Tag Archives: elections

The questionable wisdom of electing potted plants

Recently, a member of the Canadian House of Commons,  John Williamson, invoked Martin Luther King Jr. to praise the abolishment of the long-gun registry. Not to be outclassed by his northern neighbor, an American Congressman, Allen West, opined that eighty members of the opposing party were Communists. The frequency of these lapses into idiocy by elected officials in their public statements is reaching critical mass, and so disheartening to the voters of our two respective countries that stupid statements, false equivalencies and comparisons to Hitler are becoming the new normal way of going about the people’s business. But you cannot blame a puppy for making a mess on the floor if he hasn’t been housebroken. The responsibility lies with the ones who put him there. Morons are running the show because we tossed them the job and sighed, “Have at it, oh insipid masses.”

Democracy is the most precious form of government and the most capable of greatness when insightful, committed people are in charge; it is equally the most susceptible to abuse and neglect when the wrong sorts get their hands on the public purse. One of the problems with our democracy is that the mechanism by which one chooses one’s representatives – the election – has for a long time, philosophically, been not about establishing a vision and a set of tenets to guide a nation, but simply about delivering the other guy a resounding whuppin’.

I’m not the first to come up with the analogy that we are treating our politicians like athletes and supporting the parties the way one would pledge undying allegiance to a particular sports franchise. Much as we expect nothing more from athletes in their post-game interviews other than “Yeah, well, we gave a hundred and ten percent out there,” it seems acceptable for politicians to spout inanities and continue winning. In Canada, the opposition bemoans how media revelations of mismanagement, ineptitude and suspected election fraud have done little to move the polling numbers of the sitting government. Yet the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and they still sell out their home games. When you abdicate the responsibility of informed citizenship and become merely a fan, of course you’re not going to care how badly your guys are doing – they’re your guys, thick and thin. The thing is, whether the Leafs win or lose a game has no bearing on your daily life. Who wins elections does.

In a properly functioning democracy, the people deserve a true debate, where points of view are considered, argued vigorously, and evaluated on their merits. I have my ideological leanings, as we all do, but if it came to a choice between a reasoned and intelligent advocate of the other side versus one of my guys brainlessly reciting talking points and breaking Godwin’s Law, I’d choose the former. I want a functioning, curious and logical brain hard at work for my community, because they truly want to make it better and not because politics comes with a sweet pension. A person of true principle, not an empty suit who only understands every third word of the legislation we’re entrusting him to vote on; a seat-filler who last had an independent thought sometime in the summer of 1985.

Every hockey coach knows that one strong forward won’t make up for a bunch of guys who can’t skate. In politics, even the best leaders need a strong bench. We need to stop filling out the ranks of our representatives with twits and thugs we wouldn’t trust to wash our cars just because we might like the guy at the head of the pack, or the team they happen to play for. We deserve better than that. Our democracy deserves better than that.

Governing is not easy. It requires the best of the best. And yet, every political party in existence has its safe ridings or districts; areas where the loyalty to a team is so entrenched that little attention is ever paid to the caliber of the individual acting as the standard bearer, nor must much of a case be mounted to ensure that loyalty. It’s said of such races that the incumbent party could run a potted plant and still win. It should come as no surprise then when the winner shows in his or her representative career the kind of reasoned and nuanced approach to governing possessed by the average fern. (No offense to ferns.) Otherwise sane parents who would not for one moment tolerate their child throwing a tantrum and calling Uncle Frank a Nazi are only too eager to install like-minded infants into elected office because of party worship. And unless that stops, unless we choose the best of us and not the loudest, we’ll never get the government our democracy needs. We’ll only get Wrestlemania in suits and ties – and last time I checked, I’m not sure The Undertaker had much of a fiscal policy.

Ontario Election 2011: In service of our better angels

This post appeared on the Speak Your Mind site of the Toronto Star (http://speakyourmind.thestar.com) yesterday.  Reprinted here by their kind permission since, technically, they own it.

Democracy is a pain.

Let’s begin by being honest with ourselves. To our detriment, Canadians look forward to elections with the same enthusiasm as they do a visit to the proctologist. They’d rather listen to Snooki whine about The Situation than suffer through another campaign commercial. And the people of Ontario are headed to the ballot box for the third time in less than a year.

But as any decent proctologist would insist, regular checkups are good for you. That pain is a minor inconvenience in exchange for a healthy government.

As the writ drops, we look to the next several weeks with both hope and cynicism – hope that the campaign will be a shot of democratic adrenaline, with compelling candidates, engaged voters and a substantive debate leading to a bold vision of the magnificent places this province can go with the best people leading it; and cynical expectation that events will devolve into the usual baseless accusations, sound bites repeated mindlessly and a pox on all houses as we shrug, pick the least of the worst and slouch back to our lives.

Burlington is not on anyone’s list of ridings to watch this election. Provincially, it’s been Conservative blue since before many of its eligible voters were born. Yet there are a few hints that it may turn out to be a true battleground this time – a chance to see real democratic engagement, rather than a slow, dispirited march towards an inevitable outcome.

Incumbent Tory MPP Joyce Savoline isn’t running again. For the first time in decades, the three main party candidates vying for the Burlington seat are all newcomers. The Liberals, who have not held this seat since the 1940’s, have nominated lawyer Karmel Sakran to carry their banner. Oddly, the nomination contest for the Conservatives unfolded like a season of Survivor, with one candidate after another dropping out of the race for what could have been, given Burlington voting habits, essentially a guaranteed job as MPP. Local entrepreneur Jane McKenna, the last woman standing, has the advantage of the PC brand but is coming off a fifth-place finish in the 2010 municipal election for the Ward 1 Council seat. NDP candidate Peggy Russell, a former school board trustee, will be looking to harness some Jack Layton magic after her own unsuccessful attempt to capture the Ward 5 Council seat last year.

The last three elections have seen the Conservative candidate come out on top by less than 2,000 votes. Savoline’s 41% of the vote in 2007 was the worst showing by a Tory in Burlington in years, but she still managed to eke out a win – and that was at a time when Premier Dalton McGuinty was far more popular than he is now. McKenna’s poor results in 2010 suggest that her campaigning skills might need some polishing, but there’s a huge difference between running on your own and running as a major-party candidate. Unless Tim Hudak’s campaign implodes it would be fair to say the race is hers to lose. McKenna’s greatest advantage is that sleepy Burlington doesn’t like change, and that its voters seem programmed to back Team Blue. Having said that, Sakran has an impressive CV, and with an inexperienced opponent and barring significant vote-splitting with the NDP, he has the best chance for a Liberal upset in decades.

But ultimately, that is just inside baseball. What will make the difference in this riding and in this election, is leadership – and not of the chest-thumping chickenhawk variety. True leadership is the gravitas of statesmen that comes only with experience, curiosity, humility, and the capacity to embrace and learn from one’s failings. It is the confidence in the nobility and decency of the people, and the genuine desire to do the very best for them. To appeal to their better angels; to unite them in a real society that celebrates our achievements and leaves no one behind. That’s what the people of Ontario should want. No matter who we support, that’s what we should all be voting for.

So let us take our medicine and embrace that cumbersome pain known as democracy. The reward – shaping our future – will far outweigh the cost.

Caveat elector

You can’t blame an un-housebroken puppy for making a mess on your living room floor.  Nor should anyone, in a democracy, feign shock at the actions of the stupendously incompetent who ride into office on waves of voter discontent and proceed to wreck the place.  As I’m writing this, the United States Senate has just passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling, avoiding by the narrowest of margins a default brought on by the extreme right-wing elements of the Republican Party who were swept into power in the 2010 midterm elections.  The Brothers Ford are threatening to balance Toronto’s books by… cutting books (i.e. libraries), as it turns out that all of the city’s fiscal woes cannot, in fact, be cured by eliminating the “gravy train.”  You can’t really blame these people for being unskilled and unfit to govern.  They didn’t put themselves in office.  We should blame ourselves for buying what they’ve sold without thoroughly kicking the tires first.

In politics, the simplest message is the most successful.  “I Like Ike.”  “Yes We Can.”  “It’s the economy, stupid.”  “Stop the gravy train.”  “He didn’t come back for you.”  So too does it often seem that the simplest people have the simplest time getting elected – for the simple reason that running a campaign of pandering is the simplest path to victory.  Tell people what they want to hear often enough and you’ll convince them.  Why?  Because democracy is a pain in the ass.  In a democracy, the governed are meant to stay informed, learn about issues, examine all sides of a problem and keep their representatives honest.  The problem is, nobody really wants to do that.  The majority of us are perfectly happy to leave governing to anyone who wants to, so long as we don’t have to.  The least we are asked to do is vote and many of us can’t even be bothered doing that.  Those of us who do bother are usually seduced by the infamous simple message.  “I don’t like taxes and this guy says he’s going to cut them, that’s good enough for me.”  Imagine interviewing someone for a job at your company – you have an applicant who has no prior experience, no qualifications for the position and just keeps repeating the phrase “Hire me and I’ll save you money.”  You’d be showing him the door faster than you can say “hard-working families.”  Yet politicians use the same strategy to find their way into highly-paid positions of authority where they can affect thousands, even millions of lives.

George W. Bush came from a legacy of failed business ventures and could barely pronounce half the words in the English language and he was placed in charge of the nuclear launch codes for eight tumultuous years.  I choose not to believe it was because the majority who voted for him were stupid.  It was the widespread laissez-faire attitude I’ve described above that favored his simple answers over the more complicated solutions Al Gore and John Kerry respectively were offering instead.  The irony is that governing is complicated.  Anyone who says it is simple is lying for votes.  Good governing is a dance of nuance, intelligence, curiosity, respect, and compromise when necessary.  Not everyone can do it and it demands minds that are sharp and inquisitive and not chained to ideology at the expense of reason.  A four-year-old who’s heard a slogan on TV can repeat it ad infinitum, but you wouldn’t consider putting him in charge of the Ministry of Finance.  You wouldn’t even put him in charge of a lemonade stand.

So let’s set our standards higher – if we do not demand more from candidates, if we continue to let them get away with pandering, pat answers to complex questions, if we continue to vote by picking the least of the worst – we should not be surprised when it turns out that the people we’ve elected are completely unsuited to handle the complex questions that will arise in the course of governing.  Because whacking the puppy with the newspaper after the fact isn’t going to do much to clean up the steaming pile lying in the middle of the floor.  Better yet, instead get a cat – they are smart enough to know to use the litter box in the first place.