A date with humanity: politicians have hearts too

Written By By Fran Yanor

An unexpected thing happened in the legislative chamber last session.

For 30 remarkable minutes, MLAs laid down their verbal weaponry and bared their feelings in a cascade of respect, poignancy, and inspiration.

“We had a date of humanity today,” Premier John Horgan said at a press briefing afterward. “I hope we see more of those in the future.”

It began typically enough with Mike de Jong, BC Liberal Opposition critic for the Attorney General, on his feet for a statement – a usual enough segment of parliamentary business – but de Jong’s message was far from routine.

A lawyer known for his extensive grasp of parliamentary procedure and showman bouts of flamboyant, theatrical verbosity, the MLA for Abbotsford West rose on Oct. 21 to pay tribute to his long-time legislative assembly nemesis, NDP Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.

Unbeknownst to most, Farnworth – who also serves as Public Safety minister – was celebrating his 30th anniversary representing Port Coquitlam.

It was difficult to remember a time when Farnworth wasn’t at the legislature, said de Jong, whose own career as an MLA stretches back to 1994.

“(Farnworth) arrived all those years ago with all of the zest, enthusiasm, sense of excitement and purpose that I think guides all of us as we come through those rotating doors for the first time into this chamber,” he said. 

As his diligence and skill grew, so too did Farnworth’s responsibilities and the consequences of his career choice, de Jong said.

“In the full-contact sport that is B.C. politics, he has weathered his share of body bruises, of insults, of pettiness, of nastiness.”

Despite the hits, Farnworth proved a vigorous and able debater, said de Jong.

“On more occasions than I care to recall, I have been on the receiving end of his razor-sharp wit, that perfectly-timed bon mot, delivered with a twinkle in his eye but — I will say this — an absolute absence of malice.”

Regardless of political disagreements, de Jong said an earned respect developed between them “for a worthy and skilful opponent,” which eventually evolved into “a genuine affection that one feels for a friend––”

Here De Jong paused.

“… and–”

Again de Jong faltered.

He rocked on his feet and fidgeted.

His audience waited.

Farnworth ran a forefinger across his eye.

Nearly 20 seconds passed.

When finally he could finish, de Jong said, “… a friend who has served with distinction, with humility, with civility for the better part of three decades.”

De Jong’s commemoration took most representatives in the chamber by surprise, including the premier. 

“I lift my hands again to the member for Abbotsford West for reminding us of something that I should have known, because I was here when (Farnworth) arrived as well,” said Horgan, who was then a political assistant to cabinet minister David Zirnhelt. Horgan added his own words of praise for both Farnworth and de Jong.

“Having observed the two Mikes… how they were able to manage the insolence of their colleagues, whether they be in government or in Opposition, they did it with such aplomb that no one really understood,” said Horgan, clearly enjoying himself.

“This one would get up and hector,” he said, gesturing to Farnworth. “And that one would get up and defend,” Horgan pointed at former Liberal cabinet minister de Jong. 

“As much as it was annoying to both sides – and I remember being very annoyed at both of them at different times (laughter) – I knew that at the end of the day, both of them had such a deference for this place, and such a respect for each other, that extraordinary things happened here despite all of us.”

“Both of them had such a deference for this place, and such respect for each other, that extraordinary things happened here despite all of us.”

John Horgan

The present moment was extraordinary, Horgan said.

MLAs came from all regions of the province with different perspectives and ideas on how to make things better “but, at the end of the day, still have enormous respect for each other.”

BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau rose next. As house leader for the Greens, Furstenau met regularly with the BC Liberal Opposition house leader and government house leader Farnworth.

Despite their differences, all the house leaders shared a commitment “to this place, to this institution, to the well-being of democracy, but also a commitment to working respectfully across all party lines and working in a way that raises the level of what we do in here,” Furstenau said.

“We are humans here. We are colleagues. We are friends. Thank you,” she said, nodding to Farnworth, “for always bringing it back to that.”

“We are humans here. We are colleagues. We are friends. Thank you for always bringing it back to that.”

Sonia Furstenau

Then came the two-hankie finale.

The no-nonsense head of policing and public safety for the province; the man who can weather a storm of Opposition derision with an unimpressed arch of an eyebrow and wither a reporter’s question to dust with a flinty over-the-spectacles squint; that man stood up… and could barely speak.

“I just want to say thank you,” said Farnworth, his voice thick with emotion.

“It’s one of the nicest things that anyone’s ever done – thank you,” he said, dropping abruptly back into his seat.

A standing ovation ensued.

But the therapeutic outpouring didn’t end there.

Pass the Kleenex, Member

As if produced by Hallmark instead of Hansard, member-after-member then shared on-camera their stories of personal import and altruistic connectedness.

Had aliens tuned in to the Legislative Assembly channel that morning, they might’ve imagined our species worth saving. Or wondered how our leaders got anything done being so sensitive and agreeable all the time.

“Kleenex was going around all the desks, when normally it’s, you know, pounding your fists on the table in anger,” BC Liberal Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier said later. “It was people, collectively, almost wanting to give each other a hug. It was a weird day.”

Give your faith in politicians a mini-boost and watch Farnworth’s tribute here.