Michael Ignatieff sent the image makers of his party into fits of apoplexy last week, during the annual gathering of the Liberal caucus, which is held every year before the fall session of Parliament. It seems that the entire caucus -- meeting in Bay Bulls, Newfoundland -- boarded a ship, named the Atlantic Puffin, to do a little whale watching. Unfortunately, the whales refused to put in an appearance. When a reporter expressed his disappointment at not seeing any whales, Ignatieff tried to see the bright side of things. He took a couple of minutes to wax rhapsodic -- tongue in cheek -- about the bird which gave the boat its name.
"The puffin is a noble bird," said Ignatieff, "because it has good family values. They stay together for thirty years. I'm not kidding. They lay one egg and they put their excrement in one place. They hide their excrement. . . . They flap their wings very hard and they work like hell. This seems to me a symbol of what a party should be."
The strategists in the party were horrified. They immediately had visions of Conservative attack ads, featuring clips of Ignatieff commenting on the virtues of hiding one's excrement. Given past ads which the Harper government has run against Stephan Dion, they were not conjuring up imaginary chimeras. But sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to laugh at him.
And, as Susan Delacourt wrote in Saturday's edition of The Toronto Star, Mr. Dion seems incapable of using humour in his defense or in a counterattack.. He "isn't able to arouse crowds to anything but polite laughter," she wrote, " and usually that's a line that has been written for him." As for the Prime Minister, Delacourt noted that, before he was elected to the cat bird seat, he was known to do "good spirited impersonations of Liberal cabinet ministers and some gentle pokes at his own party's foibles." But,"Harper's idea of a joke now is to say something mean or dismissive about his opponents. He also thinks it's funny to make a joke about the media almost every time he appears at a press conference." She concluded that "humour seems to have gone out of fashion in Harper's Ottawa."
The editors of The Globe and Mail have suggested that the Prime Minister learn to "lighten up." But The Globe's own Jeffrey Simpson has noted that among the many adjectives -- like "sober, serious, self assured, intelligent, controlling, decisive, cold, formal and, sometimes, imperious" -- which accurately describe the prime minister -- "humourous" is not one of them. "No politician who has a clothing and makeup adviser, as Mr. Harper does," writes Simpson, "will ever 'lighten up.'" So it would appear that, while both leaders of Canada's governing parties are "intelligent" (in an academic sense) neither has much of a sense of humour. That's a pity.
Over the weekend, my wife, our youngest son and I visited Sir John A. MacDonald's former residence in Kingston, Ontario. MacDonald was Canada's first prime minister and, as my son commented -- laughing as he did so, "Canada's most famous drunk." But he was also renowned for his sense of humour. My favourite MacDonald story is about the day MacDonald encountered one of his political rivals on a narrow sidewalk which both were trying to navigate. "I will not yield to a liar and a drunk!" huffed his opponent. MacDonald -- stepping off the sidewalk -- replied, "But I will!"
MacDonald's time was much like our own. Slander was standard political practice; and liquor fuelled most political discussions. But with his supporters and his rivals he managed to build a country which -- by land mass at least -- is the second largest in the world. He knew how to use humour to dissolve tension and outrage. Today we have a surplus of both. What we need is more humour.