It has the makings of a bad joke: a Conservative, a New Democrat and a journalist sit down in a restaurant.
The New Democrat is Megan Leslie, the MP for Halifax, a 39-year-old community organizer with a law degree and a tongue piercing. The Conservative is Michelle Rempel, the 32-year-old MP for Calgary Centre-North and a former management consultant and research administrator with a degree in economics and certification as a sommelier. Leslie is the environment critic in the official Opposition’s shadow cabinet. Rempel is the parliamentary secretary to the minister of the environment.
They are on opposing sides—periodically pitted against each other—of a fierce debate over environmental regulations and resource development, a discussion that has periodically resembled a rhetorical brawl. But they sit and dine here—both order a glass of white wine and the niçoise salad—at a table tucked into an alcove in Centre Block’s ornate sixth-floor restaurant, for the purposes of discussing the fact that they do not despise each other.
This may or may not be surprising. Leslie recalls giving a talk to a group of parliamentary pages—the students recruited to scurry about the House of Commons, attending to the needs of MPs. She talked about community and civic engagement, and then the pages were allowed to pose questions. “Could be about anything, could be about coalitions, could be about the budget—first question, ‘Um, Ms. Leslie, I saw you today in the House and Ms. Rempel came across the floor and she sat with you and you guys were talking,’ ” Leslie recounts, affecting the voice of a curious teenager. “ ‘Are you friends?’ ”
Hearing this story for the first time, Rempel is surprised. “Really?” she asks.
“That was the first question,” Leslie says. “I was like, ‘Well, you know, we work together.’ ”
“And it was like a shocked reaction?” Rempel asks.
“Yeah,” Leslie continues, “and all the other pages were like, ‘Yeah, are you friends? How can you be friends with her?’ ”
Shortly after Rempel was named a parliamentary secretary last year—after being elected for the first time last May—she reached out to the environment critics across the aisle. She and Leslie have since gone out for drinks a couple of times and regularly talk about the business of the parliamentary committee—the standing committee on environment and sustainable development—they both serve on. “I’ve been really upfront with Michelle and she’s been really upfront with me,” says Leslie. “We have different ways of getting to our goals, but perhaps our goals might be similar, so let’s just try and be as open as we can. So around committee I am going to do everything I can to undermine her position, but I won’t lie to her. I’m not going to do a bait and switch. I’m not going to send her an email saying I’m going to do X and then do Y.”
“Iron sharpens iron,” says Rempel. “You can have respect for your opponent but still hold your positions, and maybe sometimes come together on things, hopefully.”
Rempel compares it to lawyers who can argue at a negotiating table while still respecting each other. But elected office is an odd existence. It’s both an occupation and unlike any other occupation. Leslie uses the word “constant” to describe it. “It’s not a job, it’s an identity,” she says. A certain degree of kinship is understandable, perhaps even necessary. “Even just to give each other very simple support, like saying, ‘Yeah, me too,’ ” Leslie says. “That can be really meaningful.”
Last April 1, in the wake of the much-ballyhooed fisticuffs between Justin Trudeau and Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau, Leslie and Rempel mockingly sniped at each other on Twitter. Leslie: “Ok blondie. Think you’re so smart? How bouta Thrilla on the Hilla 2, you&me. We’ll c who gets the tar sands beat outta them.” Rempel: “You’re on, Tofu. You have a few punches coming down the pipeline for sure.”
“It’s a departure from any other environment that you work in,” Rempel says. “So how do you insert normalcy into that? Context and perspective are really important and if you can have open conversations with the other 307 people, the only 307 other people in the country that have the same job description as you, that’s an important thing.”
All of which makes sense, even if it also seems incongruous with the outlandish acrimony of politics. To observe the 45 minutes of question period some afternoons, it would seem safe to assume that respect for one’s opponent, let alone any sense of kinship, does not exist. But then, in the moments immediately before and after, MPs freely cross the aisle to chat, consult or share files. You see exactly what that page saw. Friendships, or at least friendly relations, do exist.
Differences persist all the same. Leslie confesses that she can’t compartmentalize. “There are days, and Michelle I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but there are days where I can’t talk to Michelle because I am that pissed off with the Conservatives about the environment,” Leslie concedes. “Like I said, I am a true believer. My ideology is my ideology and I’m immersed in it. There are days when I cannot talk to her because she is representing the government that I’m working against. And then I get over it. But it takes a day. And then the next day I can be like, ‘Hey, how was your weekend?’ ”
Leslie and Rempel are here on the same day the environment commissioner has tabled a controversial report concerning the government’s approach to greenhouse gas reductions. They have spent most of the day in proximity—from briefings to the House to a committee hearing—and have just finished debating each other on a pair of TV panels (Leslie at one point pressing “Ms. Rempel” on a particular point). On occasions when Environment Minister Peter Kent has been away from the House, Leslie and Rempel have sparred directly in question period. Last December, Rempel was one of those Conservatives who scolded Leslie for travelling to Washington to discuss the Keystone pipeline with American lawmakers. Leslie says Rempel has never said anything that wasn’t true and concedes that, in one case, Rempel was right to bust her for an unfortunate slip of the tongue. Otherwise, a certain mutual respect is acknowledged. “There was one day where Michelle was like, here’s our issue and bam, she kind of nailed me, right?” Leslie recalls. “But then I had a pretty decent comeback and sort of got back at her, so to speak, and she actually sent me an email saying, ‘Nice one.’ ”
“It was,” Rempel concurs. “It was good.”
There are “wins” in other ways, too. At the environment committee, Rempel is hopeful that a national conservation strategy can be formulated.
Amid the myriad concerns raised in recent years over the tenor of the House of Commons, Ned Franks, the highly regarded parliamentary scholar, suggested that a lack of familiarity might be to blame for hostilities on display. With Parliament sitting fewer days and MPs travelling back to their ridings each weekend, collegiality, he wrote, has waned. There is “much less chance for members from the different parties to meet outside the hothouse atmosphere of Parliament, to relate as human beings facing common challenges rather than as enemies across the vast political divide on the floor of the House,” he argued.
A quantitative analysis of trends in tone and social interaction around Parliament Hill is perhaps impossible, but Franks is not alone in his general concern. “The House was a much more congenial place,” Bob Rae suggested in an interview last year, speaking of his time in the House 30 years ago.
Leslie and Rempel, among the most impressive MPs on their respective sides of the House, opposite each other on one of the defining debates of the 41st Parliament, either represent something old or something new. Or something that shouldn’t be surprising. “One thing that’s absolutely missing is relationships,” Leslie says nearer the end of dinner. “I don’t have relationships with my colleagues across the floor. Maybe if we had the opportunity to have relationships with each other, we would see each other more as human beings and less as targets.”
With another appointment to attend to, Rempel takes her leave with a parting word for Leslie: “It was nice having a glass of wine with you after today.”