Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXXVI: the action of public opinion - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XXXVI: the action of public opinion - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the action of public opinion
In estimating the volume and force of public opinion in Canada as compared with European countries and the United States, one must remember that vast as the country is, its population has not yet reached nine millions, that there are only three or four cities large enough to contain a society of highly educated men who can give a lead in political thinking, and that only three or four universities have as yet risen to that front rank which is represented in Britain by nine or ten and in the United States by more than double that number. There is, moreover, a deep cleft which separates the French-speaking Roman Catholic element, most of it under ecclesiastical influences, from the other elements in the nation, so that on nearly all non-economic subjects divergences must be expected, for where fundamental ideas and habits of thought are concerned, the French mind and the British mind do not move on the same lines, even when both may arrive at similar practical conclusions. One cannot talk of a general opinion of the whole people as one can for most purposes in Great Britain, and could in Australia till the rise of the Labour party. As a set-off to this disadvantage there has been, until recently, little in the way of class opinion, the native Canadian wage-earners having been moved by much the same sentiments as the farmers and traders, neither of the two great parties any more than the other identified with the interests of the rich or of the poor, and neither seriously accused, whatever imputations may be launched during election campaigns, of being the permanent friend or tool of capitalists. Most of those questions of material development which fill so large a place in men's thoughts, find favour or arouse hostility as they affect one particular region of the country, so that upon only a few of them can any common or national view be looked for.
Comparing Canadian opinion with that of the country which most resembles it in economic conditions as well as in democratic sentiment, it is to be noted that whereas in the United States there is much discontent with the working of some institutions, such as the system of elections, the conduct of the Legislatures and the political machine, and the reforming spirit is evoked by a sense of faults which have to be cured, no similar discontent took shape till it found voice recently in the Farmers' movement in Canada. The legislative and administrative machinery had been working smoothly, if not always creditably, and such dissatisfaction as arose impugned not the machinery but the men who worked it. Scarcely any one proposed constitutional changes. The self-governing powers of the Dominion have so long been admitted by the Mother Country that most Canadians, welcoming the fuller recognition given, especially in the negotiation and signing of the Treaties of 1919 and 1920, to the right of their Government to be consulted in and express its views upon all matters affecting the policy of the British Empire as a whole, see no need for altering the present constitutional relations, loose and undefined as they are, of the different parts of that Empire. Such large issues as those of State interference with private enterprise, of the respective merits of State or private owned railroads, of subsidies to steamship lines, of the regulation of immigration, especially as regards Oriental races, are discussed not on grounds of general principle, but rather on the merits of any particular proposal made. Few people stop to think of the principles. What interests them is the concrete instance, and it would be deemed pedantic to suggest that an apparent immediate benefit should be foregone lest deviation from principle should set a dangerous precedent. The press is ably conducted, and exerts quite as much influence as in the United States, but the daily newspapers, even those who speak with authority for their party, have only a slender circulation outside their Provinces, so great are the distances which separate the populous towns. When any grave scandal is brought to light, either in an abuse of its patronage by the Dominion Government or in some unsavoury job committed by one of the Provincial administrations, there is an outcry in the press, and the people put a bad mark against the peccant Minister, perhaps even against the Cabinet of which he is a member, for the people are sound, and hate corruption in whatever form it appears. But they do not see how such things are to be prevented, even by the dismissal of the particular offender, for the fault lies in the men, not in the institutions; so they await the next elections as a means of giving effect to their displeasure, though with no confident hope that those whom the next elections instal in power will be better than their predecessors. Thus there had not arisen before 1914 what could be called any general Reforming movement with a definite programme. Public sentiment has, however, since then enforced one considerable reform, viz. the extension of the Civil Service laws to cover nearly all offices, and thereby virtually extinguish political patronage.
The people watch what goes on in the Parliament at Ottawa and in their Provincial Legislatures with as much attention as can perhaps be expected from a busy men in a swiftly advancing country, and they show an abounding party spirit when an election day arrives. The constant party struggle keeps their interest alive. But party spirit, so far from being a measure of the volume of political thinking, may even be a substitute for thinking. A foreign critic who asks, as some have done, why the spirit of reform may seem to have lagged, or flagged, in Canada may be reminded of three facts. One is that the evils which rouse the reformers to action, such as has been taken, have usually been flagrant, more destructive of true democracy than have been the faults of which Canadians complain. A second is that in Canada, where the population is small in proportion to the territory, that section of the citizens which is best educated and has leisure for watching and reflecting on the events of politics has been extremely small, scarcely to be found except in a very few urban centres; and a third is that these centres are widely removed from one another, with thinly peopled tracts interposed. Toronto and the towns to the west of it form one such centre, Ottawa and Montreal another. Quebec stands detached to the east; Winnipeg is far away to the North-West, Vancouver and Victoria still farther off on the shores of the Pacific. Most of these cities are of recent growth, and in each of them the number of persons qualified to form and guide opinion is not large. The public opinion they create is fragmentary; it wants that cohesion which is produced by a constant interchange of ideas between those who dwell near one another; it is with difficulty organized to form an effective force. Here, however, time must work for good. The volume of serious political thinking in Canada may be expected to increase steadily with the growth of the leisured class; with the development of the Universities, already gaining more hold on the country; with the increasing numbers and influence of the younger and progressive section of the western farmers, half of them, it is said, university graduates; with the presence of a larger number of men of a high type in the Legislatures; and with a sense among all thoughtful citizens that the problems, especially the social and economic problems, which confront them in our day require more exact and profound study than they have yet received.
Here we get down to bed-rock: here the question arises, Is it a fault characteristic of popular government that the problems referred receive insufficient study, seeing that in such a government as Canada possesses every opportunity exists for the men the country needs to show their capacity and make their way into parliaments and ministries, and seeing also that the nation, not distracted by questions of foreign policy and having long ago settled all the constitutional controversies, is free to bend its mind upon domestic questions? Has Canada been behind other countries in dealing with social reforms, with labour controversies, with tariffs, with the systematic development of national resources?
I will try to answer this by observing that the most burning of social reforms, that of the sale of intoxicants, has been dealt with, because public opinion took hold of the matter and did not wait for party politicians to trifle with it, and that to the adjustment of labour disputes Canada has made one of the best contributions of recent years in an Act prescribing enquiry and delay when strikes are threatened. The tariff is being still fought over, but so it is in many States, and Canada is so far not behind any other English-speaking country. But it must be admitted that the right method of conserving and developing natural resources either has not yet been found or that it has not been properly put in practice, though no subject is more essential to the welfare of a new country. Here the problem is threefold. The aims generally sought have been (a) to provide the maximum of facilities for turning forests and minerals to the best account, and for the transportation of products; (b) to prevent the absorption by speculators, for their own gain, of these and other sources of natural wealth; (c) to secure for the nation, so far as can be done without checking individual enterprise, the so-called “unearned increment” or additional value which land, minerals, and water power acquire from the general growth of population and prosperity. The pursuit of these three aims raises difficult questions as to the principles which ought to be laid down, questions which demand the patient thought and wide knowledge of the ablest minds that a government can enlist for the purpose. The application of these principles to a series of concrete cases must be entrusted to men of practical gifts, with clear heads and business experience, and with proved integrity also, for temptations arise on every side. Neither the eloquence of a debater nor the arts of the political intriguer are in place. But the British parliamentary system as worked in the self-governing Dominions is not calculated to find the men most needed. The talents it brings to the front are of a different order, and if men of the gifts specially required are found in a ministry, this will generally happen by a lucky chance. Canadian politicians have not, any more than those of Australia and the United States, searched for such men, and taken pains to stock the public service with them. The principles to be adopted would of course require the approval of the legislature, but political pressure ought not to be allowed to disturb their systematic and consistent application. So long as these matters are left to the chances of rough and tumble parliamentary debate or to be settled by secret bargaining between ministers, members, and “the interests,” there will be losses to the nation as well as ground for the suspicions to which politicians are now exposed.
As it is one of the most interesting features of the political system of Canada that in it institutions thoroughly English have been placed in a physical and economic environment altogether unlike that of England and almost identical with that of the Northern United States, and as the political phenomena of Canada and those of the United States illustrate one another in many points, it is worth while to summarize here the main points in which the institutions and the practices of the latter country differ from those of the no less democratic government of Canada.
The States of the American Union have wider powers than those of the Canadian Provinces, for the Constitutions of the Union and of the States impose restrictions on the National and the State Legislatures, whereas in Canada there are no such restrictions, except those which arise from the division in the Federal Constitution of functions between the Dominion and the Provinces.
The President of the United States has a veto upon the acts of Congress. There is (in practice) no similar veto on the acts of the Dominion Parliament.
The Senate is in the United States the more powerful of the two Houses of the Legislature. The Canadian Senate exerts little power.
The State Governor has in nearly all of the States a veto on the acts of his Legislature. The Lieutenant-Governor of a Province has no veto, and the power of disallowance vested in the Dominion Government is exercised rarely and only in very special cases.
In every American State the judges of the higher Courts are either (in a very few States) appointed by the Governor or elected by the Legislature, or else (in the great majority of States) elected by the people. In the Canadian Provinces they are all appointed by the Dominion Government.
In each of the American States some administrative offices are filled by direct popular election. In the Canadian Provinces all such offices are filled by appointment, nominally by the Lieutenant-Governor, practically by the Provincial Ministry, and the only elections (besides the municipal) are those held for the choice of representatives.
In the United States all elective offices, National and State, are held for a fixed term. In Canada posts in the civil service, except those very few whose occupants change with a change of government, are held for life, subject to dismissal for fault or incompetence.
In many States of the Union the people vote directly on projects of legislation by means of the Popular Initiative and the Popular Referendum on bills passed by the Legislature, and in some they may vote also for the dismissal or retention of officials, by the Popular Recall. In Canada the Constitutions do not provide for a direct voting by the people on such matters.
In the United States all Legislatures are elected for a fixed term, and cannot be dissolved before it expires. In Canada they may be dissolved by the Executive Ministry before the legal term expires.
In the United States the principle of the Division of Powers between the three Departments (Legislative, Executive, and Judicial) is recognized and to a large extent carried out. In Canada the Executive and Legislative are closely associated.
As a result of this difference, Responsibility is in Canada more concentrated and is more definitely fixed upon a small number of persons than it is in the United States. In Canada, both in the Dominion and in the Provinces, Power rests with and Responsibility attaches to the Cabinet. In the United States, Power and Responsibility are divided between the Executive (President or State Governor) and the Legislature.
In the United States Federal Government the Cabinet are merely the President's servants. In the States of the Union the Governor has no Cabinet and advisers such as the Lieutenant-Governor has in a Canadian Province.
In the United States no Federal official can sit in Congress, no State official in a State Legislature. In Canada Federal Ministers sit in the Dominion, and Provincial Ministers in the Provincial legislatures.
To these constitutional contrasts let us add three other differences of high significance in practice.
There is in Canada no party organization comparable, in strength and its wide extension over the whole field of politics, to that which exists in the party Machines of the United States.
The only Canadian elections fought on party lines are those to the Dominion Parliament and to the Provincial Legislatures. Local government elections usually turn upon local issues or the personal merits of candidates.
Such influence, now greatly reduced by the creation of the Civil Service Commission, as the Canadian Executive possesses over the bestowal of posts in the public services applies only to appointment in the first instance. Officials are not dismissed on party grounds to make way for persons with party claims, i.e. there is no “Spoils System.”
Viewed as a whole, the government of Canada, although nominally monarchical, is rather more democratic than that of the United States. No single man enjoys so much power as the President during his four years, for the Prime Minister of the Dominion is only the head of his Cabinet, and though, if exceptionally strong in character and in his hold over his majority in Parliament, he may exert greater power than does a President confronted by a hostile Congress, still he is inevitably influenced by his Cabinet and can seldom afford to break with it, or even with its more important members, while both he and they are liable to be dismissed at any moment by Parliament The voters are in the United States more frequently summoned to act, but in Canada their power, when they do act at an election, is legally boundless, for their representatives are subject to no such restrictions as American Constitutions impose. Were there any revolutionary spirit abroad in Canada, desiring to carry sweeping changes by a sudden stroke, these could be carried swiftly by Parliamentary legislation.
In winding up this comparison let us pause to note another difference between the United States and Canada which has some historical interest. In the former there has been from early days an almost superstitious devotion to the idea of popular sovereignty, and at some moments enthusiasm for it has risen so high as to make every plan which invokes the direct action of the people act like a spell. In Canada the actual power of the people is just as effective, and the same praises of the people's wisdom are addressed to the people by every orator with a like air of conviction. But in Canada neither the idea in theory nor its application in the incessant exercise of voting power has possessed any special fascination. The Canadians have never, like their neighbours to the south, fallen under the influence of this or any other abstract idea. They are quite content to be free and equal, and masters of their fate, without talking about Liberty and Equality. Having complete control of their administrations through their legislatures, they are therewith content. Popular sovereignty receives here, as in every democracy, all the lip service it can desire. But it is not a self-assertive, obtrusive, gesticulative part of the national consciousness.