Month: June 2018

Lots of Questions; Few Answers

A recent letter to the editor of a local newspaper was sharply critical of the conduct of our Members of Parliament when they participate in a daily vaudeville show from Ottawa called “Question Period.” The writer was upset because the questions were being asked as if spontaneously with the cabinet ministers’ answers delivered from notes – a sure indication that the ministers had been given notice of what the questions would be.

It’s not a new complaint from people interested in the goings on in our national and provincial parliaments. In fact, despair over Question Period in BC is the most consistent complaint I hear about whoever is in government federal or provincial “because they never answer the questions.” I usually suggest a visit to a library with a good reference section and a quick look at BC Standing Order 47A  in Orders of the Day, the rule book for all the games played under the Belleville Street dome – where the distressed will find a description of how Question Period should proceed. Readers will note the qualifier “should.”

The standing order states: There shall be a 30-minute (originally it was just 15) oral question period at the opening of each afternoon sitting on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday which shall be subject to the following rules:

(a) Only questions that are urgent and important shall be permitted;

(b) Questions and answers shall be brief and precise, and stated without argument or opinion;

(c) Supplementary questions may be permitted at the discretion of the Speaker. There shall be no supplementary question to a question taken as notice;

(d) Debate shall not be permitted.

(The supplementary question rule means if when the question is first asked, the minister responds with a promise to “take it as notice,” that assurance ends the issue for the day. The minister is, in effect, saying the answer needs a little research before it can be given.)

In addition to the precise rules, former Clerk of the Legislature George MacMinn’s (LLB, QC) Third Edition of Parliamentary Practice in British Columbia presents a long list of other rules “which members have received from time to time.” They are quite precise as to the language a questioner and responder can use. A few: “In putting a question a member must confine himself to the narrowest limits”; a question oral or written must not be “ironical, rhetorical, offensive, or contain epithet, innuendo, satire or ridicule.”

And, maybe the toughest task for those asking questions or answering when their tongue is racing ahead of their reason or they haven’t paid due care and attention to question or answer, they should never: “Be trivial, vague or meaningless.”

You would think that with all these carefully spelled out rules intelligent men and women – watched over by an equally intelligent Speaker who should be able to recite the rules as well as enforce them – would be able to get through 30 minutes of questions without a hitch or voices raised in satirical rhetoric or meaningless trivia. It is true question period has been around for only about 50 years, but that should be long enough to at least learn the basic decencies of asking a serious question and getting a clear and equally serious answer.

Many times during his 20-year and 45-day reign, Premier W.A.C. Bennett was bombarded with demands from opposition politicians and members of the public that BC establish a question period. When he refused he was taunted with the charge that he was afraid to face the heat of tough questions. He was unmoved – and he never changed his simple reason for not liking the formal question period used in England and all Commonwealth countries.

It was his belief that official question periods were well-rehearsed affairs where the questions are partisan, and asked not to gain knowledge or advance and improve good programs, but to win a political point. Questions were delivered with political “spin” and governments responded with a counter political spin to win a few one-upmanship battles.

It became a standing joke that BC had a question period and would one day introduce an answer period.

It was Bennett’s contention that opposition members in the BC Legislature had ample time to hold a government’s feet to the fire during the time allowed for full debate when ministry budgets were tabled and spending estimates questioned clause by clause. It was his way of providing all the time legislators needed for questions, even if it meant sitting all night. The opposition called it legislation by exhaustion, but he boasted that as premier he was just responding to the Opposition demand for more time to challenge. He claimed he didn’t force the lengthy session, he was just patiently providing all the time required.

In his fine biography, W.A.C. Bennett and the Rise of British Columbia, writer-historian David Mitchell suggests tea-total Bennett undoubtedly would have concurred with hard-drinking Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald when he said: “In a young country like Canada, I am of the opinion that it is of more consequence to endeavour to develop its resources and improve its physical advantages, than to waste the time of the legislature and the money of the people in fruitless discussions on abstract and theoretical questions of government.”

I spent a long afternoon with W.A.C. back in 1975. It was on Sept. 5th, the day before his 75th birthday. He confirmed his related thinking with Macdonald but with simple words more suited to a small town hardware store owner: “You build a home to protect your family. That’s what I tried to do when I was in office. I tried to build a home for BC strong enough to withstand the storm we all knew was coming. I even had a few ‘nuts’ in the basement you know. Even squirrels do that. But inside of three years, they’ve made it a shambles.” 

Born in Hastings, New Brunswick in 1900, W.A.C. died in Kelowna on Feb. 3rd, 1979. He was 78.

 

When Second Choices Top The Polls

March 16, 1950, dawned cold and West Coast damp the day South Okanagan MLA W.A.C. Bennett resigned his membership in the Progressive Conservative Party, informed the Speaker he would henceforth sit as an Independent, and then, went to the movies. It was 5° Fahrenheit in the days before Celsius and raining off and on.

There is no record of what movie he took in, but he had five theatres to choose from: The Atlas offered John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; The Capitol, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart in Malaya; The Dominion, Gregory Peck in 12 O’clock High; the Royal, Lady Takes a Sailor with Jane Wyman; and the Fox, “Raging Island” and “raging passion of the place Stromboli with Ingrid Bergman under the inspired direction of Rossellini.”

Those who knew the old man guess he went to see 12 O’clock High with its heavy action and tough decision making. After all, he had been going through some heavy action in the legislature fighting endlessly with his own party to demonstrate inspiring leadership. Failing to arouse them, he had finally quit to sit as an independent like old Tom Uphill, who sat proudly as Labour’s lone representative to the dismay of the CCF – now the NDP.

Unlike Uphill, who never changed his independent status, Bennett survived only a matter of weeks as a loner. Stirring in the wings of BC politics at the time was a strange new party under the banner of the Social Credit League. Already active federally and strong provincially in Alberta, it attracted the maverick from Kelowna and the SCL welcomed him when he eventually became a member, even to the extent of wondering if he would like to be their leader. It was an offer Bennett declined. He liked some of the SCL’s new ideas but not others. He wanted to see if they were real before committing.

In April 1952, Premier Byron Johnson’s Coalition government of Liberals and Conservatives decided to go for broke. They called for an election on June 12. In the back rooms, they prepared a well-organized and completely legal trap to virtually guarantee return to their comfortable coalition pew.

The vote would be conducted on what they called a “preferential ballot.” It would be a first for BC and the pious organizers insisted it would be a much fairer way of electing a government than the “first past the post” system used around the world. And it would be simple: Candidates were listed alphabetically on the ballot; the voter would mark a first choice, then second and successively until every candidate got a vote in descending order of preference. When the votes were counted, the candidate with the least votes would be removed from contention with his/her votes then divided among survivors according to the preferences marked on the loser’s ballot.

The process would continue until one candidate emerged with more than 50 percent of the vote.

It was a month before a final decision could be announced and the Liberal/ Progressive Conservative Coalition had been truly hoisted on its own petard. The Coalition had convinced itself that Liberal voters would cast their first vote for Liberals with a second choice for a Conservative – or vice versa – and that the CCF voters would cast all their second votes to either Liberal or Conservatives and thus inadvertently re-elect the Coalition. It was inconceivable to those who had ruled so long that CCF socialists would ever make their second choice a candidate from the amateurs in a party which had no official leader and only one or two members with political experience. (Rev. George Hansell, unelected and not a candidate, was temporary Social Credit League leader during the election but had declared he didn’t want to make it permanent.)

Then the CCF did the unthinkable and, when the day was over, the Coalition was shattered. Social Credit had won 19 seats, the CCF 18, and the Coalition had dropped from 39 seats to 10 – six Liberals and four Tories. CCF supporters had solidly placed their second votes for the rooky SCL candidates presumably thinking it was a safe dump because the new party was not capable of generating much of its own support.

In short order, after the election, the SC League held a leadership convention to make W.A.C. their new leader and premier – a job he would hold for the next 20 years. His first year as premier was short and some suggest made so deliberately by the premier himself.

Convinced he could win a clear majority in an election re-run, he introduced school building legislation that he knew would end in a vote of non-confidence and a loss of government. His anticipation was accurate, the Social Credit government fell and CCF leader Harold Winch approached Lieutenant-Governor Clarence Wallace to suggest that, as he had only one seat less than Bennett, he should now be given a chance to govern. Lieutenant Governor Wallace didn’t agree and supported Bennett’s request to call another election to let the voters settle the issue.

It was held June 9, 1953, with the preferential ballot still in play. If he was gambling that second and third vote ballots would flow his way this time from disenchanted Tories and Liberals and that CCF supporters with a deep distrust of the coalition would also provide second vote strength, he was right. The Social Credit Party led on the first count and never looked back. When it was all over, the preferential ballot gave the Socreds 28 seats, the CCF 14, the Liberals four, Labour one, and the never-to-recover Conservatives one. In some ridings, it had taken six counts before a winner could be declared, and it was second and third votes that swung the SC to a final popular count of 300,372 which was still only 45.54 percent of the total vote.

Bennett never again used the system where second and third choices could overtake and surpass the first. Sitting governments, planning changes for the sake of change rather than legitimate need, should remember Robbie Burns: “The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go astray”

 

It’s More Convenient to Forget Than Remember

On June 6, 2018, the day unfolded like so many others; bright sunshine, scattered cloud, a light breeze. A perfect day to enjoy and to forget, as most people seemed to forget what happened on this same date 74 years earlier.

Back then, the weather was not quite as perfect. It was D-Day, June 6, 1944, the first – and longest – day, the start of a series of battles destined to end less than two years later with the collapse of Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

Before that day was over, 425 thousand young men would be dead – 209 thousand from Allied forces, 216 thousand German. Among the thousands were many U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting and dying in only the second major great war in which the U.S. fought on the winning side. The first was when they beat the British in the Revolutionary War.

There have been quite a few smaller, but still vicious, conflicts since D-Day began and V-E Day ended the re-conquest of Europe, and V-J Day celebrated the collapse of the final WW2 Axis power, Japan. The hangovers from WW2 victory celebrations had hardly faded when most of the nations “allied” against Hitler’s Germany/Italy/Japan axis joined forces again, this time under United Nations colours, to save South Korea from a North Korean communist invasion.

The Korean War has never officially ended. An agreement to cease fire still holds precariously but there has never been an armistice. The shooting stopped and the United States forces quietly faded south across the north-south border where the U.S. still maintains a strong military presence. North Korea has spent its time since agreeing to the cease-fire while developing nuclear intercontinental weaponry capable of carrying nuclear warheads to U.S. targets.

President Donald Trump – who has often stated it was time his country “started winning wars again” – is (at this writing) planning to meet with North Korea on June 12 to talk about that nation giving up its nuclear capabilities to make the world a safer place. President Trump, having never tested his own courage on a battlefield, has already warned North Korea that the U.S. collection of weaponry holds more nuclear power than NK can dream of and that “my button is bigger than yours.”

His bellicose threat would indicate that nuclear weapon reduction and/or control would not apply to the U.S. and, should war break out, North Korea could be easily obliterated from the face of the earth.

After Korea, the States took a brief breather from big wars, but only briefly. It was soon at it again in South Viet Nam, defending it against invasion from fellow Vietnamese living in North Viet Nam.

If WW2 was “the just war,” Viet Nam must go down as the most “unjust war” ever fought by the U.S. with only minor aid from other nations. It did awaken the nation’s conscience. It did, when anti-war protests reached rebellious heights on the streets of America’s great cities and on many university campuses, generate hope that maybe this once truly great nation was ready to flex its muscle for peace; that its governments would strive to eliminate military action as a problem solver in the future.

The anti-war cries didn’t last; terrorist action made sure of that when hi-jacked aircraft rammed New York’s twin towers killing thousands of civilians going about their daily business. Under attack, the U.S. was soon at war again in the deserts of the Middle East and the wild hills of Afghanistan searching for the organizer of the twin tower bombing and waging war against Isis or al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

As unnoticed as the passing of D-Day on June 6 was news that in Afghanistan, the commanding U.S. General John Nicholson will be replaced sometime this summer by Lieutenant General Austin “Scott” Miller. Miller will be the ninth officer to command the U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the 16 years America has been fighting there. That’s a new commanding officer every two years – with victory always “close” but never won – in the country that has fought Russian invaders to a standstill before sending them home defeated, and decades before that destroyed an entire British Army in the field. The only time in Britain’s vaunted history that it lost an entire army.

Writing recently for Tomgram, Andrew Bacevich posed this question – among many: So the relevant question for our present American moment is this: Once it becomes apparent that a war is a mistake, why would those in power insist on its perpetuation, regardless of costs and consequences? In short, when getting in turns out to have been a bad idea, why is getting out so difficult, even (or especially) for powerful nations that presumably should be capable of exercising choice on such matters?”

Let me confess that my Bacevich quote is just a fragment from his wide-ranging article on what we have learned or failed to learn from great wars and not so great wars; and how soon we forget if we ever did once learn. For full text check (http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176433/tomgram%3A_andrew_bacevich)

He reminds us of another writer and lover of American history, Gore Vidal, who once wrote of The United States of Amnesia. Comments Bacevich to include us all: “We remember what we find it convenient to remember and forget everything else. That forgetfulness applies to the history of others. How could their past, way back when have any meaning for us today? Well, it just might.”

We all know those who forget or ignore the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. Unfortunately, we seem to elect to high office many leaders unaware of the past or with limited memories. And, the U.S. appears to have elected a president more limited than most when it comes to history, precedent and power.

Maybe someone should whisper in his ear one of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s favourite proverbs first voiced by U.S. trade unionist Jesse Carr in 1976, appropriated and repeated by the Iron Lady: “Being powerful is like being a lady – if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

 

Roads Waiting To Be (RE)-Opened

It was in 1874 that British Columbia’s surveyor-general Stanhope Farwell came staggering back to Victoria after a two-day expedition in what author-historian Maureen Duffy describes as “very rough weather” with “snow, hail, and rain” and reported to the BC Commissioner of Lands and Works that it would be a waste of taxpayer’s money to build a road alongside Saanich Inlet from Goldstream to Mill Bay.

“There would never be a pound of freight over it,” he wrote. “A few people might ride over it, and farmers might drive stock over it occasionally.”

He suggested that if they wanted a better return on road building costs, they should improve the main road between the farms in the Duncan-Cowichan-Mill Bay area and Nanaimo, a community growing at a tremendous rate courtesy of coal mining and destined to become the main market for farmers and their produce.

The Daily Colonist sniffed in a comment that Farwell may be getting a little long in the tooth for in-the-field surveying and “was not as physically agile as his guide (W.C. Duncan after whom the city is named), so found the really steep climbs beyond his limited ability.”

Farwell did make a second recommendation if the thought of making Nanaimo the go-to centre for trade and commerce was too much for Victoria; road improvement money could be spent on “the present trail (which) if improved and bridged would in my opinion answer every purpose for years to come.”

“The present trail” was just that, a roughly hewn slash through the forests called a wagon road. However, in reality, it was a three-day, high-risk traverse for anything on wheels testing the run from Shawnigan Lake through Leechtown, then following the Sooke River to a road link to Victoria. The road exists today, although blocked by a tall fence a few kilometers north of where Leechtown once flourished. The fence is to protect Greater Victoria’s watershed, but the rest of the trail is as it was when it was the only land route from the north to the provincial capital. Today it’s called The Galloping Goose Trail, nicknamed for gasoline-powered freight trains operating between Victoria and Shawnigan.

Two years after the Farwell report in 1876, another surveyor, A. R. Howse, took a look at the road being demanded along the coast on the east side of the Malahat. His report was unequivocal: “I am of the opinion this line is quite impractical for a wagon road and moreover I am convinced that no suitable line can be found east of Goldstream and Mallahat [sic] Range of Mountains.”

Howse had also checked out “the western side of the hills” dividing east and west Vancouver Island. His recommendation was clear – abandon thought of a Malahat highway – “the only practicable line for a (north-south) road (is) from Victoria to Cowichan.”

Ten years later in 1886, the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway – coal baron Robert Dunsmuir’s pride and joy, was completed. It came close to following the Farwell-Howse “west of the hills” route recommendations.

The E & N lies silent these days, its tracks getting rustier by the day. Talk of a second highway running north and south stirs once in a while but basically sleeps, forgotten for the most part like the once “vital” railway.

A few days ago, there was a flurry of second highway chatter when an oil tanker was involved in a two-automobile collision and the Malahat was closed to all traffic for about 19 hours. The event prompted loud lamentations from stranded travelers and a knee-jerk response from government that it would study what happened and work to make sure it won’t happen again. It’s the same response echoing over the decades since Major James Francis Lenox MacFarlane led the fight to persuade the government to hack, blast and build down the side of the Saanich Inlet to give him and his fellow farmers easier and shorter access to Victoria markets.

Major MacFarlane’s fight is the stuff of legend. Readers can command Google to find volumes at the mention of his name. For a good look at his character, I recommend a Jack Knox Times-Colonist column of 2017. A taster quote: “…it was MacFarlane – mule-headed, hard drinking, charming, considered barmy by friend and foe alike – who almost single-handed cajoled and browbeat the government into building a road over the Malahat just over a century ago.”

A search of “Mill Bay/Malahat Historical Society/Major MacFarlane” will captivate – especially the documentary One Man’s Dream – The History of the Malahat Highway.

And http://nauticapedia.ca/articles/MacFarlane provides good reading. One article includes a brief quote from a letter he wrote to the Victoria Times in 1938 to correct errors in an article referring to the opening of the Malahat Drive “built by the provincial government in 1914 to replace the Old Summit Road.”

Writing from his retirement address at 1353 Pandora Avenue, the Major gently chided “there are two mistakes in this: First there never was an “Old Summit Road”; second, the present road was finished and opened for traffic a week before Christmas, 1911. I had the honour be the first to drive over and ‘hanseled’ it with a bottle of Burke’s whiskey to the road gang.”

With “hanseled” being a new word for me, I checked. Readers can do the same with no extra charge for a new neat word learned. The Major was correct of course – there never was an old road, just a rugged trail. There still is – and not so rugged anymore. It remains a well-marked, well-used track which could be brought up to emergency road standard with far fewer millions than the Malahat demands to keep it safe and open 24/7/365.

There is a third north-south link in existence but waiting for a place in a modern transportation system. It’s a little remote for everyday use but could be of immense value a few years hence as the tourist industry continues to grow and thrive. Round-the-world travelers are seeking new horizons, and stay-at-home islanders are setting out to discover roads they never knew existed. Like the road from Port Renfrew to Port Alberni via Bamfield, Sarita River and east alongside the Alberni Canal to Port Alberni and then, if you can afford another tank of gas a long run down the valley to Courtenay-Comox.

Try another Google search, this time for a map: Port Renfrew to Bamfield and Port Alberni. It may surprise you, but it’s been an Alberni Valley dream for decades. However, it takes giants in provincial governments to make dreams come true – and we have been a little short of political giants for quite a while now.

And Major MacFarlanes have always been far too rare.