National Post, July 13, 2012.
Watching the video of Stephen Harper calling Calgary the greatest city in the greatest country of the world reminded me of a scene from Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, in which a member of parliament for the little town of Mariposa arrives by train from Ottawa. “Most of the time,” wrote Leacock, “John Henry Bagshaw had to be at Ottawa (though he preferred the quiet of his farm and always left it, as he said, with a sigh).”
We like our politicians to be parochial, and they know it. It was no gaffe when former speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill pronounced all politics is local.
Stephen Harper was elected by the good people of Calgary Southwest, not by the electorate at large. Parochialism is built into our system. We expect our politicians to have the nation’s interests at heart, but were also relieved to know that they are like us. And most of us are a pretty parochial lot.
There is something reassuring about the idea that Jean Chrétien loves Shawinigan, or that Paul Martin lives on his farm in the Eastern Townships. We elect our leaders to the House of Commons, not the House of Cosmopolitans. Cosmopolitans don’t generally fare well in politics. Think of Michael Ignatieff.
So Harper feels patriotic about Canada and loves the city where he was elected. Big deal.
The real question is whether our politicians know how to balance parochial and national interests. In this sense, there is another subtext to Harper’s proclamation. For years the West has complained that Canadian prime ministers governed as if the country were composed of Quebec and Ontario. Now we seem to have a federal government that thinks that what is good for Alberta is good for the country.
I have no problem with the centre of political gravity shifting away from Upper Canada. Maybe the fork has to be bent to be made straight again.
But balancing parochial and national interests demands a kind of wisdom from politicians that is learned through practice. It takes ongoing and often difficult dialogue. It takes balance and judgment. The role of parliament is precisely to transform the narrow self-interest of politicians and their constituencies into something more ennobling and encompassing.
In recent years we have seen parliament diminished by the overweening executive power of the prime minister. To be sure, the problem began long before Harper. Harper’s love of Calgary would be more dignified if all members of parliament could be as passionate about their constituencies and equally able to reconcile their love of their neighbours with their service to the country.