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Twenty-Fourth Parliament « Douglas Fisher



Twenty-Fourth Parliament
Fisher’s election date prediction in the Canadian Forum was out by a couple of days. The election was on March 31, 1958 and not in April or May but the result was the one Fisher predicted. In the days leading up to the election call a columnist for the Thomson chain, Pat Nicholson, suggested Fisher write a column. Fisher recalled it this way to Tom Earle in 1993. “So I wrote a column saying that the way it looked to me, Diefenbaker was going to run up 200 seats.”[135] That prediction didn’t win Fisher many fans in his party but he was close to the mark as the Progressive Conservatives won 208 seats, the Liberals 48 and the CCF a mere eight.

The CCF party leaders, including leader M.J. Coldwell and house leader, Stanley Knowles, were defeated. Saskatchewan CCF MP Hazen Argue was elected as the House Leader while Coldwell remained the leader of the party. The CCF establishment was dismissive of the tiny CCF parliamentary caucus. “The ragged caucus of 1958 was made up of mavericks and eccentrics…the caucus followed its own course and had almost no contact with either the national executive or with Coldwell.”[136] Combined with the small Liberal opposition it guaranteed Fisher the opportunity to have a prominent voice in the new Parliament.

When the new session got under way Fisher turned his attention to the journalists, the observers, in the parliamentary press gallery. He began in the House when he placed a question on the order paper about the “use of newspaper correspondents in the Parliamentary Press Gallery as commentators on CBC television programs.”[137]

On July 31 the Globe columnist Robert Duffy took up the story.

    Mr. Fisher’s four-part question, placed on the Order Paper several weeks ago, wants to know: Is Charles Lynch a CBC employee? If not, has he appeared on CBC TV since May 12? How many times? And how many other members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery have appeared and who are they?[138]

Lynch was the Southam columnist in Ottawa. After Fisher raised the issue of the CBC favoring Lynch with multiple appearances the CBC quickly reduced his assignments. Duffy reported that Lynch “suggested that the CBC is so nervous about the questions in the House that he became TV poison as soon as his name was mentioned.”[139] Fisher, for his part, felt “Lynch was doing too much of the Ottawa (CBC TV) reporting, considering that he is only one of the 90-odd members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.”[140] The kerfuffle raised a number of issues facing the gallery. At the time radio and TV reporters were not allowed to be members of the gallery. It also spoke to who among the print reporters was best able to communicate on television.

However Fisher didn’t stop with his questions in the House. In the August 1958 edition of the Canadian Forum he devoted his column to the parliamentary press gallery. Here, for the first time, there was a clear intersect between the participant as politician and the observer as journalist.

In his 1962 thesis, “Inquiry into the position and working of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa”, Colin Seymour-Ure quoted a speech Fisher made to the Institute of Public Opinion in Yorkton, Saskatchewan on August 6, 1958. “The adjective ‘mediocre’ is the most apt one for the Canadian daily press in general, and that in covering federal affairs the adjective ‘incomplete’ must be added.”[141] Based on the speech quotes Seymour-Ure used it seems certain that Fisher used his research and took what he had learned about the gallery as a politician to draw conclusions for both the article and his speech.

He began the column by pointing out the “remarkable sameness” in the reporting. That is a common refrain about the gallery today as is his observation that “after question period each day, the Gallery empties except for the CP regular,” of course today Canadian Press is usually also absent. He saved his toughest comments for the end.

    One cannot use adjectives such as vigilant, crusading, inspiring, or muck-raking about them…Mediocre is the best descriptive word. Since the press loves to apply that to most of the members of parliament that is the best place to leave it.[142]

While Fisher was still more than three years from becoming a newspaper columnist he made his opinions on the state of political writing very clear. He understood that he was about to skewer the very people who would be writing about him. “It is bootless (sic) to generalize about these writers of type or quality. It is probably indiscreet to even comment about them.”[143] He lamented the lack of analysis in the political coverage. “It reflects our dearth of weekly or fortnightly reviews and paucity of substantial columns written by journalists who are above the daily ‘colour’ gobbets.”[144] Fisher pointed out that only four newspapers had assigned columnists writing daily political columns; the Globe, the Telegram in Toronto, the Montreal Gazette. The Thomson chain had one columnist used by its papers.[145]

Fisher’s arrival in Ottawa came just as the Ottawa political column was making its first, tentative appearances on the editorial-opinion pages of Canadian newspapers. In the column he noted the Canadian tradition where the “men in the Gallery were brokers, in a sense, for their parties, and most newspapers were very partisan.” In this column Fisher touched on the perception in Ottawa that senior journalists at the time had what he termed a “Liberal bias.” Patrick Brennan in “Reporting the Nation’s Business” wrote, “(Blair) Fraser, (Bruce) Hutchison, (George) Ferguson, and (Grant) Dexter, along with several associate members, were firmly identified as members of a Liberal press establishment.”[146] During this period Fraser at Maclean’s and Hutchison at the Financial Post wrote weekly columns on national affairs. Grant Dexter had been editor of the Winnipeg Free Press from 1948 – 1954 before returning to Ottawa as a reporter. George Ferguson was the editor of the Montreal Star.

Fisher named Grant Dexter and Blair Fraser as Liberals, saying of Dexter, “the emergence of his Liberal bias is so inevitable that he seems an astute party spokesman, rather than an observer.” It was the daily newspaper columnists that Fisher rated; Charles Lynch of Southam who has an “unoppressive bias”, Arthur Blakely, the Gazette columnist who has “good sources within the government” and the Telegram’s Judith Robinson, whose “astringency is so rare it is precious.”[147]

Criticizing the media has long been a sport for Canadian politicians but it was not common for a member of parliament, barely a year into the job, to take to the floor of the House of Commons and the pages of a magazine to work over the positives and negatives of the Ottawa press gallery.

The print media was important but the influence of television and radio grew quickly. Only the CBC was accountable to parliament and broadcasters were subject to licensing by a government agency. Fisher had established his interest in the CBC in his maiden speech in 1957. Also, as noted earlier, Fisher realized the CBC was important to his constituents and his comments about the broadcaster usually resulted in national media coverage for him.

In the 1958 Parliament Fisher became one of the CCF members of the Special Committee on Broadcasting. The Committee met over 30 times and gathered more than 700 pages of evidence about the CBC.[148] Before looking at the issues debated in the committee it is useful to jump ahead a few weeks to a debate on the committee’s report in the House of Commons on July 18, 1959. Fisher made a long speech about the CBC that illustrated the passion he held for the CBC and the contempt he held for private media interests. Fisher opened by stating, “The idea of a nation is a fragile one.” Then he went on.

    This is the vital and binding function of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, to translate the abstract conception of nationhood into something that can be seen, heard, felt and understood. No organization has done more to achieve this high purpose. An idea like distinctive nationality is not worth 5 cents on the dollar in the market place. You place the CBC at the mercy of the hucksters of deodorant and detergent peddlers, and you wave goodbye to it as a buttress to national unity.[149]

Fisher then turned his attention to the private media taking on the Thomson chain of newspapers. “There are 24 outlets in Canada that week after week pour out a daily dose of poison against the CBC.” He didn’t spare two other media families of the time, the Siftons and Bell.

    Those of us who follow what the Siftons and Mr. Bell are doing could become very worried about the situation in Regina or the situation in Winnipeg, where we may be moving toward a private monopoly in newspapers, radio and television…much of the criticism of the CBC in the newspaper medium is of the orientation of the Thomson and Sifton interests.[150]

Here Fisher addressed the issue of media concentration that would be the subject of two federal reviews of the media, one in 1969 and the other in the early 1980s.

Fisher also understood the budget issues facing the CBC. Could it provide the services of a public broadcaster while relying on advertising for part of its budget?

    It is not the CBC’s function to turn a profit. Where this can be done without impairing the CBC’s prime function as a national service without diminishing the standard of programming there can be no objection, but it is not the end goal of the CBC to turn a profit. This is precisely the weakness in the proposition that the CBC should cede production rights in the sponsored shows.[151]

It is now time to wind back and look at the hearings the Special Committee on Broadcasting held in 1958. Fisher asked specific questions about when the CBC would reach more Canadians especially in remote areas. He raised a number of issues about the CBC’s work in Ottawa and asked CBC management about the use of print reporters on CBC. As shown earlier Fisher felt that this work was being given to a select handful of the reporters. He insisted this was favouritism by the CBC and recommended the CBC assign its own reporters to Ottawa.

As the Committee did its work the CBC decided to kill a program called “Preview Commentary”, a daily radio program on national affairs that used reporters from the Ottawa press gallery to deliver three or four-minute pre-recorded commentaries on federal politics. Three producers connected with the program resigned alleging that political interference had forced the CBC to cancel the program. The Committee held a series of meetings on the issue. On July 2 Fisher asked the Minister responsible for the CBC, George Nowlan, about the threat to fire people in connection with the program.

    Mr. Fisher: Could you give us an explanation as to why Mr. Bushnell (acting President of CBC) used the expression in connection with the withdrawal of Preview Commentary that “heads will roll”?

    Mr.Nowlan: I cannot give any explanation whatsoever of that[152]

The next day the Globe and Mail reported on the front-page that Fisher raised questions of government interference.

    Revenue Minister Nowlan freely admitted today that he has passed on to the management of the CBC criticisms of its TV and radio programs which he had heard from MPs and others…In two hours of furious argument, the Conservatives on the committee refused to a CBC director and an official to tell what they knew of the alleged threats that if the program remained, Mr. Bushnell and Alphonse Ouimet, CBC President, would be fired.[142]

In 1959 Fisher wrote three “Commons Comment” columns for the Canadian Forum. The third, for the August issue, demonstrated that Fisher was keen to use his access as a columnist to put his spin on what had happened in the Broadcasting Committee.[153] In that July speech in the House about the CBC Fisher complained about how the Committee’s report was written.

    How much time did the committee have to prepare the report? Over the weekend. The draft report was prepared on Monday. A whole mélange of ideas was chopped and meshed together, given a certain amount of balance, and then put to the full committee in camera the next day. The Committee spent somewhere between 21/2 and 3/1/2 hours sifting that particular mélange of ideas into a rather stupid report which was presented to this house.[154]

In the Canadian Forum Fisher said.

    The committee produced a 1500 word report. This document was the fruit of some three hours of deliberation over a larger draft report put together by four or five of the more active members over a weekend.[155]

The central issue was about where the political pressure came from to take “Preview Commentary” off the air. Fisher took the reader into parliament’s inner sanctum. It was the day one of the CBC producers who resigned was testifying. Fisher explained that he went into the Conservative lobby to look for a colleague. It goes to the heart of Fisher as a participant-observer.

    As I broke through the door of the government lobby calling his name, I almost fell over an animated group composed of the Prime Minister, Mr. Halpenny, the (Broadcast) Committee chairman, and Richard Bell, M.P. for Carleton and the most experienced Conservative on the Committee. I bumbled abruptly from the sanctum, with a feeling of guilt. My subsequent analysis of this personal reaction relates it to my rather unconscious acceptance of the view that the Prime Minister was the mysterious influence. There has not been any substantiation of this and several Conservatives who were close to the controversy have assured me that the PM had kept only an amused, detached eye on the committee proceedings. The PM’s known intensity and sensitivity on the appraisal given to him and the government by the press and broadcasters has made his political enemies suspicious. On many occasions he told reporters who had been on Preview Committee what he thought of their remarks, if her encountered them later in the morning.[156]

In the Committee hearings Fisher probed CBC executives and the government about political interference leading to the cancellation of “Preview Commentary” but in using the anecdote from the lobby he reported a meeting that no journalist had access to. It demonstrated that Fisher felt at ease combining the roles of politician and journalist.

“Preview Commentary” was quickly re-instated but the “affair left a bad taste in the mouths of Ottawa journalists, making them ever more vigilant in their investigations of the Diefenbaker government.”[157] Fisher’s tough questioning of all the witnesses did not convince the committee that there had been political interference. So, while the Committee report did not find any evidence of political interference, Fisher refused to go along with the findings of the majority of the Committee and told the House.

    Why? Why did they find no evidence? Because Mr. Bushnell denied the purport of what a number of people close to him said he said. Why? Because the Minister of National Revenue felt that he had no accurate recollection of any remarks he may have made about the program, “Preview Commentary.”[158]

Fisher’s caucus might only be a handful of MPs but he discovered he could use the committee system to raise issues and make an impact. Moreover he could parlay his activities in parliament into headlines in newspapers and add his take in the Canadian Forum.

Fisher, the participant-observer in Parliament, had set the tone of his work by the end of 1959. Robert Duffy, then the Globe and Mail Ottawa columnist, wrote that Fisher “has one of the more lucid and less convoluted Parliamentary minds.”[159] An editorial in the Toronto Star early in 1960 titled “Lo, Two Mavericks in the Commons” also acknowledged Fisher’s contribution.

    The M.P. who speaks out his mind honestly when he is disagreement with his party is much more likely to make a good representative of his riding than a party conformist…Names like those of David Croll and Douglas Fisher are recalled long after even cabinet ministers are forgotten.[160]

Fisher continued to challenge the leaders of the CCF. Here too Fisher was a key participant and an observer as the party debated the pros and cons of morphing the CCF into a new party, the New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada. Fisher had joined the CCF just before he decided to seek the party’s nomination in Port Arthur. Now as one of the few elected members of the party he balked at efforts to create a new party that was supposed to have a wider appeal to Canadians.

At a meeting in Hamilton of the Ontario wing of the CCF in the fall of 1959, Fisher said the “CCF tactics were ‘stupid’ and its strategy ‘bad.’” The Globe and Mail went on to report:

    Mr. Fisher, who has a reputation for blunt talk in the Commons, momentarily stunned the delegates with a three-minute capsule of criticism about the proposed alignment of the CCF with organized labor, farmers, professional people and others.[161]

The provincial CCF President, Carroll Colburn accused Fisher of “irresponsible conduct.”[162]

The Hamilton meeting was one of many that led to a party conference in Regina and more headlines in the summer of 1960. This important meeting illustrated how Fisher, a relatively new member of the CCF, stage-managed the important question of the leadership of the party and then reported his take in the Canadian Forum, one of Canada’s leading left-wing journals of the time.

The CCF met in Regina in August to get a mandate from its membership to set the conditions for a meeting a year later to create a new party. One of the key questions before the convention was whether there should be a national leader in this interim period. David Lewis, a longtime party leader behind the scenes, was the national party president. Lewis wanted to keep the leadership position vacant until the founding convention of the new party. Lewis, and the party executive, courted the Saskatchewan Premier, Tommy Douglas, to be the new leader. However Douglas had just been re-elected Premier of Saskatchewan and so he couldn’t show interest in the position. Lewis also believed that if the party elected a leader now it would give that person an advantage at the next convention. “The Lewis clique’s attempt to keep the leadership open for Douglas seemed inexplicable.”[163] The CCF leader in the House of Commons was Hazen Argue.

In Regina, Argue initially accepted the party’s idea to keep the formal party leadership position vacant. That only lasted until Fisher flew in from Ottawa.

    Fisher arrived in Regina and began to bully Argue into changing his mind. Fisher placed a call to Ottawa and watched as Argue spoke with caucus members Frank Howard and Arnold Peters. They told him not to show his face on Parliament Hill again unless he followed Fisher’s orders: he should read to the convention the speech which Fisher had prepared for him. Then, as Peters told it afterwards, Argue arranged a meeting with the executive; while Fisher ‘held him up by the friggin’ coat.’ Argue announced he would reject the official strategy and stand for the leadership.[164]

The next day Fisher, as the chairman of the CCF caucus, sent a letter to Lewis and the party executive including Carl Hamilton, the party’s national secretary. The implied threat was that the leadership would be barred from caucus meetings if Hamilton openly backed a leadership position.

    It has been customary for Mr. Hamilton to be privy to our caucus meetings; and unless we receive an explanation and an assurance that such partisanship is not and will not be in the nature of the national secretary’s duties, there is every likelihood that a decision will be made against such invitations.[165]

A late night meeting on August 9 led to a hotel corridor shouting match between Fisher and Stanley Knowles the former house leader of the CCF and now a vice-president of the party. The next day the Toronto Star headlined its page-one report: “CCF Brass in open war over party leadership.” The story went on:

    The two top figures of the CCF party stood toe-to-toe and traded insults near midnight last night in the corridor of the Saskatchewan hotel here, as the party’s national convention drifted into deeper conflict over the question of leadership. “You and David Lewis (CCF national president) are just a pair of bureaucratic manipulators” said Mr. Fisher his face red with anger…Mr. Fisher retorted that the “manipulations” of Mr. Knowles and Mr. Lewis over the CCF leadership, were “fixing everything up nicely for the Liberals.”
    “For two years now you and David Lewis have been playing a pretty mean game.” Mr. Fisher charged.
    “Not as mean as that one you’ve been playing.” Said Mr. Knowles. “You’ve been behaving very foolishly.”[166]

When it came time to vote, Argue stood alone for the leadership and the party membership elected him. It was a win for Fisher. Thomas McLeod wrote, “One informed observer suggested that ‘Hazen was a device, a tool for some people to express their problems…I never had any sense that Hazen was being supported for his intrinsic capabilities.’”[167] It seems likely Fisher must be included in the group of “some people.”

The week after the Regina meeting Lewis sent Fisher a letter.

    While the National Council is exceedingly anxious to have the fullest liaison and co-operation with the Caucus and to provide every assistance to members of the Caucus through the National Secretary and the National Office and staff, it reserves the right itself to select those National Officers that the Constitution requires the council, and the Council alone, to do.

    May I add my own hope to that which will be expressed to you through the National Leader, that the relationship between the Caucus and the National Officers and National Council will in the future be as constructive as it has been throughout CCF history.[168]

Fisher’s next step didn’t fulfill Lewis’ hope. He wrote a column, “The Last CCF Roundup”, for the Canadian Forum. The column was, firstly, an open attack on “David Lewis and his henchman, Stanley Knowles.”[169] Fisher held little back writing that Lewis “has been able to sway the CCF according to his views.” He went on to attack the “prosperous Toronto labor lawyer” calling Lewis the “party master-mind.” Fisher pointed out that Lewis had failed in every attempt to win a seat in the House of Commons and then raised Lewis’ religion.

“Two seats in the Toronto area, York South and York Centre have large Jewish populations which could swing behind Lewis, if he fought a vigorous campaign.” He took a stab at why Lewis was so successful in the party. “The probable secret of Lewis’ success with the CCF is the relative precision of his rather harsh, class-conscious, newspaper-baiting socialism compared with the fuzziness of most Canadian socialists.”[170]

Fisher then gave readers his take on the leadership question at the Regina meeting.

    There were two main arguments against choosing a national leader for the CCF now, according to proponents of the CCF’s national council’s compromise. It might inhibit Douglas from responding to a draft, especially if a Saskatchewan man like Argue was elevated. The other view was that it would be a form of impertinence to the labor unions coming to the founding convention. These would arrive without a political leader and the existence of a CCF leader might embarrass or anger them. Some suspicious minds, including mine, felt that the real reason for blocking Argue was to keep him from gaining any marked advantage over contenders other than Premier Douglas, contenders such as Mr. Lewis or Mr. Knowles.[171]

Now Fisher defended the leadership qualifications of Argue, and repeated in print what everybody in the CCF knew, the “bitterness” of the CCF caucus who had “only nominal influence with the CCF hierarchy.”[172]

Yet, despite the attack on Lewis, Fisher concluded Lewis had won the biggest issue before the convention, a new party. He acknowledged it had “approved Mr. Lewis’ most daring project” with “few voiced misgivings to end the CCF by throwing it into alignment with labor.”[173] However Fisher clearly managed the leadership question at the Regina convention and was a force in making sure that Lewis did not get his way.[174] Once again his participation was material for his journalism.

There is an interesting footnote to this episode. The Canadian Forum published “A reply to Mr. Fisher” in the November edition. The “Reply” is a defense of David Lewis and an attack on Fisher. Like Fisher in his column, Lorne Ingle didn’t pull his punches.

    Most of Mr. Fisher’s article has nothing at all to do with the convention. It’s clear that it was written, not to explain the convention, but to use this as an excuse to attack David Lewis. In fact, we haven’t seen such a frontal attack on David Lewis since B.A. Trestrail launched his abusive, anti-semitic diatribe in 1944.”[175]

135.Fisher interview to Earle.
136.McLeod, Thomas and Ian McLeod, Tommy Douglas: The road to Jerusalem, (Edmonton, Hurtig Publishers, 1987), pg. 215
137.Globe and Mail, June 20, 1958, pg. 1.
138.Globe and Mail, July 31, 1958, pg. 7.
141.Seymour-Ure, Colin, pg. 157. For example the word “gobbets” is used in both the speech and the column. See page 170 of the thesis and page 101 of the column.
142.Ibid. pg. 102.
143.Fisher, “Commons Comment,” The Canadian Forum, August 1958, pg. 101.
144.ibid. pg. 101.
145.Note: The Charles Lynch column was used in Southam papers and Pat Nicholson wrote for Thomson. So the Fisher list is incomplete but all these columns were new to Canadian dailies.
146.Brennan, Patrick, Reporting the Nation’s Business, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1994) pg. 179.
148.Canada, House of Commons, Debates and Proceedings (Hansard), House of Commons, 24th Parliament, Volume 5, pg. 6307, July 18, 1959. Ottawa
149.ibid, pg. 6308
150.ibid, pg. 6310
151.ibid, pg. 6309
152.Canada, House of Commons, Special Broadcasting Committee on Broadcasting, Minutes of Proceedings and evidence, No. 17, July 2, 1959, pg. 603, Library of Parliament, Ottawa.
142 Globe and Mail, July 3, 1959, pg. 1.
153.Note: The first (February 1959) is similar to the November 1957 column that rates Parliament and the second (March 1959) focuses on the quality of debate in the House using the cancellation of the Avrow Arrow as the example.
154.Hansard, Volume 5, pg. 6308.
155.Fisher, “Commons Comment,” Canadian Forum, August 1959, pg. 97.
156.ibid, pg. 97.
157.Levine, Allan, Scrum Wars: Prime Ministers and the Media. (Toronto, Dundurn Press, 1993)
pg. 223.
158.Hansard, Volume 5, pg. 6308.
159.Duffy, Robert, Globe and Mail, October 13, 1959. pg. 7
160.Toronto Star, Editorial, January 30, 1960, pg. 7.
161.Globe and Mail, October 13, 1959, pg. 1 & 2.
163.McLeod, Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem, pg. 216
165.CCF/NDP File, Fisher letter to Lewis et al, August 11 1960, MG28 IV 1, Volume 428 File 3. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
166.Toronto Star, August 10, 1960, pg. 1.
167.McLeod, pg. 217. A footnote attributes the statement to Terry Grier who went on to be the NDP’s Party Secretary.
168.CCF/NDP File, Lewis letter to Fisher, August 19, 1960, MG28 IV 1 Volume 28, File 3, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
169.Fisher, “The Last CCF Roundup”, Canadian Forum, September 1960, pg. 122.
172.ibid. pg. 123
173.ibid. pg. 122
174.Note: A year later Fisher managed Argue’s losing bid to win the leadership of the NDP.
175.Ingle, Lorne, “A Reply to Mr. Fisher”, The Canadian Forum, November 1960, pg. 184.

©George Hoff