Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stan Hagen

I have a soft spot for Stan Hagen. When he died this week, in a coffee shop a few steps from the legislature, something passed with him.
Hagen was a veteran MLA and cabinet minister. He was always perfect – suit, tie, crisp shirt, perfect white hair, healthy glow. He was always positive and happy. And he always really interested in how you were.
He wasn’t perfect, of course. I always get wary when people suddenly are seen as saint-like after they die.
But Hagen never lost sight of the reason he went into politics. And that was to make things better for the people he represented in the Comox Valley, and the province.
You could argue about choices made to achieve that. But I don’t think you could doubt that Hagen was trying to do the right thing, as an MLA and a cabinet minister.
He represents, to me, the best of the Socred cabinet ministers of the 1980s. He wasn’t a politician. Hagen had been a school trustee — he has five children — but mostly he’d been involved in church and a whole raft of community activities. People knew him and respected him. So in 1986, in his mid-40s, he was elected.
It’s a good route to office. You have a family, experience, a whole life outside politics. And everyone knows you – not just the business types, or the guys from the Steelworkers, or the party stalwarts. When you go out to get groceries, they tell you how you’re doing.
And you represent them in Victoria, instead of representing the government in the riding. When people are unhappy, you say so and think about changes. That culture helped the Socreds to almost four decades of power.
And Socreds, at least until things unraveled, had a useful focus on the individual. Understand one person’s problems, and fix them, and things would get better.
Sure, that led to some mistakes. But on balance, maybe fixing problems that way is better than ending up in endless studies and exercises in process.
Again, this isn’t St. Stan stuff. I remember being terribly frustrated with Hagen’s evasions when something had gone wrong in his ministry of children and families. In part, because I expected better.
But I also remember talking with him in the corridor outside the legislative chamber, when he said he’d told Gordon Campbell he wanted to stay as children and families minister after the 2005 election. The work was so important, he said.
That is one brutally hard job. But Hagen wanted it. He could see the children whose lives were changed, maybe saved, by the ministry’s workers. The families kept together.
And he did have a certain freedom. Hagen held 10 different portfolios during his time in provincial politics. He was 69 when he died. He could say what he thought.
It’s a funny thing, covering the legislature. Ideally, you just don’t know the politicians. That way, you can focus on policy and actions, without worrying that you’re being swayed – either way – by the way you feel about some minister. There was hopeless NDP cabinet minister, but I was always slightly kinder after she talked about how much she missed the Thursday night bowling league back home.)
But my partner grew up in the Valley. She taught piano to two of the Hagen’s five children. And at a desperately hard point in her life, scared and feeling alone, she ran into Hagen, in a restaurant in Parksville. And he listened, for a couple of hours, and didn’t judge and, she says, one of the worst nights of her life was not quite as bad. (You can read her account. There'sa link down a post or two.)
I can imagine people thought of Stan Hagen as the bad guy, the enemy,
Nah. Right sometimes, wrong sometimes. But he wanted to make this a good place for everyone to live.
That’s a pretty good starting point for anyone in government.

The beauty of art and politics

The best all-round Canadian blog, I'd say, has a great post on a street response to Barack Obama's win. The combination of joy and the willingness to do real work to bring it to others are heartening.

Stan Hagen

I'll post something later, but wanted to point to this fine column as a reminder that there is much more to our politicians than the clips we see on TV or the quotes that we see in the newspapers.

If newspapers fade away....

The tone is a little whiney, but an east coast newspaper manager makes points that should be consideredabout the future of news, and specifically the problems when newspapers generate the content but aggregators get the revenue.
Lord knows newspapers have their failings and self-inflicted wounds, but in most communities they put the most money and time into news reporting. Without them, what will happen to that role? What will happen to the shared understanding of community issues - flawed or not - if mass news media fade away?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Where's our Obama, in Canada or B.C.?

It's a disheartening contrast.
Take any moment of debate from the weekend legislative session on the Olympic athletes' village and contrast it with Barack Obama's inauguration speech.
Leave aside, for a few moments, the issues involved in the legislative session. The debate was the usual legislature mix of interruption, insult and vilification. Both sides, as usual, were to blame.
Not that legislature debate need be all warm and fuzzy. There are real issues and real disagreements on how to approach them. Debate is inevitable and healthy.
But I thought of the legislature - indeed of Canadian politics generally - when Obama said it was "time to put away childish things." When he talked about the need for Americans to abandon politics of division and fear and envy.
"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them," Obama told the crowds gathered in Washington D.C. "That the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."
Meanwhile, on this side of the border, stale political arguments are all we hear from our leaders. (That might explain why Obama's inauguration attracted more than two million people who wanted to be part of the change. Can you imagine 200,000 people gathering in Ottawa for the first speech by a new prime minister?)
It was not just the usual rhetorical nod to co-operation. When Obama talked about the current economic crisis, he noted the role of "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some."
But he also told all Americans they share the blame because of "our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." Not George W. Bush's failure, or Wall Street's or Republicans', but all Americans.
There was no mention of enemies. The message was that the people of the U.S., and the world, are in this together and have many common goals and aspirations and values. They might disagree, strongly, on some moral issues or policy directions. But not on the fundamental principles that have been part of their national life for 230-plus years.
Our politicians see enemies everywhere. Gordon Campbell dismissed people who rallied outside a Liberal party convention to protest some government policies as stupid and representatives of special interests. Glen Clark called people who disagreed with his government's forest policy "enemies of B.C."
In fact, politicians and their political staffs are always on the lookout for "wedge issues." The aim is to split the society into opposing factions in ways that increase their support at the expense of other parties. The issues don't have to be consequential, or the positions legitimate. The best wedge issues play on emotion, particularly fear. That explains the popularity of tough talk on crime or politicians' love of talking about the "powerful interests" behind other parties.
Obama largely shunned such tactics in his campaign and such topics in his inaugural address. He appealed not to peoples' fears or their self-interest, but to their sense of decency and justice. "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," he said. "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."
Instead of ideology, decisions should be based in pragmatism. "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."
Obama is a gifted orator. But what lifted his address was not clever writing, or a skilled delivery.
The speech was illuminated by a belief in the energy, intelligence, compassion and shared values of Americans - and indeed of people around the world.
Footnote: A striking feature of Obama's entire political career has been his willingness to listen and accommodate the views of other people, while still working toward goals he considers important. He has proved that approach is not only more decent, but also more effective in bringing change and building support.

Campbell's forest land contradictions

Last week, Premier Gordon Campbell told the truck loggers the province would move to create a "forest reserve" to make sure timberland isn't lost to other uses. It was critical to families and communities, he said.
A Times Colonist editorial notes the contradiction between the new commitment to forest land and decisions to allow two forest companies on Vancouver Island to remove land from tree farm licences. Those decisions, criticized by the auditor general, enriched the companies by at least $700 million and produced no benefits to taxpayers.