I am reminded of Coolidge’s early 20th century series of oil paintings “Dogs Playing Poker”, when considering this subject. On the surface, all is laughing and jovial expressions (as far as dogs are concerned), but below the surface nefarious behaviour is underway, complete with the pawing of duplicate cards. Relationships in politics will always involve an ever-evolving mix of fraternity and factionalism.
Civility and respect are necessary components to a healthy, functioning democracy. Too much rancor and derision can be corrosive and begin to impact the long-term health of institutions and the short-term health of public policy. Without doubt, an integral part of public life involves disagreement, between and within parties, and being able to air those grievances at one hour and meet as friends another is the tricky balancing act that keeps politics bearable and beneficial.
Some MPs know this better than others. For those who have been involved in Canadian politics for a long time, names like Ralph Goodale, Peter Stoffer and James Moore ring with congeniality. They are the MPs who attend other party gatherings and have earned the respect of their colleagues for their sincere and professional geniality, while remaining effective representatives. MPs like these are useful for patching up particularly prickly relationships, which is an important tool for any leader to have.
On a personal level, my closest friends for many years have largely been Liberals and Conservatives, which doesn’t mean we never talk about politics, in fact, we almost always do. Over time, the discussion graduates into a level of maturity where differences are understood and, from time to time, common ground is found. Having one’s ideas and policy preferences challenged on a regular basis forces one to constantly re-evaluate and, in my opinion, can only serve to strengthen the quality of policy solutions.
On a final note, unfortunately, even friendship can turn out to be masking a very good poker face. Activists should always remain as guarded with sensitive information as they are open and mirthful when with friends from other parties. Sometimes, the temptation to turn over something juicy is just too great, and the spaniel plays its duplicate ace under the eye of the dealer. Be careful, especially in smoky rooms.
Canada has had a long tradition of partisan friendship, but some have criticized in recent years that politics is no longer a “gentleman’s” sport. While there is some evidence that partisanship has reached a fevered pitch, there’s no basis for an argument that things are worse now than they have ever been. While the dogs may change, the rules remain the same.