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The Liberal backbenchers they called the Rat Pack

A quartet of young opposition MPs took so much pride in being a nuisance to the Mulroney government in 1985, they made T-shirts.

A group of four young opposition MPs loudly took on government patronage in 1985

'Rat Pack' makes itself a nuisance in Parliament

37 years ago
Duration 1:38
Four young Liberals, including John Nunziata and Brian Tobin, are proud to be pests for Brian Mulroney's government in 1985.

Rats have been called a lot of things, but "sleazy" wasn't usually one of them — until Ontario MP and so-called Rat Pack member John Nunziata was elected to Parliament in 1984.

Along with fellow Liberals Don Boudria, Sheila Copps and Brian Tobin, Nunziata was elected to the House of Commons in 1984, when Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives won in a landslide.

Together, the four backbenchers were known as the Rat Pack. And in May of 1985, they even made T-shirts.   

Meet the 'King Rat'

"Other MPs say he's sleazy, slimy, and a snake," said reporter Jason Moscovitz, over images of Nunziata as he donned one of the T-shirts.

Nunziata himself used those same words in the House of Commons.

"Sleazy, slimy Tory patronage!" he said on the floor of the House, evoking one of the Rat Pack's pet peeves. 

Brian Tobin, the most experienced of the Rat Pack, is seen riding the Parliament Hill shuttle bus. (The National/CBC Archives)

Along with Nunziata, Newfoundland MP Brian Tobin was a member of the Liberal Rat Pack. Unlike the others, he'd been also been a member when the Liberals were in power.

And the veteran Tobin was there to defend Nunziata when the less-experienced MP decided to question the PC government on its knowledge of a marijuana-related controversy involving the premier of New Brunswick.

As Moscovitz explained to viewers, Nunziata's line of questioning was considered somewhat uncouth, as Hatfield had been acquitted of marijuana possession charges — and thus the unspoken rule in Parliament was that the whole episode should not be mentioned.

"Maybe Nunziata showed some courage and some conviction," said Tobin, who was riding the parliamentary bus. "And maybe to some extent he took a chance. But he was right."

Two more in the pack

Copps, Boudria also part of the 'Rat Pack'

37 years ago
Duration 1:29
MPs Sheila Copps and Don Boudria are two more outspoken backbenchers making the House uncomfortable for the PCs.

Sheila Copps, the MP for Hamilton East, was also part of the pack.

She could speak Italian with her constituents and also had "perfect French," said Moscovitz.

"But she needles Mulroney in plain English," he added, as Copps introduced a question for Mulroney by comparing him to talk show host Johnny Carson.

Reporter Jason Moscovitz took note of Don Boudria's "simplest of American-made cars." (The National/CBC Archives)

Don Boudria, another Ontario MP, was the fourth member of the Rat Pack.

He would later distinguish himself by becoming a cabinet minister, but as Moscovitz noted, Boudria had the simplest of origins. 

"He began as a busboy in the parliamentary restaurant," said the reporter, showing scenes of Boudria's spartan office and humble car.

His office door, however, was decorated with a poster of the "Patronometre," which charted the 1,200 patronage appointments that Boudria said Mulroney's government had doled out so far.

"That's one appointment every three hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said. "Not bad for a group of people who said they wouldn't appoint anyone by patronage."

Those T-shirts, though

Making T-shirts for the 'Rat Pack'

37 years ago
Duration 1:37
An Ontario printer was busy making 1,000 'Rat Pack' T-shirts in 1985.

The origins of the Rat Pack epithet are murky. According to a 1985 Globe and Mail article, it was "initially bestowed on them by a newspaper reporter" who went unnamed.

But it was thoroughly embraced by the quartet — so much so that they had T-shirts made.

The Liberal Party's "Rat Pack" joke with Opposition Leader John Turner after giving him a Rat Pack T-shirt in his Parliament Hill office Wednesday, May 8th, 1985. (Ron Poling/Canadian Press)

The shirts were prizes in Copps's Patronage Awards of the Week (PAWs), bestowed every Friday in the House. They were also available to purchase for $10.

CBC reporter Cathy Legezda visited the printer in Nunziata's riding who produced them.

"John and I met in a meeting one night ... he knew I was in the business of making T-shirts," said the printer. "I asked if I could do anything about the Rat Pack and we came up with some suggestions."

The T-shirt's design, consisting of a cartoon rat holding up the Parliament Buildings above the "L" from the Liberal Party logo with the words RAT PACK inside, came from "a friend" of Nunziata.

"All in vivid Liberal red," noted Legedza.

The printer had already made 500 of the screen-printed shirts and was in the process of making 500 more. Proceeds went to "the Liberal association." 

"The winner of Copps' PAW awards should consider themselves lucky," summed up the reporter. "These could be collectors' items soon."

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