I was elected June 27, 1949. After the campaign I was holidaying with my wife in Muskoka, Ont. when the police came looking for me: there was an emergency debate on a railway strike and the Speaker of the House of Commons had summoned all MPs to Ottawa. The Muskoka hotel manager thought the police were looking for illegal off-sale liquor. It was an exciting time.
There were no orientation sessions for new MPs in those days so it took me a while just to navigate my way around the Parliament buildings. I was 25, the youngest MP ever elected at that time, and was awestruck. I was a backbencher in Louis St. Laurent’s 190-member caucus; they put me in a seat in the front row way down at the end of the chamber. There were giants in the House then: C.D. Howe; Brooke Claxton; Jimmy Gardiner; M.J. Coldwell; Doug Abbott. Most MPs were veterans then. It was a different era; the Commons was respectable, businesslike and professional.
Of course it didn’t last. Cabinets grew too large; small groups of ministers started making all the decisions. Then they televised the Commons starting in 1977, and turned the chamber into a stage, with MPs as performers. Everybody wanted to grab their moment on the evening news.
I’ve seen twenty Parliaments and the quality is diminishing. We’ve entered a new era of unresponsive debate, and there is more stonewalling from the government benches than ever before. This is how Parliament works: a minister gets one question, and answers a different one. The senseless evasion is unparalleled and would not have been permitted when I was a first-termer. Anybody with any sense would look at this performance and ask, what in the hell is going on?
My first term there was an Ottawa Citizen reporter, Alec Hume; he was so well-connected he’d walk into the office for a talk with Prime Minister St. Laurent. Alec was the reporter who coined the phrase “Uncle Louis”; he said you could count the crooks in Parliament on the fingers of one hand. The number of misdemeanors among present Parliamentarians now is impressive. I think this reflects the moral and spiritual standards of the country. MPs remain a cross-section of the people.
Of course money is a much bigger factor now. I was paid $4,000 per session in those days, a total of $8,000 a year. It was a pittance compared to later Parliaments, when politics became a full-time job. In 1949 people were either dragged into public life or went to Ottawa to serve. As pay and perks developed, the job of an MP became pretty good work with a rewarding pension.
The job of a parliamentarian is not what it once was. Responsibilities of MPs have been diminished. Gone are the days when the budget estimates were brought before the House, and the Minister was expected to defend the numbers. MPs were mandated to guard the public purse and ensure taxpayers’ money wasn’t misspent. They don’t do that anymore.
Parliament has always been partisan. Two epic battles in my day were over the Canadian flag in 1964, and unification of the Canadian Forces in 1968. Debates were vicious and something to behold; Liberals and Conservatives would cut each other up by day, and go out for Chinese food by night. After all, we were trying to serve the people together. Now it’s about getting re-elected. Candidates are chosen for their star status. I realize this is a harsh judgment but I’m certain it started to go wrong with my own Liberal Party.
Mackenzie King used to say, “Good government is good policy”. It’s still true; if you make the people happy with what you’re doing, you’ll get re-elected. I seldom go to watch Parliament now. I write books; I go to the office every day; I still feel I have a lot of creative work to do, and its more valuable work than most MPs will accomplish. I don’t feel wistful when I visit Ottawa, only grateful. I’ve been there, done that, and did the best I could.
(Editor’s note: the author is a retired eight-term MP from Toronto; he served in four cabinets under three Liberal prime ministers. Mr. Hellyer’s commentary was originally published February 15, 2015 in his 91st year.)