From 1993-1997, my work place in the Prime Minister’s Office was housed on the unique half top floor of the murky, old Langevin Block, named after Sir Hector-Louis Langevin. Mr. Langevin, public works minister to Conservative PM Sir John A. Macdonald, was a politician of great energy and ambition, who knew both the dizzying heights and dramatic lows of public life. During his long career, he sat in cabinet as Canada faced two uprisings related to Louis Riel, the famous Métis leader.
The hulking building with its arched windows and odd, curved spaces, is a sentinel location, being adjacent to both the National War Memorial and Parliament Hill. The view from that top floor was spectacular. There was nothing you could miss on Parliament Hill. There was nothing you would not know.
Traditionally, it has been both the physical and literal quiet centre of power in Ottawa. Arguments are not conducted like those in the noisy House of Commons – they are hushed, and behind closed doors. Footsteps fall softly on the carpeted halls, not loudly like those on the marbled halls of Parliament. Guests are discretely ushered in by security guards. There is a quiet, but rushed intensity to the place – with very little time for fooling around or playing tricks.
And yet within the hallowed walls of this building, which has often contained both the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, noise does find its way in. It rises from the street, from the people, from demonstrations in which people are truly angry and wish to express their discontent.
So, it was a shock to many of us who had worked in the PMO (no matter which government) to discover this week that Conservative Party interns and PMO staff were cleary sent out onto Parliament Hill armed with childishly written signs to disrupt a speech by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. The hoax protest earlier this month was presumably approved by senior PMO officials, who were almost certainly watching.
It can be argued that silly partisan games like these are ‘normal’ behaviour during campaigns. The goal is to disrupt the optics of your opponent’s speeches and to grab media attention. ‘Gotcha’ politics has been going on forever and, in addition to macho-named ‘war rooms”, this pattern is somewhat expected during an election. Experienced politicos tend to shrug their shoulders and say “what’s the big deal?”
The big deal is that we are not in an election, in fact, one could argue, that the government is teetering on a crisis. It’s time for adult professionalism, not Kindergarten.
The big deal is once again lack of respect and lack of civility within the confines of the Parliament Hill complex, an issue that is making a mockery of our Parliament.
But the biggest deal last week is that young interns are learning that this is how government is played, even from within the august confines of the PMO. And some of these interns are reportedly paid through the undisclosed budget of the government caucus research bureau which is in turn funded by taxpayers.
What lessons are we teaching these young people about government? Is this how we want our taxpayers’ money to be spent? Are these the images we want splashed on Twitter and published in our papers?
If we as a country and a government do not reach beyond childish games we are in massive trouble.
If we, as a country, as a ‘people” do not say ‘enough” to ethical misbehaviour, we will pay the price: the price of ‘dumbed downed’ apathetic, cynical democracy. The price of a lost country or at least a lost generation.
The behaviour of this PMO staff and these interns discredits the PMO ghosts who walked before them. I wonder what Hector–Louis Langevin and Sir John A. Macdonald would think.
Penny Collenette, a former senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and former director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office, is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law.