Parliamentarian of the Year: Bill Blaikie
After 28 years in Ottawa, he defines the spirit of genuine public service
JOHN GEDDES | Nov 21, 2007 | 19:27:24
- Bill Blaikie is Canada's best MP
- A few questions for Bill
- Best Orator: Michael Ignatieff
- Most Knowledgeable: Joe Comartin
- Most Helpful: Charlie Angus
Also at Macleans.ca:
- Exclusive party photos by Mitchel Raphael on his Capital Diary blog.
- Photos from the Parliamentarian of the Year Party, and the "lighter side" of the awards.
BILL BLAIKIE IS CANADA'S BEST MP
Bill Blaikie is such a huge man that it's strange to think of him as a microcosm of anything. Yet after nearly three decades in politics, this single MP embodies the perennial frustrations, and occasional small triumphs, of the NDP in particular, and old-school parliamentarians in general. He's held his Winnipeg riding since 1979, though he has never tasted real power in all those years, as his party has had to settle for influencing policy instead of forming governments. He's emerged as a House icon, but as an example of what Parliament might be, while more unruly MPs de?ne what it more often is. "Parliament has been ugly before," Blaikie says, "but people have never been so consistently rude to each other as they are now."
Still, the winner of the second annual Maclean's Parliamentarian of the Year award could never be written off as the sort who merely scolds from the sidelines. He's been in the thick of things, playing a role in shaping laws as historic as the Canada Health Act and the Clarity Act. Now deputy speaker of the House, he brings unquestioned credibility to the job of keeping order and setting a civil tone. But even during the many years when he was a front-bench NDP critic, he had the rare ability to quiet the House when he rose to his imposing six-foot-six height to ask a question in his rumbling bass-baritone. "He caused MPs to listen," says veteran Liberal MP Derek Lee. "He had a way of according respect while eliciting an answer."
By voting him the best among them, his peers recognized both what he's done and what he reminds them they should be doing. And he's not just a favourite of old-timers. "When he has something to say, it's important to listen," says rookie B.C. MP Penny Priddy. "He has no need to hear his own voice all the time." Roughly half of the MPs in the House, 151 out of 308, participated in the survey conducted for Maclean's by Ipsos-Reid.(They voted in six categories overall, including best orator, most knowledgeable, and best at representing constituents.)In picking Blaikie as Parliamentarian of the Year, they acknowledged an era ending: he has announced he will not run in the next election, and has accepted a position teaching politics and theology at the University of Winnipeg.
It's hard to imagine, however , that he will ever truly leave the political game behind. Blaikie grew up where he still lives, in Transcona, a railway town when he was a boy, now absorbed into Winnipeg. He remembers watching John F. Kennedy debate Richard Nixon on TV in 1960. "There probably weren't that many nine-year-olds watching," he says. "I was something of a political geek." Further evidence: when he was just 12, Blaikie made a habit of attending town council meetings. "I liked to watch the arguing," he says. "I'm still doing that—no growth there at all."
The Blaikie household wasn't an obvious incubator for a future left-winger. His father, a machinist who rose to become a manager for Canadian National, wasn't active in politics. His mother, though, was a Tory. Bill joined the Young Progressive Conservatives in high school. Still, he showed signs of the leftward tilt that was to come, arguing against the Vietnam War, for instance, with his Tory elders. The local NDP member in the provincial legislature took note, telling him, "Billy, it's only a matter of time. You'll come around.'"