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Hill Dispatches: Those who cannot remember the past

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I spent a fair bit of time on Parliament Hill from 1981 to 1984, the final years of the Trudeau era, and, again, from 1992 to 2000, the twilight of the Mulroney era and a good part of the Chrétien era.

When I think back to the major events of those times, there were many: the repatriation of the Constitution, complete with amending formula and Charter of Rights; the largest electoral landslide in Canadian history (1984, Mulroney); the Charlottetown Accord and (failed) referendum; the defection of Lucien Bouchard and creation of the Bloc Québecois; the McDonald Commission that investigated the RCMP Security Services malfeasances and led to the creation of CSIS and the Clifford Olson affair, when the Mounties paid a murderer to reveal where he buried his victims.

There were five prime ministers, all with very different styles. Two -- John Turner and Kim Campbell -- didn't last long, but both dropped a least one or two bon-mots that have endured.

Turner described himself as a "mano à mano" politician after patting his former colleague, Iona Campognolo, on the bum.

And Kim Campbell was famously misquoted as saying that "election campaigns were not a good time to seriously discuss policy." She actually said that one could not seriously discuss the overhaul of Canadian social policy during a 47-day election campaign.

Trudeau, in the period from the constitutional negotiations to his "walk in the snow" seemed to be both shy and arrogant, as history tends to portray him. In a scrum following one of a series of fruitless post-constitutional-repatriation aboriginal self-government conferences, he got so impatient with journalists' inane questions that he turned away in a huff muttering: "You obviously don't know what you're talking about!"

Mulroney was, indeed, as satirists portrayed him, on the unctuous side. He had the habit of lowering his very deep voice to almost a whisper for dramatic effect, much to the frustration of television sound technicians. Early in the 1983 leadership campaign TV cameras caught him smoking a cigarette, during a notionally "closed" Parliament Hill event. He didn't like to be seen that way, apparently, and did not light up anywhere near a camera after that.

Chrétien's folksy image belied a sharp temper. During his first term he was furious at CBC for a "town hall" edition of The National, in Saskatchewan, where he felt CBC had blindsided him with hand-picked, articulate, emotional and highly critical participants. He wasn't a forgive-and-forget kind of guy. At end-of-year interviews that followed shortly after the town hall, he would not even shake hands with or accept Christmas greeting from CBC staff.

There was a lot of heat and even some light during those close to a dozen years on the Hill.

But, for me, there is one event that stands out above all others: the "second" and much celebrated Martin budget, of February 1995.

The Spanish America philosopher George Santayana never actually said: "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." His actual words were: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it."... which pretty much the same thing. And I think of Santayana when the subject of the 1995 Liberal Budget comes to mind...to be continued (stay tuned).

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