COLUMN: When a room of Conservatives applauded Liberal Catherine McKenna’s speech

Speech by Environment Minister was cheered – a little – at Conservative election party

On Thursday, the campaign office of prominent Liberal Catherine McKenna was defaced by perhaps the most derogatory word one can level at a woman.

That McKenna was the target was hardly surprising. In a barrage of unveiled sexism, McKenna has long been derided as “climate Barbie,” presumably because she happens to be a blonde woman who is also the country’s environment minister.

So the graffiti was saddening, but hardly shocking. At a time when any signage linked to politicians is subject to hateful vandalism, McKenna is perhaps the most targeted. But the news also made me think about a heartening moment three days prior.

On Monday, supporters of local Conservative Ed Fast sat in a meeting room at the Sandman Hotel watching results come in. By 8:30 or so, there were probably around 75 people in the room and, as they waited for Fast to appear, chatter was minimal with the TV providing the bulk of the room’s noise.

The broadcasters – after the host noted that McKenna’s Twitter had been subject to some of the worst abuse hurled at politicians – shifted to McKenna’s victory speech.

Things got a little awkward at Fast’s celebration. Here was a Liberal cabinet minister celebrating her personal victory and her party’s projected minority government – all at the expense of the Conservatives. The sound of Liberal jubilation rang through the room.

“Turn the volume off,” one person said, a little understandably.

Nobody did, though, and so dozens of Conservatives sat in their chairs and listened to McKenna speak. She talked for a couple minutes, about her campaign. Behind her was a sea of Liberal red.

“It was great to run a race with strong women representing all the major parties,” McKenna said. She talked about a “tough campaign” both locally for her and as a country. And then she said:

“I think one of the lessons that is emerging from today’s result is the need for a more positive political culture in our country. We all have work to do to bring people together and remember the value of being open to different ideas from coast to coast to coast.”

McKenna’s Liberal supporters in Ottawa applauded on the TV. And across the country, at the Sandman Hotel in Abbotsford, Conservatives clapped.

It wasn’t a huge round of applause. But it was definitely more than just a couple people.

The moment was notable, I think, not because Conservatives want a more humane political culture – that’s an obvious and constant theme across this country – but because of the message that the applause sends.

It’s one thing to applaud that speech in a mixed room. It’s another when you’re flanked by people who came to a party to celebrate the defeat of McKenna and her colleagues.

If we want decency in our politics, we need our leaders to lead. And our leaders aren’t just politicians. We need to use our voices and social capital to persuade people with whom we have credibility that sexism, racism and other hatreds aren’t permissible, no matter the target’s affiliation.

And if we can do that, maybe our politicians will follow suit. It’s probably not a coincidence that Fast’s supporters applauded McKenna and – an hour later – Fast spoke about the need for politicians of all stripes to work together. (Strangely, or not, the leader of Fast’s party didn’t make such a declaration.)

Leadership goes both ways. And it also goes for all parties.

If you’re a Liberal, your friends will expect you to applaud other Liberals. But when you applaud a Conservative or NDPer or Green, whether for an action or idea that you care about, your friends and colleagues take notice. You have credibility with those people; when you publicly applaud something, your endorsement means something.

The same, unfortunately, goes for the reverse. When we throw abuse at others, our friends and colleagues and the political leaders we support will be more inclined to follow suit. That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree: if anything, it’s the opposite. But it means that our ability to persuade is at its highest not when we’re clashing with our political foes, but when we vocally disagree with the policies or behaviour of our allies.

Leadership isn’t a one-way street. Our politicians have to do better. But so do we.

Tyler Olsen is a reporter at the Abbotsford News.

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