The Cardus Daily

Part of the Problem with Politics is You

Ray Pennings  |  March 20, 2014  |  Culture, Elites, Leadership, Legacy, Politics, Vocation

The past 48 hours have seen the resignation of two significant Canadian figures—federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Alberta Premier Alison Redford. My social media feeds are dominated by others with similar interests and so are quickly filled with the candid evaluations of Flaherty and Redford legacies. Sadly, the 140 character responses are not very inspiring regarding our democracy.

These two resignations—apart from their timing proximity—have very little in common. Jim Flaherty retires as Canada’s third longest serving Finance Minister having held the reins through a significant recession. He leaves with an international reputation and while he has many critics, few would argue that his impact was significant. He is also leaving at his own volition and on his own terms.

Premier Redford, on the other hand, is leaving under a cloud prompted by reports of excessive spending, a bullying personality, and an entitlement culture. Yesterday I drafted a blog focused on the vital but underappreciated role of backbench MPs in holding leaders accountable. Politics is a team sport, and a caucus calling a leader to account publicly is something that needs to be done judiciously within a Westminster model of government. Responsible government requires an effective opposition as an alternative but it also requires a principled back-bench ensuring that core values and integrity are not compromised.

Current events intervened between the drafting and posting of yesterday’s blog. It appears that the input received by Ms. Redford from the polls, the input she was receiving from her party and caucus, and her advisors made it clear that the requisite confidence for her to continue was lacking. To her credit, she listened to that advice and offered her resignation.

While the two resignations are very different in character, I am struck by the vitriolic commentary offered in the social media world. My social follows are consciously chosen for their diversity of perspectives, and given the different leanings of Ms. Redford and Mr. Flaherty, the response to their resignations seems inversely related. (Those who say nice things about Redford seem critical of Flaherty and vice versa—with only a few exceptions.)

I disagree with Calgary Mayor Nenshi, who seems to imply that because Premier Redford had “amazing dreams and amazing ideas” for Alberta, it is unfair for her caucus to have turned on her as they did. Because politics is a team sport, effective leadership includes taking your team with you and maintaining support. Leaders who can’t get that done cannot survive in our system of government.

But Mayor Nenshi is right in pointing out the personal dimension and compassion required in our politics. Premier Redford is not a witch whose political demise should be celebrated, any more than Minister Flaherty is a callous person just because you disagree with his policy choices. I’ve had the privilege of knowing hundreds of elected officials from all parties—many of whom I profoundly disagree with—and with only a handful of exceptions, can say that they were in politics for the right reasons. Most enter politics because they have ideals, ideas, and a zeal to implement them to make their country a better place as they understand it. Some of these ideas are foolish and those who hold them do not deserve political success, but that doesn’t make them bad people.

(Columnist Don Braid provides great insight into how politics works, and how Premier Redford didn’t: “Whatever comes next, Alberta will move on without a premier who was probably the most intellectually brilliant in the province’s history, and the most politically flawed.”)

In our day, when everyone is a journalist with 140 characters’ worth of column inches, it would be good if everyone were an editor as well. Put another way, it would be good if our eulogists passed a mirror en route to their pulpits.

Whether you prefer the politics of Redford, Flaherty, or one of the other contenders is not the point. There are two basic prerequisites for political success that precede politics.

Without trust and respect, politicians will lack the mandate to implement their ideas. Mandates may be originally measured by the ballot box but are sustained through a complex maintenance of essential relationships and institutions.

But without trust and respect, our citizenry are even worse off. Citizens also need to recognize that if competent and visionary leaders are to be attracted to the political sphere, they require and deserve more than an X on a ballot. Our leaders are also real people—husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, neighbours and friends.

The sort of castigation that dominated my social media feed last evening regarding the legacies of both Premier Redford and Minister Flaherty reminded me that the problem of contemporary politics is as much a problem of citizenship as it is of leadership. And if the critics think that simply replacing Redford and Flaherty with different names will somehow achieve their dreams for a healthier democracy without a look in the mirror, I fear they will be waiting a long while.



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