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Twenty years can pass in a blink

Nov 11, 2013

 

OTTAWA—Twenty years can pass in a blink. Last week Kim Campbell was in the nation’s capital, honoured by Equal Voice for her role as Canada’s first woman prime minister.

 

Twenty years ago the same week, I became Canada’s first woman deputy prime minister.

 

Campbell was always a direct, straight-talking politician. Her reflections on her time in office include an acid, and deadly accurate portrayal of what it was like to stare down the old boys’ club.

 

She sailed out of a hugely successful leadership with a lead in the polls that was a mile wide and an inch deep. (In those days, we still hadn’t absorbed metric.)

 

In reality, Campbell became the leader of a party that had already experienced its best-before date. After two terms in office, prime minister Brian Mulroney was wise enough to step down before he was booted out.

 

Campbell was the front-runner to replace him. She had provincial experience, and served as Canada’s popular justice minister and the first woman to become minister of national defence. At the convention, she sailed past another young and future leader, then Progressive Conservative Jean Charest.

 

All the stars were seemingly aligned, but when the writ was dropped, the wheels came off the bus.

 

Campbell stumbled a couple of times on early announcements, including her claim that elections were terrible times to discuss policy. But the coup de grace was delivered when her campaign team launched a negative advertisement, making fun of opposition leader Jean Chrétien’s speaking style. Chrétien literally spoke out of one side of his mouth, because as a child he had suffered from Bell’s palsy, and the nerves in his face were permanently damaged. The wily Chrétien pounced on the mistake and demanded that Campbell pull the ads making fun of a disabled person.

 

Campbell personally ordered the ads removed, but they sunk her.

 

In the end, the halo effect of the Tory convention ended quickly and she went into free fall, leaving just two Members of Parliament standing when the election was finally held on Oct. 25, 1993.

 

Her loss was my gain. In early November, Cabinet was formed and I was honoured with a Privy Council appointment as minister of the environment and deputy prime minister.

 

Even though we were always on opposite sides of the House of Commons, and often on opposites sides of the issues, I felt a kinship with Campbell.

 

She ended up taking the fall for a horrific election defeat that was pre-ordained before she ever became the leader.

 

Yet in the aftermath of the defeat, she carried all the blame for taking the party so low that pundits were predicting the end of Conservatism in Canada.

 

It’s funny how the third party rose up to become the first party, notwithstanding pundit speculation to the contrary.

 

In those days, members on opposite sides of the House could actually be friends.

 

In the 20 years that have passed since Campbell and I both celebrated firsts, the Parliament we served is unrecognizable.

 

Campbell’s party included the Red Tories; those progressives who actually believed that government could be a force for good in peoples’ lives.

 

All political parties in Ottawa were national in scope. They had representatives sprinkled across the country, whose job was to bridge the differences between and among regions.

 

The arrival of the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party, riding on the heels of the Tory collapse, changed all that.

 

The Bloc lobbied for only one part of the country and the Reform lobbied for another. Each based their party’s success on fomenting a sense of division, and emphasizing regional disparities and jealousies.

 

Nowadays, successful political parties seem to do their best to build wedges, not bridges.

 

Just compare the gut negative reaction back in 1993 to the Chrétien advertisements. Campbell pulled them within hours of a huge public backlash. They were often cited as a reason for the Tory defeat. I believe there were other factors, preordained before Campbell arrived, that also played a huge role.

 

But the ads became synonymous with Campbell’s disastrous election campaign. Today, no one can sit through a hockey game without a constant bombardment of ads designed, not to convince the public of the next big idea, but rather to simply trash the opponent.

 

Two former Privy Council clerks went public last week, attacking the current government for an absolute lack of national vision.

 

Twenty years ago, government was all about building a better country. Today it is just about the wedge.

 

Sheila Copps is a former Cabinet minister and former deputy prime minister in Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government.

 

 

View original article on The Hill Times.

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Thanks also to the Government of Canada (Status of Women & Canadian Heritage) for their financial support.