The Ottawa Citizen
It may be the job of the opposition to oppose, but when the Liberals start denouncing the Conservatives for their informal speech patterns, we can infer that the opposition is getting a little desperate for material.
Stockwell Day, the public safety minister, sent a personal e-mail to members of the RCMP in which he referred to the new commissioner, William Elliott, as “Bill Elliott” and then, simply, as “Bill.” The e-mail was a plea for support for the new commissioner.
The use of “Bill” apparently, pressed the dudgeon button on MP David McGuinty. Last week, Elliott appeared before the public accounts committee. McGuinty took the opportunity to grill him, on behalf of Canadians, about what he saw as the important issue facing the RCMP: “Aren’t you a little uncomfortable being referred to as Bill in these communications?”
A leading question if there ever was one, but Elliott didn’t take the bait: He assured McGuinty that he was quite accustomed to being called “Bill.”
The McGuinty political family knows as well as anyone the value of a loosened tie, a hand on the shoulder, a folksy expression, a first name. Other MPs took the accusations even farther: Borys Wrzesnewskyj suggested there were “subliminal messages” in the e-mail.
The e-mail from Day was calculated and political, but there was nothing sinister or subliminal about it. It was an ordinary and transparent attempt to boost morale in an organization that needs a boost just now. It was an effort to dispel any doubts about the ability of an outsider to make a positive difference to the RCMP. By using Elliott’s first name, Day was trying to demonstrate his confidence and trust in him. As in U.S. President George W. Bush’s notorious phrase, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” the informality is part of the message.
Fifty years ago, a minister would not have referred to the head of the RCMP by first name in public. Then again, 50 years ago, there was no such thing as e-mail. North American culture has changed. These days, there’s nothing automatically insulting about the use of a first name.
Sure, some professors get annoyed if their first-years presume too much, and many people grumble about e-mails from strangers addressed “Hi, Bill.” But in many workplaces, surnames are for paperwork only. Using first names is no doubt poor etiquette in some situations, but it’s not a signal that a professional relationship is inappropriately close.
There’s a backlash building in Canada these days against the overuse of first names, just as there’s a backlash building in France against the tendency to dispense with the formal pronoun “vous.” Day — or “Stock,” as you like — might be guilty of bucking that backlash. But anything more is just a Liberal invention.
This was one of those small but telling moments on Parliament Hill, an attack that says more about the attackers’ own insecurities than anything else.
It’s unfair to damn Elliott through insinuation before he has a real chance to prove himself and fix the problems at the RCMP.