Tuesday, December 08, 2009

'Gladiators' drown out the decent in politics

Tom Flanagan, the Calgary professor who has been mentor and campaign manager to Stephen Harper, has just shed some light on why people don't vote.
Flanagan, in a column for the Globe and Mail, offered his thoughts on political attack ads and campaigns. Harper and the Conservatives have been criticized for sleazy attacks sent to households at taxpayers' expense.
Flanagan said today's voters are OK with sleazy. Only attacks that are "completely false" will backfire, he wrote. (Mostly false is fine.)
"Votes can stomach factoids, ambiguity, half-truths and statements ripped out of context," Flanagan said, "but they rebel against demonstrably false accusations."
It's fair to say Flanagan speaks for the Conservatives and a lot of political operatives.
But does he speak for you, as a voter? Can you "stomach factoids, ambiguity, half-truths and statements ripped out of context?"
The thought that those we elect and their handlers think half-truths are good enough is depressing. Why vote for such people?
Flanagan also said the public - that is you - are OK if politicians slander each other with half-lies.
But attacking people like Afghan torture whistle-blower Richard Colvin with the same sleazy tactics won't work, he said. That had been a Conservative error, Flanagan judged.
What sensible person would run for office, knowing that the ground rules would mean they would be seen as a legitimate target for dishonest attacks - and be expected to sling dishonest muck at others?
And what sort of Parliament or legislature do we end up when those who accept dishonest character assassination as part of the game stand for election?
Flanagan offered his explanation for why non-politicians are off-limits for the sleazier attacks.
"Canadians see politicians as gladiators who dish it out and take in equal measure, but who should not pound on non-combatants," he wrote.
Gladiators? Carole James, Kevin Falcon, Gary Lunn, Keith Martin? I can't imagine what kind of gladiators they are supposed to be, but the crowds at Rome's Coliseum would not likely have been much amused by the sight of men in suits shouting rubbish at each other. Bring on the lions.
Sadly, I fear many successful politicians - and those who labour to make them so - do see themselves as gladiators, striding boldly into question period or a media scrum to vanquish their foes.
Those who are cleverest and loudest at turning half-truths into sound bites are celebrated and promoted.
Real gladiators are supposed to have swords and spears and nets. And real politicians are supposed to be thinking about making life better for the people they represent, not focusing on scoring political points against the other guys.
Maybe Flanagan is right. But I've found people are looking for better from those they elect to represent them. Which might explain why half the eligible voters didn't participate in this year's provincial election.
Flanagan?s column came a few days before the Times Colonists Rob Shaw did several stories on the just-concluded legislative session, including interviews with rookie MLAs.
They were all still enthusiastic. But there were notes of discouragement. NDP MLA Lana Popham talked about the "out of control" catcalls and heckling in question period. Vicki Huntington, elected as an independent in Delta South, had worked on Parliament Hill, where all-party committees of MPs help shape legislation.
But not in B.C., she soon learned. Legislative committees meet when the party in power wants them to. And that is hardly ever.
The legislative committee on education, despite a tonne of issues worth considering, hasn't met in more three years. "I think that's a terrible waste of the intellectual capacity of the house," Huntington noted.
It is a waste. The breadth of experience and skills and local knowledge among the 85 MLAs is extraordinary. There are mill workers and doctors and business owners and social workers.
Together, they could bring perspective to the province's problems and opportunities. Instead, Tom Flanagan suggests, they are taught to be gladiators, comfortable with insults and abuse based on half-truths.
Why would MLAs and MPs accept that role?
Footnote: Not all politicians indulge in distortion and character assassination, of course. But the saner voices tend to be drowned out in the roars of abuse or targeted by the dishonest press releases from the other side.


Anonymous said...

Good column, Paul.

I would like to have heard more about what was said and done at the recent NDP convention.

Didn't really get much info.

But sure got an earful of howls against a guy who is going to be Party President ... ooo, party president, call the cops immediately!

It's not just politicians, it's the low-brow nastiness of the press in BC that's turning so many of us away from trying to tend to our own affairs.

Kim said...

Sad. Depressing. True. Did the Times Colonist publish this piece?

We need to stand up and yell at the top of our lungs towards both levels of government that their childish bullying will not be tolerated. And that question period is supposed to be an exercise in democracy. We are supposed to have paid for the best and brightest minds in the country to come together in these houses to find concensus, not drag eachother through the mud! Dammit!

Keith said...

I'm afraid you are going to need to add the media to the list of causes for this problem. People who actually read Hansard will find thoughtful criticism and challenging questions (OK not all the time, but often). How often does the media cover this? Especially with fewer and fewer reporters. It is much easier to report in a combat sports format that requires no knowledge of the issues. What is the message new MLAs learn? Loud gets covered. Smart rarely does.

Anonymous said...

Keith is partly right, but until all the pieces are in place, this democratic deficit - and this is way bigger than debating how we vote, for heaven's sakes - will continue.

The media need to do a better job, but more people need to get engaged. The only people who should tune out of politics are those who don't: pay taxes, use health care, education, roads, bridges, airports, train stations busses, libraries, parks, rivers, oceans or air.

It's more than voting (although voting is the first step) but as long as politicians think we are not paying attention, they will be divorced from the realities of our lives. Why should politicians say smart things when no one listens anyway?

What we have now is a population too lazy to really fight for things they believe in, and they cop out by saying they can't make a difference because A) they're all the same or B) people can't make a difference.

So yes, Keith, the media does a lousy job of informing us. But we citizens do a lousy job of informing ourselves.

Anonymous said...

What happened to the other six MLAs?

Norm Farrell said...

An excellent column, Paul. I wish mentors to our political leaders focused more on "what things should be" rather than "what things are."

I've seen otherwise respectable adults stand at kids' sports events and scream obscenities at young referees and players. When challenged, they say, "Hey, this is competitive sport, I'm entitled." The person believes a venue can eliminate rules of behavior.

So it is with politicians. They might think themselves honorable but, put on their Party hats, veracity departs. When Corky Evans departed from the Legislature, he had some advice for newly elected MLAs. It included:

"Refuse to say words that are not your own. You are not an actor; an election is not a screen test. You wouldn't let anybody else put you in a box, so don't do it to yourself."

More of the final speech here:


Anonymous said...

"Votes can stomach factoids, ambiguity, half-truths and statements ripped out of context," Flanagan said, "but they rebel against demonstrably false accusations."

Tom Flanagan stands for everything that is wrong, tired and dead about politics in Canada. He is correct in a sense though, community standards and values have changed, not really for the better. We have whole generations who've grown up seeing politicians and other public figures being corrupt, lying, and getting away with more harsh abuses of power, or moral codes.

However we keep forgetting, there are more of US, than them. There are shameful times of our past when women, people of colour and Aboriginal people were not considered, or recognized as persons and therefore undeserving of the vote in Canada. That was changed. Now we all have the right to vote, although now of course the poor, the homeless and indigent with no ID have been disenfranchised by both the provincial and federal governments.

In 2009, we need to ask why we are allowing our electoral and political systems to be co-opted and misappropriated by a bunch of BS artists who are definitely not representing the interests of the public good, but really serving their corporate masters and ensuring their place in the sun apres political life. I say Ba humbug to that.

The day of the dinosaurs, the Flanagans, the Harpers and the Ignatieffs is done. They have no relevance to most of us. Canadians can no longer have these kind of people pretending to represent us. They give our beloved nation a bad name, domestically and abroad. Time for something new in politics.

Norm Farrell said...

The HST votes in the House of Commons demonstrates a major deficiency of politics in Canada. Members such as Ujjal Dosanjh and Keith Martin openly opposed the new tax. Party leaders instructed them to vote in favour. Martin absented himself but Dosanjh demonstrated loyalty to the leadership rather than his constituents.

Anonymous said...

I take the opposing view to an extent from Norman Farrell. Politicians are ultimately elected to do what is right. Unfortunately what is right is not always what is popular.

A major part of the problem is that when people become politicians they always think and usually promise that they will be different. And why wouldn’t they be ? It is easy to follow the media by-lines and be an expert on everything with an opinion on how to solve the world’s problems. Unfortunately if you managed to get elected you quickly realize that an issue is seldom as simple as was laid out in a 500 word news column or a 15 second sound bite. Once you become better informed (as you most certainly have to be) issues become far more complex and less simple. Suddenly the obvious easy solution is sometimes not so obvious, and not so easy to resolve and people can and will disagree with whatever decision you choose to make.

Meanwhile pretty much everyone is coming down your throat from all angles. It is interesting how most things have evolved in life in a certain manner for a reason. Generally we accept that. Yet when it comes to politics and government we always seem to apply a different set of standards. Usually our own, and therein lays problem.

Norm Farrell said...

My argument is that a member, after appropriate study, should do what he or she believes is right, not what his colleagues or financial supporters believe is right.

Dosanjh spoke out against the HST but when push came to shove, he rolled on his own position and voted as Ignatieff told him to vote. Martin spoke against HST repeatedly but wouldn't vote against it. Those are examples of the gutless hypocrisy that poisons our politics.

The two Liberal MPs feared party discipline more than they trusted their own judgments. Had they become "better informed" and changed their attitudes toward HST, they could have shared the reasons. But, that is not why they voted as they did.

DPL said...

Pretty good salary for folks who might have an opinion but when the boss says do it my way or else, they cave

Anonymous said...

(Psst: There are 85 MLAs now)

paul said...

Thanks anon. Changed it to 85.