Greatness walked gingerly on a bad knee to the front of the House of Commons last week. Nelson Mandela, 80 years old now, took the two carpeted steps to the podium one at a time while the MPs and senators, dignitaries and those lucky enough to wangle a pass into the visitors’ gallery sucked in a wonderful moment of history in the House. Rare is it that this place feels any sense of anticipation at what is to come. Rarely is it full. Mandela not only packed the House, he wrested something else from its occupants. He got them to listen.
Mandela has given loftier speeches in his life, among them his eloquent valedictory to the UN General Assembly earlier last week. But even a serviceable text by his standards has some lessons in it for our politicians. Candor, for one. He acknowledged his government has made mistakes in its infancy. He admitted the pain and imperfections in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which grants forgiveness for those who admit to crimes committed during the apartheid years—while defending its role in putting a dirty history to rest. The old Marxist now bows to the reality of global capitalism, but reminded his audience that “in an interdependent world, rich and poor, strong and weak are bound in a common destiny that decrees that none shall enjoy lasting prosperity and stability unless others do.” The MPs and senators stood and applauded, thrilling to proof that politics can be more than the art of dealmaking, vanity and posturing. They pressed forward to shake his hand as he left. Some cried. But then, seldom do they enjoy the privilege of having an actual grown-up in their midst.
Within hours, the House had returned to business as usual. In Question Period, the quest to get sound bite on the national news resumed. NDP Leader Alexa McDonough recklessly accused the government of destroying documents relating to the APEC summit investigation, an accusation founded on hearsay evidence that her staff had made no attempt to verify. On the Liberal side, Justice Minister Anne McLellan of Edmonton could not find the courage to stand
MPs seldom enjoy the privilege of having an actual grown-up like Nelson Mandela in their midst
and defend Ottawa’s decision to appoint a senator from Alberta despite an impending Senate election in the province. Meanwhile, partisan catcalls continued their descent into witlessness. Bloc MP Yvan Loubier’s contribution to the debate was to yell “Bullshit” at Finance Minister Paul Martin while he spoke.
The Prime Minister was not in the House that afternoon, but he bears some responsibility for the shortage of ideas in the country’s national debates. No one expects perfection from leaders—not even from Mandela, who has his faults and blemishes, too. But leaders set the tone for political discourse in the country, and under Jean Chrétien that too often means stubbornness, a disdain for other views and an intolerance towards dissent.
Chrétiens handling of the APEC summit controversy is a case in point. It took him almost a year to express any regret for the treatment of demonstrators in Vancouver last November, and the qualified apology he issued last week smacked of being extracted from a cornered man. Nor has the Prime Minister clearly explained how far he or his staff went to make sure that visiting Asian strongmen were not offended by any political protests. Instead, he dodges questions about his role while his aides continue to decry the media’s pursuit of the story as mere envy for a scandal of Washington proportions.
Perhaps Chrétien believes his 35 years in public life has made his reputation as a straight-talking, regular guy impervious to change. He seems willing to gamble that Canadians will not, at this stage, redefine him in their minds as arrogant or autocratic. But his predilection for squelching dissent, his angry dismissal of competing views, helps lower the level of political debate to partisan chippiness and chases away ideas.
Mandela’s greatness is linked to many things: his willingness to deliver difficult truths to his own followers, an ability to rise above pettiness to see the long game, a lack of fear of other points of view. It would be nice if the politicians who were so happy to Velcro themselves to his side for photo opportunities last week would allow some of his empathy and courage to stick.
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