Character Matters and Political Principles Matter

“This is our politics, then, at least for the next two years: three parties offering more of the same, saying little, differing less, wholly in thrall to their leaders, and applauded on all sides for their pragmatism and discipline. Bliss is it in this dusk to be alive.”

  • Andrew Coyne on the modern party leader: Pragmatic, disciplined and without political principles, by Andrew Coyne, National Post, Last Updated: 13/04/12 8:43 PM ET

So when a good friend of mine forwarded an article to me and asked me to comment; I was despondent. While, Andrew Coyne is a wonderful writer and columnist, I really did not want to read another article. I had so many other ideas on my plate, I just wanted to finish some blog entries and get them posted. I did not need to read another piece, or try to understand some else’s point of view. However, given the quality of the friend, I read the piece and I am glad that I did. Not only do I now know that those people I call my friends are of wonderful integrity and quality, I also know that they are smart, discerning and insightful.

For, Mr. Coyne points out a sameness which is passing over our Political System. Politicians are more likely to look over polls and segmenting populations rather than to talk about ideas, values and effective policy actions. Accountability in Parliament and our legislatures has been replaced by the yelling and screaming of partisanship. This partisanship has created a politics which is “drained of any remaining differences between the parties, or indeed ideas of any kind”. This is a sad moment that does not reflect the best instincts of Canadian political tradition – reformist, populist or managerial; left, centre or right; Liberal, Conservative or New Democrat.

Being in Alberta, the recent passing of Ralph Klein comes to mind. With his death, the province has both eulogized and analyzed his time in office. It is true that he was praised by both friend and critic alike. Jean Chretien and Roy Romanow spoke about a Great Man who stood for Alberta. What I found most interesting were the words of pollsters. They noted that Mr. Klein, while beloved, did not make any friends through is ideological approach to government. In fact, his first re-election was not assured. In retrospect, we forget that Mr. Klein’s clear stance on values, beliefs and principles almost lost him power.

However, one will note the word almost. Or put differently, Mr. Klein’s clarity was both his biggest liability as well as his greatest asset. Accordingly, Mr. Klein could apologize when he was wrong and showed a general humility and humanity which is not reflected in unsuccessful politicians or political movements. Consequently, being honest to yourself and your values can be a winning formula.

If one questions that just look at Bob Rae. He spend eight years (February 1982 to September 1990) arguing for a different vision of Ontario. That vision was a very clear vision. He wanted to have a public automobile insurance system and a respect for labour issues. On October 1, 1990, Bob Rae was rewarded with the Premier’s chair. While he failed to bring about many of his socialist ideals, one cannot say that the great NDP leap into Ontario did not have its rewards. It’s clear that that shot in the arm gave New Democrats the idea that they could be elected in Eastern and Central Canada. By keeping hope alive, one might say that Bob Rae’s victory created a path for Darrell Dexter’s later victory. One might disagree with his push for a Social Contract or with his four books (From Protest to Power: Personal Reflections on a Life in Politics (1996), Three Questions: Prosperity and the Public Good (1998), Canada in the Balance (2006), and Exporting Democracy: The Risks and Rewards of Pursuing a Good Idea (2010)); however, it is impossible to say that Mr. Rae has not had an opinion. In fact, his opinions have led this Statesman to be relevant for more than four decades – both inside and outside of Legislatures.

Or look at his replacement, Mike Harris. Mike Harris ascended to the throne of the leadership in 1990. As the Leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, he started to brand himself as a tax-fighter. This culminated in the release of the Commons Sense Revolution “a year ahead of” the 1990 election campaign, and then campaigned “with laser-like focus for the ensuing year”. (The Inside Agenda Blog, The Common Sense Revolution @ 15, http://theagenda.tvo.org/blog/agenda-blog/common-sense-revolution-15, by Steve Paikin, TVO.org, Tuesday June 8, 2010.) For those who do not know, the Common Sense Revolution was an ideological document. The policies described in it would have been approved by many Right Wing Ideologues like Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. Yet, Mr. Harris ran and won because of it.

With that being said, at the time, Ontarians did not care about the thoughts of most political commentators. For, they ignored the pundit’s view that Liberal leader Lyn McLeod had already sewn up the job. They ignored her more centrist views. In fact, for those who don’t know the full story, Liberal leader Lyn McLeod was sideswiped by a number of commercials. One particularly effective one featured her as a weather vane: moving, as it were, as the Political Winds shifted. Consequently, Mr. Harris’ ideological approach was opposite to Lyn McLeod’s softer approach. In 1995, a value based approach led to the unthinkable: Mike Harris being elected as the next Premier of Ontario.

Consequently, Mike Harris proved that electors value authenticity and honestly because his electorate accepted his value-ladened propositions and narrative. Accordingly, Harris and Rae are very illustrative of successful politicians that had clear and consistent political values and political narrative. They did the unthinkable because of them. In fact, it took a while for Dalton McGuinty to learn those same lessons.

This is important for many political parties to learn. However, given my leanings, I want my party – the Liberal Party of Canada – to learn that lesson first. Remember the Red Book. Because of it, Jean Chretien won against Kim Campbell. While, Chretien was seen as “yesterday’s man”, he clearly laid out what he wanted to accomplish.

Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell was not as lucky. From the first day of the Campaign, Prime Minister Campbell muddled her message. When reporters questioned her on the issue of unemployment, she responded that Canada’s jobless rate won’t likely fall for some four years. I relived this event through CBC Archives. For weeks after that even, Ms. Campbell had to explain to Canadians why she felt that she could improve employment levels, when she earlier said that there was nothing that she could do. Those comments hurt Ms. Campbell’s narrative. More importantly, those comments provided Mr. Chretien with an opening. For, he simply talked about what he had done, in a more prosperous time. Coupled with the Liberal Red Book, Mr. Chretien and various Liberals were able to go across the country and talk about our vision and direction. It was clear and political. The Red Book was full of political passion and political idealism; and it allowed us to win.

Character, in politics, matters. Governor Christie is popular because of it. President Clinton and Speaker Gringrich have survived sex/divorce scandals because of it. Character is shown by making tough choices and from being bold. Character is shown by having a political viewpoint and arguing for it. Character is shown by turning towards issues and problems and not turning away. I can agree with Mr. Coyne in that “we are on the verge of fulfilling the dream of generations of strategists and political operatives: a politics drained of any remaining differences between the parties, or indeed ideas of any kind.” My hope is simple. In recognizing and identifying the problem, we can turn away from this trend before it is too late. My hope is that the Liberal Party will provide a narrative around the concept of the “Protection of the Other”. My hope is that we do the hard thing and not the easy. It would be easy to criticize Harper for the wrong that he has done, but the public is looking for the hard thing: Policies that reform our existing government by improving the lot of the vast majority of Canadians. The Hard Thing is finding policy solutions that benefit the poor, the middle class and the 1%. The Hard Thing is finding ways of growing the economy and protecting our environment. The Hard Thing is balancing the needs of rural and urban Canada. After this weekend, my hope is that we are ready to do the Hard Thing.

A PDF version of this document can be found http://www.scribd.com/doc/137413263

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