Talking shop

Aaron Wherry sits down with Bob Rae to discuss the state of Parliament and politics

On the occasion of his winning the prize for parliamentarian of the year, I sat down last Thursday with Bob Rae in his corner office on the fifth floor of Centre Block. Here’s a transcript of our conversation (only slightly abridged).

How do you now look back on the parliamentarian you were at that point when you first showed up?

I had a kind of a very lucky start because I was elected in a by-election and it was sort of the last six months of the Trudeau government and the NDP caucus was very small, it was like 15 or 16 people, and there were lots of opportunities for me to speak, to kind of get in and do stuff. I got to ask a question my first day and I did a late night debate.

The House was a much more congenial place. There were a number of Conservatives who were there who were very friendly—Ray Hnatyshyn, Lincoln Alexander and Steve Paproski. They all stayed for my maiden speech and they all heckled during the speech. You could tell it was a kind of very modest kind of hazing process—Well, we’ll see how this kid does.

The House itself was more kind of congenial. Mr. Trudeau would answer questions if you asked him a question. He wouldn’t always answer the question, but if you asked the prime minister a question like far down the list … even when a backbencher asked the prime minister a question he would respond sometimes. Even if it was a stupid question. He’d say well if you read this book or read that, you might understand this.

And the other ministers were much more—I mean there was a sense of, I wouldn’t say it was congenial, but it was more, there was a sense that you didn’t have to be antagonistic all the time. I think that a couple of things happened which kind of began to turn things. I think the NEP. The Conservatives grew very embittered when they won the election and then lost the election—so when they won in 79 and then lost in 80. To share the lobby with those guys was not a happy experience.

I imagine especially for you.

Yeah, for me, because I moved the motion. So they didn’t mind going after me. But even then, I mean it was sometimes a little bit personal, but mainly not. But when the House began to turn into quite an embittered place when, with the patriation of the constitution and the NEP, those two things kind of turned the House and at that point I left.

What I find now is that it is more difficult, you really have to work at building relationships and there is this kind of antagonism and there’s more ritual, rote answers. I think the fact that governments are more disciplined about how they communicate and how they try to present their message, which is what all governments try to do, it doesn’t matter what political stripe, everyone’s learned that sort of lesson that you’ve got to try to do that, but this government’s taken it to the degree where you ask a question and you’re just going to get boilerplate in response and it’s going to be boilerplate written by somebody else, it isn’t going to be somebody saying something even remotely spontaneous in the House. And I think that’s too bad. I think we’ve lost a lot. I think that that’s contributed to the sense that we’re not really connecting with people.

But you still seem to take this fairly seriously and still seem to hold it in high regard.

I do. I’ve always believed in that. I mean, I do think if the leaders don’t take the House seriously then no one will. And then the whole thing just falls apart. And I still have this, maybe naive, but I don’t think it is, this notion that the House should be a place where big ideas are shared and people are listening to each other and trying to make progress.

I mean, going back to some of the historic debates, when Mr. Trudeau spoke at the end of second reading on the constitution, in response to a number of other speeches that had been made and there were some really great speeches, some really fine speeches and they were well attended, people went in and listened to them, but when Trudeau spoke the House was practically full. And he also made a point of saying, I noticed that this member over here said something and I noticed the comment over here and want to respond to that. I mean, that was part of how people expected you to respond. But I think that in the current climate it’s harder and harder. If the first minister isn’t that interested then that gets passed down through the rest of the team. So that now we’re seeing an almost unprecedented use of closure motions, time allocation motions … I don’t think it’s changed forever. I think it’s just right now we’re in a particular spot. And we’ve got to figure out how do we improve this thing. Because I don’t think it’s unique to this place. 

I remember I read in Protest to Power, I can’t remember exactly what timeframe, maybe it was around the constitution, when you said you’d never seen it so poisonous.

Oh yeah, people almost got into fist fights. Harvie Andre and Ron Irwin, they were screaming at each other. It was just like holy shit. You couldn’t believe it. But I think one of the things that people, you have to work at it, but I think that you break down a lot of barriers with good humour and just kind of listening to what’s being said and not kind of letting the rote nature of the exercise take it over. 

Do you notice that the House goes pretty quiet when you stand up to speak? Or at least they start out quiet and maybe they start heckling eventually. But there is, when you stand up and talk, when you stand up to ask your first question…

Yeah, people are listening. Because they don’t quite know what I’m going to say. They don’t know where he’s going to go today.

Is that because you take it seriously?

I think it’s probably for two reasons. One, it’s an old trick, frankly, if you start out speaking softly people tend to shut up and listen because they say, I can’t hear what he’s saying, I better listen to what he’s got to say. But the second one is that I think there’s a certain fear factor that they’re not quite sure what I’m going to say when they say something, so they know that it’s going to be… And you don’t always get the better of something in an exchange, that’s just the way it is, sometimes you get beaten up, but … I don’t know, I like the House. I enjoy it. I know that it’s kind of, I don’t think it’s anachronistic to say that. I do think that it’s a place that deserves respect. And you sort of say, how can we make it work better?

It’s a matter of trying to figure out how to make it work better. I was once at a panel, three former premiers from different provinces talking about how to make Parliament work better, and when I spoke I said, it’s only when you leave the place that you start thinking about how could I have made this place work better? When you’re actually there you’re going to say, well, I’m going to prorogue, I’m going to control things as best as I can, because I think Parliament is seen by governments as an oppositional vehicle. Which I think is why this vogue of sort of centralized communication kind of makes that happen. And puts that in place, of having this here’s the message today.

And what’s also interesting is that in Parliament now, this goes to include Standing Order 31s, which never used to be disciplined. Standing Order 31s used to be, ‘there’s a high school in my riding,’ ” people just trying to get on to say something about something and usually something local or a personal interest or somebody died. Now, it’s actually interesting, yesterday in the House, the last four SO31s were just kind of like, bang, bang, bang between the Conservatives and the NDP, like you’re bald, you’re fat, you’re bald, you’re fat, back and forth. They used to do this thing where, in order to put the leader off his first question, the last Standing Order 31 would be Not Fit To Govern or Just Visiting or whatever line and they repeat that and repeat that and then the guy gets up and asks the question.

But there’s a lot of ritualistic stuff. When I became the interim leader, I said I don’t want people standing up when I ask a question. I don’t need standing applause before I ask a question. Let’s not go there. This is just…

It is a bit of a pep rally at some point.

… like the Bulgarian parliament or something.

Did you ever take Diefenbaker’s first pieces of advice to heart? “Don’t take shit from anybody” and “always go for the throat.”

Actually, no. I didn’t take either piece of advice, but I thought it was interesting that after 60 years of public life that was his perspective on things.

Even as a rookie MP, what was your attitude like? Did you view the House with a certain reverence?

I thought it was fun. I mean, I enjoyed it. I was very nervous. And there is, first of all, a discipline to questions. And I still get cut off. I still sometimes lose account of the time … But I took it seriously. Like I enjoyed it. I said, well, I want to be able to experience everything here. The only thing I haven’t experienced in this context is being in government, which I still have hopes.

And would you say your attitude then is about the same as your attitude now?

I’m probably a little less brash than I was then. You get a little more rounded, some of the edges get rounded off, the elbows get rounded off. And I’ve learned more about the value of friendship and the value of keeping up friendships, as much as you can, on the other side. It’s also a good way of finding out what’s going on. And, frankly, a lot of times you really don’t know what’s going on unless you chat with people.

Were there any parliamentarians that you modelled yourself after?

Yes, Mr. Douglas, I was in the House with him the last six months of his time as an MP. And he was an amazingly disciplined individual, for whom I had a tremendous amount of respect and affection. He was extremely focused and he also, he’s the one who told me, don’t read notes, don’t read questions, just don’t do that. It’ll be bad for the first time you try it, it’ll be hard, you won’t like it, you’ll be nervous, but believe me, it’s the only way you’re going to learn is just don’t do it. Because as soon as you start to do it, he says, you lose all the spontaneity and all the effect. And he also taught me something else, which is, if you knew him the way I got to know him through that period and then before he died, he didn’t hold grudges and he also had no hesitation in expressing admiration for people on the other side. He had a lot relationship with Diefenbaker. He had a long relationship with Jimmy Gardiner, going back to those days in Saskatchewan. He was always trying to get things done. He was partisan and socialist, but he just said, you’ve got to be practical here. That always had an influence on sort of how I saw it. A lot of in his style of oratory too. Tommy always used humour, always started with a joke, started with a few jokes and then moved into telling his story, to giving his speech. You can’t fake that, you either have some affinity or capacity for it or you don’t.

And the other person who I watched with enormous admiration was Mr. MacEachen. I really, really respected him. I thought he was an extraordinary parliamentarian. He had a command of the machinery of government. He had a command of the language. And he was one of those people who taught me that you need to have more than one gear. You may have a gear where what you’re trying to do is not answer a question, you know you just don’t want to go there. You may have another gear where you’re getting the thing and then punching hard, very strong points. To watch some people speak, they start out decibel level ten and then they’re going ten all the way and then they collapse and it’s over.

The other thing I think people underestimate about Allan, because they always talk about how clever he was and how shrewd he is, but I don’t think they recognize the passion. He really believed in a vision of government, he believed in things that had to be done and things that the government needed to be thinking about. He had a big influence on me. 

Didn’t you once refer to him as “the piano player at a brothel?”

Yes I did, who pretended he didn’t know what was going on upstairs.

I assume that was before you two knew each other very well.

I didn’t say he was. I said he was like. And that’s another way in which I think I’ve probably become, in public at least, I mean in private I can still say things I sometimes wish I hadn’t, but I have said a lot of things in public that are pretty, I once said Mr. Trudeau made Judas Iscariot look like a team player. That was pretty harsh. 

Any advice for the kids?

The first advice is throw yourself into it. Get as much ice time as you can. That’s very important. The other thing I would say is I think there’s still too much reading and scripting and so on and not enough of just sort of taking stage and making fewer points and making them more effectively. Get into something. You’ve really got to pick a few things that matter to you. People can see through an interest that is synthetic and an interest that is real. People can see through stuff that doesn’t ring true. They’ll know, well, this is just so much puffery. But if you get ahold of an issue and you think it’s important and you want to talk about it and keep going on it, then tackle it, take it on. I think the private member, the individual member, can still do quite a lot if they do that. That would be my advice to people of whatever vintage.