Friday, March 19, 2010

Moving past the politics of blind division

I admit to being a bit critical of government.
Crabby, you might even say.
I like to think I’m offering useful information and constructive perspective, but not everyone is going to see it that way.
Which is fine. As it’s fine to challenge my arguments or offer an alternate view of the issues. I was charmed by the headline last year on a letter to the editor responding to a column last year — “If Willcocks likes it, it must be bad.”
But it’s puzzling and frustrating when some readers think that a critical look at the policies or actions of the party in power means a writer must support another political party.
And it’s worrisome. It speaks of polarized, mindless divisions and the politics of contempt. People don’t talk about policies. They pick teams. Hell’s Angels versus Bandidos, Leafs versus Canucks.
Policies don’t matter, only loyalties.
I have done this kind of work in five provinces. The attitude toward politics varied widely. In New Brunswick, political loyalty brought direct benefits like a government job (which was at risk if the other party won next time). In Alberta, people united behind a dominant governing regime.
But in B.C., we pick sides. If you criticize the NDP position on the carbon tax, then you are expected to support the Liberal position on minimum wage. If you criticize the Liberals for not having a plan to reduce child poverty, then you must think the NDP is right on private power.
That makes no logical sense. On election day, voters have to choose between candidates and parties. But, except for the hardcore partisans and loyalists, between elections molst of us can worry about policies.
We can be free to praise the party in power for good actions and carp at it for failures.
When we don’t, public discourse is cheapened, reduced to slogans and posturing. It demeans us as thinking, caring people.
And to the extent that people buy into the need to pick sides, we lose the benefit of their intelligence and experience.
The Liberals, for example, are keen to expand private power production for export. There are risks of higher electricity rates for residents as a result.
It’s complex and we would benefit from a discussion. But if people feel compelled to support or oppose it on some party basis, there is no critical discussion of the benefits and costs.
It’s troubling for a columnist. Between elections, the opposition doesn’t much matter. The party in power sets the budget and brings in the policy changes and deals with the problems and opportunities. So you write generally about how it is doing. The opposition criticizes, but sets out few clear policies.
And mostly I write about things that could be done better.
That’s a compliment to readers and our political system. It’s based on the belief that journalism provides information and perspective to people.
That they then weigh all the information and use their good judgment and experience to form their opinions and act on them. And that politicians respond to the public. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing this stuff, or reading it?
It can be negative. Probably a few more columns about successes would be good. But with a couple of columns a week, it seems important to write about a problem that could be fixed or examine an issue that matters.
And it can seem partisan. When the New Democrats were in government and I was writing about their truly dismal performance, I was characterized as a Liberal supporter. Now the topics involve Liberal stumbles – often, sadly, in the same areas – and I’m seen as a shill for the NDP.
Writing about things that the party in power could and should do better by shouldn’t be seen as support for the opposition.
Public policy matters. To reduce it to us versus them undermines democracy and creates more stupid, destructive politics.
Footnote: For the record, I think I have voted for Liberal, Conservative and NDP candidates in federal and provincial elections, depending on the candidates and the policies and issues of the day.

14 comments:

Dawn Steele said...

Great commentary, Paul, and Oh, so true. I get that constantly when I dare to challenge government policies that are dumb, cruel, short-sighted, etc.

It's dumb, blind, political tribalism. Pick a team and defend them no matter what, while slagging the other side no matter what.

I'd be very happy to give credit where it's due more often, but as an advocate for vulnerable kids, there has been very little to praise besides the appointment of Mary Ellen Turpel Lafond in what has been a long, dismal and very depressing decade.

The saddest part is that the Premier did make some great commitments via his 5 golden goals back in 2005. But then he turned his back in what's become a wholesale betrayal of those promises (making you wonder why he set himself up for harsh criticism by making them in the first place).

Anonymous said...

If the press is to play a fourth estate role in a democracy, it must, perforce, devote the great bulk of its energies to critiqing those in power- ie the government. A few side trips to subject the opposition to scrutiny are justifiable, but no more.

Unfortunately the press in BC functions too often as a cheerleader for the current government, which is what you would expect given that their support extends even to making political donations to the Campbell Liberals.

Paul, you have a proper understanding of the role of responsible journalism, which is why I treasure your anayses, even if I disagree with your conclusions on occassion.

I hope you have a good break to recharge the batteries, because it would be a sad day if you went silent.

Norman Farrell said...

I agree largely with earlier comments. You explained well the role of political reporters and your own work meets standards you discuss. I've long held that opinion, since first reading your columns. Accordingly, your RSS gadget sits at the top of my home page.

In total though, larger British Columbia media properties fail their audience and do an inadequate job of examining all sides of issues. Part of that is because of inadequate resources dedicated to journalism, part by philosophical commitment. (Will that change under new ownership?)

There has been too much willingness to repeat material prepared externally in support of an interest or point of view. Mostly that comes from parties promoting an agenda for economic reward.

I wish Canwest would offer detailed, objective economic and political analysis that is not predictable by reading only the byline. Too often, if I know a writer's name and an issue, I can predict much of what will be reported. People like Cayo and Mihlar can happily slide between right wing think tank and newspaper desk or pundits can accept appearance fees funded by subjects of their reporting but that makes claims of fair reporting impossible.

So Paul, address your other interests, polish that book or whatever but, please come back to the blog world. Sometimes, reason is in short supply and Paying Attention is a reliable provider of polite discourse.

Canadian Canary said...

Dawn, please consider Mr. Campbell's record. His modus operandi all along has been to say whatever he thinks will curry favour at the moment, and then drop the words at the first instance when it no longer serves his purpose.

Gordon Campbell has no policy interests or motivations to govern for the good of the people. I find it surprising that people exclaim surprise whenever he "turns his back" on what he's said. He does that constantly.

Paul and Anon, I agree that the media in BC are a guilty party to the crumbling democracy that this province has been experiencing. I'd highly recommend one media outlet though, Focus Magazine (based in Victoria).

You can check out their April 2010 issue online which has a very good article on the role of the media going easy on the Attorney-General and the courts for their breaking of the law in the manner in which court cases are handled.

Power and its “way of doing things" – What should we do when the main legislative branch of government starts routinely breaking the law?
by Rob Wipond, p. 42

http://www.focusonline.ca/index.php

Anonymous said...

My politics are simple. Does the government harm me or help me? I have to say that the bunch in power seems to have utter contempt for the masses. Every thing Campbell and his puppets has done so far has hurt me and my family and I'm sure there are thousands more just like me. Nothing would make me happier than to see Campbell leave office 'Nicolae Ceaucescue' style.

off-the-radar said...

Paul,
have a good break.

I hope you come back, you're a beacon of light in the murky darkness of BC politics.

Your thoughtful insights, indepth analysis and compassion are desparately needed. You give me hope.

(Btw, I see less and less political polarization with BC citizens.)

Kim said...

Thanks Paul, for another great article. I agree with you about partisan politics. I do not belong to any party. I think we might benefit from eliminating political parties altogether. They seem detrimental to the democratic process.

Enjoy your well earned rest, we will be stalking your blog from time to time, so do come back to it when you can!

Anonymous said...

I was born, baptized and raised a conservative. As were my brothers and sisters. Some left this "religion" and became NDPer's. None became Liberals as they were as hypocritical as the Conservatives. Recently I communicated with my brother in NS about Dexter leading in the poles before he became Premier. He replied that Dexter was an "issues man." This means that Dexter, the NDP leader in NS, wanted to solve problems. My brother supported him, as did NS, because he wanted to solve problems. He talked about the issues, not about the party you are in.
Look at the attacks on Carol James here in BC. They said she was too nice for the blood-sport of the BC Legislature. She changed a bit and got more stern, so then she was attacked for been too "attacky."
The point is we have to listen and see what the politicians have to say about the issues and how the are going to solve them. We do not need the attacks, esp. from the BC Liberals. Their handlers say this is the way to handle the opposition but it is time for a change. It is time to discuss the issues, not some fictitious political dogma that is only used to get or keep one in power. The NDP has to get their solution to these problems out to the people. It is very hard for them to do that as the press is aligned with the BC Liberals,.
This is why I read this column. I usually find a discussion about an issue. Very often I agree with you but not always. Actually sometimes I disagree with some of the things I say, but I carry on.
Have a good break and I look forward to your return.

an said...

Dawn, please consider Mr. Campbell's record. His modus operandi all along has been to say whatever he thinks will curry favour at the moment, and then drop the words at the first instance when it no longer serves his purpose.

Gordon Campbell has no policy interests or motivations to govern for the good of the people. I find it surprising that people exclaim surprise whenever he "turns his back" on what he's said. He does that constantly.

Paul and Anon, I agree that the media in BC are a guilty party to the crumbling democracy that this province has been experiencing. I'd highly recommend one media outlet though, Focus Magazine (based in Victoria).

You can check out their April 2010 issue online which has a very good article on the role of the media going easy on the Attorney-General and the courts for their breaking of the law in the manner in which court cases are handled.

Power and its “way of doing things" – What should we do when the main legislative branch of government starts routinely breaking the law?
by Rob Wipond, p. 42

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Anonymous said...

Paul,
What an intelligent and thoughtful column. Thank you for it.

In our society, it's increasingly rare to engage in reasoned political or philosophical discourse -- en masse, the appetite for wrestling matches and Jerry Springer shows seems to be growing, and, sadly, that seems to also be flavouring society's approach to civic and other matters.

I'm grateful to be able to read the thoughts of someone who knows what we're losing, and who understands the value of preserving it.

Hope you return to the blogosphere tout suite.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful column. Thank you for writing it. I always appreciate your perspective on policies and issues of the day.

HDR Photography Blog said...

No matter we are in favor of one party or the other. It does not matter. If the government does not fit, we get criticized. Not necessarily when we criticized our government, we sided with the opposition.

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