Manitoba’s new audio threat

Allan Fotheringham May 16 1988

Manitoba’s new audio threat

Allan Fotheringham May 16 1988

Manitoba’s new audio threat


Allan Fotheringham

We are in for a new sound in the land. Be prepared for it. Adjust your sets, if not your ear-drums. Your eardrums are going to take a lot of damage. Reason is that Sharon Carstairs is the new star in Canadian politics and her voice has all the charm of fingernails being dragged over a blackboard. The first woman ever to be an opposition leader in Canada now has 20 Liberal seats in Manitoba to the shaky Conservatives’ 25 and it seems clear she will be premier within a year whenever she and the NDP choose to topple the minority government.

That voice is going to make her nationally famous. The Royal Canadian Air Farce has just been given a prewrapped gift.

Her voice will make you forget Joe Clark’s ears and Brian Mulroney’s chin. She has her trademark and no amount of speech-coaching can erase it. This is not the throaty husk of Judy LaMarsh.

Not the Highland fling of Flora MacDonald, nor the languid baritone of Barbara McDougall. This is a piercing twang that goes right through your headbone and comes out the other side. Carstairs’ tonsils in full flight could not only shatter glass but topple a minivan.

We are grateful for distinctive voices in the public place. We already miss Eugene Whelan’s barnyard wrestling with the language of Shakespeare, his own corn-pone meanderings through the mysteries of syntax, the uncharted waters of tense and grammar. John Turner has been going to a voice coach in his party’s attempts to alter the machine-gun bursts of staccato bit-sentences that emerge from him at the microphone. He is the only man who talks in telegrams.

The problem, the larynx therapists found, was in the way he breathed. (The revolting 22 MPs thought if he was having problems with his breath, they might as well cut off his blood supply.) John used to be a champion sprinter, and he approaches a sentence the same way—his chopping strikes obscuring

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.

where the periods are supposed to be.

The Prime Minister, of course, has that deep chocolate voice that irritates so many of his faithful citizens. As a young aide to Agriculture Minister Alvin Hamilton in the Diefenbaker government, he used to travel rural Saskatchewan with his boss and phone in, gratis, reports of the minister’s speeches to local radio stations. The stations, happy to get the hot, unbiased, objective news of Tory munificence from the young Mulroney, encouraged his activities. If he had kept at it, Peter Mansbridge, who now makes more money

than the Prime Minister, might have had some competition.

The Jaw That Sounds Like a Station really irritates the unwashed when attempting to sound sonorous and sincere at moments of grave peril. The chocolate is dipped into a deeper shade of brown and the tones become oleaginous. He needs to lighten up and talk more the way he does in private.

Political voices can be as valuable as a cigar or a victory salute. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his fireside chats to the nation on radio, his drawn-out “myyy friends” opening wrapped around voters like a blanket. The Churchill bulldog growl—“Some chicken! Some neck!”—was unmistakable, a voice box that rallied a nation and won a war.

Lester Pearson was famous for his lisp, and the Royal Canadian Air Farce every week has fun with Joe Clark’s strange Santa Claus ho-ho-ho. Ed Broadbent, who can actually speak like a normal being in private, has that

shriek of television outrage in his Question Period cameos—the master, as the Prime Minister puts it, of 30-second spurious indignation.

Teddy Kennedy, when he rouses himself to it once every four years, can make a speech soar and swoop and sing. Jesse Jackson speaks in rhyming couplets that stop just this side of singing commercials. And there has never been a finer speech inside politics or out than Martin Luther King’s rivetting “I Have a Dream” oration from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The finest speaker in Canada, Stephen Lewis, claims that he is forsaking politics forever when he leaves his ambassador’s post at the United Nations this year. Pity. Pity.

The wittiest man in the Senate, Finlay MacDonald, never speaks in the Senate, saving his sallies for after5 p.m. badinage. Those senators who have no wit, as we know, speak the most. Senator Allan MacEachen, when he gets up on his hind legs to speak, always reminds me of a woman carefully going over the peaches in a supermarket rack, squeezg ing this one, contemplating the next one, choosing one and then another, much in the same way as the Bard of Cape Breton delicately picks his way around his words and his punctuation.

And so we are left with Sharon Carstairs’ voice. It is not a pleasant sound, it will never be set to Cole Porter or Sigmund Romberg. Perhaps Joni Mitchell and K. D. Lang could do it justice. One gets the impression that Manitoba, crowning her the new rising star, is quite content with it. This perhaps is because, in full throat, it could stop a Calgary chinook dead in its tracks and— aimed the other way at Bay Streetmelt the Canadian Shield and the heart of Conrad Black’s comptroller.

Do not change, Sharon. Lloyd Axworthy sounds as if he is trying to fight his way out of a rain barrel and Grant Devine sounds as if his Stanfield’s are too tight. Bill Vander Slam can’t speak because his smile keeps getting in the way of his teeth, and Don Getty sounds as if he played too many games without his helmet. Hang in there, Sharon, and just rant. No one needs a TV set or a radio. We can hear you from here.