Politics used to be fun

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The internecine warfare, which marked Jean Chrétien’s last two years in power, were not pretty. But by and large, Chrétien’s time was a period when politics was fun and all political parties shared a common bond.

By Sheila Copps

First published in The Hill Times on October 29, 2018.

OTTAWA—Politics used to be fun. The House of Commons was partly theatre where all were encouraged to make their point, often with props.

Now-deceased New Democrat Member of Parliament Jim Fulton once slapped a stinking dead salmon on the desk of prime minister Brian Mulroney to highlight mismanagement of the Pacific fishery.

After hours was a different story. Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats would get together and share a beer over at the National Press Club across from Parliament.

Some even enjoyed close friendships across party lines.

Former Conservative minister David MacDonald officiated at the wedding of Liberal minister Ethel Blondin-Andrew and was the domestic partner of New Democrat leader Alexa McDonough for a brief period.

My public relationship with Newfoundland minister John Crosbie was stormy. In private, we were friends, and I still get his Christmas card every year.

Links were nurtured by a love of politics and a mutual belief that public life was the best way to improve lives.

Last week, hundreds of friends joined former prime minister Jean Chrétien to celebrate the launch of his new book.

Ever the organizer, Chrétien scheduled the event to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his rise to power in 1993.

My Stories, My Times is vintage Chrétien. His memoirs are sprinkled with humour, and intimate backroom glimpses into what made this very unique politician tick.

Throughout the autobiography, there is evidence of the funny bone that Chrétien often used to connect to difficult subjects.

He could always hammer home a serious message via a joke. One of the most memorable was his response to separatist claims that the country could be broken up in a simple majority vote “You don’t break up a country because someone forgot his glasses at home, “ was vintage Chrétien.

Of course, there were melancholy moments. The internecine warfare which marked his last two years in power were not pretty.

But by and large, Chrétien’s time was a period when politics was fun and all political parties shared a common bond.

Chrétien explores the issue of partisanship in a chapter entitled “Political Foes and Friends.”

Decrying the current extreme partisanship in the United States, he tells the story of two foes who became his unlikely friends. One was former Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark, whose tribute graces the book’s front cover.

The other was Pierre Bourgault, the father of the Quebec independence movement and founder of the Rassemblement pour independence nationale.

Although the two had opposing visions of Quebec and Canada, they respected each other greatly and shared a common love of public policy debate.

Nowadays, it seems as though rational discussion has been replaced by the viciousness of the anonymous twitter world.

People tweet before they think. The level of rancour in parliamentary debate is unprecedented. Likewise, the odious nature of political criticism has become the norm. It is not uncommon to witness tweets wishing death upon the recipient. President Donald Trump constantly refers to his opponents as evil.

It used to be that politicians would have a few hours to reply to critiques raised in the daily news cycle. Now, they have only seconds. Thoughtlessness has replaced prudence in the way the political world speaks. Twitter has infected the body politic in a deadly way.

Just last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested the upcoming campaign would get downright ugly.

My sense is that in the world before instant communication, most politicians liked each other and some were also friendly with journalists.

Of course, there are moments when politicians and journalists butt heads. That is as it should be. Good reporters are necessary and skilled adversaries. But they are just doing their job.

The current firestorm brewing in America is an offshoot of the new political norm where politicians score points by promoting hate and discrediting real news.

Hate the Democrats, hate the migrants, hate the media is the dominant primary run-up theme. Anti-Trump critics are now subject to bomb attacks that have been foiled in multiple states.

Yet Trump is still tweeting about what he calls fake newsmakers like CNN. He is increasing the temperature through tweets that promote hatred of his opponents.

Trump’s chief spokesperson continues to blame the media, and deflects any criticism that serial bombings might have been encouraged by the continuing drumbeat of loathing emanating from the White House.

In the face of bomb threats and twitter speak, politics today certainly does not seem to be as much fun as it was during Chretien’s time.

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