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Legion Magazine – September/October 2002 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – September/October 2002

Ah, me, politics when hot and bothered cause conundrums for a columnist who has a lead time of several months between the writing of a piece and its publication. From late June when Parliament recessed, through to its resumption in September and on through the rest of 2002 to next February, citizens of Canada seem sure to follow to a denouement of a most unique rivalry. Certainly it will engage those who are actual members of the Liberal party. Come February the membership in convention will vote on whether their leadership is satisfactory or should be opened for a leadership contest. In short, should Jean Chrétien carry on or should other would-be leaders get a run for his post.

The deep cleavage among Liberals became clear late last spring when an open falling-out of the prime minister and Paul Martin took the latter out of the cabinet. Suddenly it was apparent that despite Chrétien being in the early middle of a third majority mandate, and despite the party running far ahead of the four other federal parties in opinion polls, Martin had the intention, and strong backing by many MPs and party members, to become the next prime minister, and was ready to marshal support for a voting decision in favour of replacing the prime minister.

The closest parallel to such an exposure of a prime minister to a rejection from within his party was John Diefenbaker’s situation in the parliamentary crisis of 1963. There was a minority House and the Tory cabinet and caucus was splitting over the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Indecision led to the government’s loss of backing by the Social Credit group of MPs, and the Tories lost a confidence vote in the House, after which Diefenbaker called an election, and narrowly lost it and power.

For some days before that House vote, the Tory ministers and MPs were seething. Some insisted the Chief must go; others strenuously opposed them. A few years later we learned that in the critical days the Chief had told some ministers and aides he would resign but he did not, in part it seems because there was no alternative at hand with disciples in the cabinet and caucus.

So the ousting of a prime minister in power by the party caucus almost happened in 1963 but the Chief hung on. It was not until 1967 that he lost the post of leader after a leadership review vote engineered by Dalton Camp, president of the party. By and large, it was Camp’s successful introduction of a routine leadership review vote at Tory conventions which became the model of what all the federal parties, including the Liberals, have in their constitutions.

Neither the formal constitution of Canada nor any piece of federal legislation sanctions or dictates the powers that a political party has in choosing or replacing its leader nor about the procedures for the financing of campaigns within a party to unseat a leader or to install a new one. The sums required by aspirants have been rising. For some years the chief electoral officer has said that the current practices were distorting any transparency in both money-raising and money-spending in partisan politics. From leaked revelations last spring we know that one Liberal aspirant at that time, Brian Tobin, had set up a private dinner with the aim of raising $1 million from the business executives attending.

For any thinking citizen the contest, or feud if you want, between Chrétien and Martin reveals several ironies in our open democracy and the imperative for open, formal, rules for the campaigns to choose leaders or dispose of them.

Consider this irony. Electors at a general election have put a party with a leader into power for a mandate of up to five years but find two to three years later that, without a general election, the prime minister may well be replaced by someone else, even someone who has not been within Parliament.

Look at the significance which has emerged in the matter of who may control the allegiance of a majority of a party’s members. Nothing but past traditions about the primacy of unity and loyalty within the Liberal party now underpins the length of Chrétien’s grip on the post because whether he stays or goes may be decided by a system within the party of choosing delegates who may vote for or against a leadership review. Chrétien has often proclaimed that “the people of Canada” gave him a mandate but this is untrue in the sense that his name was on the ballots in only one riding.

In my opinion no prime minister, not even Mackenzie King in WW II, has exercised so many powers and controlled and disciplined his cabinet and caucus so throughly as Jean Chrétien in his two and a half terms. What political scientists used to call ‘cabinet government’ has actually become Prime Minister’s Office, or PMO, government. Despite such dominance, handled by a huge secretariat, a mere requirement in the Liberal Party’s rules provides an occasion for triggering a replacement of the prime minister. Admittedly what is required is heavy recruitment of party members in the 301 constituencies, as has been happening on behalf of Paul Martin. Martin and friends have been readying a strong campaign for the leadership for over a decade.

The most mentioned changes in our electoral system to remedy this dicey scenario created by the rules of a quasi-private institution, the Liberal party, are very different:
(1) Have the leader chosen and/or rejected by the party’s MPs; or
(2) Let every elector vote for the person he/she wants as prime minister.

The rub to the first proposition is that it will be seen as taking away one of the key functions and a prime reason for a party’s existence. The rub to the second is that the one chosen as prime minister by voters might well be to find himself without enough MPs who back him or her to form and sustain a government in Parliament.

For making good sense of a national vote for the prime ministership we would probably have to go for the American system of having the executive outside the legislatures and having general elections at fixed intervals. The likelihood of Canadians—including the provincial premiers—going for such changes is almost nil. And so we come back to the matter of how the Liberal party chooses and dispenses with a leader. Some I hear talking about it think it is as simple as Jean Chrétien realizing he should retire. Usually they are plain citizens without party ties.

Others, mostly Liberals, think it outlandish and traitorous for someone like Paul Martin to work within his own party and the party caucus to create the situation where the leader loses so much face he has to wage a civil war within the party or withdraw. Others whom I hear, including some Liberal insiders, are sure the issue will be resolved by compromise on both sides—perhaps Chrétien being assured a good review vote on a tacit undertaking not to go for any fourth “mandate”.

If the last-mentioned possibility happens it will probably be within the lead time for this piece. If it does not, be sure our fall and winter politics will be noisy and bitter beyond anything we have ever known. And all this has not issued from bitter disagreements over any major program initiative but from clashing personal ambitions of two prominent members of the same party.

* * *

Antony Beevor, once an officer in the British 11th Hussars, and the military historian whose book Stalingrad gained status as a global best-seller a few years ago, may match such success with his latest work, Berlin: The Downfall 1945. Published by Penguin Canada, it’s 490 pages long and both well-pictured and mapped. Like Stalingrad the narrative is livened by many telling anecdotes about the rival generals and commissars. Having a strong stomach helped me complete the book. It begins with the launching of a fresh Russian drive westwards in East Prussia in mid-January, 1945 and closes in mid-summer with Hitler dead, Germany crushed, and the Cold War crystallizing in deep misunderstandings of the Western Allies leadership with Stalin. Every review I have seen remarks on the vivid, gross litany of violence, slaughter, rape, and brutal destruction as the Red Army overpowered the desperate Germans. Oh, what a revenge for the deep German invasion into the U.S.S.R. and the almost scientific cruelty of the Nazis in the treatment given the inhabitants by “the master race”.

A popular sort of question about WW II emerged among those who experienced it or who had been reviewing postwar accounts of it. Which of the dictatorships, fascist or communist—Hitlerism or Stalinism, was the worse, the more evil? Despite the core contribution which the U.S.S.R. forces made to the victory which we in the west also had fought for and celebrated when it came, I tend to give the crown for evil to Stalin and company, largely because the orgies of killing and rapine which they encouraged were in their execution less calculated and more wildly mindless and so less understandable than those of the Germans. On the other hand, it was surely Hitler’s manic pride that kept the futile, but often resolute, German resistance going several months after total defeat was inevitable.

At the time—the first four months of 1945—those in the Allied forces on the Western Front were relishing the surge of death and destruction which we heard was overtaking Hitler’s Germany in the east. From my recall of the Canadian army, my comrades and I would not have queried it much even if we had had the grim particulars which Beevor presents of women and girls by the tens of thousands being mercilessly raped. Certainly, there was no talk among us or much speculation in our media as to why Eisenhower was not pressing for his generals to drive faster to the east, even taking Berlin and encountering the Russians to the east of it. We were unaware there was a high-level understanding against such a race for territory.

Beevor’s closing sentence is a fine synopsis of his book: “The incompetence, the frenzied refusal to accept reality and the inhumanity of the Nazi regime were revealed all too clearly in its passing.”

I wanted to draw attention to a brief but extraordinary memoir (because of its form) that was published last year by Epic Press in Bellevile, Ont., and titled A British Soldier Remembers, The World War II Reminiscences Of Ronald Arthur Tee. Tee’s co-author is Ken C. Dowsett. For information on ordering the book write: 326 River Rd S., Corbyville, ON K0K 1V0.

Troop Sergeant Ronald Tee of the 56th Reconnaissance Regiment of the British 78th (Battleaxe) Division was born and brought up in Southern England and had no Canadian connection until he came here in the mid-1950s and developed a small business and a good family life in eastern Ontario. His unit landed in Algeria late in 1942 and he stayed with it through a campaign into Tunisia, then another in Sicily in 1943, and then up the Italian boot, including action near Monte Cassino, before ending his war near the Austrian border. His book grew out of the response which he got from his Web site, titled A British Soldier Remembers—at www.britishsoldier.com—and recounted some of his experiences.

I wanted more details than the book offers on the deeds of Sgt. Tee and the exploits of his recce troop and squadron within its division and corps, although it has inserts narrative of terse prose and map sketches on the aims and course of the campaigns. There is enough content to appreciate that Ronald Tee was a fine soldier and often at “the sharp edge” of battle, but it was not until I had scanned a recommended Web site and then bumped to others mentioned on it that a web of associations and varied suggestions made the book’s genesis fascinating and enhanced its contents.

I am neither a capable nor a persistent wanderer of the Internet but I now realize there are hundreds of sites and e-mail addresses where a true explorer may find commentary by and about the men and women and the units of WW II.