fiscal pickle facing Canada's cities, debates still go on in other forums -- among lobby groups and non-governmental organizations as well as at the other two levels of government, provincial and municipal.
In closing this farewell column, I want to ask and try to answer the great question: Where is Canada going?
My guess is that Quebec, so central to our politics during my time, is unlikely to depart (a decade ago, I thought it would).
The demographics on births, immigration, and language preferences forecast a steady slippage of "la francophonie" in Canada. Within a quarter century, I believe the West will be Canada's most powerful region -- the wealthiest, with the most federal clout. Meantime, Canada as a whole should be as prosperous as any country in the world, given our natural resources and people.
If there is any great and immediate question Canadians have to settle in the next decade it is this: How do we come to sensible, workable terms with the most basic animus now affecting our polity, i.e., our rampant anti-Americanism?
If we cannot contain it and divert its force into a national determination to know our neighbours better and make them understand our grievances, we could face organized hostility and major troubles from the U.S.
To conclude. I wince when Canadians brag of our vast land and our superior ways in health care and peacekeeping -- because bragging is so un-Canadian.
Nonetheless, at 86 and retiring, I am as positive about our country as I was in my 20s, coming home from the war.
In this century there will be as much opportunity as there was a century ago in the opening up of our West, with the promise of a better society to the fore -- if we cultivate our politics sensibly.