Retiring Calgary MP set a high standard for civility in the House

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The House of Commons will be a poorer place without my friend Lee Richardson, the Calgary MP who has resigned his seat to become principal secretary to Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

First elected as a Progressive Conservative in the class of 1988, returning with the re-unified Conservatives in 2004, the five-term member is known for his civility, collegiality and conviviality.

During his farewell remarks to the House last week, Richardson was interrupted by three standing ovations from all sides of the House, an extraordinary response to a backbencher announcing his resignation.

Then, even while leaders of all parties joined in personal tributes to Richardson, about 200 MPs lined up to shake his hand as he stood at his front-row seat by the door at the far end of the House. It was a good half-hour before he could leave the House. In four decades of attending the House, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

“Well, that was quite something,” he told friends after doing a scrum with reporters in the lobby of the House.

The cheers and applause were for both the messenger and the message: an honourable and decent man, calling for more honour and decency in the conduct of our public affairs.

“If I could share one thought with colleagues, it would be this,” he said. “While we advocate for different ideas of Canada, we’re all Canadians and we all love our country.”

Which provoked a thunderous standing ovation from all parties.

“We would all, I think, do well to remember that,” he continued, “and leave the partisan furies at the water’s edge.”

Few parliamentarians are better at extending a hand across the floor than Richardson, 64, renowned for hosting MPs of all parties at the Calgary Stampede. On caucus Wednesdays at the Parliamentary restaurant, a bipartisan parade would inevitably stop by his table for a friendly word.

This is precisely what is missing in our public discourse today, and most MPs know it. They generally run for office with the highest motives, but once they arrive in Ottawa are stunned by the dysfunctional environment in the House. The obscurity of a backbencher’s role is frustrating enough, the toxic atmosphere even more exasperating.

The media are not blameless in this. In the 24/7 news cycle, journalists are under constant pressure to get out the story, any story, preferably a drive-by shooting. First the 30-second clip was replaced by the 10-second sound bite.

Now the news agenda is increasingly driven by Twitter and other social media. Reporters aren’t developing sources, let alone breaking stories, when they’re talking to each other all day on Twitter. And 140-character postings provide little insight to politics and public policy.

Richardson has been around long enough to remember the two-minute clip, documentary length in today’s terms, of which Peter Lougheed was the acknowledged master when Lee worked for him in the Alberta premier’s office in the 1970s.

Richardson stayed on for nine years with Lougheed, becoming chief of staff in 1979, before leaving to become deputy chief of staff to Brian Mulroney in the opposition leader’s office in 1983, playing the same role in the PMO after the 1984 Tory landslide.

Which is where our friendship of all the years since began when I worked there as Mulroney’s principal speech writer from 1985-88. “He’s our house commie,” Lee once told a colleague in the PM’s office in the Langevin Block. In fact, he protected me from the right-wingers in the office.

As his Conservative House colleague Dean Del Mastro likes to say: “Lee’s got your back.”

Among politicians of all stripes, no attribute is more highly valued than loyalty. When Mulroney was summoned to the star chamber hearings on Karlheinz Schreiber’s accusations in 2007, and Conservative MPs were urged to stay away from the circus, Lee would have none of it.

“My prime minister is coming into the building tomorrow,” Richardson told the Conservative caucus. “I’m going to be there to meet him. Does anyone have a problem with that?”

No one did.

His two prime ministers, actually. He’s been very supportive of Stephen Harper, who as he pointed out in the House, reunified the right and brought it back to power, and whose caucus management skills are comparable to Mulroney’s in terms of leading a united caucus.

Wednesday in Calgary, Richardson will introduce Lougheed at a tribute dinner to his former premier where the keynote speaker will be his new premier, Redford, whose seat in the Alberta legislature overlaps with his Calgary seat in the House. When her election campaign nearly went south in April, he had her back, too, and she knew it.

As a moment in time, a passage, it’s only perfect.

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