Two recent events, properly understood, reveal in one sense how uncivilized Canadian politics remains.
In Texas, a dedication/opening ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center brought together America’s living presidents. They comported themselves with dignity, said pleasant things about each other and respected the importance of the office of president.
Despite having spent their political lives in opposing parties, they rose to the level of post-partisanship demanded of the occasion and the estimable American tradition whereby the holders of the country’s highest office offer public respect for those previously in the White House.
President Barack Obama even managed to find a few positive virtues in the George W. Bush presidency, against which he had railed in his successful campaign for the White House. Bill Clinton has worked on overseas projects with both of the Bushes, despite having defeated George H.W. Bush and been succeeded by George W. Bush.
In London, former Conservative and Labour prime ministers gathered at the funeral service for Margaret Thatcher, certainly the most controversial postwar British prime minister.
Seeing a photo of Gordon Brown seated in the front row reminded those with a sense of history that, as a Labour prime minister, he had invited the Iron Lady to tea at 10 Downing St. They would not have agreed on much, except that the office carries immense burdens and that those who carried those burdens deserve to be treated respectfully. Tony Blair, too, always treated Mrs. Thatcher courteously.
In Canada, it would be hard to imagine anything similar. The occasional event such as a television show or a Public Policy Forum dinner has brought many, but not all, of the former prime ministers together. Usually, however, someone hasn’t shown up. There are apparently too many tensions among them.
When Joe Clark’s portrait was unveiled in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper skipped the event, a classless act of petty personal vindictiveness. By contrast, when Brian Mulroney’s portrait was unveiled, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien delivered quite witty remarks. And Mr. Chrétien did appoint former prime minister Kim Campbell to the consult-general’s job in Los Angeles.
Generally, however, a not-so-cordial dislike pervades relations among the former prime ministers, courtesy of old partisan feuds or, worse, internal party feuds, as between Mr. Chrétien and John Turner and Paul Martin. Mr. Mulroney can’t forget, for perhaps understandable reasons, the allegations made against him in the Airbus affair under Mr. Chrétien’s watch – allegations the government subsequently apologized for making; and the inquiry into the money he received from Karl-Heinz Schreiber, an inquiry established under Mr. Harper’s watch.
It should be said that relations between Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Clark, while not close, are nonetheless mutually respectful. After all, in the wake of Mr. Mulroney’s wresting of the Progressive Conservative Party leadership from Mr. Clark, the two rivals worked together as prime minister and senior minister.
It’s too bad that certain formal occasions can’t be found at which the sitting prime minister and all of his predecessors could be present, if only to show for a fleeting moment that there’s something beyond partisanship and that mutual respect should be part of the political life of a democracy.
There are, inevitably, funerals, as with Pierre Trudeau’s most recently. Canada doesn’t have prime ministerial libraries to dedicate, but prime ministers’ archives are eventually turned over for public use. There are state visits by leaders of other countries; there’s the opening of parliamentary sessions; and the occasional visit of the British monarch (who’s also Canada’s head of state).
Instead of dredging up the War of 1812, the government could have thought up an event that went beyond its habitual combing of history for political purposes.
Those with a taste for Canadian history should read Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s eulogy to Sir John A. Macdonald. Their parties had fought ferociously over big issues, and the partisanship of their day was ubiquitous. But great men seek public occasions to display respect to each other and, in so doing, invite their fellow citizens to respect the institutions of democracy.