Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Marking 50 years on the legislature floor

Deddeda Stemler photo

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 4, 2008


George MacMinn’s office contains one of only two working fireplaces in the capital’s historic parliament building.

His desk has a plaque marking it as once having been used by the Queen.

Such perks are the reward for someone whose workday includes interminable hours at a table on the red-carpeted floor of the Legislature.

He is the clerk of the B.C. Legislature. For 50 years, Mr. MacMinn has been surrounded by politicians, his ears buffeted by the warm blast of rhetoric.

No table officer anywhere in the vast Commonwealth — from Antigua to Zambia — has enjoyed so long a tenure.

In the raucous chamber, in which sitting members square off like irate hockey players, the Speaker acts as referee, wearing a robe instead of a striped shirt. As clerk, Mr. MacMinn is the neutral and nonpartisan keeper of the rule book. He is an expert in procedure, precedent, and standing orders.

Some may think a half-century of listening to politicians to be cruel and unusual, but not Mr. MacMinn.

“It’s a rather awesome experience sitting there in the middle of the action,” he said. “Bullets flying back and forth. And none of them seem to hit me.”

He’s written what some parliamentarians describe as the bible. (No, not the Bible. He’s not that old. He’s only 78.) Mr. MacMinn is currently at work on the fourth revised edition of his Parliamentary Practice in British Columbia, which he hopes to get to the Queen’s Printer later this year.

While not spellbinding reading, it does include a chapter with the promising title of “Offer of money to member; bribery in elections.”

“Haven’t had to consult that one,” he said. “Yet.”

He spent part of yesterday afternoon watching on a computer debate in the Louisiana House of Representatives. He then surfed over to Westminster, where he was once seconded, to see the House of Commons in action. Another few keystrokes and he watched the members of the House of Lords file into the chamber after a division.

His office is filled with souvenir tchotchkes from parliament’s around the world, a kitschy collection of plaques and paperweights. In a corner, near the fireplace, a table holds the Speaker’s Trophy, a homemade prize awarded to the winner an annual tennis tournament pitting the press gallery against a team formed by the Speaker. The current score is 14-1 and Mr. MacMinn’s wide grin betrays which side maintains the advantage.

Asked the secret to his longevity, he replies quickly: “Good scotch and good pipe tobacco.”

He has served 15 Speakers, observed 10 premiers. His tenure has been such that he has seen sons follow fathers — the Gordon Gibsons, as well as Bill and W.A.C. Bennett — onto the floor.

He has had a front-row seat to some of the most dramatic events in the province’s political history. He has felt the elder Bennett’s dominating personality, heard Flyin’ Phil Gaglardi in full rhetorical flight, witnessed a defiant Dave Barrett being carried out of the chamber.

He takes so seriously his role as a nonpartisan officer that he has not cast a ballot in the 13 provincial elections since he joined the clerk’s staff.

The hiring was an unexpected turn of events.

On a quiet day, the struggling 27-year-old lawyer took a telephone call at his office. The voice on the other end wanted to know if he was available that day to meet the province’s attorney general.

“Just a minute, I’ll check my calendar,” Mr. MacMinn replied. The day’s schedule was blank. He agreed to a 3 p.m. appointment.

Robert Bonner had been wounded as an officer with the Seaforth Highlanders during the war. He was a powerful minister in the Bennett cabinet.

“Your name has been given to me by a lawyer in town as someone who might be interested in taking a job at the assembly as a table officer,” Mr. Bonner said. “Would you be interested?”

Mr. MacMinn was. The job came with a munificent $800 salary.

The attorney general had two questions.

“Are you closely aligned with any political party?” he asked.

“I must confess,” Mr. MacMinn replied, “I haven’t been too interested.”

Mr. Bonner seemed pleased by the response.

His final questions was succinct, though unexpected.

“Do you have a sense of humour?”

“I think so,” Mr. MacMinn answered.

He was then dispatched to meet with a white-haired, craggy-looking fellow named Ned de Beck. The job interview with the clerk of the house was even quicker than the meeting with the attorney general. He mulled over the applicant’s family name.

“Are you in any way related to Hope MacMinn?” he asked.

That was his mother.

“I play bridge with her,” the clerk said. “You’ll do fine.”

His appointment was ratified by the House at its next sitting. He has not left the table since.

He came to law only after realizing poor science marks did not herald a career in medicine.

He was born in 1930, on the cusp of the Depression, at New Glasgow, N.S., where his father was a bank manager. Earle George MacMinn had dreamed of being a doctor, passing on to his son both his name and own thwarted ambition, if not necessarily his Conservative politics.

The family moved to Victoria when George was 13. Five years later, he was bird hunting with his father on a day when what seemed to be an inconsequential decision proved to be tragic.

Not seeing any birds in the sky, the elder MacMinn slipped into a punt on a lake near Duncan. He was going to roust birds on the far shore. Unseen by his son, the boat tipped.

After spotting the overturned craft, as well as his father’s hat, floating on the water, the boy got help. The police were unable to to find the body. The next day, cruelly, the lake froze over. His father’s remains were recovered later.

It was from his father that he got his love for tennis. His father had been a doubles player for his home province and the son adopted his father’s now-antiquated continental grip.

Mr. MacMinn makes a biannual pilgrimage to Wimbledon. He has also transformed the expansive lawn between his Oak Bay house and the sea into what he calls Spoon Bay Centre Court. He thinks lawn tennis a subtle game and one easy on the knees of a septuagenarian whose backhand remains defiantly one-handed.

Once a year, he invites members of the press gallery to practice at Spoon Bay before the annual tournament.

Ornithologists know Spoon Bay as a spot visited by the likes of oystercatchers, black-bellied plovers and greater yellowlegs, which, come to think of it, is not a bad description of the denizens of the press gallery.

Two years ago, gallery members made Mr. MacMinn an honourary life member, an award perhaps not as celebrated as his being named Queen’s counsel, or to the Order of British Columbia, or being awarded the Queen’s Medal for Outstanding Service.

The announcement of the gallery membership earned Mr. MacMinn a rare rebuke in the legislature.

A government minister rose on a point of order.

“It is one thing as politicians to joust to determine whether we will sit on that side or this side of the House,” Mike de Jong said, “but to join the dark side of the House, as the clerk has done, is reprehensible.”

The province is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year, marking 150 years of modern history. The mighty MacMinn has sat dutifully in the Legislature for one-third of all those years.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

No comments: