TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE FIRST STUMBLE OF MINISTERS.
THE painful scene in the House of Commons last Friday night has caused deep regret to some of the most sincere friends of the present Government ; since, if it has not shaken the position of Ministers as to the mere tenure of office, it has tended considerably to damage their prestige. When they entered office, the present Ministers were not only expected to recover some of the ground lost in the prestige of our constitution, but were also presumed to bring to public service an uncommon amount bf experience and ability. It was well known that the Cabinet comprised those who possessed a complete mastery of the subject of the Canadian Clergy Re- serves ; and it might have been expected that, with such a per- fect possession of the subject and appreciation of its importance, they would have taken pains thoroughly to discuss it, to know
their own minds, and to place the measure which they thought it necessary to bring forward in a state of maturity and complete- ness. It is admitted that they might have many precedents for botching up bills in the presence of Parliament after their intro- duction; but, while the present Ministry was bound to discontinue that derogatory practice, this affair of the Clergy Reserves was in particular one that demanded the utmost attention beforehand, and the utmost decision in all overt action ; the very object being to allay irritation and settle uncertainty. Nor was it difficult to do so by adhering to simplicity in the
measure. In 1840 the question of the Clergy Reserves was half settled, by permitting the local Government to dispose of the land, but reserving the funds accruing for ecclesiastical purposes : it is now proposed to leave the whole matter to the Canadian Legisla- ture, whose affair it really is, and to withdraw the Imperial inter- vention altogether. That object may be regarded as the essential of the bill now before Parliament. In 1840, however, there was some difficulty in procuring the passage of such a measure as the compromise through either House, especially the House of Lords; but that anticipated difficulty was surmounted by favour of an understanding with Sir Robert Peel, at that time leader of the strong Conservative Opposition ; whose offer of terms that would procure the assent of the party with whom he acted, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Wellington, comprised a guarantee on the Consolidated Fund, that the sum payable to the Canadian offshoots of the Churches of England and Scotland should not fall short of 9280/. This guarantee was evidently in- tended to make good any deficiency of proceeds arising from un- favourable sales. As the surrender of the control to the Canadian Legislature is to be now complete, it was a natural idea that the guarantee should also be extinguished, as applying to a state of relations quite different from those which the new bill would esta- blish ; and accordingly Ministers introduced into their bill a clause repealing the guarantee.
After the bill had got into Committee, however, Lord John Russell rose, and recalling to mind the solemn agreement of Lord Melbourne's Government with Sir Robert Peel, proposed to omit the repealing clause, as due to personal consistency and good faith. This was an unfortunate change in mid course—a change not forced upon them by a hostile vote, but volunteered by the very authors of the measure. A totally new string of reasons was now discovered against the clause,—that there was no necessity to mix up the question of control over the funds in Canada with the ques- tion of the British guarantee, which might never be called into effect : the reserves might not be secularized by the Canadian Legis- lature; the fund intended to be secured for the two favoured Churches might never fall short. Sufficient unto the day when the guaran- tee should come into effect would be the discussion thereof.
All this is true. It is probable that in strict personal honour
Lord John was precluded from withdrawing the guarantee. If he were to repeal it now, it must be a volunteered act of repudiation : whereas if it were left until it should come into effect, probably other hands would have to deal with it ; or if he should still be in office, necessity might warrant a step which only a presumptive reasoning could now excuse. Besides to decide for posterity in the matter of the guarantee would be identically the same absurd- ity as that decision for posterity in the matter of Colonial church establishments -which Parliament was now invited to abandon. In all this train of reasoning we can share, if not anticipate, the arguments of Ministers.
But how unfortunate that they did not remember it all at the right
time, before they introduced their bill ! The reasons were as plain three months back as they are now. But to discover such peremptory arguments on so obvious and so important a point after a bill is be- fore Parliament, is to confess, either that Ministers had not given to this grave measure the grave consideration which it demanded, or that they do not possess that perspicacity and that constructive power which have been ascribed to them. They exhibit them- selves in the old and derogatory position of bringing slovenly unconsidered provisions before Parliament, to be botched and re- trenched in Committee. That they laid themselves open, not to the strained but to the fair and strict yet easy criticism of Mr. Disraeli, attests their humiliation.
The retraetation of the clause is not equivalent to its omission
in the first instance, for other reasons besides the confession of bungling. By raising the question of the guarantee, and main- taining it, they take their stand on a ground which cannot be maintained. Even if the colonists were willing to have stipend- iary missionaries of an English establishment settled amongst them, it is certain that the English taxpayer is becoming daily more disinclined to pay for the support of ecclesiastical institutions in the Colonies. The best friends of the Church know that these forced benevolences are not the mode to make the Church popular either in colony or mother-country ; and when Ministers find so good a Churchman, so independent and yet so moderate a Colonial statesman, as Mr. Adderley against them, they may be sure that they are wrong. But the circumstances help to add to the vacil- lation which marks the conduct of Ministers, in this instance, a look of insincerity : that which may be the result of sudden and tardy recollection looks too much like an afterthought; and very strong suspicions, openly hinted, that it was nothing more nor less than a concession to the House of Lords and to the Parti Pretre represented within the Cabinet itself, were not weakened by the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer appeared as the guardian, not of the Treasury, but of the ecclesiastical guarantee. If not too subservient to the Parti Pretre, Ministers seemed to be at all events too much under the influence of fears about the fate of a measure which firmness and consistency might have rendered certain. By their acts they confessed that they had failed either in mastery of their subject, or of Parliament, or of themselves. It was most unlucky that they selected for this act of retracta- tion the eve of the Easter recess ; supplying the public, which had been fondly dwelling on their concentrated abilities, with food for ruminating on their foibles. When Parliament reassembles after the recess, the leader of the House of Commons will reenter it to confront the tough work of the session, with that uneasy sense of an equivocal position which was discerned in his bearing on Friday night. If not the most important, the most imperatively neces- sary measure of the session—the Budget, for which Ministers will need all their strength and influence, will have to be advanced by that very Minister who appeared so untowardly in this debate as setting ecclesiastical punctilios above practical economy.
To some constitutions the bitters of adversity are a wholesome tonic; and it is to be hoped that this lesson will not be lost on Ministers. The more important measures that now engage their energies will need sufficiency, straightforwardness, and determi- nation in handling. They will not be safe, however, unless they be alive to the danger of falling into exactly the same dilemma in other affairs. There is in particular one cause to which we believe the failure of the most truthful and able men who enter office may be traced—that defective or vicious organization of the departments which obstructs intercommunication with each other, and which gives to the political Minister temporarily at the head of each, not an instrument for concentrating information and exe- cuting resolves, but one for intercepting information in its passage upwards, and perverting the policy of a transient Cabinet in subser- viency to the perennial policy of the subordinate staff. Whatever the professions of the Cabinet, the question commonly is, shall the policy which is set practically working be that of the Ministers or of their subordinates ; and when it fails politically, the political Ministers are the sacrifice. Organic harmony would be as vitally beneficial in office as in other organisms.