Little has changed — Martin’s problems similar to events of 1926

by Bruce Cherney

There are some striking similarities to today’s political environment in Canada and what occurred in 1926. 

Some pundits have even suggested that it’s not too far of a stretch to replace Prime Minister Paul Martin with Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Official Opposition Leader Stephen Harper with Official Opposition Leader Arthur Meighen and Governor General Adrienne Clarkson with Governor-General Lord Byng to get an historical take on what is now happening in Ottawa.

Martin also has the sponsorship scandal to haunt him going into the anticipated general election and King had his Customs scandal plaguing his re-election prospects — both corruption scandals involved Quebec.

In the 1925 federal election, the Conservatives under Meighen — Manitoba’s first and only prime minister — captured 116 seats in the House of Commons to the Liberal’s 101, but King was able to keep running the government with the support of 24 Progressives. King’s tenacious hold onto power despite having the only the second highest seat total was unprecendented in Commonwealth politics. But, if anything, King proved time and time again that he was a crafty politician and consistently had a handle on the political climate of the times. 

Led by Winnipegger Thomas Crerar, the Progressives just one year after their formation burst upon the political scene in 1921, taking more seats than the Conservatives (65 to 50) in the House and running second only to King’s Liberals (117). The Progressives could have formed the official opposition but they refused citing their abhorrence of party politics. 

They actually couldn’t agree on much, since they were a motley collection of farmers, socialists and radicals opposed to the traditional party system. Because of their deep-felt animosity, the Progressives rejected Crerar’s attempts to impose party discipline. Under the populist nature of the movement — its full name was the National Progressive Party — the dissenting MPs believed themselves to be a pressure group out to reform the system rather than a political party. In the end, few among them could agree on how to go about reforming the system.

The Progressives did find themselves more closely aligned to the Liberals than the Conservatives. And, when King promised to support specific legislation he gained their support for a time. It’s like the recent deal made by Martin and NDP Leader Jack Layton. The 19 NDP MPs will support the Liberals as long as the NDP get social services goodies in the federal budget. (The budget vote on Thursday was after the WREN’s publication deadline and it was then unknown what would be the effect Ontario MP Belinda Stronach’s defection to the Liberals. But, with her vote, the Paul Martin government and the NDP were in a 152-152 tie with the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois.)

The King Liberals did survive their minority position for a period, much to the chagrin of Meighen who was itching to once again become prime minister. In 1920, he had a brief four-month taste of heading the nation, but the Conservatives were defeated in the 1921 election. Meighen even lost his Manitoba seat in the House and in 1922 turned to the Ontario voters of Grenville riding to regain his standing in Parliament. 

Following the 1925 election, Byng — a hero to Canadians because he led this nation’s successful attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917 — favoured the Conservatives forming the government because they captured more seats than the Liberals. But, King, as related in his personal diary, told the governor general “that our forces, and the Progressives who had been, not in opposition, but allied with government and co-operating with us this last Parliament and to whom something was always owning would never forgive me if I had turned over to a common political enemy the reins of office, when apparently he (Meighen) was not in the position to control the House of Commons.”

To which, King wrote on November 30, 1925, that Byng said, “of course, I do not agree.”

King commented that the governor general had not been “gracious” and seemed to have a “colonialism” attitude about Canada. 

At this time, London still appointed Canada’s governors general from the ranks of the British aristocracy. It wasn’t until 1952 that Ottawa was free to appoint its own governors general from among Canadians.

King said that “... if we are to have self-government we shall have to have it in its entirety without anyone ‘sent out’ by England to ‘umpire’ our behaviour.”

On December 3, 1925, King wrote that he had received advice “to carry on until an equivalent to a non-confidence vote carried ... and give me a chance to get a seat.”

The prime minister had lost his own seat in the House of Commons during the 1925 election. He turned to the voters of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, who returned him to the House after a February 15, 1926 byelection.

Meanwhile, the Liberals became embroiled in a corruption scandal. Across the border, the Americans imposed Prohibition, and they looked to Canada to prevent liquor following southward. Jacques Bureau, the customs and excise minister, promoted a known bootlegger to a top customs enforcement position in Montreal, and then tried to defend his appointment after the RCMP showed him evidence of the bootlegger’s wrongdoing.

In retaliation, Bureau pulled all RCMP officers from their border posts and the liquor began to flow freely into the United States from Canada.

King commented in his diary that he was frustrated by the whole affair and that it had become necessary to call an inquiry and seek the resignation of the minister.

“Cardin said all Bureau had done he had done for his friends,” King wrote on May 7, 1926. “It did not seem to matter that he had permitted criminal acts and shortcomings. It is a trying situation.”

King got the minister to resign, but immediately appointed him to the Senate. This was a move that didn’t sit well with the Progressives whose support for the government then started to wane.

“This has been an exceedingly anxious day,” King wrote on June 15. “At 6 o’clock, I feared the administration had come to the end of its term.”

A procedural vote was sprung which the Conservatives hoped would show the Liberals had lost the confidence of MPs in the House. At the time, the Liberals were short three members and King feared the worst since he had received word that some Progressives may not side with the government.

Yet, the government survived the vote by a majority of five. “The Progressives certainly did nobly and saved the day for me.”

Today, it is the NDP and three Independent MPs that Martin hopes will duplicate the feat of the Progressives and save his government.

By June 16, the report on liquor smuggling was complete, though not released, and the opposition was preparing to topple King’s Liberals. A censure vote failed to pass because of the support of the Progressives.

Winnipeg Labour Party MP W.S. Woodsworth threatened to remove his support for the government if there was any ‘whitewashing in connection with Customs Inquiry.”

The Customs and Excises Inquiry report was made public on June 19. King promised to prepare “bills, regulations, orders-in-council re carrying out recommendations of Committee.”

The Conservatives smelled blood, saying that the corruption reached the highest levels of the government, including the prime minister. The Conservatives proposed three votes on the question of government corruption. They also refused to pair — an opposition member agrees to be absent from the House when a government member cannot attend and vice versa — with a Liberal whose wife had died. He had to hastily return from her funeral to the House to vote. 

Today, the NDP’s Ed Broadbent is being praised for his decision to pair with Conservative MP Darrel Stinson who is scheduled for cancer surgery when the House votes on the Liberal-NDP budget on Thursday.

The King government  barely survived the vote, winning by a majority of one. To avoid more close votes and a potential defeat, King decided to approach the governor general to dissolve parliament and issue a writ for a general election, also saying that it would be impossible for Meighen to sustain the confidence of the House.

King didn’t know whether or not Byng would follow his advice, and his diary is full of speculation on what steps should be taken if the governor general refused to prorogue Parliament and issue the writ.

King met with Byng on June 26 at Government House, the official residence of the governor general.

He told Byng about losing a vote on a Woodsworth amendment. “It was not a Government amendment though all the members on the Government side supported it ...”

Following this loss and the passage of another amendment by just one vote, it had become evident to King that the government was in a precarious situation and nearing defeat. He told the governor general that government business could no longer be performed.

Byng refused to call another election after, citing that just nine months had passed after the last election and Meighen should be given the opportunity to govern.

King wrote to Byng on June 28 that his refusal “to accept the advice of a prime minister is a serious step at any time, and most serious under existing conditions in all parts of the British Empire today, there will be raised, I fear, by the refusal ... a grave constitutional question without precedent in the history of Great Britain for a century, and the history of Canada since Confederation.”

Byng then replied that Meighen should be given a chance to govern “and that all reasonable expedients should be tried before resorting to another election.”

The governor general wrote to L.S. Amery, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs in London, England, that he considered King’s advice “wrong and unfair, and not for the welfare of the people ... But I have to wait the verdict of history to prove my having adopted a wrong course and this I do with an easy conscience that, right or wrong, I have acted in the interests of Canada, and have implicated no one else in my decision.”

Amery replied that he sympathized with the governor general and considered his refusal a “wise” decision to a “preposterous suggestion” by King.

“He has cut a contemptible figure in the whole business,” said Amery.

Contemptible or not, King knew he had an issue to present to the voters when an election was called. He would play the Byng-King Affair to the fullest as a constitutional crisis and a blow to Canadian sovereignty. To strengthen his position with the voters, he came to the governor general with an order-in-council seeking the dissolution of Parliament. When Byng refused to sign the order, King had ammunition to claim the governor general was interfering in Canadian democracy.

After King resigned as prime minister, Meighen could have refused the governor general’s call to form the government and have the country in limbo for the two-month duration of an election campaign. After consulting Borden, who said Meighen had no choice but to accept the offer, he formed the government.

Under political convention of the day, cabinet ministers had to resign their seats and stand for election — a Liberal bill passed by the King government set this condition. Meighen knew he could not face the electorate at this stage, so he created a series of acting ministers to avoid creating full cabinet positions and face a general election.

The Meighen government within three days of sitting in the House lost a confidence vote, 96-95. Because of his brief tenure as prime minister for the second time in his political career, Meighen became known as the “three-day wonder.”

King turned the subsequent election into a constitutional question — the Customs scandal was forgotten because of King’s deft manipulation  of election issues — claiming Byng had usurped the power of the Canadian people by refusing to accept the advice of the prime minister, and that Meighen’s creation of acting ministers was unconstitutional.

Meighen and his party were lost in the shadows of the King-Byng Affair, and the Liberals won with 128 seats to the Tories’ 91. The Liberals still had a minority government, but this time around only needed the support of six of the 11 Progressives elected to run government business. Actually, 1926 effectively ended the influence of the Progressives. Former leader Crerar (he left the Progressives in 1922 in frustration) and others would eventually join the Liberal Party. By 1929, Crerar was a Liberal cabinet minister. 

The socialist element of the Progressives would help form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, or CCF, which later became the NDP.

Meighen leader said he had lost to the “most contemptible charlatan ever to darken the annals of Canadian politics.” The feeling was mutual — they both loathed each other, but King was victorious. 

Just a year later, a disillusioned Meighen resigned as leader of the Tories and took a position with a Toronto investment company. He returned to politics in 1932 when R.B. Bennett, a Conservative prime minister elected in 1930, appointed him to the Senate. 

Meighen made one last attempt to become prime minister in 1942 when he again was made the leader of the Conservative Party, but he failed to win a seat in a byelection. He died in 1960.

Lord Byng left Canada for good on September 30, 1926 and became a Viscount. He died in 1935.

King has been Canada’s most successful prime minister to date, serving a total of 21 years. He died in 1950.

While there is still a deep division over who was right or wrong, the King-Byng Affair changed the future role of the governor general in Canada. King’s government redefined the governor general’s role as a representative of the sovereign (King or Queen) and not the British government which would imply colonial status rather than political autonomy. A Commonwealth conference in 1926 reinforced this view. 

Today, the function of Canada’s governor general is mainly symbolic and ceremonial and he or she  must accept the advice given by the prime minister. In addition, the prime minister appoints the governors general. Technically, the prime minister makes a recommendation for the position to the Queen but this recommendation has never been refused.