Canada Day and Canadian Politics
- Rex Murphy
- Media Type:
- Item Type:
- Some opening humorous remarks about the speaker’s invitation to speak. Reference of the departure of Don Newman from the CBC. The speaker continues in a humorous vein, lampooning several issues and figures of Canadian politics, interspersed with serious remarks. Some of the highlights: Detailing the day-to-day activities of Canadian politics. Four elements of those activities: elections, partisanship, language, and civility. The next election. Seeing Michael Ignatieff on the road again. Seeing Stephen Harper in his blue campaign sweater one more time. Parliament in the old days and now. Suggesting a new definition of Parliament in Canada. What Obama tells us. The charisma of Peter Lougheed. Political parties. The House of Commons. The bale-outs. A karaoke week this week. The language of politics. Canada larger than the politics that is supposed to be served. What we have here in Canada. What our politics should/could be.
- Date of Original:
- June 18, 2009
- Language of Item:
- Copyright Statement:
Empire Club of Canada
Agency street/mail address
Fairmont Royal York Hotel
100 Front Street West, Floor H
Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3
- Full Text
June 18, 2009
A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Royal Commonwealth Society
Broadcaster and Commentator
Canada Day and Canadian Politics
Chairman: Jo-Ann McArthur, President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests
Edward P. Badovinac: Vice-Chair, Royal Commonwealth Society, Toronto Branch, and Director, The Empire Club of Canada
Rev. Dr. John S. Niles: Senior Minister, St. Andrew’s United Church, Markham, and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada
Charles Shanks: Senior Producer, Cross Country Checkup, CBC Radio
Peter Steinmetz: Partner, Cassels Brock
Sylvia Stead: Deputy Editor, The Globe and Mail
Leon Raubenheimer: CEO, ZED Financial Partners
Tim Reid: Director, Business Development, ZED Financial Partners, and Director, The Empire Club of Canada
Taylor Reid: Grade 11 Student, Havergal College
Gwyneth Pryse-Phillips: Branch Administrator, BMO Nesbitt Burns
Peter K. Large: Chair, Royal Commonwealth Society, Toronto Branch, and Barrister and Solicitor.
Introduction by Jo-Ann McArthur
I, as many others here, won the lottery when I was born Canadian. Others of you have been lucky enough to become Canadians. Canada is annually cited as one of the most desirable places in the world to live by the United Nations Human Development Index.
Bill Clinton has stated, “In a world darkened by ethnic conflicts that tear nations apart, Canada stands as a model of how people of different cultures can live and work together in peace, prosperity, and mutual respect.”
Marshall McLuhan said, “Canadians are the people who learned to live without the bold accents of the natural ego-trippers of other lands.”
And that brings me to today’s guest speaker for our annual Canada Day Luncheon. As host of Sunday afternoon’s Cross Country Checkup, Canada’s only national open-line current affairs radio program and a staple listen when returning from the cottage, Rex Murphy is the voice of an old friend or trusted neighbour. Rex also writes a weekly column for the Globe and Mail.
He provides his “Point of View” to the National, often saying what needs to be said but no one else is saying, nor could they say with such wit and poetry.
CBC may be our national voice, but it can be slightly left leaning, so I’m always happy to hear the addition of Rex’s more centrist views. And I think it fair to call him a centrist since he’s run in provincial politics both as a Conservative and as a Liberal.v
Rex Murphy was born in Carbonera, Newfoundland and Labrador, a town of about 4,000 located on the west side of Conception Bay.
Upon graduation from Memorial University in 1968 he promptly went to England to study at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. He did not, however, promptly receive an Oxford degree. I think there’s a good story in there!
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Rex Murphy.
Madam President, head table guests, essay winners, guests, and members of the Empire Club, it’s a little intimidating to be up here at all and I expect it is not for the normal course of reasons. Whenever an audience is subjected to my presence, it is usually a fairly good indication that John Crosby is sick.
I really do want to thank you for the invitation. I rarely get out and certainly even more seldom by invitation. It may darken your anticipation of the next 30 or so minutes to realize that this is actually my second occasion at the Empire Club, which perfectly illustrates the wisdom of Dr. Johnson’s remark about the triumph of hope over experience.
I was baited to the occasion by the venerable Tim Reid who shares the genetic havoc, that constitutes a Newfoundland personality. He invited me here, but he lied his head off. He said we would be having fricassee of seal heart à la Michaëlle Jean and I see of course that that is not indeed the case.
Also, because it has been so long, I had hoped if an invitation for a second event came my way that I could have returned as a senator. Alas, I am the peasant that I was the last time, whereas it is Mike Duffy who has been levitated to the velvet reposes and cashmere-swaddled luxury of the harem chamber house that is at the benefit of the political party in power. I’m really glad that Mike has made it to the Senate, if only for the relief it gives to the Canadian public by putting to an end to what is possibly the longest audition in Canadian history.
I see my colleagues of CBC here and it is a difficult time for us at CBC. I’m not speaking of the economic stress because I fear that is probably universal, but in our house the mourning we are most deeply engaged in is over the departure of Don Newman. As far as parliamentary coverage is concerned, it is a little like taking the dome off the Vatican or if I can slightly revise that image it is a little like visiting the local bordello only to find that the archbishop has withdrawn his patronage.
This is a matter of the Canada Day address and I’m going to be extremely particular in one sense. Insofar as these remarks have any coherence, they’re going to detail more or less the day-to-day activities of Canadian politics as we have come to know them, and I hope to make points about four elements of them before drawing a general conclusion that relates to the nature of the country we enjoy. And those elements are elections, partisanship, language, and civility and I will, as I said, detail them in a while.
For those of you who started this week with the wonderful dance of the seven veils—it was Michael Ignatieff laying down his conditions—I presume we were all cheered by the news or in some ways cheered by it, I’m not, that we are going to have no election at least until September. This is very difficult to bear. I mean it has been a whole seven months since the last election and it has to be seriously questioned whether Canadian democracy can stumble through the blistering summer months of July and August on a stale mandate fashioned way back in November. Seven whole months without a democratic intervention.
I know I can’t speak for the entire Empire Club, but unless I see Jack Layton on a very big bus very soon laying waste to the ozone layer in Saskatoon, I’m going to be having withdrawal pains.
I want to see Michael Ignatieff on the road again. He is after all the thinking man’s Willie Nelson. I met him in the early days on his first run; it was about two years ago at an airport in Edmonton, where he was reciting Rudyard Kipling to steady his nerves. He was very fresh to the country at that point and I came away with the strange notion that he thought Shania Twain was one of the Northwest Territories.
I know I speak for me when I say, “I want to see Stephen Harper in his blue campaign sweater one more time.” I really liked him in that vest. Do you agree? It brought out that Harry Potter quality in him. And I especially liked him when he smiled. When he dropped that smile, what a wonder it was. It was like the cracking of the Arctic tundra under the ancient thunder of the stampeding buffalo herds. We don’t have enough of those moments.
Anyway elections are what it is all about now. From the day that Paul Martin—we are going back a way—drank from the poison chalice that Mr. Chretien had brewed in the form of the sponsorship scandal, Canadian politics have been a cascade of premature and more or less pointless, the standings haven’t really changed, elections.
Now some of you will remember the old days when Parliaments actually met to pass bills and hold debates on them, when members spent four or five years refining their sense of the issues and the country, leading voters in the tranquility of the choice that they had already made. Parliament then had something of the qualities of a long-term relationship—security of supply and comfort of accommodation. Those days are passed. Parliaments in the old days were home. Today they are a motel for randy spin doctors and posters—an electoral quicky mark.
In Canada may I suggest a new definition of Parliament. It is an interval of scheming and rancour, seasoned with scandal and apology designed to provoke an election. The function of Parliaments in an age of minorities is to provide strategic and rhetorical cover, a string of spurious rationalizations in order that the Governor-General may be harassed and arrange another trip to the voters.
Now should we have another one in September, and I think we will, that’ll be four in about five years. If you add up the time that political parties used to set themselves up for elections, rattling their tinsel sabres and tying up Parliament, and the elections themselves, essentially Canadians spent more time in elections or being spooked over the prospect of elections or regretting the futile experience of having elections, than the MPs spend doing the business of the people in the House after elections.
This is a curious term. Parliamentary government is now in large part a continuous exercise to set the other guys up for a losing trip to the polls. All parties share this understanding except for that one period when one dethroned leader of a party with half the seats of his rival formed an alliance with a party with only half of the seats of its own and received underwriting for the whole mutation from the only other party there that was baptized in the creed that Canada should not exist to have a government in the first place. You will remember that as the coalition crisis. If it had worked, a probability slightly less than a herd of cows editing Margaret Atwood, we would have had our first Ikea government.
Canadian politics has become an extended feud of continuous buyers’ remorse. What we’ve got is not what we want. There has to be a middle ground between say Barack Obama and Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff.
And first, a serious point. Obama’s ascension as a world figure embodying a strain of idealism is grounded, and remember this, is grounded in the wonderful arc of the story he embodies; from the fractured foundation of the world’s greatest republic, founded on the principle that all men were created equal, but simultaneously on a foundation of slavery; from that moment through the great pain and blood of civil war and the emergence of Abraham Lincoln which began the moral repair of America. The next sweep of the arc was Martin Luther King, whose march on Washington was the greatest moral advance in American politics in the second half of the twentieth century. And now with Obama’s election as the first Black president, the arc is complete from slave to first magistrate. The story is a wonderful one and is, though it is not said as often as it should be, as much a triumph for the American polity as it is for Obama, the person. On one thing we will all agree. The story is wonderful and his persona is a gift to the practice and idea of politics. The politician who has the capacity for or calls forth the almost suffocated sense of political idealism in a time of otherwise nearly universal cynicism and disengagement. His ability to summon idealism is not unattached to the association with this grand two-century-long moral story. He participates in that. It is one great theme of unquestionable moral weight and is larger, wider, more uplifting, and transcending than the day-to-day trash talk and partisanship of fools that we call normal politics.
Now here is what Obama does tell us and for which we do not have to wait for confirmation. His example itself is the proof of the point. His example tells us that we all hunger for a better, larger, more noble politics and that hunger is deep and near universal. Whether he as a given person or president can sustain the expectations that he has set up, whether his policies as opposed to his persona, and they are separate dynamics, will fulfill expectations is very much an open question. But the central consideration is this.
He speaks his example. The person of Obama, the wave of global interest and the embrace that he has received, speaks to our hunger for something larger, more consequential, of more integrity and nobility than politics has been. It speaks authoritatively about us, not him, and the message applies with equal force in our country as in theirs. It is, I think, almost a commonplace to the point of being a truism, but in the age in which we find ourselves we have unravelled the prestige and authority of public life—the link of trust and inspiration that must exist between elected and electorates, between people and government, between citizens and the practice of politics. As life has become easier we have become careless. Care less. We’ve hollowed out respect for our institutions, blurred historical memory, forgotten the turmoil and sacrifice that was spent day by day over the generations to build a system that supplies us with ease and freedom and turned the whole process over as fodder for second-rate late-night comedians and a do-it-yourself kit for a professional class of consultants, strategists and game players, whose conception of public life is only as wide or as deep as their own chances of getting a leading place in it. And they then wander the world afterwards as consultants, fixers, and writers of ungrammatical memoirs.
From the sham of electoral platforms to the absurd and calculated theatricalities and false pieties of question period to the always growing list of mismanagement and scandal, our politicians, our practice in politics, has become narrow intensely partisan, shallow, fake, and fundamentally unserious. We have in Canada no figure, and no figure who even makes a near approach, to the remarkable radiations put out by the Obama candidacy. Now this is not a matter of charisma. A politician does not have to be charismatic by nature, though some are. Some grow their charisma.
I’ll give you an example. I’d point to Peter Lougheed. Peter Lougheed is an unquestionable example of such a figure. His charisma came from his practice and his manner, not his debut. His manner was respect, seriousness and deep patriotism. In fact, let me go a stage further. The practice of politics as a trader’s game of gotcha and scandal and pettiness of attack diverts the channel from which all charisma flows. You can’t act like that and set up the awe of integrity and authority that constitutes charisma. It reduces the practice of politics. It desiccates it. It narrows the field of energy, which should feed politics and solicits only or mainly those whose first imperative on entering public life is their own comfort and prestige or derailing the comfort and prestige of those who hold office in place of them.
Finally, it withdraws the power of edifying example from the young. The relentless posturing and noise, the pettiness and mediocrity of tactic and expression, locates politics as an activity, not to be emulated but to be avoided. Politics in this country carries a hazard light, not a beacon. The sea-saws that we have seen in the last three elections, the almost stagnant equivalence between the two main parties and their two leaders in the polls in successive conditions and under successive leaders is almost utterly an index of common disenchantment outside the partisan sphere. Outside, in other words, that core of purely party loyalists, whose DNA is somehow entangled into partisan identification. The rest of the electorate is de-energized by what they have been offered. They are weary from the empty games and even more exhausted by the absence, by a vacuum; the vacuum of convincing presentations beyond piety and platform cliché of the meaning of this country or some evocation of a program that aims towards the enhancement, the extension, and the protection of the meaning of this country. Our elections are small, they’re bitter, and save for the box scores, in the main they’re meaningless.
I challenge anyone in this room of adult sensibility and ask you, “Did you wake up feeling larger as a Canadian, feeling extended in your inheritance of being Canadian, revivified in your idea of the country, the morning after any of the last three federal votes?” Our politics have shrunk to the partisan games and partisan motivations that propel them. We have reduced the wide field of democratic practice almost utterly to the artful hustles of partisan machinery.
Political parties are not vehicles of ideas or superior motivation. They are not the laboratories of new forms of civic engagement or invention. They are dedicated to manoeuvre and tactic above all. They reduce everything to the most basic metric—can we win? Little by little over time citizens have been disengaged or been repelled by so narrow a conception of politics. Politics has shrunk and been reduced to a field of tactics, hollow persuasion, and partisan strife.
There are other elements just following in the wake of this. It is almost universally recognized that there has been a jettisoning of civility and respect in public debate, but what is not so easily acknowledged, however, is how deep a symptom and disease this is. Civility is cardinal. Nowhere is its retreat or its banishment more evident than in the grand chambers of our ultimate democratic debates—the House of Commons.
On any proper understanding, a visit to the House of Commons of this country by a citizen of this country should nearly approach a sacred event. That seems astonishing. But it isn’t. The House of Commons is the vessel of our common will and hope, the guardian of our heritage, and the ultimate articulator of our common Canadian way of being. It is not our libraries, not our research facilities, not our broadcasters, not our newspapers, not the great towers of industry, not the studious walls of our universities; it is not army, church, or talent hall that approaches the real significance properly understood in its widest sense of the House of Commons.
There is a reason the House of Commons is architecturally solemn and imposing, that it has presence and gravity. It is an emblem, or used to be, of the significance of what goes on beneath its weighty buttresses and busy spires. Manners are the outward manifestation of social conscience. They are the reflex gestures of a civilized people. In a complacent time, manners are always the first to go and when they do it is too late to fix by law and statute, what the general habit of social conscience has abandoned. Bad manners in question period are not a signal that our MPs have forgotten who they are. It is a signal that they have forgotten what they represent.
Parliamentary debate is supposed to be the cultured conversation of a nation. Our politicians are not as large as the country they seek to administer or responsive to the great pulses of national sentiment and esteem that fire the better spirits of all Canadians. We are less than we should be. That’s obscene. I will give a quick review of things in most recent memory.
We’ve had a $13-billion or so bale-out of the auto companies and what has absorbed the attentions of our tribunes? Whether Ruby Dhalla’s basement has a big-screen TV and the number and frequency of the shampooing of the Dhalla household carpets or what Lisa Raitt’s aide has left in the bathroom of the House of Commons. Now I admit I’m as mesmerized by the lost and found department as any guy and I’m as gripped by the sanitation practices of the Dhalla clan as any reasonable person could be expected to be. But why were these at the top of a parliamentary agenda as we teetered on the abyss of financial implosion.
The billion-dollar bale-outs were pitched by both Premier McGuinty and Prime Minister Harper as “no-choice alternatives.” Why do we have Parliaments to exercise debate over choice? We were told once the Obama administration decided to bale out GM, according to the Premier and the Prime Minister, Ontario and Canada in their own immortal words had no choice. So on that declaration of our national and industrial sovereignty, we had instead more or less in the background the endless self-serving yodelings of Karl Heinz Schreiber of the Airbus deal. These giddy hearings, which were a cross between “Let’s Make a Deal” and “Bizarro Jeopardy,” had parliamentarians on both sides endlessly unravelling the interminably sleazy saga in the ruthlessly partisan hope that some splash from the great well of Schreiber-stuffed binders and intermittently functional powers of detailed recall would do damage to one side or the other.
Meantime in another jurisdiction down in Newfoundland, in the intervals between Danny Williams’s reliably volcanic eruptions, we had our MHAs tagging their expense account and running up hundreds of thousands of dollars for lapel pins and fridge magnets and making expense account claims that would bankrupt the Sheik of Dubai.
Over in England, however, they have been absolutely splendid. Remember we are in the middle of a financial meltdown and the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and members of the world’s oldest and most celebrated deliberative chamber, the mother of Parliaments, have been charging taxpayers for cleaning their moats and building houses for their pet ducks.
And as for a climax, let’s have a look at this week and what a wonderful karaoke that has been. Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff, two of the most intelligent leaders we have had in a long time, performing hollow pantomime. Mr. Ignatieff demanding Mr. Harper (I’m not sure what—it is hard to follow Mr. Ignatieff when he hits an unyoked gerund) but it was something that married vagueness and menace in very interesting proportions. My description of it was it was the world’s first ultimatum made up entirely of sub-clauses. Enter Mr. Harper. Arriving in an SUV wagon train at the National Press Club after an overland voyage from the PMO across the road, he returned petulant taunt.
Scandals, while good for amusement and outrage in equal parts, are not however the whole or the central problem, nor is distraction from anything that constitutes something like the national interest in the real issues of the day consuming time in the House of Commons. It is even more than frequent elections. It is the radically emptied language that politics has adopted. Almost without exception, every statement, every press release, every press conference presentation made or given by a politician is instantly by the listener or watcher put through a decoder. When we hear statements by politicians we no longer ask, “What did he or she say?” we ask instead, “What did they really mean?” The words themselves are treated not as statements or strings of information, but as a set of clues as to what they’re really up to. When a Liberal for example says, “It is important that the Canadian people should know what is at the bottom of the Mulroney-Schreiber affair,” what he means is, “Is there a way we can get some of this to splatter over on Stephen Harper? That’ll be good for us.”
But when the Conservatives stood up and argued that the Canadian people expect that foreign caregivers be protected, essentially what they were saying was, “Hey, if this thing spreads, Rhuby Dhalla is toast and Ignatieff will be left with one less high-profile multicultural woman.”
The language of politics today is understood as requiring immediate decoding. Listening to a political speech is an exercise in translation, not from one tongue to another, French or English or vice versa, but from what he or she has said to what we, the audience or the voters, can reasonably infer, guess or deduce, from the given string of words and attitude, what he or she actually intends or really means.
The statement, for example, “that we must broaden EI benefits” actually means “If the Tories turn this down it will hurt them and do us good.” Or when the NDP bewailed the government’s lack of concern for working Canadians, that meant “If we can get them to wear this we look good.”
What is the most frequently asked question after a politician says something. Not “What did he say?” but “Why did he say it?” Not “Is this true?” or “Does it make sense?” but “Why is he saying this now?”
We reach, in other words, for motive, not content, and that should tell you how far political language has decayed, when the thing being said is the least significant part of any political communication.
It’s what you can guess from it. Of Michael Ignatieff this week and his numerous multiple declarations that “I don’t want an election; the Canadian people don’t want an election,” we put it through the normal translation and it comes out as saying, “I wonder, just wonder, if I can get away with an election without having to wear the blame for one.”
The phrase, “the Canadian people,” shows up a lot. It doesn’t mean the Canadian people; it is a rhetorical scarf, a camouflage bandanna, to provide partisan cover for hyper-partisan intent. The phrase, “in the context,” we most frequently hear has all the fierce moral urgency of “Your call is important to us,” and the evocative sweep of a used-car ad. It is not just meaningless; it is less than meaningless. It subtracts from your understanding.
The evacuation of civility and seriousness from public debate and the corruption of language to a sequence of hints and clues are the four elements in the decline of public engagement in politics in Canada.
We have a country that is so much larger than the politics that is supposed to be served. Seeing Canada through the lens of parliamentary practice is like viewing the Rockies through the wrong end of a telescope. We have built something precious here. We have wealth; we have immensity of resource and landscaping; we have codes of civic behaviour built up over the generations; we have an unflamboyant patriotism deepened with the sacrifice of two major wars and participation in 50 years of peacekeeping; we have institutions of the first excellence, a ready and intelligent people, and it seems an almost providential exemption from the miseries, angers, catastrophes, and horrors of most of the rest of the world and of history. We have had uninterrupted tranquility since the year 1945 from all major turmoil and upheaval— the major lot of the major populations of the entire rest of the globe. It seems as if by some idle stroke of the most benign providence we have been exempted from the torments, the horrors, and the miseries of history.
And we have built over the five or 10 generations that have existed in this place from sea to sea, north to south, that appetite for the central code, that appetite for the middle way, of compromise, of ease of dispute, and ease of discussion. We have founded a sensibility on our own connection to the land that we have. And, as I have just stated, the immensity of the inheritance that we have received, the extent of landscape, the wealth it represents, and the institutions that we have built up here and the day-to-day transactions of literally millions of citizens is an inheritance that is the unchallenged entity of any other part of the world. That 30 million in tranquility, in sophistication, wealth, education, and with a fixed moral compass, should even exist on a globe is a miracle beyond our own comprehension to appreciate or to receive.
That’s what we already have and it’s a function of politics to recognize the values of a way of being, to see the depth of the things that we already possess and their invisible glory and worth, and then to fashion the process and policies that will deepen our retention of those things we hold so dearly, and will also give them security against the future and bring to the very front lobes of our own brain how conscious we should always be of just how damn good we have it.
The politics we have seen is inadequate to the point of inarticulation. Politics has shrunk. It is a partisan game. It is not enlivened by the aspirations that tend towards the future. It is demeaning. It is as I said more hazard-like than a beacon. That is not the politics equivalent to the country that we now possess, that we have received and that has such a depth of meaning, significance, and value to us all. Canada is a country most benignly situated and unfathomably blessed. It needs a politics as large as itself to consolidate, deepen, extend, and enhance the wonder of how good we already have it. Canada didn’t just happen. It was built. Our politicians should be scouting the terrain of our common future and our politics should be an instrument of edification and regard. They aren’t. This country deserves, no… this country requires… better.
You have been very kind with the invitation. I thank you very much for it.
The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Peter K. Large, Chair, Royal Commonwealth Society, Toronto Branch, and Barrister and Solicitor.