Public Compassion should be the basis of Policy

“Just before the dinner hour, Mr. Ford’s mother and sister took the unprecedented step of sitting down with a television interviewer to address the crisis that has rocked the city. Diane and Kathy Ford said Mayor Ford needs to lose weight, get a breathalyzer to start his car and see a counsellor, but he doesn’t need to go to rehab and he doesn’t need to resign. ‘My heart breaks for my son,’ Diane Ford said on CP24.

Diane Ford said her son’s biggest problem wasn’t substance abuse.

‘He’s got a problem … he’s got a huge weight problem,’ She said. She then went on to say how his whole outlook would change if he lost a little bit of weight.

The mayor, who said after his crack admission he had nothing left to hide, himself seemed at a loss for words following this latest damaging revelation.”

  • Rob Ford’s mother thinks her son’s biggest problem is his weight, by Natalie Alcoba and National Post Staff, Published in the National Post, Nov. 7, 2013


When I first started reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, I was struck by its humanity. In the book, J. S. Mill started by recognizing our beginnings and our progression, our success and our failures. He proceeded to take time to argue that our government should be based on a simple principle: providing benefits to the majority of people, while recognizing that those benefits, powers and activities need to be limited so that individuals and minorities are not crushed.

To this day, On Liberty still provides an interesting argument. For unlike more ideological solutions – Democratic Socialism or Laissez Faire Conservatism – John Stuart Mill does not ask one to buy into a set of ideological precepts. Unlike the views of most Noblesse Oblige Conservatives – Tories – John Stuart Mill does not ask one to abide in the Law merely to create Order. For Mr. Mill recognized that the majority or law is not always fair. For in Mill’s lifetime, he would see the beginning of the end of two injustices: the end of European Slavery and the advancement of women’s legal rights. In his writings, John Stuart Mill was the first of many who sought to have more individual liberty within society. He was one of the first that tried to recognize the need for balance between one’s rights and one’s responsibilities.
Consequently, I learned that trying to create a New Order – either socialist or conservative – was not good enough. Citizens had to sit together and balance their needs; no different than how a family talks to each other to seek compromise.

In writing, J.S. Mill started a trend toward an argument of recognition. Looking at others and recognizing their humanity. For as Liberals evolved, we understood the need to turn to the “Other” and understand their needs and desires. Accordingly, policy, in that Liberal View, is a balancing act acknowledging the need to recognize the humanity of the “Other”, the desire for individual freedom and the wish for society to achieve greatness.

It is for this reason that Liberals need to embrace the notion of Public Compassion in our policy. For those emotions allow us to walk in another’s shoes. In a policy sense, with the Senate Scandal and the incidences of Rob Ford coming to light, it is so easy to see that Public Compassion for others has been forgotten.

Look at the way that the Senate treated the staff members of the three suspended Senators. The Staff for Senators Brazeau, Wallen, and Duffy were dismissed the day after their Senators were suspended. By all accounts, most of their staff had performed admirably. However, they were not given a chance to secure other employment, a package or an adjustment period. All they seem to have is their group benefits until December of 2013. (Suspended senators will never be back in the Senate, Pamela Wallin says, by Canadian Press, Published by National Post Last Updated: 07/11/13 4:50 PM ET; Senate staffers fired day after 3 senators suspended, By Leslie MacKinnon, CBC News, Last Updated: Nov 07, 2013 8:29 PM ET) They were not given the opportunity to have their actions vetted. As such, they will likely not find a job easily or quickly.

The same could be said of the suspended Senators. Compassion would lead one to believe that Senators – even if they had broken the rules – should have the ability to defend themselves. In fact, such a move is consistent with our history, the rule of law and the nature of the Senate. Both the British Parliament and the American Congress have allowed for Procedural Outcomes similar to a trial, when their members have run afoul of similar rules and regulations. However, Conservatives – who generally favour order over process – pushed for a different conclusion. So my question is simple: do we choose compassion over other motivations like anger, vengefulness, revenge and/or outrage? Liberals need to. For then we can act fairly but without malice. Only through taking a breath and then acting can we be sure that we are acting in a fair manner: Not rushing to judgment or error, but in a way that balances Justice, Order and Process.

Public Compassion may be hard to stomach but it provides a level of fairness in public policy. Just look at Rob Ford. Through much of his political career, he has pushed for harsh treatment for drug users, drug addicts, drug pushers/distributors and their suppliers. This was based on the notion that being tough on such people would dissuade them from using drugs or getting clean. Mr. Ford lashed out at safe injection sites arguing that they would perpetuate drug culture. While, medical and scientific facts don’t support Mr. Ford, he argued for his “common sense” approach.

Yet that same notion of public shame did not stop him. Mr. Ford participated in likely illegal behaviour as a mayor. While, Mr. Ford’s ironic behaviour might have been the fodder of many, to me, it presents a need for a different policy approach. Instead of lashing out at people, sometimes, our policy approach should be underlined with a note of Public Compassion. Accordingly, we should appeal to our better angels in dealing with drug or cocaine use.

In my head, the effectiveness of the safe injection sites in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, pushes this idea of Public Compassion forward. While Public Compassion should not be used to deal with sentencing of criminal acts, it could clearly be used in designing punishments. Or put differently, if our aim as a society should be to reduce crime, then we should do those things that have been shown scientifically to reduce crime. Given that all jurisdictions, including the Americans, have shown that rehabilitation works better than imprisonment; then we should rehabilitate. And if compassion for inmates – no matter how wrong it might feel – is shown to change the behaviour of ex-con’s, we should go down that route. As we have learned in the Rob Ford debacle or the Senate Scandal no matter what we do, we cannot change the past. We can only hope to ensure that we do not forget it and repeat it. As a result, I think that bringing forth Public Compassion into the Liberal Policy Framework is both a necessary and desirable act.

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