Davey, Gratton and Canadian identity politics
Today, by sad coincidence, two large figures from the Canadian political past are being buried. In Toronto, the funeral for the Liberals' Keith Davey, legendary senator and Rainmaker. In Ottawa, the funeral for Michel Gratton, the former journalist and press secretary to prime minister Brian Mulroney.
Looking back on their respective legacies this week, there are some obvious similarities. Both men left lives in journalism to plunge into politics. Both were passionate about identity issues: Davey, an ardent nationalist; Gratton, a fiercely proud Franco-Canadian. Both had front-row seats to history at the side of larger-than-life prime ministers, who were presiding over tumultuous, heady times in Canadian identity politics.
What's interesting, as a side note, is how their involvement in politics reflected changing attitudes toward the U.S. influence over Canadian politics. Davey, charged with the job of rebuilding the Liberal party in the 1960s, unabashedly borrowed from the pioneering polling and advertising techniques emerging in U.S. politics. He loved what was going on with the Kennedy government; followed it closely, according to Christina McCall-Newman's "intimate portrait" of the Grits.
By the time Mulroney came to power in the 1980s, however, it was less acceptable for Canadians to imitate Americans or be inspired by them. Gratton's book, So What are the Boys Saying, contained some searing examples of how Mulroney's PMO was overwhelmed when Ronald Reagan came to visit for the famous "Shamrock Summit." Mulroney's friendship with Reagan, his free-trade campaign, etc., all sat uneasily with a Canadian public less open to the import of American politics here.
Davey and Gratton died the same week that the Conservatives, and now the Liberals, have unleashed negative advertising against their opponents. It's not all that easy to say at the moment how Canadians are going to react. Coming on the heels of a big debate in the U.S. about political rhetoric, we seem somewhat smug about the higher tone of politics here, but there's no question that negative ads have secured a foothold in terms of tactics. Today, at least, I find myself wondering what Davey and Gratton would have said about the ads.