The following is a column by Dwight Duncan, the former Ontario finance minister and current senior strategic adviser at McMillan LLP.
Recent events have caused many to wonder if there is any civility left in politics. Every time you go online, or watch television, name-calling and debate seem to hit new lows.
Donald Trump has taken political offense to a new level. Whether talking about “Crooked Hillary” or “Low energy Jeb” he has made it acceptable to attack personally and cruelly.
Canadians are not immune to this. Last week, we witnessed the spectacle of an Alberta politician doubling down on his party’s juvenile question period tactics, by insulting Premier Kathleen Wynne in a personal, hurtful, and homophobic way.
She handled it with characteristic aplomb.
Last Sunday, in a completely uncharacteristic episode, Bob Rae was caught on camera gagging while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was thanking Stephen Harper, and his family, for their service to Canada. Rae, reaffirming what an honourable man he truly is, apologized and expressed regret in short order.
There is a long history of hurling insults at political opponents. There is seldom any love lost among those competing politically. It is part of the game. If someone aspires to public office, they better have thick skin.
Tough political debates are neither wrong nor without cause. Indeed, a whole range of rules, conventions, and precedents have evolved under the Westminster parliamentary model that attempt to define what is acceptable in our political discourse.
A well-placed barb, done with humour, can actually benefit its author.
Winston Churchill was the master. My favourite was aimed at Clement Atlee whom he referred to as “a modest man, who has much to be modest about.”
In recent years, political observers have lamented the unprecedented polarization of debate in our politics, the rise of hyper-partisanship and the inability of politicians of every stripe to find common ground. Developing bonds of trust and friendship across the deep chasm of partisan politics seems impossible.
Over many years in elected office, I faced off against more than 50 candidates in various elections. In office, I engaged in vigorous debate with literally dozens of opponents on issues ranging from the trivial to the most significant.
My Conservative opponent in the 1995 and 1999 elections was a young, telegenic, smart, and roguishly charming guy, named Michael Rohrer.
Just 24 years old in that first election, Mike was barely out of university, looked much younger than his years, yet he had the presence and maturity of someone much older.
He was nominated early, at a time when nobody but the most fervent partisans could envision Mike Harris and his Common Sense Revolution dominating Ontario politics.
Michael Rohrer was by far the smartest and toughest political opponent I ever had. A deeply-principled conservative, he knew and understood the nuts and bolts of electoral politics as well. More than anything else people liked him, and so did I.
We developed a friendship in that election that persists to this day. He took the Conservative vote to new highs in our area and earned himself a staff spot in the Harris government. During that period and through the 1999 election we enjoyed an easy banter even though our politics were strikingly different.
Since then, Mike married Dee, they have three children, he built a successful career, and remained active in his church and community. In 2014, he was elected to town council in the Windsor suburb of Tecumseh.
Over all those years, he was quick with congratulations when things went well for me and didn’t hesitate to tell me when he thought I was wrong. Whatever the message it was always delivered in a firm, congenial and civil way. He always had a pleasant word and good advice when it was most needed.
Though he stayed active in Conservative politics at both the federal and provincial levels, his priorities were his family, his faith, and his community. Whatever political ambitions he had all those years ago, he put aside, all-the-while maintaining the values that made him the man he was.
Barely 45 years old, Mike Rohrer died suddenly and unexpectedly of natural causes this week.
Yesterday, I joined his broken-hearted family and friends, along with hundreds of others to celebrate his remarkable life.
He embodied all that was good in public service. Over many years, he demonstrated a civility that seems in short supply in today’s politics.
Don’t get me wrong, he was tough and fought hard for what he believed in. He gave as good as he got, and did so all the while showing just how worthy he was.
Mike’s life and untimely passing should remind us all that honour, decency, and civility are very much alive in today’s politics.
May his memory be a blessing.
Senior Strategic Advisor, McMillan LLP
Dwight Duncan has been a senior strategic adviser to McMillan LLP, the Toronto-based business law firm, since March 2013. He advises the firm's clients on investing and operating in Canada and abroad. A long-time MPP from Windsor, Duncan became Ontario finance minister in 2005 and held the cabinet post until he left politics in 2013. Duncan was also minister of energy, revenue minister and deputy premier, among other posts in the McGuinty government.