I’m off to Ottawa tomorrow to attend the Politics and the Pen gala, sponsored by the Writer’s Trust of Canada. The highlight is, of course, the announcement of the winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. The nominees this year are the following books:
Greg Donaghy, Grit: The Life and Politics of Paul Martin Sr.
Norman Hillmer, O.D. Skelton: A Portrait of Canadian Ambition
John Ibbitson, Stephen Harper
Looking back, it’s amazing what a difference a year can make in politics. I must admit that last year I didn’t enjoy myself much at the event, since I was one of the nominees, and I had to figure out what I was going to say, if indeed I won. A year ago, the Harper Government was in power, and the political atmosphere was entirely different. The Politics and the Pen event, however, is sort of like the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in the U.S., where all the journalists and all the politicians get together in a cordial and relaxed environment. As a result, anything overtly partisan or critical of the government would have been highly inappropriate. At the same time, the entire federal cabinet was in the room (with the exception of Stephen Harper). Rona Ambrose was sitting at my table. And since my book was highly critical of many of the tactics the Conservative Party had been using, both in government and on the campaign trail, I could hardly miss the opportunity to say something to them. So that’s what I spent the evening doing – figuring out how to say something sufficiently pointed, that would at the same time not come across as political.
Paul Wells faced a similar dilemma the year previous, and I thought handled it pretty well. Here is a transcript of his speech. The Tim Hortons bit was probably the best part, and the one I wanted to emulate. I figure I did okay, because despite not having said anything overtly political, I got heckled by several conservatives (including, I am told, Lisa Raitt – I couldn’t see, the lights were too bright). Anyhow, someone conveniently took some footage and put it on youtube, so you can be the judge:
Someone also conveniently transcribed the key part:
There is one small thing I wanted to comment on though – I noticed that the books are all a reflection of the fact that the left in this country continues to be very, very good at writing books, and perhaps not so good at winning elections. This is an observation that people have been making for well over 20 years, that maybe we should take our giant brains and apply them to this question of how to win elections. And a lot of people have been coming along trying to offer advice on how we might do that and a lot of the advice has all gone in the same direction, which is that you have to kind of copy the same tactics that are being used against you, that you have to fight fire with fire and so forth.
You know there’s this phrase “it’s not about what you say, it’s about how you make people feel,” right? That’s the kind of advice people are getting. This book arose out of a dissatisfaction with that advice and the consequences of following that advice, because it really does have a tendency to reinforce the spiral that’s been going on in our politics. It’s created what many people call the post-truth political environment, where it’s just all about how you make people feel and not about what you say. And I think that been very unhealthy for our democracy.
So just to wrap it up, I just want to say that when I look at contemporary politics I am reminded, like many Canadians, of the 2008 NHL playoff series and a particular game that occurred between the Rangers and the Devils, when Sean Avery decided that he wanted to screen Martin Brodeur. Many of you will remember this – instead of screening him the usual way, which is putting his back to the goalie and sort of moving around, he just turned around and faced Brodeur, directly in his face, and started sticking his gloves and waving his stick around right in Brodeur’s face. And so the Devils complained, Brodeur complained, the referee looked at it and said “Well, there’s nothing I can do, there’s no rule that says you can’t do that in hockey.” It hadn’t occurred to anybody previously to do that, so there wasn’t a rule. So Sean Avery kept doing it.
Now, I think this illustrates a number of things. I just want to suggest that, in particular what it shows is that just because you’re not breaking the rules doesn’t mean that the way that you’re acting is not, in some fundamental way, hurting the game. So I just want to say one thing to all the political operatives and elected officials in the room. I want to encourage you – this is really presumptuous – I just want to encourage you every so often to look into the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I the Sean Avery of Canadian politics?”
Now, of course, the other nice thing about the Sean Avery story is the very next day the NHL made a new rule that said you can’t do that. It’s been immortalized now as the Sean Avery Rule. Unfortunately in politics, we don’t have a benevolent NHL, right? It’s up to the players to come up with the rules. And therein lies the difficulty. Therein lies the way in which we can get caught in a kind of a spiral. So as you can see, these problems are much more difficult to solve in the political arena than they are in hockey.
So thank you to the Writers’ Trust, thank you to all. Have a good night.