Jan 4, 2011

A Challenge to BC’s Leadership Candidates: Dare to Be Bold and to Tell Us the Truth


Some thoughts on what I’d love to hear in the current leadership contests: As a number of fundamental crises become more apparent (ecological and economic, not to mention the democratic deficit), the public is looking for bold ideas and bold leadership. Sadly, too many political strategists (as they will confess in private company) operate on the assumption that the public cannot handle the truth; that any politician that speaks honestly of the scope of the challenges we face, and some of the major changes (and short-term sacrifices) meeting these challenges will entail, will be punished by the electorate. And so, those contesting political office are most inclined to say what they think people want to hear. The result is the political equivalent of pablum.

Well, here’s a very different proposition: the leader and party who gets out ahead of the crises we face – who articulates an understanding of their severity, matched by a willingness to meet these challenges with bold solutions and rally us to action – will be politically rewarded.

Take for example the case of climate change and the false debate during the last provincial election over BC’s carbon tax. Both major parties, in effect, told the public, “You won’t have to pay for the changes we need to make.” The Liberals said, “Yes, we will have a carbon tax, but we will return all the money to you in recycled tax cuts in other areas.” The NDP said, “We will go after industry, not you.” No one was speaking the truth, namely, “This challenge is great, and in the near term, we’re all going to have to help pay for climate action, and make some major changes to how we live, work, move around and play.” Ideally, coupled with an inspiring vision: “But done right, the result will be a better quality of life, more inclusive communities, new green jobs, and a more equitable society.”

Who among those vying for leadership today will say, “I firmly accept the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is a pressing reality; the defining issue of our time. Its effects are already being profoundly felt in British Columbia. Meeting this challenge will entail fundamental changes, and time is of the essence. If you don’t want a leader who will be guided by this reality, then vote for someone else.”

In the face of the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us, who will say, “I believe public policy should be guided not by the demands and anxieties of the wealthiest among us, but by the needs and wellbeing of the poorest and economically insecure, and I will make policy decisions through that lens.”

Who is willing to say, “I think there is no excuse for poverty and homelessness in a society as wealthy as ours, and their elimination will be a core priority of my government.” Indeed, who might say, “Judge my government by this measure, not by the increasingly less relevant measure of GDP growth.”

And perhaps most daring but honest of all: who will admit that to successfully accomplish these tasks –– confronting climate change, doing so in a manner that provides economic security for modest and middle income families, and eradicating poverty –– will require substantial increases in government spending and investments, which in turn will require an overall increase in taxes. (Now there’s a reality precious few politicians want to admit to, even though most business leaders quietly share this view.)

I could name many more environmental and economic truths that politicians dare not speak, coupled with bold policy ideas they may privately support but which advisors convince them are not realistic. Beneath them all is a simple question: Who will articulate a vision for a province that is truly ecologically sustainable and socially just? (CCPA senior economist Marc Lee offers some of his ideas for what might constitute such a vision here.)

Perhaps one of the reasons that voter turnout is so poor is that a sizable chunk of the electorate is simply uninspired and disaffected, having come reasonably to the conclusion that none of those vying for power is truly speaking to the severity of the challenges we face.

In contrast, one of the reasons behind the recent election of someone like Rob Ford in Toronto, or the historic successes of people like Mike Harris, is not that what they espouse corresponds to the values of the majority of voters (and their “solutions” are simplistic in the extreme), but rather, people like that these leaders brashly say what they think and do what they say.

Or for a more “progressive” example, take the case of recently departed premier Danny Williams (paradoxically a millionaire conservative). He led a bold poverty reduction plan, and asked that his political future be tied to its success. And he brashly stood up to resource corporations (oil companies and AbitibiBowater), demanding that Newfoundlanders receive a fair social contract from these firms. Newfoundlanders hugely rewarded such leadership, making Williams the most popular politician in Canada.

Political boldness such as this comes as a blast of fresh air into the otherwise stale re-circulated air that characterizes politics-as-usual, in which caution is the watchword (and in which progressives vying for leadership fail to offer up a competing vision with as much clarity).

And so a plea to the leadership contenders: trust the public. Trust that we can handle an honest conversation about the challenges we face.

A risky political proposition? Perhaps. But then again, perhaps winning without a mandate to lead us through major change – rooted in fairness and security – isn’t worth the victory.

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