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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

The Problem with Competitive Politics: Why Position is not the same as Power

This isn't just Kinsella's opinion - it's common sense in political circles.  I cannot count the number of times I have been told by senior Liberal and Conservative advisers (I don't know any NDP advisers, but have seen them operate this way, too) that to be effective in politics, you need to pick fights.

Not pick your fights, but proactively go out and start fights.  It's the whole "define or be defined" thing - if you wait until foes come at you, as they inevitably will, then their line of attack will shape your public image.  On the other hand, if you go out and pick fights yourself, you will define yourself by making it clear who it is you stand against.

Mike Harris stood against teachers, nurses, First Nations groups.  Vying for a seat in Kitchener-Waterloo, the last iteration of Team McGuinty decided picking a fight against teachers would brand them the right way, too.

People who have been friends and colleagues, when they find themselves in different camps, will burn their bridges and end friendships because that's simply how they see the game being played.  You have to stab a couple people in the back to make it to the top of the heap, right?

After all, in the game of thrones, you win or you die - and there are only so many chairs at the top.

I will argue, as I have always done, that these die-hard political scrappers are mistaking power with position.  

If you want to be Premier, or a right-hand adviser, or a pundit on TV, yeah - you tend to make your name by breaking others.  Attacks make good headlines, etc.  If it's your goal to have the car and driver, the "Honourable" title before your name and access to the most exclusive events, by all means, go be a political warrior.

When you commit to defining yourself by your enemies, though, you've just handed them the keys to your brand.  They will define you in perpetuity, not your own achievements.  

That's not power - that's dependence.

During my time at Queen's Park I worked for a humble, hard-working MPP who was loved and respected by all.

Even when he frustrated people in the Premier's Office or on Opposition benches - which, rest assured, he did - Jim Brownell was always his own man, committed to one clear purpose.

That purpose wasn't power - it was empowering his constituents.

Jim was never a Minister, never had a car and driver, was never a sought-after pundit.  He never worked for those trappings of position and therefore never got them.  In traditional political terms, you could say Jim never amounted to anything.

Yet Jim's record stands head and shoulders above most of his colleagues, whatever their title or position.  His accomplishments aren't a laundry-list of things the Centre decreed for his Riding, as is the case for many pols; these were things he fought, negotiated and charmed his way into delivering for his constituents.

A couple of my favourites:

- Downtown loan forgiveness for every municipality in Ontario that had a loan to pay back

Jim wanted the Province to forgive Cornwall's loan to give them relief after some prominent mill closures; the Province replied they couldn't just do it for one community.  Therefore, Jim personally advocated on each municipality's behalf to get it done.

- Early Works development for the Cornwall Community Hospital

There was a five-year hospital development plan, and the CCH wasn't on it.  Instead of fighting or yielding, Jim found a third-way solution that created wins for everyone.  

- Eastern Ontario Development Fund

Not just Jim's accomplishment, but one he worked on with Eastern colleagues that continues to support economic growth in Eastern Ontario today

- The Premier's Gravesites Program

Jim was ridiculed for thinking history and recognizing Ontario's past leaders mattered, but he did.  Now, there's a program that ensures each burial place is recognized with a plaque and a flag.  Every future Premier of Ontario owes Jim for that.

- Riding Days at Queen's Park

Jim hosted the first Riding Day at Queen's Park by bringing community partners up from Stormont Dundas and South Glengarry for a day of meetings, attendance at Question Period and a reception at the end of the day.  It was a great hit; people at QP really got a sense for the culture and vibrancy of the region at the same time as Jim's stakeholders got to see just how much clout their MPP had at Queen's Park.

It's no surprise that many a Member have since copied Jim's model.

and finally - Brownell Night

This last might seem strange, but to me is none-the-less important.  Jim started a monthly gathering of Liberal staff, the first time such a thing had happened.  Suddenly, people who'd known each other by phone alone got to know each other as individuals.

Brownell Night became an opportunity to build community, cohesion and a sense of team within the Liberal Party of Ontario - something which, from what I hear, doesn't exist any more.  As the man who knew staff in every Ministry, he unsurprisingly became very popular.

Jim never once picked a fight, but he ended several.  My favourite also goes back to John Tory, who was accusing him of inactivity on hospital development in the riding.  Within minutes of Tory blasting Jim in the Legislature, he had a hand-written note from Jim on a picture of the development project at CCH on his desk.

People quickly learned not to misrepresent Jim's activity.  That didn't earn him enemies; it earned him respect.

Maybe Jim's name won't be recorded in the history books or ignite conversations decades hence - but he will be remembered fondly by each and every person he interacted with.  People still seek him out for advise today, and tend to regret it when they don't mind his wisdom.  Not because he attacks them, of course, but because he's got a habit of being right.

Oh - and he does have a road named after him.

This is the lesson that too many political pros don't want to hear because, truth be told, they enjoy the fight.  They see power as something to be held over others and relish bringing others down to increase their own stature.  In their minds, they're front-line soldiers, keeping the other tribe at bay.

Perhaps the most "successful" political people want to be judged by the enemies they have made. That's their choice.

Leaders, however, are judged by what they accomplish.

Note on the picture topping this post - it's taken from a Swerhun consultation.  

Haven't heard of Swerhun? That's probably because they're not big on the self-promotion thing.  They, like a growing number of virtuous schemers, are quietly working behind the scenes, building community, creating partnerships and establishing trust where none previously existed.

These people don't really care if you know who they are - they know they're changing the system regardless.

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