Cross-party House friendships of the last century appear to be non-existent today

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Back in ’80s, we didn’t hate each other in the House. But the civility marking those years is gone today.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 9, 2019.

OTTAWA—Last week, former prime minister Brian Mulroney celebrated the 35th anniversary of his momentous 1984 victory against the governing Liberals.

With the election of 211 Progressive Conservative members to the 33rd Parliament, it resulted in the biggest majority government in the history of Canada.

His daughter, Caroline Mulroney, now a provincial cabinet minister in Ontario, sent out a touching tweet, reminding the rest of us about this milestone.

‘Today marks the 35th anniversary of my father’s electoral win, which would see him become the 18th prime minister of Canada. Thank you Mom and Dad for your tremendous support and service to our country.”

Mulroney’s tweet reminded me that the day was also a celebration of my first election to Parliament, as a 31-year-old Liberal survivor in a sea of Tories.

Seasoned veteran Herb Gray and I were the only Grits elected in a swathe of millions of voters between Toronto and Windsor.

It was a scary time for the official opposition. Most commentators were predicting our demise. The majority of the caucus had been bludgeoned into silence by the magnitude of the defeat.

Ten newbies had a different idea. But the reality of Parliament was daunting. We had 40 members to cover 26 parliamentary committees.

The Tories were dominant and revelling in their solid victory. At the first children’s Christmas Party post-writ, Santa wore a blue suit. But the unfamiliar colour caused some confused kids to start crying. That was the first and last colour change.

Caroline Mulroney was 10 at the time.

Over the years, we would often see the Mulroney family at many parliamentary functions. Their youngest son, Nicolas, was born on the first anniversary of the Tory win in 1985 and my daughter came along two years later.

After the thrust and parry of Parliament, we would join to celebrate Halloween and Christmas at parliamentary events.

We didn’t hate each other.

The civility marking those years is gone.

People in different parties mistrust each other viscerally. There is little chance that friendships will cross party lines.

Just look at the donnybrook that broke out last week between the New Democrats and the Green Party. The NDP is in trouble and there is no love lost with the Greens, who are fishing in the same pond.

Some is undoubtedly political competition. The New Democrats and the Greens are trying to attract the same voter base. The loss of one is a gain to the other.

But that is not the only change in Parliament in the past 35 years.

When, as new Liberal opposition members, a few of us formed the Rat Pack to organize our attacks on the government, some senior members of our own caucus were aghast.

They believed honourable colleagues should be nice to each other and that Question Period should be non-confrontational. They disapproved of our organized, systematic attack on cabinet ministers, knocking off five in one year.

At the end of the day, colleagues on all sides of the House of Commons were actually friends.

As a new member, I really didn’t understand their perspective. I was concerned with keeping the Liberals from being pulverized by the New Democrats, who had much more experience in opposition.

One attack on then-fisheries minister John Fraser for the so-called Tunagate scandal, illustrated the point. He was such a nice person that no one wanted to see him in political trouble. But the issue was too big to ignore, after the minister overruled inspectors, and approved the sale of StarKist tuna that had been deemed “unfit for human consumption.”

The scandal forced Fraser’s resignation but he eventually returned to prominence as House Speaker.

In that capacity, Fraser welcomed my infant daughter Danelle into the backrooms of Parliament by holding her in his arms while she barfed on his ceremonial garb about two minutes before he was to enter the Chamber.

Even though we clashed in the House, we were still friends.

Similarly, then foreign minister Barbara McDougall commandeered her driver, and towels and fresh water, when my pre-schooler accidentally threw up in the revolving door leading from Centre Block.

Former Reform Party interim leader Deborah Grey used to send me cards on my birthday, and former Reform and Alliance critic Jim Abbott worked successfully to convince colleagues that Parks Canada’s development freeze was good public policy.

Then-Bloc Québécois MP Suzanne Tremblay was so supportive of our House Heritage Committee initiatives that eventually her leader forced her to switch to a less collegial critic’s post.

Those cross-party friendships of the last century appear to be non-existent today.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.