There is outrage in the land. Stephen Harper’s short-pants brigade “trapped” a couple of Liberals into straying off-message. One was “pro-lifer” MP John McKay, grousing about Justin Trudeau’s insistence that Liberal candidates be pro-choice. The other was Liberal hopeful General Andrew Leslie, honest enough to describe the recent slaughter of women and children in Gaza as a case of “firing indiscriminately.”
I say, good on them. No, not the politicians. The Harper kids.
This sort of thing isn’t a part of our increasingly degraded political culture. It is its antidote.
We’ve become used to a fake party “solidarity” so rigid that the neologism “off-message” is by now common currency. What emanates from political parties these days is anodyne — or less than anodyne — “talking points.” It’s virtually contentless material, all about branding, focus-tested soundbites, facile “messaging.” While we might argue about just when this rot took hold, Harper’s iron control of his caucus set a new standard, it seems, for other political parties as well. Justin Trudeau will have no anti-choice candidates running for the Liberals (other than grandfathering existing “pro-lifers”). Tom Mulcair will tolerate no serious criticism of the wholesale killing of civilians in Gaza. Only Elizabeth May, in a corner all by her lonesome, can say what she really thinks and feels and wants, but sings unnoticed, like a bird.
It’s not that I agree (or disagree) with some of these messages. But their content is really immaterial, in all senses. It’s generated by backroomsters, issued internally by the various party Central Committees, then fed to MPs who tend to recite them robotically, as though they were reading them off a mental blackboard.
Consistency, absolute consistency. Political tapioca, gluten- and caffeine-free. A foolish consistency, in fact, without shade or nuance, the easier to be scarfed down by media and voters alike — exactly what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he referred to it as the “hobgoblin of little minds.” Any public difference, often without any real distinction, is a “gaffe,” or a “miscue.”
It’s newsworthy, in fact, when some politician or other “breaks” with these messages, daring to offer something individual. The indefatigable Shimon Fogel, of the powerful Canadian lobby group Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, says, “[General Leslie’s] choice of words regarding Israel’s tactics was unfortunate and we look forward to meeting with him again to receive re-assurances that his views are consistent with those articulated by Justin Trudeau.”
But why the hell should they be? Leaving aside the fact that Leslie’s experience in battle should grant him automatic expertise on what constitutes indiscriminate firing, how is his view contrary in spirit or principle to the values of the Liberal Party? Whatever happened to that Big Tent?
This is just a case in point, I hasten to add, but it’s an instructive one. The current political rot has sunk deep roots. We are supposed to believe that every single member of a party who holds office, or hopes to, will be in complete agreement with every policy plank the Leader may happen to “articulate.” We have come to expect lockstep politics, in other words, and that’s what we’re getting, all right: no deviations from the general line of the Party.
This has unpleasant resonances. Creeping totalitarianism has occupied our minds.
And then, in the nick of time, the PMO’s merry pranksters have offered us a way out of this godawful mindset. Just as spies during the Cold War acted as a kind of safety valve for both sides (hence they were not usually killed, but exchanged), so too the juniors on the Hill are getting valuable and necessary information to the public: what politicians really think.
The inevitable spin subsequently placed upon these utterances is easily countered. The public, as deadened as it is to the political process, knows better than to buy the absurd notion that a candidate who isn’t even in the House (Leslie) has somehow revealed a closely-guarded hidden agenda. But it may still be alarmed these days by politicians who give the appearance of thinking for themselves. Is the Leader losing control of his people? Is he showing weakness? Is he in over his head™?
This appalling frame needs to be smashed. Harper built it. Let’s bury him with it. It’s not how politics works, even in his own micromanaged circles.
There are, of course, practical issues. To what degree must politicians be in public agreement with the aims and principles of their party? At what level might they be permitted to express opinions of their own? But that question isn’t even being addressed. The very texture of politics in all of its rich complexity is almost completely missing from view today, replaced with vapid slogans and phrases — “Economic Action Plan,” “Hope and Hard Work,” “Today’s NDP” — and those damned sterile talking-points.
I’m not arguing for an “anything goes” approach — if we must have political parties, we have a right to expect that their representatives will share the core policies that make up their electoral platforms. But “core” is the operative word. Tactics, strategy, degree and interpretation are all factors where we want, or should want, our Members of Parliament to weigh in, whether publicly or during the legislative process where enforced conformity now reigns. There will be disagreements, and they won’t always be constructive, but so what?
The public isn’t getting to see how politics is really made. It should.
But folks, here’s where the Harper Youth may not realize just what they’ve let out of the bottle. Because the other parties, rather than recoiling in mock outrage, should be following suit. Think of the cauldron of bigotry seething just below the surface of Harper’s Billy-Joe Bob caucus. The obvious split over Gaza and other issues within the NDP that has led to muzzling and the occasional pre-emptive purge. The undoubted concern in Liberal ranks about developing a coherent, policy-based platform that the Leader can actually get his head around in scrums and debates.
Why not put as much of this as possible on the public record? Not as tit-for-tat, which would be a frankly stupid motive. Nor to crow foolishly about Aha! differences between party leaders and their foot-soldiers. But to reveal all the dimensions of politics, which is, after all, a process engaged in by individuals with their highly variable skills, knowledges, energy and creativity.
There’s no “ethical” question here. It’s not as though the politicians were trapped into saying something they didn’t actually believe. This prankish political espionage is just a different form of whistleblowing. And, as with the other kind, the public can only benefit.
Who knows? Under the glare of all of these no-doubt partisan spotlights, politics might even improve. Differences might be better tolerated. Leadership cults could lose their attraction. Open debate would be encouraged. Bogus homogeneity would be impossible to maintain.
I can’t see a downside. Can you?
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