December 12, 2005
The House is dwindling in its importance and Cabinet ministers are no longer as important as they used to be because federal politics is dominated by top strategists of the Prime Minister, says Doug Fisher, the dean of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.
“Everything builds around the Prime Minister and, of course, the Prime Minister has become much more important. They’re always important, Pearson, Diefenbaker and so on but the big thing is now who is it that’s advising them and it’s not Reg Alcock or Anne McLellan,”said Mr. Fisher, a weekly political columnist for the Sun Media, in a wide-ranging interview with The Hill Times.
“What is more and more important in journalism is you have to know more of the surrogates of the party leaders.” Moreover, Mr. Fisher described Prime Minister Paul Martin as “down at the bottom of the heap” out of almost all Prime Ministers in Canadian political history, emphasizing that Jean Chrétien was better-read Prime Minister than Paul Martin.
Armed with more than 40 years as a journalist and eight years of experience as a politician, Mr. Fisher, 86, said he is now in “the sunset of his career.” Throughout all those years, he said he has seen the importance of House of Commons proceedings diminish substantially from when he first arrived on Parliament Hill in 1957.
“Cabinet ministers are no longer very important as they used to be. Donald Savoie [author of Breaking the Bargain: Public Servants and Parliament; Governing From the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics; and The Politics of Public Spending in Canada, an expert on public administration and special adviser for the Gomery Commission] described accurately that they’ve become a focus group for the Prime Ministers. This is kind of a late development in my 40-some years on the Hill,” said Mr. Fisher.
“As a consequence, the journalism, in a way, has had to change. You never see the press gallery crowded. It’s not even crowded that much at Question Period anymore. It used to be jammed but it isn’t anymore, but it’s the standard debate except maybe for the lead House speaker, the lead House speaker is the Prime Minister.”
Mr. Fisher was first elected to the House in the 1957 general election for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation party when, in an upset victory, he defeated then Liberal Cabinet minister C.D. Howe a.k.a. the Minister of Everything. Mr. Fisher won the riding of Port Arthur, Ont., now known as the community of Thunder Bay, Ont., and represented it until 1965 when he left politics. He returned again to politics in 1968 when he ran as an NDP candidate in the Toronto riding of York Centre but was defeated.
Mr. Fisher represented the riding of Port Arthur first as a CCF MP from 1957 to 1961 and later on as a Member of the New Democratic Party.
Before entering politics in 1957, Mr. Fisher who is a native of Sioux Lookout, Ont., worked as a high school teacher in Port Arthur and later as a librarian at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. and at Lakehead Technical Institute before it became a university. He started to write columns for Toronto Telegram in 1962 while he was still an MP and when the Telegram folded in 1971, he joined the Toronto Sun as its Ottawa columnist. Mr. Fisher is this week’s “In The Hot Room” interview.
What’s your average day like?
“I’m in the sunset of my career, if I could put it so. That’s my goal: to be ready to write one column a week and actually I still have to follow almost everything that I’ve always followed. So my week is largely trying to figure out what is the thing I would most like to write about, out of a choice of maybe five or six.
I have always followed the House very carefully. I’ve followed the House more than any other journalist here over the years. Don McGillivray, at one time, followed as assiduously, but I’ve been kind of a House of Commons fan ever since the 1950s. Basically, I centred my interest on what’s happening there and connected with it. It’s much different now doing than it was when I came here because the House is much less significant than it used to be and more and more of the politics doesn’t centre in the House at all. That’s what Ed Broadbent was saying in his farewell remarks about how he found it coming back. He found what I noticed happening is the detachment wave of main political activity or thinking away from the House.
It’s a fail-safe course and the TV people, in particular, use the Question Period when the House is sitting as an agenda for the day and the week but it’s not vital. Nobody ever breaks their back to get into listen to a debate. There’s 308 MPs and yet you barely ever—outside of Question Period— have more than 25 in the House. They’re not all working on committees as sometimes said in their defence.
“So, how do I get ready, well, I read about four newspapers, I follow the internet closely, I try to keep up with Hansard as much as I can to see what’s happening where any talent is showing. It’s harder now to do that because speeches in the House count [for nothing] anymore.
It’s just sort of bull dog time: put in by some regulars who can stand sitting there in a largely empty place and what is more and more important in journalism is you have to know more of the surrogates of the party leaders.
I’m talking about people like Scott Reid. Pamela Wallin started years ago when she was with CTV. She had these three surrogates for their parties: Hugh Segal, Gerry Caplan and Michael Kirby and gradually almost everybody has adopted that pattern so that when someone like [Don] Newman or [Mike] Duffy are looking for people, they’re looking for these surrogates like Hugh Segal or Scott Reid or whatever and that’s a sort of a shift away from the House and from the Cabinet.
“Cabinet ministers are no longer very important as they used to be. Donald Savoie described accurately that they’ve become a focus group for the Prime Ministers. This is kind of a late development in my 40-some years on the Hill… As a consequence, the journalism in a way has had to change.
You never see the press gallery crowded, it’s not even crowded that much at Question Period anymore, it used to be jammed but it isn’t anymore but it’s the standard debate except maybe for the lead House speaker, the lead House speaker is the prime minister. You might have four or five correspondents.
When I came here, the press gallery had 80 members, most of them worked here. Today, the press gallery has almost 400 members but more than half of them don’t really work in journalism, they’re ancillaries, they’re researchers or they’re cameramen or whatever the case may be but the point is the number of people who are following the House anymore is very small and a different game is developed during my lifetime and I had to adjust to it and, of course, I have to adjust to the fact that I’m now doing less.”
Why do you think the quality of debates in the House has deteriorated over the years and why do you think the Cabinet ministers are not as important as they used to be?
“Everything builds around the Prime Minister and, of course, the Prime Minister has become much more important. They’re always important, Pearson, Diefenbaker and so on, but the big thing is now who is it that’s advising them and it’s not Reg Alcock or Anne McLellan. It’s who is the Earnscliffe gang with Martin and, of course, Chrétien had his handlers Eddie Goldenberg and [Jean] Pelletier and everything was sort of cleared through and that’s why you had the scandal that Gomery is looking after because things got pulled away.
“Even the Clerk of the Privy Council, Madame [Jocelyne] Bourgon, warned Chrétien what was going to happen. It was typical of what had taken place. Very few of the opposition people of my time have ever really gone after this slow deprivation of what is called the British Parliamentary system as a Cabinet system that’s deprived ministers so much.
Today, if there’s any big announcement, no matter what department it’s in, it’s not given to a minister. If something big comes up in environment, it’s not going to be [Stéphane] Dion that’s going to speak, the focus is all going to be on the Prime Minister. The trend of course was not all engineered by the Liberals, Mulroney did a certain amount of it.
Although, in the main, the ministers in his time had a little bit more free play than the ones in Martin’s time. Part of it, of course, is that we used to kid in Pearson’s time that there were three people that counted in the world of Liberals under Pearson and they were called Tom, Dick and Mary. Mary Macdonald was his secretary, Tom Kent was his main idea man and Dick O’Hagan was his press guy and that was about what it was and you could’ve put all of Pearson’s staff into one room. It’s about 17 people and take away the people who answered letters, you’d be down to about five or six. Well, today, the Prime Minister’s Office, the last I heard had 700 and some employees. See the difference in scale.
There are 700 people in the current Prime Minister’s Office?
“I think that was the figure that was given to me a year ago.”
“Dennis Mills. Remember Dennis Mills? He’d be an interesting guy to talk to because he’s the one who noticed among the MPs, he noticed this huge shift.”
How bad is this shift for democracy and to the Canadians?
“It’s terrible. I came into politics by defeating the biggest guy in politics at the time, it was bigger than the Prime Minister: C.D. Howe, the minister of everything. There’re no more C.D. Howes. He may have gone too far in the direction of ministerial strength, but today there’s only one minister who really counts much at all and that’s the minister of finance.
Now where you get the problem with the ministers is then again an aspect of Cabinet government diminution and disappearance. What you worry about a minister today is not that he or she is aggressive and can marshal something, it’s that how bad are they? How much can they goof? How do you defend and protect yourself and say somebody who’s temperamental like [Liza] Frulla or somebody like [Pierre] Pettigrew who is just naturally born to get your back up, it’s a kind of flippant answers that he gives and so on.
It’s almost as though the wisdom of everything being in the Prime Minister’s pot rather than the Cabinet pot is made apparent when you get ministers who can’t really answer very well. Jane Stewart was the classical example of someone you had to really watch on her feet because she didn’t know or she didn’t catch onto things very fast and another one was Jean Augustine and they very quickly found that she had nothing to say.”
Why did you decide to leave politics and join journalism?
“When I gave my last speech in the House, I said that if I were coming back I said I’d introduce a rule that no one can be an MP longer than 10 years because you get burned out and you get to repeat yourself too much which I was doing.”
How do you compare Prime Minister Paul Martin with other former Prime Ministers?
“It isn’t hard to place him. I place him right down at the bottom of the heap of almost [all] Prime Ministers. I knew his father very well. I was as close as anybody in another party ever was to Paul Martin Sr. and I began with welcoming him and good wishes to his son. But his son is not at all like his father and his father was the best-read MP I ever met. Paul Martin [Sr.] never went to bed without a good read, something substantive.
I don’t think Paul Martin Jr. ever finished a book. I used to tease Jean Chrétien for his reputation for not reading. Sometimes, he used to laugh and sometimes he’d be angry. I honestly think that Chrétien is better-read than Paul Martin Jr. but he has his mother’s pleasantness. She was a talker, several times I had dinner with Paul Sr. and Nan, as they called her, and he was always interjecting ‘Nan, don’t talk, remember he’s a journalist’ and he said ‘if you keep coming back here, you’re going to know all the secrecies of Mackenzie King’s Cabinet’ because Paul Martin Sr.’s wife would get going on the members of the Cabinet, including C.D. Howe. They knew I was interested because of the C.D. Howe connection. No, I don’t think Mr. Martin is very impressive.”
Why is that?
‘He wanders all over the place, dithers was a good [description]. He keeps saying he’s excited about this. ‘The Prime Minister’s Office, the last I heard, had 700 and some employees: see the difference in scale,’ says Fisher who obviously gets very fed up with Martin but then he says, ‘he has such a ranging mind.’ I don’t know where the hell he thinks his mind ranges to. I’ve never read anything that he’s said that I felt he wrote or that he thought out.”
But his advisers say that Mr. Martin is an avid reader and he is a policy wonk. What makes you think he isn’t an avid reader?
“Because there’s no evidence of it. Just to say that India and China are coming along and that’ s going to, Jesus, is there any mind or any brains who is reading at all who hasn’t been aware what’s happening. He might have gone along and added Ireland for God’s sakes and Turkey. Show me anything that’s analytical. He got a couple of phrases about democratic deficit and what he’s going to do but what’s the substance of it?
There’s going to be no more cronyism, MPs were going to be considered important but how, why, what have been the changes? Instead, he’s letting his staff, his people—the thugs as I like to call them—he’s letting them do their job. In the last campaign, they saved him but they saved the party in the end by the job they did on Harper, aided and abetted by a lot of the press gallery who dislike Harper intensely and suspect he’s too chilly for them. The democratic deficit, I welcomed that, I went out of my way to welcome that. At last we’ve got a politician who promises to really do something but what has he done, what has he done?”
How do you compare his performance as Prime Minister with Jean Chrétien?
“Oh, Chrétien is incomparably better because he was better in control in every way of his caucus, of his Cabinet and he was more comfortable with his Cabinet. I don’t know if Martin is comfortable with his Cabinet. Sometimes, I think whoever it is his senior strategist, this is my guess is between Murphy and Scott Reid and David Herle and Elly Alboim. Reid is a bit of a Machiavelli, Alboim is a very clever fellow and all I know is Murphy is a reasonably smart man. Herle he is a bright adolescent. Terrie O’Leary is obviously loyal within reasonable conventions and very smart.
The point about these surrogates is not that they are bad, but in our system we’re not supposed to need them. That’s what mandarins are supposed to be for. We weren’t supposed to wind up with this presidential kind of set up.
Where we all got thrown off on Martin was his period as Minister of Finance and I keep saying that to myself that we never gave the credit to Chrétien at all, we kept giving credit to Martin. Now I think to myself; it’s got to be Chrétien and [David] Dodge who deserve the credit that everybody heaped on Paul Martin. And the other thing he sanctioned and that he helped, in a small way, to pay for was the gang he turned loose on taking over the Liberal Party. You don’t capture all those riding organizations without an immense organized effort and a lot of the money. They got some of the money so the organization part was out of contracts that they left to certain people but, in the main, some of it came out of somebody’s pocket. Martin says that he personally didn’t know what was going on in Quebec, how the hell could he miss if he had all these riding associations lined up and of course it’s quite obvious the Quebecers aren’t buying his innocence.”
Are you saying that Mr. Martin was aware of what was going on in Quebec as far as the sponsorship scandal is concerned?
“I have no particular proof saying that but common sense tells you that you don’t have control in that way and not know. I got word myself of what was happening.”
But Justice Gomery exonerated Mr. Martin and blamed Chrétien for the sponsorship scandal. Do you disagree with this findings?
“I think he backed off, I wrote that. I think Gomery decided he had to be a good citizen, he couldn’t be too negative because there had to be some hope for the federal administration in Quebec and the only hope that is there seems, in prospect, is the Liberals. I think that was a judgment call on Gomery’s part. My judgment call from what I observed that Martin knew quite a bit about what was going on and he didn’t like it but he was aware of it.”
Mr. Chrétien and his close advisers said that Justice Gomery was biased?
“I didn’t catch any tremendous bias but Gomery twice made remarks to be seen as belittling about the small town stuff.”
What’s your opinion about Peter C. Newman’s book The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of A Prime Minister?
“I’m ashamed of Newman, I’m almost ashamed for him. We were once friends. I thought it was despicable of him to use or release tapes that way, particularly, because he played this courtier role to Mulroney. I’ll give you an example: I got a phone call three days before the convention choosing the Tory leader, you know the one that Joe Clark won way back in 1975. It was from Mulroney’s closest aide who is a friend of mine and he wanted to read me the speech that they drafted for the convention. I realized there were a couple of pauses to explain something and I realized somebody else is on the line so I asked Roy Faibish, ‘Who is with you?’ I wanted to know whether it was Mulroney himself. He said ‘Peter,’ Peter Newman was there. There he was holed up with the leadership aspirant and down by the lake in Brome, I guess.
It transpired, as I took it from the conversation we had, that Roy was a very good writer and of course Newman was a splendid writer and then these were the two people who had been working on Mulroney’s speech. When you are that close to a man and as a result of that closeness, he does things for your wedding, he promises to give you every first-run cut at writing his biography, you are family and I don’t think when you arrange and attain something as he did with those tapes and then use them without permission, that’s really breaking it.
You don’t have to listen to those tapes very long to realize how often in order to nudge Mulroney along, he played the sycophant’s game. It’s treachery of a kind to someone that you’ve been close to.”
Have you talked to Mr. Mulroney about this book?
Do you consider yourself as a friend of Mr. Mulroney?
“No. I’m a good acquaintance.”
Who do you think is going to win the election?
“I think right now Harper has got the lock on it but it could disappear.”
But polling numbers are showing the Liberals are ahead of the Conservatives?
“That’s totals. Remember an awful lot of that total comes from Quebec because, bad as the Liberals are in Quebec, they still have a chunk. No, I think there’s enough prospect that the Conservatives could go as high as 45 seats in Ontario. I think the split in B.C. tend to favour them. Whatever it is, I think it’s very close.”
What’s your favourite newspaper?
“Toronto Star, because it had the most influence in developing the kind of government we have. In the last 60 years, it had the most influence and most of it was [John] Honderich who just died a short time ago. The Star was determined [about] the kind of Canada they wanted and once they hooked up with Walter Gordon and Tom Kent, I’m talking about medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, equalization payments, all these things are nation-knitting and welfare state, those were pushed and hammered at by Star and particularly on medicare, Honderich never let it go.”
Who is your favourite columnist?
“Chantal Hébert. She’s one of the best that has come along in a long time. There are more good women political interpreters than there are male political interpreters. Females have been coming in very slowly. When I came here there was only one woman columnist and there were only two women columnists in the press gallery. Now, there’s lots and lots of them. She’s [Chantal] got an exceptionally bright mind and it’s a poker player’s mind, chess player’s mind. She knows where all the cards are, where they should be. It’s just not quickness or mental alertness, it’s experience and reading.
My favourite columnist since I came here was George Bain (The Globe and Mail). I though he was the most erudite and the most fair. Chantal is pretty fair but George was the fairest.”
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