“That was when we really thought we were going to bring about the change required. It didn’t happen so successfully and I think Justin and others are of the view that ‘renewal’ became a word that just started not to work anymore.”
- Katie Telford
Politics, like any good drama, is built on conflict. At its best, from an audience perspective, politics delivers high-tension clashes at multiple levels simultaneously with nations facing threats upon their shores while provinces, Parties and partisan operatives battle each other for dominance. It’s why shows like Game of Thrones are so popular; nothing makes for compelling viewing quite like actors fighting to the death on a burning platform.
Canadian politics, alas, tends to be low on hyperbole and weak on dramatic content. That’s why unless you’re a CanCon political junkie or a Conservative researcher, you probably missed the little piece of Liberal drama that played itself out last week. Like the best dramas, this tale began on a hopeful note, spiraled into conflict and has now moved into intrigue.
It started off innocently enough, with Justin Trudeau giving an impassioned speech heralding his entry into the Liberal leadership race. Rather boldly, he laid out a vision that reached beyond the scope of the Party and included our entire political system. Canadians, he suggested, are hungry for a vision of Canada’s future “grounded not in the politics of envy or mistrust.” Trudeau’s stated goal is to bring values like honesty, integrity, respect and cooperation back into Canadian politics. “When,” he asks us, “was the last time you had a leader you actually trusted?”
Voters are cynical about politicians, and rightly so. Our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, ran on the promise of ushering in a new era of accountability and transparency. On the heels of the Sponsorship Scandal, that message appealed to the average Canadian. Since gaining power, however, Harper has been neither accountable nor transparent. He has moved to limit public access to committee debates, has stifled information flow to the media – his government has even denied information to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, a position of their own design.
If we’re wary of politicians, we’re downright suspicious of the people who work behind the scenes for them. We know that Harper’s hired guns aren’t interested in strengthening democracy; they themselves tell us as much. Nick Kouvalis happily states that he gets paid to end the careers of liberal politicians, while Tim Powers readily admits that the Conservatives are happy to misrepresent the facts if it allows them to keep the Opposition on the defensive. At the end of the day, does it really matter what a Leader says, when it’s folk like this pulling the strings?
For this reason, engaged Canadians are increasingly paying attention to the people behind the curtain. If we’re going to invest in a Party to drive our country forward, we want to know something about what’s under the hood. Perhaps it was in recognition of this that Team Trudeau agreed to an interview with Michael den Tandt, skirting traditional political wisdom that suggests political staff be neither seen nor heard, and kicking off the next act in our little drama.
If Trudeau’s speech was the teaser to the campaign, the den Tandt piece was like a making-of featurette. It introduced us to a likeable production crew that clearly supports the vision laid out by their leader. In addition to Katie Telford, a bright young mother with tons of both idealism and political experience (full disclosure, she’s a former colleague of mine), we have former Liberal MP for Mississauga-Erindale Omar Alghabra, Ben Chin (a former reporter of South Korean heritage) and the more mysterious of the Trudeau brothers, Sacha. Named but not interviewed was Gerry Butts, a man who is not only gifted in his ability to craft political strategy but also someone who only dedicates his time to things he believes in. Former political staff like me still look up to people like him.
Not a bad crew to have supporting you, really – and unlike a Kouvalis or a Powers, these folk have made it clear their goal isn’t to defeat the opposition at all cost. “It’s about who’s willing to put in the work, no matter their background, no matter what party they’ve been in before, or (whether they’ve) been involved in past battles,” as Telford says. But why, some might ask, is she the one saying this at all? There’s a reason why conventional wisdom suggests staff should stay in the backroom; when they draw attention to themselves, support teams draw the focus away from the person who will actually have his name on the ballot. It’s not smart, politically.
One of the people pointing this out is Warren Kinsella, Bad Boy Liberal Strategist and a man with more hard-won election scars than most political staff ever has skin in the game. When it comes to all this campaign strategy stuff, Kinsella knows of what he speaks – he wrote the book on it, literally (and if you haven’t read The War Room, I highly recommend it). Kinsella compares political strategy to the process of making sausages (a bit ironic, given the unfolding tainted meat scandal); the less revealed to the public and your opponents, the better.
It’s a point worth raising. As Kinsella notes, the folk supporting Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff all dabbled with media exposure, while the campaign teams for Stephen Harper did not. As a strategy, this worked out pretty well for Team Harper; despite being implicated in a scheme to bribe a dying man for his vote, being found in contempt of Parliament and the ongoing robocall scandal, among others, the Conservatives have clawed their way to a majority government and are now free to do as they please. By never going off message, allowing few of his Caucus to speak to the media and holding his operators to an omerta-like code of silence, Harper presents a thin target for his opponents. As for the other guys, well – go look for them now.
This Harperian method makes for great politics, but is terrible for the long-term health of our Canadian democracy. “The political system has failed many Canadians in clear and tangible ways,” suggests Alison Loat, Co-Founder and Executive Director of democracy watchdog the Samara Institute. As Trudeau stated so eloquently in his launch-speech, we no longer trust politics, neither the leaders nor the people who support them. Harper doesn’t shoulder all the weight for this problem – he’s merely taken an emerging trend and pushed it further, faster than anyone expected. It’s because of this sort of cynical governance that Canadians, particularly younger ones, are proactively opting not to vote.
Only 61.4 per cent of eligible Canadian voters cast ballots in the last Federal election, and that was considered an improvement. Youth turnout was even lower, with only 38.8 choosing to support a candidate or Party. Feeling like their vote has no meaning and that all Parties are the same, these Canadians are choosing alternative methods of expressing themselves politically by participating in student protests or supporting movements like Occupy.
Kinsella himself has recognized this, time and again – the way politics works in Canada is changing. As disenfranchised voters tune out, backroom operators are using increasingly aggressive tactics to win votes and eviscerate their opponents. To avoid the consequences of scrutiny, these folk are extinguishing media and opposition access so that they can do what they have to do away from the spotlight. What happens when people who don’t feel accountable to the public have growing amounts of influence on the political process?
According to the den Tandt article, Team Trudeau and Justin himself have collectively realized that it’s not just the Liberal Party, but the Canadian political process that is at risk of collapse. That’s the burning platform; that’s the impetus for renewal. Instead of engaging in old-school politics of Machiavellian manoeuvers planned and orchestrated by shadowy, unaccountable operators, Team Trudeau is trying to devise a new approach, one that is more transparent and accessible to the public while equally being more respectful to opponents. In this, they’re following some wise words: “Never attack the individual. We can be in total disagreement with someone without denigrating them as a consequence.”
Which brings us to the last act of our little drama. Warren Kinsella, a Liberal veteran who recognizes the need for some kind of renewal in politics offered some constructive criticism of the Team Trudeau approach. Less discussion of process in the media, he suggests. Staff should remain behind the curtain. This is a valid position, one that has born political fruit for successive generations. It doesn’t mean it’s the right one for today.
According to Kinsella himself, his advice has been met with the kind of response that is typical of old-school politics; angry messages from Trudeau supporters, some of them delivered anonymously. This is the sort of kindling from which new rivalries are made; it’s also the sort of personality conflict we’re sadly used to. Sure, this kind of political theatre makes for great viewing, but it does nothing to address the burning platform and brings into question whether renewal is actually possible. If politics is invariably a blood sport, you can hardly blame the Tories for being as ruthless as necessary to succeed – nor can you blame Canada’s youth for taking to the streets in protest.
For what it’s worth, I think that Trudeau is right. I think it’s time for a political leader to embody the values they speak of and inspire the same from their team and the public at large. I also think that Kinsella is right – political staff shouldn’t be using their position as a way to build their own brand. Frankly, good leaders value their team personally and always make sure their contributions are properly recognized. Having said that, we live in the days of Facebook and Twitter and IP addresses. Whether we like it or not, everyone is in the spotlight. Instead of trying to deny this, political people should always be thinking about how their comments, both verbal and posted, can reinforce and carry forward the vision they have chosen to support. You never go wrong by standing up for what you believe in.
I would also suggest that political leaders need to spend less time attacking their opponents and micro-targeting voter blocks and instead start engaging all Canadians. Democracy is a conversation and, like all conversations, it’s built on a foundation of shared values – including trust. When we don’t trust others, we make them untrustworthy and become untrustworthy ourselves as a consequence.
Of course, all this suspicion and intrigue makes for great conflict. Though Canadians do love their drama, I think there’s a growing recognition that if we don’t change something, we’re all going to get burned. The Leader or Party that consciously sets the right example will find that while we enjoy the spectacle, what we truly respect is values-based leadership.
Will Trudeau be this leader? Can his team renew Canadian democracy before the platform disintegrates? I’ve got my feet by the fire and popcorn in hand, waiting to see how the next act unfolds.
UPDATE: Case in point: My partner Lisa Kirbie goes on Sun News weekly to defend all things Liberal. On the single occasion she voices concern - before and after Trudeau's "basic dictatorship" gaffe - she is derided by other Liberals.
Another Liberal warned Kirbie that she needed to get "on board" because "(Trudeau's) the leader." And so on.
Some people never learn, eh?