George McIlraith was first elected to the House
of Commons as a Liberal at the age of 31. He was re-elected in 10 successive
general elections for the constituency of Ottawa West (now Ottawa Centre) and
served in the House of Commons until 1972 when he was summoned to the Senate.
He served there until his retirement in July 1983.
Parliamentary assistant to the Right
Honourable C.D. Howe from 1945 to 1953, cabinet minister under Prime Ministers
Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau from 1963 to 1970, Mr. McIlraith held
various portfolios including: Minister of Transport, President of the Privy
Council, Deputy Chairman of the Treasury Board, Government House Leader,
Minister of Public Works and Minister Responsible for the National Capital
Commission; and Solicitor General, as well as being Acting Minister for the
Department of National Revenue and the Department of Justice. He was
interviewed for the Canadian Parliamentary Review in October 1984.
You served in parliament for some 43
years. How did your interest in politics begin, and were there any particular
individuals who influenced you to enter politics, or encouraged you to become a
candidate for parliament?
I was a law student and a young lawyer
during the years of the Great Depression, and like all young people at that
time, was tremendously interested in government and in politics. We were
constantly concerned with the actions of the various governments, federal and
provincial. No particular individual encouraged me in the development of
political leaders of that day influenced me in a general way. However, only one
person encouraged me to become a candidate, that was the late Senator Cairine
Although I had been very active in politics
as a young law student and young lawyer, I had never intended to run as a
member of parliament. I more or less accidentally fell into it when pressure
was put on me to seek the candidature in Ottawa when there was a vacancy in
When you were first elected, Mr.
Mackenzie King was prime minister. What kind of a parliamentarian was he?
In my opinion, he was the ablest since
Confederation, with the possible exception of Sir John A. Macdonald. Certainly,
of the prime ministers I have known personally, He was by far the most able
parliamentarian. He had a great knowledge of Canadian history, having
undoubtedly been influenced by the part taken by his grandfather in the 1837
rebellion in Upper Canada, and in the struggle to obtain responsible government
in Canada. He was a true democrat in the sense that he felt that the ministers
or cabinet must be answerable at all times through elected members of
He protected the rights of parliament, at
the same time giving the people the assurance that while their elected
representatives would make the decisions on their behalf, they would not make
them on their own, and they always were held answerable. By like measure, his
ministry was constantly kept answerable to the members of the House of Commons,
not only in fact, but they felt that they were answerable, and acted
accordingly. He did not seek to force legislation through, no matter how good
he thought it might be, unless and until it had been fully debated in
parliament, and parliament accepted it after debate, rather than through being
coerced into accepting it.
The country was at war when you entered
parliament. What effect did this have on the workings of the House?
Perhaps it caused a greater sense of
responsibility in parliament, and by the government, than we have seen since.
The government of the day was very sensitive to its responsibility and it was
an awesome responsibility. This tended to concentrate effort on all sides to
the objective of winning the war, and however much there was difference as to
the methods to be used in winning the war, there was no doubt in anyone's mind
about what the objective of parliament and of government was. This meant that
on most routine matters there was much less partisanship than there is now, and
indeed as a matter of fact, Mr. King, as leader of the Liberal party, actually
closed down the Liberal Party offices and ceased all partisan party activity
during the whole period of the war.
Of course, as to the methods to bring some
of the measures to more effectively prosecute the war, there was sharp
difference, and bitterness. An example of this was the conscription issue.
National Unity was not a slogan then. It was an objective, actively and
strenuously pursued by the government of the day and indeed concurred in or
approved by all parliamentarians. All felt that keeping the country together
was necessary to our survival as a country and to running the war.
Was Prime Minister Mackenzie King
accessible to members?
During the eight years I served under
Mackenzie King, I talked with him more than with any subsequent Prime Minister.
In those days, he maintained an office in the Centre Block adjacent to the
Chamber of the House of Commons. This was in addition to his regular office as
prime minister. It was common practice for him to call a private member into
his office to discuss any current issue, or any matters of particular interest
to that member's area of the country. Indeed, during his term of office, all
members had their offices in one building, the Centre Block. This had a great
effect on communication between members of parliament, and between them and the
cabinet. It also kept them in touch with exactly what was being debated in the
House of Commons at any given moment and made the prime minister and ministers
of the cabinet much more accessible to members.
When did that close relationship start to
It started to disappear when members were
allocated offices in other buildings than the Centre Block. As they were put in
more different buildings, it accelerated quite rapidly. It of course was
influenced by the differing personalities of subsequent prime ministers.
Another change that came at the same time
was the blurring of the distinction between the political arm of parliament and
the administrative side of government. That distinction is entirely unclear today.
The administrative arm of government and the civil service should complement
the work of parliament. At the present time, they seem to overlap and this
subject needs attention today.
Ironically, one of your mentors, the
Right Honourable C. D. Howe, is often identified with the decline in the
importance of parliament.
That is quite unwarranted. Despite his
reputation to the contrary, I think Mr. Howe had a great respect for, and
understanding of, parliament. For example, when I was his parliamentary assistant,
I recall very distinctly a very aggressive Liberal backbencher asking a deputy
minister for some information which the deputy refused to give. I remember well
Mr. Howe calling that deputy minister in and telling him that "Mr. X is an
elected member of the House of Commons. As a Minister of the Crown I am
answerable to the elected members of the House of Commons. You must give him
the information he wants." He pursued that policy throughout all his
administration, as I was very well aware.
Surely Howe's decision to move closure at
a very early stage of the Pipeline Debate in 1956 was a black mark for
The Pipeline Debate hinged on obtaining
approval for borrowing authority before a certain date, in order to begin
construction of the Trans Canada Pipeline. The decision to apply closure was
not Mr. Howe's. It was a decision taken really by his junior cabinet colleagues
at that time, and was handled in an arbitrary and unsatisfactory way ... Mr.
Howe felt himself bound by the decision taken in cabinet at the instigation of
these younger members of cabinet, although lit, strongly disapproved of it.
During the same debate, Speaker RenÚ
Beaudoin reversed one of his rulings, paving the way for the Bill to pass. What
do you recall of that episode?
Beaudoin was truly the most tragic figure in
the whole Pipeline Debate. In simple terms, I think he panicked. Mr. Beaudoin
actually had a very good knowledge of the rules, but he was very ambitious, and
more significant, he had an overwhelming need or desire to please everyone.
That quality is very dangerous for a Speaker of the House of Commons to have.
I also recall that in the midst of the
debate, when tension was very high on all sides, Beaudoin began to perspire and
turned very pale, as if he were suffering from a heart attack. Dr. McCann the
Minister of National Revenue at the time, who was a medical doctor, got from me
some nitro-glycerine pills, wrapped them in a piece of paper and sent them to
the Speaker with a note telling him to put them under his tongue. The next day
it was widely reported that the government had been sending notes to the
Speaker telling him what to do, and that the Speaker was following them. That
indicates the tension that had built up in the House, and the state of emotion
in which the debate was being held. All reason had departed from the debate and
only, emotion took over.
In 1957 and for the next five years, you
sat in Opposition. How did this change affect you?
I have often said quite seriously, that it is
easier and more enjoyable being in Opposition, not more satisfying perhaps, but
enjoyable nevertheless. It was not may years until we had the government of the
day very much on the run notwithstanding its very large majority.
After the 1958 election, there were so
many government supporters elected that the lobby on the Opposition side
actually had more government than opposition members in it. Did this sharing of
a lobby between Liberals and Conservatives cause problems?
Not really. It was a friendly lobby, and we
all got along quite well. It was interesting to observe the evolution in
attitude of some of those very new government supporters. There had been
relatively few Conservative members in western Canada before that time. Many
who were elected in the Diefenbaker sweep had never been in Conservative Party
Associations or known anything about parliament.
It was interesting to see how quickly they
came to believe that they personally had won the election, when in fact most of
them were swept in on the flood. Regrettably, some of them grew to be quite
arrogant, an arrogance that caused them to do arbitrary things, and to become
very careless of the views of others. They were also very suspicious of anyone
who was not a supporter of the government. I remember the government whip of
the day issued an order forbidding all the stenographers to the members of the
government from having coffee break or lunch with secretaries who worked for
Despite his rapid fall from office, Prime
Minister Diefenbaker is often considered to have been a great parliamentarian.
Do you agree?
Mr. Diefenbaker was a good debater, but not
a great parliamentarian. He was a tremendously good actor, and probably would
have had a very successful career in that field, perhaps as great as Raymond
Massey, but he did not have an understanding or appreciation of the role of
prime minister. He tended to spend all his time seeking to destroy the
opposition, rather than acting as prime minister, presenting to parliament the
programme of a strong government that should be adopted by parliament and
supported by parliament. In other words, his approach was essentially
destructive, rather than making a constructive use of parliament. Never has a
leader gone down so far so fast.
You held several cabinet positions under
Mr. Pearson. The role of house leader during a minority parliament must have
been among the most difficult jobs of your career?
No, not really. Looking back. It appears to
me that Mr. Pearson used me as something of a trouble-shooter in his cabinet. I
moved from one portfolio to another, whenever there appeared to be a problem.
For example, when the Minister of justice, Mr. Favreau resigned, I was made
Acting Justice Minister. The same thing happened when Mr. John Garland, the Minister
of National Revenue, died, and no minister was appointed. I was acting minister
for some four months. I very often acted as prime minister when Mr. Pearson was
absent from Ottawa.
The job of being house leader was carried on
concurrently with whatever portfolio I held at the time, and I found it rather
pleasant working with all the members of the House of Commons.
You became government house leader during
the lengthy and acrimonious debate on adoption of the Canadian flag. What do
you recall of that period?
The flag issue was debated for many, weeks,
and was certainly tiresome and obstructive. Amendments were moved with such
frequency that many members spoke several times on the subject, and practically
every member on the opposition side spoke more than once. After a while the
debate came to look ridiculous because it was wholly repetitive and nothing new
was being said.
I remember a columnist in the press gallery
while sitting in the Chamber watching the debate. He sent me a note, saying,
"You've read the Ottawa Citizen 15 times. "I sent a note back to him,
saying "You're wrong. I have read it 16 times and I'm just starting to
read it again."
Shortly thereafter, I moved closure. As a
matter of fact, although closure is alleged to be very unpopular, there seemed
to be unanimous relief when closure was moved, and I got no complaints from the
public. None whatever. Indeed, I got a good deal of private sup port from the
Opposition side in the House of Commons".
What is the most important quality of a
good house leader?
Political integrity. The members of
parliament must know that the word of the house leader can be relied on, and
that he will not use his office to manipulate the business of the House in a
way that will take advantage of them. It they once give you that trust, and you
are careful to continue to earn it, they will co-operate fully. If you do not,
it is disaster.
Actually, I think that the interest of the
members on the government side and on the opposition side in the operation side
in the business in the House of Commons is the same, or very close to it, and a
government house leader must be assiduous in protecting the rights of the
individual members of the House of Commons in debate and they must know that
this will happen.
You have attended many leadership
conventions both before and since 1968. Do you see a significant change in
style and organization and if so, is it for the better?
There is urgent need for discussion and
reform on this whole subject. The present methods are rot satisfactory. For one
thing, conventions have become too costly. Furthermore, delegates to these
conventions are no longer representative of the members ill the constituencies.
Too often they are the choice of a small group in a constituency who have
distributed membership tickets to certain limited groups. They really choose
tile delegates to the convention rather than having them chosen by all the
party members in the constituency. This whole procedure requires examination
and drastic change.
You stated in your letter of resignation
as a minister that you believed in the influence of private members in the
process of government. How much influence, in fact, can a private member have
and what do you think of the reforms adopted during the last parliament?
The private member can have a very great
deal of influence. It is also, however, dependent on the prime minister or
leader of the opposition as the case may be. There has been a sharp diminution
in the influence of a private member in the last decade. I think the recent
procedural reforms were rather superficial. They were an ineffective attempt to
meet the need for parliamentary reform.
How did the nature and quality of your
relations with the press change during the course of your career?
My own relations with the press were quite
satisfactory through the whole of my political career. However, I have noted a
considerable change in the operations of the media during the last four
decades. The media now has tended to appoint itself as the authority on many subjects
and to abandon its role of recording the news as it happens. Because of the
competitiveness between television, radio and newspapers and the changes ill
each of them to meet the demands of their competition some unfortunate
practices have developed. There also has been a regrettable concentration of
power in the media. Witness the number of cities in the country now having only
one daily newspaper, the number of television stations operated by a chain or
some other form of common ownership.
You served more than a decade in the
Senate. What future do you see for our appointed Upper House?
The Senate is a necessary and important
safeguard against the concentration of power in the hands of the government. It
is necessary also as an effective means of checking bills to see that the
legislation adequately and properly meets the purposes for which parliament
intended i.e. that it is properly drafted and does not unnecessarily interfere
with the rights of the various segments of the public. This latter role cannot
be done effectively by the House of Commons but it can and is being well done
in many instances by the Senate. There is, of course, need for reform in the
internal conduct of business in the Senate and some further examination of the
criteria being used in appointment to the Senate.
The Conservatives now have a huge
majority in the House of Commons and the Liberals a huge majority in the
Senate. Do you think this will cause problems?
No. I do not think the opposition majority
in the Senate poses any problem. I do not foresee any attempt on the part of
the Senate to override or in any way go contrary to the expressed will of till?
voters as indicated by the representative in the House of Commons. The Senate
must continue to expose defects in legislation and if necessary to send
legislation back to the Commons for further examination and correction but I do
not anticipate any action on the part of the Senate to obstruct or block
legislation proposed by the government that has been properly and adequately
examined in the Commons. The role of each House is different from the other and
the problem you have posed, in my view, will not arise.