Your Weekend BS: The straight poop on profanity in politics and the state of public discourse in Alberta

Posted on March 17, 2018, 1:16 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: Alberta politicians Deron Bilous, Jason Kenney, Derek Fildebrandt and Thomas Lukaszuk, all from the author’s vast collection of snapshots.

Trigger warning! This dispatch from the Annals of Political Discourse in Alberta contains words unsuitable for sensitive and young readers. For a more fulsome discussion of why they are included anyway, read this chapter from my unpublished textbook for newspaper journalism students at a Christian University, which will remain nameless to protect the truly innocent. It was written in an era when newspapers still appeared, barely, to be a thing. Bonus points to those who find the typos. DJC

Has it occurred to anyone here that Jason Kenney may have been making a big mistake when he started claiming he would restore decorum to the Alberta Legislature?

After all, there’s a certain amount of evidence out there that Albertans may not mind it one bit if their politicians are … erm … plain spoken. They may even like it.

As long, that is, as the politicians in question are plain spoken about the right things. Pity the person who called a Conservative premier’s policies “Stalinist” back in the day. Condemnation in the gutter media would surely follow swiftly. Around here in Alberta, we only used to indulge in that kind of rhetoric when we were talking about Liberals and New Democrats.

Nowadays, though, Alberta’s New Democrats seem to be learning. Earlier this week, Trade Minister Deron Bilous called those other New Democrats who govern British Columbia “a bunch of shitheads” for being insufficiently enthusiastic about the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project.

This may not be a very nice thing to say about your next-door neighbours, especially when they share your party name, but when the former schoolteacher made his observation, the municipal officials he was addressing in Edmonton broke into cheers.

As for the reaction in British Columbia, a spokesperson for Premier John Horgan declined to comment, which is a nice way of saying he or she refused to dignify Mr. Bilous’s outburst with a response.

This might have been a mistake if Victoria were in Alberta, but cuss words are apparently not considered appropriate for use in public commentary on the other side of the Rockies. So don’t hold your breath waiting for Mr. Horgan to say Mr. Bilous’s breath smells like bitumen. This is true even if what B.C.’s premier was thinking was more the reply churlish or even the countercheque quarrelsome than the retort courteous, as Shakespeare would have had it. (The Bard, of course, was just doing low comedy. This is serious.)

Whatever, Mr. Bilous apologized for his characterization of his B.C. colleagues as inappropriate, but, you know, completely understandable when politicians in other jurisdictions try to represent their constituents when their constituents don’t want what Alberta wants.

His exact words of apology: “In my frustration, I had a poor choice of words and for that I do apologize. But we will continue to stand up for this pipeline, for this project. And this is in the national interest.”

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a bump in the polls in the NDP’s favour as a result of Mr. Bilous’s remark. I’m serious.

But then, as Strathmore-Brooks MLA Derek Fildebrandt observed the other day, “politics is all bullshit.”

Mr. Fildebrandt, until recently the fair-haired boy of Alberta conservatism, had just learned that his erstwhile friend Mr. Kenney was giving the self-described Liberty Conservative the bum’s rush, permanently, from the UCP Caucus. This was allegedly for his economy with the truth, which is an irony if ever there was one.

What Mr. Fildebrandt has been learning now that he is officially a newly Independent MLA is what the late U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson was trying to get across when he explained the difference between a U.S. Congressman and a U.S. Senator: “Boys, I may not know much, but I know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad!” Mr. Johnson, a Democrat, is said also to have characterized Richard M. Nixon, a Republican and another late U.S. President, using a similar phrase.

Which gets us back to Mr. Kenney, the former federal minister who once upon a time was often spoken of as a candidate for prime minister of Canada but who nowadays is vying to be premier of Alberta.

Indeed, there are those who would suggest Mr. Fildebrandt’s pithy summation is a good description of the previously sometimes indecorous Mr. Kenney’s new decorum strategy – leastways, if it’s based as some say on complaints about NDP ministers’ activities that aren’t completely factual.

Regardless, if potty-mouth commentary starts to work out for the Dippers, let alone for Mr. Fildebrandt, will Mr. Kenney have to backtrack and up his quota of curses to stay in the game? Could be.

If he does, will the NDP’s online meme makers mock the temporarily mild-mouthed Conservatives for not swearing at B.C. as soon as the Dippers did? You know, like Mr. Kenney’s UCP meme machine assails the NDP for not being the first to threaten to cut off all the gasoline to the Lower Mainland? (They’re cheering at Cherry Point, the big gasoline refinery in Washington State, but that story will have to go in the business section on another day.)

Faced with this, I think we all know what Mr. Kenney would do. Plus, we already know he has the vocabulary to do it.

He is, after all, the man who in his previous incarnation as one of Stephen Harper’s cabinet ministers called the deputy premier of Alberta (fellow conservative Thomas Lukaszuk, no less, if you’re one of those who think it’s weirdly ironic that Alberta’s and B.C.’s Dippers are not getting along) “a complete and utter asshole.” He did this in an email, then hit “reply all,” with predictable results.

This did Mr. Kenney no particular harm. Indeed, until Mr. Bilous started swearing at the British Columbians, all the pundits at Postmedia were telling us daily we could safely bet the farm on Mr. Kenney being premier soon. Hold your bets, though, because Mr. Bilous may have just changed everything!

Later, by the way, Mr. Kenney apologized for his language, too. We don’t know if he sounded as contrite then as Mr. Bilous does now – which is to say, not very – because it was a private apology, made by telephone to Mr. Lukaszuk.

As for Mr. Lukaszuk, he said at the time his thoughts for Mr. Kenney were “actually quite positive,” and graciously termed the minister’s choice of words merely “unfortunate.”

Mr. Lukaszuk did not do so well in the 2015 Alberta general election, though. If that turns out to be a harbinger of Mr. Horgan’s fate, I don’t think that’s going to do anything at all to improve the tone of political discourse in Alberta.

In fact, I’d almost swear it’s so.

10 Comments to: Your Weekend BS: The straight poop on profanity in politics and the state of public discourse in Alberta

  1. J.E. Molnar

    March 17th, 2018

    Speaking of profanity-laced diatribes and other funny political brouhahas, maybe some will remember these political classics:

    In February 1971, opposition MPs accused Pierre Trudeau of having mouthed the words “f**k off” at them in the House of Commons. This outburst eventually led to the creation of the term, “Fuddle-duddle.”

    At a 1990 fundraising dinner in Victoria, Conservative MP John Crosbie said Liberal MP Sheila Copps made him think of the song lyrics, “Pass the tequila, Sheila, and lay down and love me again.” In a heated moment during one parliamentary debate, Crosbie told Copps: “Just quieten down, baby.” Copps later titled her autobiography “Nobody’s Baby.”

    In 2006 Ralph Klein, no stranger to controversy, sparked public outrage by bashing former MP Belinda Stronach. At a Calgary charity roast, he told an audience: “Now Belinda roasted me as a Conservative but of course now she’s a Liberal … And I wasn’t surprised she crossed over — I don’t think she ever did have a Conservative bone in her body. Well, except for one.” The joke was in reference to Stronach’s relationship with Conservative MP Peter MacKay.

    Reply
    • Keith McClary

      March 18th, 2018

      Beat me to it. It could be mentioned that Trudeau took advantage of a Parliamentary privilege to “correct” the transcription in Hansard (as I understand it).

      Reply
    • Kang the barbarian

      March 20th, 2018

      As an amusing aside: In November of 1956, the Canadian publisher Jack McClelland wrote to environmentalist Farley Mowat:

      “Thank you for your very vulgar communication which has shocked and alarmed all the young ladies in the office. It’s disillusioning to find that a distinguished author and man of letters can talk so terribly.”
      (Solecki, “The Selected letters of Jack McClelland” Key Porter, 1998)

      Diefenbaker Cabinet Minister George Hees was scandalized in Parliament when someone gave him the advice to “blow it our your ear hole George.”

      I’m not sure what should be a greater cause for despair: that democracy does not represent the people, or that it actually does.

      Reply
      • anon

        March 20th, 2018

        actually “out” not “our” oops

        Reply
  2. David

    March 17th, 2018

    We should not get too worked up about the occasional salty language in politics. Some people who go into politics are passionate or have strongly held beliefs. The back and forth debate in Parliament or the Legislature may seem theatrical at times, and sometimes it is. However, there are also genuine differences of opinion which sometimes leads to heated debate or discussion, just like occasionally when one uses strong language in a discussion with one’s brother in law who has very different political view, in a debate that becomes a bit heated. In our personal lives we often try to avoid these sort of discussions or only have them occasionally. however, in the Legislature it is an every day thing.

    Kenney’s political history has been far from genteel so it is odd he is making civil discourse an issue. He was a long time member of the Harper Federal Conservative’s who seemed to revel in heckling political opponents and making partisan attacks – so much so you often would have thought they were the opposition, not the government. Of course, there was also the e-mail he famously sent calling Alberta’s Deputy Premier a very bad name. In his quest for the PC leadership, he didn’t get his hands too dirty personally, but his followers unleashed vitriolic attacks on his opponents and he didn’t seem to care to reign them in much. Therefore, I can only wonder why civil discourse has now become an issue for him. Perhaps, his mom or colleagues from the religious school he attended to were watching his debut in the Legislature and he wanted to be on his best behavior. Will it last? I am doubtful about that. Perhaps the UCP opposition will be quieter in the Legislature for a while than they were when most of them were Wildrose members, but that probably means just like in the PC campaign the nastiness will pop up elsewhere.

    On the related note, I agree that what Minister Bilous said will probably not hurt his or the government’s popularity. While I don’t like gratuitous profanity, I think what was said was said out of frustration and is the sort of thing not expected in an intractable conflict. To the extent he was voicing the sentiments of many Albertans, I doubt it will be seen that unfavorably.

    I suppose it remains to be seen how effective or long lasting Kenney’s genteel behavior and language will last. The cynic in me says not very long. Perhaps fortunately for Kenney, his former nemisis Lucaszuk is no longer in the Legislature, but in case there is too much decorum in the Legislature, we can probably count on the former UCP MLA Fildebrandt to say or do something bad or embarrassing to bring things back down to earth.

    Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      March 18th, 2018

      You may well be right, David, that Kenney’s genteel behaviour may not last, but I also wonder if you alluded to a brand new low in politics that Kenney seems to have discovered: be a perfect gentleman and let your attack dogs do your dirty work for you. You mentioned Kenney’s followers during the leadership campaign, and they certainly gave Sandra Jansen treatment that Kenney wouldn’t dare give, but Kenney nevertheless benefited from. As well, it is also assumed that Derek Fildebrandt was going to run in the UCP leadership race for the sole purpose of slinging the mud Kenney wanted slung, then when Fildebrandt got too hot Jeff Callaway stepped up for the same role.

      Reply
      • jerrymacgp

        March 19th, 2018

        I think the term for what we saw during the PC leadership “race” was, to coin a phrase, “implausible deniability”. Mr Kenney and his minions denied they were behind the vitriolic attacks on Ms Jansen & Ms Kennedy-Glans, but those denials were completely implausible.

        Reply
        • David Climenhaga

          March 19th, 2018

          Very good, Jerry. I will steal that for future references. DJC

          Reply
  3. ronmac

    March 19th, 2018

    There are people who still remember a certain politician uttering the words “fuddle duddle” in the House of Parliamet so they aren’t shocked by anything these days.

    Reply

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