Memoir

Darkness Visible

Ego, ambition, lost souls, and nailing the Opposition in Ottawa: part two of “Politics as Unusual,” a memoir

Photograph by open.incopen.inc

1993 I sat by the phone waiting for “the call.” Days went by. Journalists wrote, and friends and my team told me that I’d be in Cabinet, that he couldn’t pass me over. Like all government MPs, I did the calculations: regional balance, gender, friendships, experience, competence, etc. “Maybe a few rookies will squeak in,” someone said. “Let me make a call,” another offered. “You can’t appeal to the Boss directly. He’d take a dim view of that, but let me see what I can do.” The Boss probably received 176 “indirect” calls.

Veterans who had weathered the indignity of Opposition waited in silence, while “star candidates” grew apoplectic as reality sank in. All of us were legends in our own minds; few of us got the call. I watched the swearing-in of Cabinet alone, feeling, suddenly, that I wasn’t really part of what I was supposed to be a part of. I had some idea of what a Cabinet minister did but no clue what it meant to be a backbencher. “It’s for a short time,” I assured myself. “There were lots of worthy candidates,” I explained to those who asked. I was guessing. One thing was clear: as I wasn’t in Cabinet, the Privy Council Office would not send over seasoned pros to get me up and running. I was on my own. I set off for Ottawa.

The flag atop the Peace Tower snapped proudly in the wind, but Parliament Hill looked cold and austere. East Block is Victorian Gothic; West Block, Gothic Revival; remnants of the original architectural plan, both are all chimneys, towers, and latticework. Centre Block was torched in the great fire of 1916, and its rebuilt structure is stolid, solid, imposing. (The fire, believed to have started in the House of Commons Reading Room, was fed by elaborate varnished woodwork, and the new Centre Block was built not to burn, “no matter how hot it got inside,” as someone observed. Fireproof, but not foolproof, I soon learned.) The flag is replaced each night, the used ones given to MPs and senators to hand out to those they wish to honour. Sometimes more than one MP is promised the flag for a particular day, and squabbling ensues.

Parliamentary offices are not created equal. The grandest go to ministers, the next best to veterans and parliamentary secretaries. “Turn on the charm, and the party whip might give you the best of the bad lot that remains,” I was advised. He didn’t. The office of Barry Campbell, MP, consisted of three pokey, unconnected rooms in an asbestos-filled wing of West Block. Before officially escorting me there, a guard suggested we visit the parliamentary post office. He disappeared into a doorway and then re-emerged. “You’ve got mail,” he said. A postal worker wheeled out two large plastic containers filled with hundreds of letters and large manila envelopes. I was stunned. “Is this all for me? ” I asked. “Yes, sir,” said the postal worker. “Shall I wheel this up to your office? ” “Yes, thank you,” I replied excitedly.

Two weeks into the job, and I didn’t just have mail, I had mail! I tore into the envelopes. What did these good people need? Three hours later, I had my answer. Jobs! Two hundred and seventy-five people had sent me their resumés. They all wanted to join my staff. That’s it. No one needed my help, and only a few offered congratulations. An omen.

MPs’ staff budgets were tight, forcing us to hire eager but inexperienced twenty-somethings—for a newly elected MP, the political equivalent of the blind leading the blind. I culled the resumés. It was like campaigning: piles of maybes, probables, and likelys. Bored, I went for a walk. There were others wandering the halls of Centre Block—new MPs, I assumed. We eyed one another warily. The House of Commons chamber was locked, but I squinted through the leaded glass windows flanking the massive oak doors to get a glimpse. Someone was vacuuming. I continued toward the rotunda that connects the House and the Senate. Democracy felt physical, I thought, and very quiet. It isn’t.

There is a curious pin fetish in Ottawa, I noticed. I was sporting my own—the MP identification pin with the Speaker’s mace on it—and proudly so, until I realized pins were everywhere. Pin couture here is competitive. Senators wear a version in red and gold that some MPs covet. Some female MPs turn their pins into brooches and rings. Summits and international gatherings keep the industry going with specialized pins marking this or that “critically important meeting.” Each cause has pins or ribbons that are presented to MPs during visits to Parliament. They are worn on the appointed day (or during a certain month) for breast cancer, against drunk drivers, for the troops overseas, to fight aids. There is no set etiquette, and, not wanting to offend anyone, some MPs end up looking like pincushions. I returned to my office and unpacked family photos and campaign memorabilia. It felt good to be in Ottawa finally.

Our first national caucus meeting—a get-acquainted session and a chance to congratulate ourselves for getting elected—was scheduled for the next morning. There was no convocation, no blessing, no prayer for our success. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about who my colleagues might be. We were not all white lawyers. We were First Nations, new Canadians, Ph.D.s, historians, teachers, store clerks, former ceos, lawyers, yes, but also a convicted criminal, and, I would soon discover, the mentally certifiable. For some, this was the best job they’d ever had; for others, it would be the worst. For some, the parliamentary salary was the most money they had ever earned; for others, the least. There were single mothers and divorced fathers, and a young woman so unreconciled to modernity that she had fought a running battle with the Catholic Church for the right to say Mass in Latin on her knees (and been arrested for disturbing religious worship). It was a community gathering, a microcosm of Canada, some said.

Having endured the boredom of Opposition, veterans said, “Any day in government is better.” Giddy with the prospect of receiving their just rewards, they expected to serve in Cabinet soon, or “there’ll be hell to pay.” The veterans feigned interest in new MPs, but many were like coiled springs, ready to pop if done out of some perk by a rookie. Their hostility was palpable. For their part, new MPs who had served in municipal or provincial governments, or even on school boards, also had high expectations, as did star candidates parachuted into ridings. Rewarding us all would be impossible. Not one month on the job, and the Boss already had new enemies.

In caucus, there were MPs who had to be reminded that the government was no longer the enemy. They had fought for so long (in Opposition) that fighting was in their political dna. Some MPs spoke too much; others said nothing. Some had opinions on everything; others seemed to have no opinions. There were single-cause crusaders, and those who insisted that all issues, however unrelated, be viewed through a particular lens—gender, the environment, religious dogma, or even productivity. There were loners who didn’t know how to play along, and those who would never accept an outcome they didn’t support. When losing an argument, zealots attacked the process: “I haven’t had a chance to be heard” or “This was decided before we’d had a proper debate.” Others schemed as they circled. Conspirators saw conspiracy everywhere. There were well-intentioned bridge-builders who would soon have the bruises to show for their honourable efforts. We were wise, foolish, funny, some decidedly not, right wing, left wing, quirky, clear of mind (at least at the beginning), and purposeful. It was a disturbingly broad tent.

Some MPs spoke the King’s English. (Indeed, a dashing older gent from British Columbia, a former military man and college professor, looked like he could be the King of England.) Others couldn’t string a sentence together without malapropisms and scrambled syntax. One MP expressed grave concerns about the lack of “supervision of dirigibles.” Financial derivatives, he meant, I believe. Another went on and on about government “stewardess-ship.” A Toronto MP (who would become a minister and leadership candidate) was certain that some event “has given a lie to the deception that…” Another colleague wanted to “suck it to the Opposition,” and another insisted that we be “quick out of the shoe” on something. When asked why an expected witness had failed to appear, a committee chair said, “I bumped him off.” I assume the witness was rescheduled, not eliminated. One MP took me aside to “prick my ear.”

Rivalries were everywhere in Cabinet, too. Ministers jostled over who would lead a policy initiative, who got to chair which committee, who would be named the political minister for their province. They lived in a twilight zone of insecurity—serving “at the pleasure of ” the Boss, and scared to death of becoming a political liability. There is nowhere for a minister to go but down, and the prime minister enjoyed warning ministers that he controlled all appointments, and that no one was above being replaced. He told backbenchers, “You are my B team,” and thought we were comforted by this.

Still, my colleagues were clearly not the incompetents many Canadians thought them to be and that I had worried they might be. But we would have to learn how to work together in a political/media fishbowl. Politics might be a blood sport, but I didn’t realize how much of the sparring would be internal. I learned whom to trust over long hours of House duty, during lousy late-night dinners, over stale beer, in shared apartments, through frustrations and small victories. Many of us bonded through laughter and commiseration. We struggled to manage the home front, told one another that all was under control, and tried to be generous, but each of us competed for the Boss’s ear, a parliamentary trip, an invitation to 24 Sussex Drive, media attention, and, most of all, a Cabinet spot. The shy and retiring don’t run for politics. Some MPs, though, grew miserable and fat waiting for their brilliance to be recognized instead of getting on with it. On visits home, my wife would ask, “How is everyone? ” “Larger than life,” I’d say. The collective weight gain of the Liberal caucus, especially among the disgruntled, was prodigious.

Backbenchers get a shot at glory during weekly caucus meetings. Attendance is expected; the prime minister, national caucus chair, and House leader sit up front, and remarks are directed at them. Up at the microphone on every issue, some MPs astounded me with how quickly they burned their currency. It was impossible to tell what actually mattered to them. By contrast, “Oh, he must have something to say” was the whispered response when one of the silent few approached the microphone. Humour helped. In a discussion about extending high-speed Internet across Canada, a Newfoundland MP said, “Now, Prime Minister, in my riding, if you mention the Internet most people think you are talking about hairspray!” After that, it didn’t matter what he said. He’d sidle up to the mike like a gunslinger, and the room would erupt. He made it into Cabinet and was later “elevated” to the Senate. Caucus was like the court of Louis xvi as depicted in the film Ridicule: if you got the Boss to laugh, it was akin to amusing the king (and it improved your station). Must be careful not to laugh first though, lest the Boss not find the gag funny.

As a young lawyer, I’d had a reputation as the “partner with the biggest mouth and the fewest points.” I had learned to pick my spots, and would have to do so again in caucus. I approached the microphone for the first time with reasonable confidence. The room went quiet. Chrétien looked down at me over his reading glasses. I started to speak, but nothing happened. Jesus, I was addressing the prime minister and couldn’t get my words out. Next time, I’d write down my remarks, make them short and concise, and always, always try to get a laugh. I had to learn some Newfoundland wisdom. This would take time, but I did quickly surmise that a coordinated and timely caucus assault on a particular initiative could cause the government to pause, maybe even change course. Backbenchers weren’t useless after all.

The House needs a quorum to operate, and the government must have a majority present or risk losing its head. MPs do assigned House duty—hours of weekly drudgery punctuated by rare moments of drama or high comedy. Government MPs deliver speeches (usually crafted by their staffs) on the legislation of the day. These staid minor performances are followed by Q&A sessions. Practising for our moment to come as ministers in some future question period, the eager among us would feign indignation, bemusement, wonder. Others would read, gossip, or loll about. Driving ministers’ staffs crazy, backbenchers use House duty to talk directly with Cabinet ministers. (Staffs try to insulate their ministers “for their own good,” and ordinary MPs mess this up.) Views are exchanged, correspondence delivered, and opinions registered. Bonds of trust form. Why set up a formal meeting when you can buttonhole a minister as you are both trapped listening to a boring speech? Besides, only the “first among equals,” the prime minister, was beyond demotion, so ministers had good reason not to be too snooty.

The bells rang, calling the 35th Parliament to order. One of the first matters of business was to change the opening prayer to make it more inclusive and reflective of Canadian reality: references to Jesus were dropped, and the Lord’s Prayer was replaced with a moment of silence. Not everyone was happy about this, but the new prayer excluded no one—how very Canadian—and this augured well, I thought. Upon reflection, a better prayer (to begin each day) might cite diplomat George F. Kennan, a clever observer of politicians and communists:

Whatever else one may think of government, it should not be idealized. Its doings are something that should be viewed by the outsider only with a sigh for its unquestionable necessity, and by the participant only with a prayer for forgiveness for the many moral ambiguities it requires him to accept and for the distortions of personality it inflicts upon him.

MPs are assigned seats—government to the Speaker’s right, Opposition to his left. When a government caucus is particularly large, a rump group sits on the Opposition side—a kind of purgatory (with only a chance camera angle). On the government side, seating is by rank—Cabinet on the front benches, backbenchers arrayed behind them. Reserved for newcomers, the back row is near-purgatory; a lucky camera shot will pick up your head over a minister’s shoulder. The corner seats are hell. Reading the seating plan is like seeing who stands atop Lenin’s tomb during the May Day parade: from it, you know who’s in and who’s out.

From the next-to-last row but dead centre, I surveyed the scene. Across the aisle sat Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the Bloc Québécois, who wanted to tear the country apart. Next to them was the Reform Party, at almost equal strength, and dismissive of Ottawa for other reasons. By tradition, the sides of Parliament sit at least two sword lengths apart; battle here amounts to blasting each other with words, not buckshot and steel. Sometimes, I thought, a little buckshot wouldn’t hurt.

During question period (QP), I watched ministers ready themselves to answer Opposition questions. They’d anxiously scan briefing books, edge forward, and start to stand, checking first to see if the prime minister was rustling. Not good to be on your feet if Chrétien wanted to take the question; possibly worse if he chose to let you face the barrage on your own; political death if he glared at you after your response. If he stood to answer a question directed at you, it might mean he thought you were a lightweight. We all watched attentively: if Chrétien laughed, we laughed; if he frowned, we did, too. In Canada, the prime minister is not the head of the army, but in Parliament he is certainly the commander-in-chief.

QP has little to do with governance. It’s political theatre staged for the media, and designed to deflect attention as much as to address an issue. Clips appear on the nightly news, which we all watched, desperate to see our side looking smart. “We nailed them with that one” and “I bet they’re sorry they asked that” can be heard in the halls hours later. Still, this being Canada, even QP is mannered, has a code of ethics. You can insinuate and provoke, but you cannot call your opponent a liar — he is always “worthy”— and you cannot be so insulting as to use his name. An MP must be addressed as “the Honourable Member from…” or “the Honourable Member opposite.” You may, however, slur the word “honourable” with disdain. Most do. The Speaker, “His Imperiousness,” referees.

House voting is simple. If you are on the government side and your party is trying to get something passed, you support it. If the Opposition wants something, you reject it. If the whip hasn’t told you how to vote, you watch the front bench. When the Speaker calls the vote—“Would all those in favour of the motion please rise”—you move to keep alliances and friendships alive. It’s pretty dull stuff, unless there’s a free vote, a nod by the government that all MPs have consciences after all. Free votes are rare.

Proceedings are delivered in both official languages, and MPs are fed simultaneous translations. No one sees the translators. They are hidden in booths at the back of the House and slink in and out as shifts change. Some are men, some women—that’s all you know—but you do come to prefer one over another. Some MPs become infatuated with particular disembodied voices and what they might hold. As House debates droned on, we’d daydream. For those so predisposed, soon enough sexual fantasies take over.

Bob Kaplan, a savvy former Cabinet minister, told me not to run for Parliament if I wouldn’t be satisfied achieving “a few small things.” The constituency office is part of the job, and I did my time. Some MPs consider it tedious, “small” stuff with no publicity attached, but they can sometimes cut through red tape and solve problems for their constituents. As often, they can’t. Just listening can help, though.

My staff had complained about a man who kept showing up insisting he was being followed. “Check with the police,” I said. “We have,” they replied. “They say they’re not following him.” “Did you tell him? ” I asked. “Yes. He said it’s the rcmp, and he really needs to talk to you.” I agreed to meet with him but checked again with the rcmp, who confirmed that they had no knowledge of, or interest in, this man. When we met, I happily reported, “The rcmp say they are not following you.” He went silent for a moment and then said, “Well, of course they wouldn’t tell you if they were following me.” He had a point. Even paranoids have enemies, I thought. At our next meeting, I said, “I can’t tell you for sure that you are not being followed.” He broke into a smile, “Oh, thank you. No one has ever believed me before.” We never saw him again.

You think of yourself as a regular guy, but some constituents put you on a pedestal. New Canadians tend to be extremely deferential, because many come from countries where government officials are powerful and sometimes dangerous. This cuts two ways: it makes them scared, and inflates their sense of what you can do. Both are problems.

Many people come looking for a job or a loan, or just to vent. These you cannot help. One morning, a man showed up with shopping bags of bricks made out of compressed hay. He stacked them on my desk and explained that they would solve everything: “No more insulation needed, lower heating costs, an end to agricultural subsidies.” He left with his plastic bags leaking uncompressed hay all over my desk and office. I wondered if he had read The Three Little Pigs.

Many constituents complained about taxes, of course. They’d ride the subway, walk on sidewalks, arrive at my office, and say, “I get nothing for my taxes.” “How did you get here? ” I would ask. “The subway? The sidewalk? Your taxes at work. And by the way, how is your son doing at university? Your taxes at work,” I’d say.

The gun control debate brought out a wide array of nuts. Turns out my urban riding was not so urbane. All leather and hair, two “biker babes” said to me, “Why shouldn’t we be allowed to have guns? Tell the minister of justice to stop shooting his head off about this!” An elderly Eastern European gentleman argued, “If we had guns in the 1930s, Hitler wouldn’t have taken us,” suggesting a historical parallel between Canada in the 1990s and Nazi Germany. “We need our guns to hunt,” said many. “But you can still hunt,” I answered. “Just register your weapons.” They’d say, “Why should I? I’m just a hunter” or “a sport shooter” or “a collector.” I put forward the obvious: what’s the big deal in a country where we register dogs and need licences to drive? “It’s our right to have guns,” some said. “Actually, gun ownership is not a right in Canada. It’s a privilege, and the state has a legitimate interest in requiring minimal rules,” I answered. “I won’t comply,” I was told. Great, lawbreakers with guns, perhaps even vigilantes, I’d think. The stridency of these folks had the opposite of the intended effect: owing to their charm, gun registration struck me as a good first step toward confiscation.

On a busy street adjacent to a residential area in my riding, the Correctional Service of Canada wanted to reopen a halfway house for discharged criminals. Residents were incensed because an ex-con who had lived there had committed a brutal rape and murder in the neighbourhood. They formed a committee that vowed to put the kibosh on any reopening plan. I wasn’t sure what to do. A neighbouring MP and I approached the solicitor general and explained the situation. He promised to look into it. Short days later, he told us that the halfway house wouldn’t reopen. Victory! We issued a press release and organized a meeting with representatives of the concerned community groups. We were jubilant. At the meeting, we announced that the problem had been solved. Silence. No cheers, nothing. We were stunned. Apparently, we had taken the solution out of the local community’s hands. I’d have to be less paternalistic to survive in politics.

Like most of my newly elected colleagues, I arrived in Ottawa ready to dive right in. Educated, experienced, a lawyer, I knew how to solve problems. I set out to wow colleagues with my logic. It didn’t work. Some of my fellow MPs just didn’t buy my arguments. (Some never did, and, like vampires, they wouldn’t die.) Worse, they thought they knew better and couldn’t understand why I was so dim. Politics, I finally realized, is the art of compromise. In the House, in caucus, and with constituents, the lesson is the same: more often than not, it’s about optics over substance, and it’s always about listening and sharing the credit. If you’ve ever wondered why government decisions seem so odd, it’s because they result from a hundred (maybe even a thousand) noble and ignoble compromises. What’s really going on is below the surface. It’s about momentum and direction, like the London tube map, which some say was inspired by the city’s sewer system.

A colleague from down east wanted to go after banks over credit card rates. As parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance, I was certain he had his facts wrong and that the government would not legislate interest rates on credit cards. “I know all that,” he said, “but this is good politics.” Off he went to tilt at the banks and get some crusading ink for himself. Another colleague got in a lather about insufficient bank lending to small businesses. His statistics were wrong, too, but he didn’t care. People often say that politicians operate in a fact-free zone. They’re often right.

We struggled not to react only to perceptions; but taking the time to deal with the facts and the limits of power was often just not in the cards. Politics is a netherworld with its own values, rewards, and purgatory (getting tossed out) and you’re tempted to do almost anything to stay in power, convincing yourself that a wrong action can be made right later.

As Paul Martin’s parliamentary secretary, I got a taste of how difficult it is to engage the public on complex issues. As we set out to deal with a crippling deficit and write a budget, he knew we had to consult citizens about the stark choices we faced. We discovered that most people had no idea what a deficit was, let alone how high it was, but they all had strong opinions on what to do and who should solve the deficit problem (not them). Bismarck said there are two things never to watch being made: laws and sausages. He should have included budgets. A budget is a mix of personality, context, bravado, politics, grandstanding, chance, and genuine desire, all of which smacks up against the hard, cold wall of reality. Budgets are messy operations, and like intensive surgery, you often have to save the vital organs at the expense of less important (but popular) ones.

To fulfill their mandates, cable companies must offer locally relevant programming. This often translates into public service broadcasting by politicians. My fifteen-minute spot ran several times a day, sometimes airing at 4 a.m., opposite Hawaii Five-O reruns and the test signal. Another omen. For my first appearance, I decided to review the Liberal record. We had been in power for six months, and I had plenty of material. I did my thing, loved it, and started to wrap up with “See you next time,” when I noticed the producer frantically waving at me. A note was slid along the desk in front of me: “Ten minutes more to go! Keep talking!” it said. Shit, ten minutes to go and nothing to say! I started over from the beginning, repeating myself almost verbatim. Viewers didn’t notice—or at least no one said they did. “How was I? ” I asked my staff. “Just great,” they said.

I tried a call-in show. It was advertised, but no one called. Not one person. Viewers, if indeed there were any, got fifteen minutes of ad lib “insights” on a typical day on Parliament Hill. It was ghastly. Stubbornly, I tried it again, this time giving viewers a topic to chew on—“The upcoming budget: how should we deal with the deficit? ” I asked. “Call me with your views.”

“I have a little money to invest; what should I do? ” asked the first caller. “Sir, this is not a show offering investment advice,” I said. “But don’t you work for the minister of finance? ” he asked. “Yes,” I said proudly. “Well, then, you should know this stuff,” he said. We carried on in this vein for some time because, well, because there were no other calls. Finally, the phone line lit up—another call. I thanked the gentleman and moved on. “My daughter has just married this damn immigrant and…” The producer was waving at me. Thankfully, my time was up. “Please join us next time,” I concluded, “when our guest will be Allan Rock, to talk about gun control.” I never took calls again. From then on, I ran my free political advertising like episodes of The Tonight Show: a short monologue, followed by guest appearances and whatever recent government announcements I could reannounce.

To my amazement and great delight, people actually do watch TV at 4 a.m. “I saw you on television,” they’d say. Everyone seemed to think I looked good, but no one commented on what I had said. Then it hit me. It was all just about being there, looking good. Not always. After an appearance on ctv’s Question Period with a Reform Party MP, a viewer was moved to write to me. His kindest words included a suggestion that “God intervene and give you a crippling disease which will be terminal.” The letter was written in longhand but unsigned. It ended, “In total contempt to a Liberal maggot.” Fortunately, the writer had provided his name and return address on the envelope. I passed it along to his local MP, Preston Manning (then the leader of the Reform Party), and sent a copy to the rcmp. I pretended to my staff that I wasn’t scared. Nut cases, I noticed, have excellent penmanship. Every so often, I received letters from religious congregations telling me that they had included me in their prayers. I took such remote intercessions as kindnesses, though too often such letters also exhibited superb penmanship.

Parliamentarians discover religion each time they encounter the media. “O Lord, please let me not come across sounding stupid,” we’d pray. Though such silent prayers are almost always delivered in the negative, every MP still thinks he can outsmart the press. He’s usually wrong, of course, but the press and politicians do use each other: the politician needs his name in the paper, and the reporter needs a comment to get a story, or to make one up. An old friend, Craig Oliver, then ctv’s Ottawa bureau chief, gave me some solid advice: “Everything you tell me is off the record unless I want to use it.” (Translation: if you’d be uncomfortable reading something you’ve said, then keep your mouth shut.) But MPs love to talk, need to talk, and the media know it.

Backbenchers, especially, jump with glee when invited to speak somewhere. We become adept at speaking about anything and nothing. Sometimes I couldn’t wait to hear what I had to say. As the first of three MPs to speak on a panel on ethnicity in politics, I was introduced as follows: “We will hear first from Barry Campbell, MP for St. Paul’s, who will get us off.” My presentation went south. Then I was asked to attend a breakfast meeting of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association. “Don’t worry,” one of my young assistants told me. “You’re just there to show the flag and listen.” As I took my seat, the host asked, “How long will you be speaking for? ” (Must talk to my staff about getting a proper briefing, I thought.) One evening, I was at the US ambassador’s residence for dinner. As dessert was being served, the chargé d’affaires said, “Would you like to lead off our discussion? We are all anxious to hear your views on the matter we are all so concerned about.” I didn’t know what that important matter was or where to begin. I was never invited back. (Must talk to my staff…)

The annual Toronto Board of Trade dinner is a huge affair—just the sort of place a freshly minted parliamentary secretary to the finance minister should be. As I walked through the lobby of the Royal York Hotel, I saw lots of men in tuxedos and thought to myself, there must be a black-tie event going on here. There was—the Board of Trade dinner, with yours truly at the head table in a shit-brown suit. Quick on the uptake by now, I told everyone that my down-market attire was appropriate, given the tough budget we had just delivered. No one laughed. I finally had a few words with my staff.

A local community centre invited me to speak. The audience was a serious-looking group of older folks. Every chair was filled. I talked about the Liberal platform, the need for change, and what we had accomplished. The audience listened attentively and applauded as I concluded. There were no questions. As the organizer escorted me out, she said, “Thank you for doing this. This class for new immigrants is very important.” Curious, I asked, “Where are they from? ” “Mostly Russia,” she answered. “How’s their English? ” I asked. “Oh, none of them speak English at all, so it’s good for them to hear people speak the language,” she said.

I was pissed off. I had wasted a morning with an audience that couldn’t vote. They appeared to be listening carefully while not understanding a word I said. Not much different from my cable viewers, or the Opposition, or some of my colleagues, I thought. Ottawa had gotten to me.