Mr. Terence Nugent (Edmonton-Strathcona):
Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to take part in this debate. I must say I am glad I did not have to speak on Friday afternoon. The leader of our party did such a tremendous job that I would have found it very difficult to follow him at that time. Perhaps I am exaggerating when I say it was one of the finest performances I have seen in the house because there was a very bad performance to contrast it with which perhaps made it look better than it really was. The whipping that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Stanfield) gave the Prime Minister (Mr. Pearson) on Friday had to be seen and heard to be believed. I suppose it is only to be expected that one's job is a little easier when one has a good case. Certainly the Prime Minister had a very tough job trying to put forward what can only be described, even by his friends, as a very bad case presented with his usual mixture of arrogance and evasion.
On coming into the house this afternoon I heard a story connected with the old familiar cry of trickery or that the government was beaten by a fluke. It goes something like this, Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the Opposition was unfair in his battle tactics; the Prime Minister knew he was going to have a battle but he did not realize that the Leader of the Opposition was going to use that most suitable of parliamentary weapons, the sword of truth. This was considered unfair tactics because the Prime Minister is a complete stranger to that weapon and therefore felt that he was going into battle unarmed.
I understand the Prime Minister thinks it is only fair that the decision should be based on the best two out of three. Rather than trying
Motion Respecting House Vote to settle the matter all by himself he is waiting until one of his champions in the leadership race takes over the battle. As I understand it this is going to be much delayed, because there seems to be a dearth of members on that side who have any familiarity with the weapon of truth. On occasion we in this house are accustomed to observing people who have a little difficulty in getting close to the truth. Some seem to And the idea repugnant and others just cannot find the idea.
There are times, Mr. Speaker, when some of us have to bend the truth a little. For example, the other day the hon. member for Northumberland (Mr. Hees), when replying to a question from the Secretary of State (Miss LaMarsh), proved that he sometimes has to bend the truth to remain a gentleman. I wish we could find such an honourable excuse for the Prime Minister.
I thought the most remarkable thing about the speech of the Prime Minister was the way he set out the case for the government by first stating what he said we had alleged our position to be. Since the easiest case to beat down is not the real position of your opponent but the position that you wish he would take, the Prime Minister began by misstating the position of the opposition. Reference to what the Prime Minister said, as found in Hansard, and to what the leader of our party said indicates that there is no basis for the Prime Minister's allegations.
Since the Prime Minister has misstated our position, Mr. Speaker, as a lawyer I ask myself why. When juries all over the world hear cases in court and listen to witnesses they soon find that one of the surest guides to which party is to be believed or to which piece of evidence is to be considered reliable is to determine who it is who uses the truth as much as possible. Whenever somebody makes a misstatement or a misquotation or distorts the facts, then automatically it is assumed that the truth is not going to help their case. In this particular situation the Prime Minister did not put forward the truth when talking about the position we had taken. Neither did he give us the whole truth when he quoted and referred to the authorities and to what the true position is. I think his argument that the vote was a snap vote, a trick and so on was very well dealt with by my leader.
I have been a member of this house for about ten years, and I think I can say that the course of business is pretty well set out.
February 26, 1968
Certainly I see nothing unusual in the manner in which the bill was brought on last week. The bill had been debated in the normal course of events. The government had announced when it would be taken up. The bill was debated on Thursday, February 15, but was not taken up on the Friday by agreement because the minister was going to be away. All members were aware that it would be taken up again on the Monday. Things followed their usual course on the Monday with resistance to the bill always present, stiffening all the time. Finally the formal vote was taken in the evening and the government was defeated.
I believe that the position the Prime Minister set out should be put on the record. I think I should illustrate exactly the sort of tactics used by the Prime Minister so we can examine just how much faith the Prime Minister has in his own arguments. I say this because I hope to show it is sheer presumption on the part of the Prime Minister to ask anybody to support the position of the government. As reported on page 6922 of Hansard for Friday last the Prime Minister said:
He was speaking of the opposition.
-and I am not quarrelling with their claim; I am putting their position-that parliament could do nothing until the government resigned or there was a dissolution, except perhaps to discuss opposition criticism of the Prime Minister.
The situation, Mr. Speaker, is simply this. No one made any such allegation. No one with knowledge of parliamentary procedure would argue that those were the only two possibilities. I think this is the nub of the difficulty, and it is where I have trouble understanding the position of those who would support the government in their present course of conduct. The bill in question was taken up in the normal way. It has always been my understanding during my ten years here that a vote on an important money bill is automatically a vote of confidence. Bills which the government lays stress on because they are important to its program are always matters of confidence. From time to time minor bills which are not essential to the government's program are defeated, and such a defeat is not considered a matter of confidence. The importance of bills varies and sometimes it is difficult to know whether a bill is or is not a matter of confidence. Nevertheless, a reliable guide is to look at what has been done with respect to matters of confidence in the past.
February 26, 1968
[DOT] (5:30 p.m.)
We all know that a bill that is important to the government becomes a matter of confidence. That the passing of such a bill implies confidence is understood by the government and opposition alike. That has always been understood in regard to bills such as the one that was defeated last Monday night. That defeat implied lack of confidence. The Prime Minister misstated the position of the government and misrepresented what happened, since he tried to establish an entirely new basis under which our parliament ought to operate.
The hon. member for York East (Mr. Otto) said that the country is not ready for an election and that no election ought to be called. The Prime Minister, to give the nub of his argument, said that the outcome of the vote will determine if there shall be an election. I submit that our constitution, as we understand it, says that on the defeat of a government the Governor General may call on someone other than the Prime Minister to form a government if the defeated Prime Minister asks him to do so. If the new government fails to pass the test of its first vote of confidence the Prime Minister may not have the right to call an election, but there is no doubt that he has that right after he has passed his first test. Only the Prime Minister is entitled to advise His Excellency that there shall be an election, or the Prime Minister can advise, and I think His Excellency is bound to follow such advice, that someone else should head that government which has been defeated, or the Prime Minister can recommend that someone else head a government.
There is no doubt that this government has to resign, but for the Prime Minister to suggest that the resignation of his government would mean an automatic election is to distort the truth and to hide the facts. He tried to mislead certain members of the house into a panic vote to support his government. He did not tell them squarely that failure to support his government would not necessarily lead to an election. As I say, the Prime Minister can resign and call an election, or he can resign and recommend to His Excellency that someone else, one of his cabinet ministers or someone he likes, head the government. On that recommendation His Excellency would appoint a Prime Minister who could form a government and ask this house for a vote of confidence. If he got it he could carry on.
Another solution might be for the Prime Minister to prorogue the session. But the
Motion Respecting House Vote Prime Minister has said: "No, we will have a vote of confidence; we will disregard the constitutional rights by which we have been governed and we will disregard what constitutes a vote of confidence. We will do the most violence that has been done to parliament in Canadian constitutional history, and all because I do not wish to resign." We are not being asked to consider this motion so as to avoid an election, as the Prime Minister says; we are doing this because the Prime Minister does not want to resign.
Many members have already demonstrated their concern about having an election. Having considered the grave step and heavy responsibility of fighting an election and having been told that the alternative to supporting the government is an election, some of them feel that they must go along with the government. But the alternative is simpler than that. The Prime Minister has already announced his retirement and his party is arranging for a leadership contest. It is not a case, therefore, of whether the Prime Minister remains in office with his administration but simply whether he goes a little earlier than he had originally anticipated. Looked at in that way the question becomes different.
The hon. member for York East says that he sees some ray of hope in the government's legislative program of the last three or four months and because he sees that ray of hope he thinks we ought not to fight an election. If the hon. member and some of his colleagues fear an election, as I suspect, they ought to remember that other alternatives remain open. The Prime Minister could resign a little earlier and one of his colleagues could take over and form a new administration. He could even start a new session almost at once, introduce his own taxation bill or a similar one and then prorogue. That solution is within the government's reach and it gives us an alternative to an election.
The Prime Minister argues that a vote of confidence is only a vote of confidence when the government says it is. He made the blanket assertion that the government decides when there is to be a vote of confidence. Actually he is saying that the government chooses what issues it deems to be issues of confidence. By asserting that an important money matter is not a matter of confidence he is saying in so many words that questions of confidence shall be chosen at the whim of the government, the consideration being whether the government can win the vote. That is what it amounts to and that is what he reduces it to.
February 26, 1968
Motion Respecting House Vote
By refusing to acknowledge its defeat on an important money bill the government makes it appear as if confidence has nothing to do with the importance of the matter being voted on. It asserts that a vote of confidence shall be taken only when the government considers it can win that vote. Also, the government can decide after the vote has been taken whether it was a vote of confidence.
[DOT] (5:40 p.m.)
This is the ridiculous extent to which the Prime Minister is asking parliament to go. This is what the Prime Minister is asking his supporters to do to parliament in order to keep him at the reins for just a little longer. The question now is not simply whether we intend to vote confidence in the government or face an election. The present course, if followed, will make a mockery of parliament and responsible government. In effect we shall be saying to the government: You can do what you like when you like and the only test of confidence will be whenever you say that a matter is to be a test of confidence.
If hon. members suggest I am going too far, let them read the Prime Minister's words as they are reported on page 6922 of Hansard in the second paragraph of the right hand column:
We do agree, however, that the defeat on third reading of the income tax bill, while not involving automatic and obligatory resignation or dissolution, does put the issue of confidence into question and that this should be cleared up.
What he is saying is that it is not the nature of the bill which puts the issue of confidence into question. The Prime Minister tells us it is the defeat of the government which brings the matter of confidence into question. His suggestion that defeat on an important measures alone brings up the question of confidence is a simple answer to the question: What does the Prime Minister mean by a test which the government alone would apply? There is a method by which it should reach this decision. In the course of this debate a number of quotations have been put on record, some of them by the Prime Minister. I wish to illustrate the extent of the dishonesty, the deceit, which is being practised on this house by the Prime Minister in his desperate bid to hang on to office for another couple of weeks. As reported on page 6924 the Prime Minister quoted Dr. Eugene Forsey:
There are certain habits of thought or feeling which we will have to change.
The first is that any government defeat in the House of Commons necessarily means either the government's resignation or a fresh election. This is not so.
No one on this side has ever suggested it was so. Farther on the right hon. gentleman quoted the following:
We shall certainly have to get rid of the notion that every defeat in the house means a fresh election.
At the risk of being repetitive but for the sake of emphasis I wish to sum up the situation in the house today as I see it. For years and years every important money measure has been understood to involve a question of confidence. One only had to look at the faces of the ministers opposite on Monday last to realize they knew the government had been defeated on a measure which brought the question of confidence into play. Other major measures are usually regarded as matters of confidence, though there are some which are not. This is the way in which parliament has worked, the way in which we have maintained responsible government.
These are not inconsequential matters. Not only parliament and our system of government depend on our maintaining this practice. The party system as we know it in this country has developed and is sustained because of this tradition. Every party, when campaigning, sets out the major planks in its platform. The ordinary voter has only these promises or intentions to consider when trying to distinguish between one party and another. When making up his mind whether a party should continue to be given a mandate or replaced, the question foremost in his mind is whether or not the objectives which were so stressed during the campaign have been carried out in legislation. I suggest it would be the ruin of the party system as we know it today if an issue upon which the confidence of the people had been won at the hustings were to be regarded later in parliament as one on which the question of confidence did not arise. How could such a system ever work? How could anyone think that the voters would ever tolerate it? Having made an issue the basis of their confidence, what would be their reaction to a government which said: We shall decide what is to be a matter of confidence; we shall sustain ourselves in office no matter what you may have thought when you voted us in and the test in parliament shall be on whatever basis we choose?
February 26, 1968
We are asked to put parliament in this ridiculous situation by a Prime Minister who is about to leave, whose time is limited, but who declines to do the honourable thing and depart a little earlier than he had intended. Apparently he has persuaded his followers to support him in this course of action. I hope that some of them will reconsider. The alternative is simple. The Prime Minister could appoint any one of a number of his cabinet members to be a caretaker prime minister.
I am enough of a politician to understand the reluctance to appoint a minister who is in the running for the party leadership. The Prime Minister might fear that with the reins of power once in that minister's hands he could not be dislodged, and perhaps it would not be the most advisable way for a new prime minister to start off with several cabinet ministers feeling they had been stabbed in the back. But there is nothing wrong with the Prime Minister asking the Governor General to appoint someone who has no ambitions to become prime minister but who would undertake the task in a neutral way for the time being. In fact, sir, the task would not have to be carried out very long. I submit that if the government would use some common sense, if the Prime Minister would be honest with his party and with the house and if the party would become responsible to parliament, with its members doing their duty as members of the house to maintain the house's traditions and the constitution, they would find this house very co-operative.
[DOT] (5:50 p.m.)
A caretaker prime minister would in effect create a new administration, and there is no doubt about a new administration having the right to bring its legislation before us. This ridiculous motion that the house is now considering should be put away, and the new prime minister could bring in such legislation as he wanted. He could prorogue or recess and would be in a wonderful position to ask for supply. I submit that if hon. members opposite, and the Prime Minister especially, are at all honest in their arguments that this is no time for an election, if they really feel that in this troubled financial period there should be a government at the helm able to get the co-operation of parliament, able to put through those measures necessary to bring about stability and confidence in our currency, then the solution is very simple.
Motion Respecting House Vote
I have heard it suggested by some that Dr. Forsey says that once defeated a prime minister does not have the right to go to the Governor General and recommend someone else. Of course that argument is based on the contention that once defeated on a motion of confidence a prime minister does not have that right. That is the argument that is put forward. I say that anyone who is going to use that argument against me is simply saying that this motion must be defeated. If the government is defeated on a motion of confidence the matter is finished and the government must resign if that argument holds true. Actually, however, I do not believe that Dr. Forsey goes that far, and I do not believe there is anything in our constitutional practice to support that argument.
It has always been understood that the one thing a prime minister must have to claim to be prime minister is the backing of the majority of the members of parliament. He is appointed on the basis that he claims to have that backing. He becomes the official adviser on proof that he has won a vote of confidence. From that time on he is the official and only adviser to the Governor General, and if in the case of defeat in the house he is able to advise the Governor General that someone else can form an administration and get the backing of the house, then the Governor General is bound to give that other person a try.
The Prime Minister has suggested that the only alternative to an election is to call upon the Leader of the Opposition. Of course this is something that could be done as well. But I submit that the Governor General would only call upon the Leader of the Opposition at the request or suggestion of the Prime Minister and then the Governor General would ask whether or not his new choice as prime minister thought he could control the majority of votes in the house. All such appointments really are temporary until such time as confidence is voted.
It is nearly six o'clock, Mr. Speaker, and I am going to repeat once more, and once more only, that the situation here is not as portrayed by the Prime Minister. It is not a case of resignation followed by an election, or appointment of the Leader of the Opposition.
I say that the Prime Minister can resign and ask the Governor General to appoint someone else in his own party to form a government. If he did that then a caretaker government such as I am suggesting would hold office until the Liberal convention is over. Or the Prime Minister could prorogue the session. In
Motion Respecting House Vote fact, he could do a combination of these two things. He could get a caretaker prime minister who could prorogue this session, start another one immediately or whenever he wished, and exactly the same tax bill could be reintroduced in the new session because that bill is only barred from consideration this session. The new administration would have a free hand and would have a much better chance of co-operation. I want to tell the house frankly there will be no co-operation with this government. If we reach a vote on this motion and the government wins, it will be the most hollow vote of confidence parliament has ever seen.