Paul MacNeill

In the run-up to the 1983 federal Progressive Conservative leadership race, John Crosbie’s campaign had wind in its sails. But the bubble burst when the national media questioned the Newfoundlander’s inability to speak French. “Well I can’t talk to the Chinese people in their own language either,” he told the media.

It was his lack of fluency that derailed his leadership hopes, not the colourful comment explaining it away. John Crosbie was the rare combination of a politician with brains, arrogance, personality and an ability to deliver searing comments understood by all.

He delivered many zingers over five decades in public life ... “Pass me the tequila Sheila and lay down and love me again,” in reference to Liberal MP Sheila Copps, is one of the most infamous.

Unlike most politicians, Crosbie didn’t mind mixing it up and was not easily intimidated, even when surrounded by a mob of angry Newfoundland cod fishermen: “I didn’t take the fish from the goddamn water, so don’t go abusing me.”

What most may not remember is Crosbie championed change to federal legislation resulting in the outlawing of discrimination based on sexual orientation. He did it despite opposition from within his own party. On top of that he was a PC and pro-choice. Compare this to Andrew Sheer’s efforts during the federal election to downplay and minimize his deeply held pro-life beliefs.

Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure who the real leader is.

In 1988 when Newfoundland PCs threatened to not support MP Ross Reid because he refused to declare if he was gay or not, Crosbie told a party meeting, “I don’t care if he is having sexual relations with effing cats. He’s a fine man and he’s our candidate ... I’m supporting Ross 100 per cent.”

Crosbie was right. It was courageous. And it’s unlikely we’ll see another like him. Too often political courage is trumped by political correctness.

In today’s environment Crosbie’s career would be cut short by any number of public utterances. Some (politically correct zealots) will say, so be it, he’s a dinosaur from another era.

Perhaps on some level. But we need dinosaurs like Crosbie in the public domain. Today the bubble of political correctness is all encompassing, driven by patronizing political blandness and a desire to appease all. Leadership is lost and trust diminished. When this happens it creates a vacuum for the likes of Donald Trump to take advantage of public anger.

It’s everywhere. Listen to just about any speech by Justin Trudeau. He tries so hard to seem sincere that the opposite occurs. He appears phony.

Last week some tried to make the Prince Harry-Meghan Markle debacle into a race debate. Ridiculous. It has nothing to do with race and everything to do with two spoiled brats wanting to have their cake and eat it too. The spectre of race was raised only as a means of distracting the issue from its true origin.

Our leaders fire off press releases espousing support for one issue or another, but take a look at government funding priorities and policies and more often than not you’ll find hypocrisy.

Much of the sanitization is a result of politicians ceding control to PR ‘experts’ who use the language of obfuscation as a manner of everyday business. There’s nothing new in this, it’s been around for decades. A cabinet colleague of Crosbie once visited Truro and refused to have his picture taken because as the federal environment minister he didn’t want to be seen with a scrap heap in the background. That colleague, Jean Charest, is mulling a return to federal politics. It’s unlikely his need for political spin has diminished.

John Crosbie left a substantive mark on Canadian politics, not the least of which was a demand to always speak in his own voice. It’s a lesson more politicians should take to heart.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at

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