Imperial Conference

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Imperial Conference 1921  (1921) 
by Arthur Meighen

Speech to the House of Commons on April 27, 1921

Mr. Speaker, it was not my intention, certainly it was not my desire, to take part in this discussion until I had had the advantage of hearing the opinions of as many hon. members as desired to speak, with such suggestions as they had to offer of help to any member of the Government who would represent this country at the forthcoming Conference of Prime Ministers. But in view of the rather extraordinary, certainly most unprecedented, step which the leader of the Opposition has taken in seizing advantage of a special opportunity given for discussion of a subject such as this, to move an amendment to Supply, I think the position of the Government in relation to that amendment should at once be made known. I speak, I think, the undoubted fact when I say that the practice of having discussion preliminary to the visit of a representative of this country to a conference of the Prime Ministers or other representatives of the Dominion and of Great Britain has not heretofore been observed. I, at least, do not remember hearing myself or having read of a discussion in the House specially set, looking to anything in the way of direction or in the way of restraint upon a representative who would speak at such a conference for Canada. When I say that, I do not mean to imply that the example that we are setting this afternoon so far as discussion goes, is not a good example. Had that been my judgment or the judgment of the Government, it would have been our duty to say so rather than to fix a date and to invite discussion. On the contrary, I think the example of giving an opportunity for discussion this afternoon and of having Parliament informed in advance as to the particular purpose of the discussion is a valuable one. It seems to me that much good can result from a free interchange of views between various members of the House from all sides, and particularly that good can result when we have in mind the special character of some of the subjects that must be reviewed at the conference this June. Indeed; the Government has been of opinion that very little progress can be made along the lines of solution of some of the questions that we must review, until the fullest opportunity for discussion in Parliament has been given, involving as it does, a very considerable passage of time, because the discussion of one day, or one week, or one month would not be of much value, but also that little can safely be done until there has progressed throughout the whole country such study of the question as will lead the representatives who go overseas and indeed those who stay within this House in no doubt as to what would be acceptable to the people of this country in the way of decisions by Canada. That much, I think, can be accepted; at least, I submit that as the expression of my opinion.

But the occasion is seized to move an amendment to Supply, designed to place some restraint, whatever it may be, upon the hands of the Dominion's representatives going to a conference of the Prime Ministers of the Empire. I venture to suggest that not only has no such thing been done with reference to other conferences of a similar kind that have been held in years gone by dating back some twenty years, but no such step has been taken preliminary to the taking part in such conference of representatives of other Dominions of this Empire. Why is such a step inadvisable? I answer first of all, and I think, if I went no further, the answer would appeal to the House as conclusive- because such action is out of harmony with the whole principle of conference. A conference is held in order that conditions present in the various Dominions represented there may be disclosed and fully made known before the representatives of all, in order that facts that may not be known to others and that are known to some, the importance and the proportions of which may not be fully understood in certain parts of the Dominion, but are understood in others, may be stated and measured in order that the views that are held in some portions of the Dominion as being of great consequence and in others as being of less importance, may all be brought together and the whole situation canvassed, and such conclusions reached as seem to be possible to the whole and for me advantage of all. That is a definition that I modestly advance as expressive of the very nature of conference itself. Such being the purpose and the object of conference, we are taking, in my judgment, a false step if Parliament takes any action designed to map out the course which the representatives of this country should take as to specific subjects which will be under discussion and review. Let me follow this out a little further. Suppose the action which we are asked to take this afternoon, and which we are requested, I fear with some satire, to assume is in no way intended to embarrass the Government, but rather to be of assistance to the Government in this great task- suppose the action we are asked to take this afternoon is to become a practice to be followed by the other Dominions, and that it is to be pursued not only as to the special subjects enumerated in the amendment, but as to other subjects (because if we are right in directing as to one we are right in directing as to another); suppose that is to be followed to its logical conclusion, in Australia, in New Zealand, in South Africa, in Newfoundland, in India in Great Britain, and that the delegates go to the conference directed by their governments along certain lines, or along all lines, then why do they go there at all? What is the conference for? Has not the conference been blasted at the hour of its conception? Indeed, the step we are asked to take this afternoon is the first step towards making the consultative and conference principle of no value at all in the promotion of the common interests of the Empire.

The hon. leader of the Opposition asks me not to accept his amendment as a motion of want of confidence in the Government. Well, if the hon. member has confidence in the Government, and especially in the Prime Minister as regards this conference, I do not know why the motion is advanced. But next, a motion in amendment to Supply is, prima facie, a motion of want of confidence. I was interested some days ago in hearing the result of the researches of the hon. member for Shelburne and Queen's (Mr. Fielding) in an effort to persuade Parliament that a motion to adopt the old reciprocity pact of 1911, in amendment to Supply, was in no way intended as a want of confidence motion. He had succeeded in digging up actually two amendments to Supply since Confederation that, had not been taken as motions of want of confidence in the Government - two in fifty-four years. Consequently, it does not need to be argued to be impressed that a motion in amendment to Supply, prima facie- is a motion of want of confidence. But much more is it so when coming from the leader of the Opposition, it seeks to place manacles on the hands of a representative of this country going to attend a Conference of Prime Ministers of the Empire. But aside entirely from the question of whether it is or not, surely it is not the part of wisdom for this House to start upon a course which, if followed, will destroy the only line that we can, take as separate dominions in association with Great Britain to promote our common concerns, and make possible our continuance as an Empire on the basis on which we now stand.

While I am on my feet I will have something to say, because I could not do so later, as to how this conference comes to be called, and the subject matters that will there be reviewed, I shall as well attempt to distinguish it from other conferences that are in some respects similar. As I do so, I will make reference to the questions put to me by the leader of the Opposition who has just sat down.

In the Imperial Conference in 1917-I am pretty sure it was the Imperial Conference and not the Imperial War Cabinet -a resolution was adopted to this effect; that the subject of any necessary readjustment of the constitutional relations of the various Dominions to each other and to the Mother Land was a subject of such importance and complexity that its consideration should be deferred to some special conference to be held succeeding the war, and that whatever was done should be in full recognition of the autonomous powers of the Dominions, should in no way be any subtraction from any of those powers, and further, should recognize the rights of the Dominions to an adequate voice in determining those features and principles of foreign policy in which the whole Empire is concerned.

Perhaps, before I go further, I should endeavour to distinguish the various conferences that have been held, so that the House will not be in doubt as to what has constituted the one class and what the other.

The Imperial Conference is the first. That has been held periodically since before the commencement of this century. In 1907 a resolution was adopted by that conference, Resolution No. 1, providing that that conference should be called regularly every four years. That is a conference of representative ministers of the various parts of the Empire and of Great Britain. The president of the conference is the Prime Minister of Great Britain, but the conference is called at the instance of the Secretary for the Colonies, and the mechanism, the secretariat of the conference, is under the latter's supervision. As a matter of fact, he usually presides, in his capacity of vice-chairman of the conference. The subject matter that has been discussed from time to time at the Imperial Conference has had to do with the concerns of the Empire as an empire, concerns in which each portion was interested, concerns which might possibly be referred to as domestic concerns of the British Empire. It had not to do with questions of foreign policy.

During the war there developed what was known as the Imperial War Cabinet, a name to which some exception might be taken on the ground that it indicates really more than the assembly actually was. Exception, by the way, was taken to the name on the part of the late leader of the Opposition, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was of opinion that "council" would be a more appropriate term than cabinet. The Imperial War Cabinet developed during the war. It was a meeting of the ministers of the British Government, such as were selected, and of the ministers of the other governments of the Empire, and therefore as regards composition was virtually the same as the Imperial Conference itself. Its chairman was the Prime Minister of Great Britain. The Secretary for the Colonies had no special relation thereto. It was called by the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the subject matter that was taken up and reviewed by the War Cabinet differed essentially from the subject matter that came before the Imperial Conferences. The War Cabinet had to do with matters of high policy, with matters affecting foreign affairs and particularly with matters related to the united prosecution of the war on the part of all branches of the Empire. So much for that. I should say that one subject relating to foreign affairs was taken up earlier in which Canada had a hearing namely the renewal of the Japanese Alliance in 1911. In respect of this the representative of Canada, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, had a voice. But that voice was expressed, not at a meeting of the Imperial Conference, but at a meeting of the Committee on Imperial Defence, which was quite another body. In passing, I may say that provision was made by the Imperial War Cabinet whereby any of the British Dominions might have a minister of its Government present at all sessions of that Cabinet, between its plenary sessions, dealing with war matters. But inasmuch as that privilege was never taken advantage of, there is no need to do more than refer to it now. At the Peace Conference at Paris the ministers from the various Dominions-I believe the prime ministers of all were there-considered that it would be necessary for them to meet in order to make certain arrangements and have certain discussions which, in their judgment, would be essential before the Constitutional Conference, contemplated by the resolution of the Imperial Conference of 1917, to which I have alluded, should be held. Though an attempt was made then to fix a meeting place and decide upon a time, no success was achieved, and it was only last October that, in a confidential message received from the Prime Minister of Great Britain, it was suggested that, as other prime ministers could conveniently be present in June, Canada should be represented by its prime minister at a conference to be held in Great Britain in that month