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Thursday 1 August 2013

Martin Regg Cohn on Political Purity

Purity isn't a one-day affair; it's a state of mind, a lifestyle choice.  Of course, politicians have the desperate job of motivating an often somnambulant populace that barely tunes in on voting day, much less the rest of the year.  As such, politics is less about perfection and more about outrunning the bear. 
How much we want change will be reflected by how willing we are to get engaged ourselves.

In pursuit of political purity on byelection day: Cohn

Are voters tuning out talk of scandals? Or are they ready to turn out the Liberals?

By: Provincial Politics, Published on Thu Aug 01 2013
With five byelections Thursday, and scandal in the air, polls show the Liberals losing ground.
But on voting day, on-the-ground organization counts more than mid-summer surveys. It’s about pulling the vote, not polling voters.
That makes tonight’s outcome hard to predict. And even harder to analyze without exit polling to probe voters’ motives.
Are voters tuning out talk of scandals? Or are they ready to turn out the Liberals?
(Either way, tonight’s results won’t change the overall balance of power in the minority legislature. These mid-term byelections might yield protest votes, but not regime change.)
The opposition is desperately trying to tar the governing Liberals with tales of Dalton McGuinty’s misdeeds. Inconveniently, the former premier is no longer in public life.
One bemused NDP canvasser recounted how a voter on the doorstep thought McGuinty was still premier, and was poised to punish him. Will other voters vent their anger on his successor as premier, Kathleen Wynne?
Since taking over last February, Wynne, has been busy rebranding her new Liberal government: She is far more popular personally, and remains untainted by the gas plant controversy.
But for all the good reviews, there is recurring bad news from McGuinty’s questionable calculations — financial and political — in cancelling two controversial GTA gas plants before the 2011 election. McGuinty tried to lowball the costs at less than $200 million, but they have snowballed to nearly three times that amount.
The opposition narrative is that McGuinty and Wynne are part of a Liberal continuum — guilt by association that renders Wynne damaged goods. By that standard, it’s hard for any of the parties to recast themselves as politically pure (unless they want to fight the next election as a contest between the ghosts of three former premiers from the rival parties — McGuinty, Mike Harris and Bob Rae.)
Consider the broader scandal scorecard:
Among tens of thousands of documents and emails released by the Wynne government from the McGuinty era is an exchange showing how the former premier’s office tried to twist the arm of Speaker Dave Levac (over his ruling that the government might be heading for a contempt finding.) Senior McGuinty advisers discussed how to get the Speaker to change his mind.
The tone of their (admittedly private) correspondence was as offensive as their stated objective. (Interestingly, many of their duties are now handled by longtime Liberal operative Tom Allison, who was forced out by those very McGuinty loyalists last year — putting the lie to the notion that the two premiers’ teams were as one.)
As Levac noted in a statement this week, he did not change his ruling. But he did observe that the opposition parties have also intervened with him to discuss his rulings — which perhaps explains why they are not in a hurry to call him before a legislative committee to testify out of turn.
As the opposition correctly argues, the office of the Speaker is sacrosanct and should be above partisanship. Why then have the Tories flagrantly transgressed the venerable parliamentary tradition of not campaigning in the Speaker’s own constituency between elections, so that he can remain above the fray?
One Tory MPP after another has campaigned shamelessly in Levac’s Brant riding over the past year, taking advantage of the Speaker’s virtual vow of silence that prevents him from rebutting them on partisan matters, even in the media. (By tradition, the Speaker’s kid gloves come off only during a general election campaign, when the legislature is dissolved, but not before).
Political purity, it seems, is in the eye of the partisan beholder. And guilt by association only goes so far.
Yes, McGuinty’s staffers crossed a line by trying to twist Levac’s arm. Happily, he didn’t accede — unlike, say, the supposedly impartial Tory head of a Senate committee who backed off when Senator Mike Duffy’s silence was bought for a $90,000 cash advance from the prime minister’s then-chief-of-staff, Nigel Wright. Or unlike, say, B.C.’s NDP leader Adrian Dix (who, dare we say it, once worked for Ontario’s NDP), falsifying a letter by backdating it when he worked as a chief of staff to a B.C. premier.
But we digress about these transgressions.
Today is byelection day. If you are in one of those five byelection ridings, be sure to vote — be it along party lines, scandal plotlines, subway lines, or any more edifying pathway you may find through the twists and turns of political life.
Martin Regg Cohn’s provincial affairs column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. , Twitter: @reggcohn

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