Lead, don’t follow

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Epiphanies can come in strange places. They can arrive in an orange kayak, bobbing in the warm waters of Bonne Bay.

They can arrive while you’re watching hundreds of conners working over the seaweed beneath the clear, warm water, the mist rolling thinly down the shoulders of Gros Morne hillsides, when you suddenly wonder about the wasteful way you spend your work days logged onto the effective but unblinking leash of a computer when there are so many other things that need doing and seeing in the world.

And they can arrive on a sunlit wharf outside a sharp little coffee shop on Woody Point, delivered pointedly and spontaneously in two words by an author from British Columbia.

Richard Wagamese is an unlikely author. Except for his incredible attitude, he should probably be a hopelessly bitter man, focused inwardly on the wrongs that have been done to him: the harsh world of street life, limited formal education and a childhood that included an abusive foster home.

Instead, Wagamese is a remarkably optimistic man, absolutely clear on a central theme that reverberates in his work: we are all people who belong to, live in and love  this country, and we can go a long way towards addressing our differences by simply getting together and talking about them.

Talking about what our hopes and dreams are; talking about what is important and needed to make this country a better place — just plain talking it out, because you can often come to at least an understanding of someone else’s point of view through the back-and-forth of basic conversation.

The wharf was filled, sun beating down, when there was a simple question: how do we get our politicians to buy into that conversation? It’s pretty clear now that politics depends on dividing and isolating Canadians, and on choosing to play the fear banjo’s string over frank and honest talk.

Wagamese’s answer? Quick and direct, without even a moment’s wait.

“F--k them.”

The bluntness of the response stilled the audience for a moment.

Then Wagamese went on to argue that politicians don’t need to get the idea of starting the discussion. By their very nature, they shouldn’t be in on the ground floor of the debate unless they have something specific to add.

If enough Canadians work together, he suggested, we create a critical mass that the politicians not only can’t ignore, but actually will seek out.

If they know there’s something we want (and might want enough to vote for), politicians will eventually tailor their behaviour to meet it.

It’s an easy concept to see in action as we trundle our way towards the October election, seemingly knee-deep in provincial government cash.

Why are Kathy Dunderdale and her fleet of suddenly summer-active cabinet ministers traipsing the province, handing out fistfuls of money?

Because they think that’s what we want them to do — because that’s the message they’ve been told, because that’s a method that has worked to elect governments in the past.

Why are they lying about the reasons behind the cash-fest, a staple for governments of all stripes in this province?

Once again, because they believe that is what we want to hear — in other words, we want the pre-election bribes, but we want them with plausible deniability, so that we can vote for the promise of money in our pockets and still take the tenuous high ground of claiming that no one could ever buy our vote.

You can complain about their methods, but when you do, you forget that Dunderdale et al are only pandering to what they believe are the electorate’s expectations. If the electorate clearly had other expectations, Dunderdale’s crew would seek out different methods to address them.

That’s a cold, hard fact.

So what was my Wagamese-

driven epiphany?

When we feel we can’t do something without politicians getting behind it, we’ve really put the cart before the horse.

Should we be looking for the political path (among the very limited ideological choices available) closest to our own and join it, warts and all, or should we make our own positions clear and force our politicians to meet our bar?

We have built ourselves a very wooden system, one where instead of telling politicians what we want them to do, we settle for trying to align ourselves with someone else’s view of the world.

Is Wagamese hopelessly naive? To a point — he’s not taken into account the fact that politics has become a structured industry far beyond what it was in the past, one that has institutionalized greed for power or money to point that the end justifies any political means.

That doesn’t mean Wagamese’s way isn’t attractive.

Truth is, I’d rather be hopelessly naive than spend the next few decades being an election-day pawn in someone’s else’s high-priced political game.

We expect our politicians to lead us.

Maybe it’s time they were forced to wake up and follow our lead.

Wagamese is right: they’ll hear that message the second they have to worry that their jobs are on the line.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Bonne Bay, Woody Point

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Recent comments

  • Mark
    August 29, 2011 - 09:40

    ''...it’s time they were forced to wake up and follow our lead'' It pains me to say it, but let's not rule out the possibility that most politicians are doing exactly what you suggest.

  • Cyril Rogers
    August 28, 2011 - 20:25

    Russell, the concept is one of basic democracy in action but realistically we have not seen this in NL for quite some time, if ever. Danny was a strong-willed dictatorial perosnality and people loved him. Why? Are we like sheep and in need of a "leader" even at this stage in our history when we supposedly have the most sophisticated and educated electorate ever? I don't subscribe to this notion but people's blind faith in Danny lends credence to this assertion, in my opinion. Why must we always look for a saviour? As long as we do, it is certain we will never have any real participatory democracy. If anyone thinks this "saviour" mentality is not alive and well, we have only to go back a couple of weeks to witness the buzz created by the possibility of General Hillier becoming Liberal leader. Had he done so, he would have swept the province just as Danny did. Our current administration is far far away from any notion of participatory democracy and they are certainly unwilling to listen to any criticism. The recent Environmental Review Panel has come down hard on the Muskrat Falls project, as currently envisioned, but so far they are still asking us to proceed on blind faith! Are we that niave and gullible as to allow this badly-conceived and badly-flawed project to go ahead? I fear many voters can't overcome their own biases and are not inclined to seriously analyze this project's flaws but will vote blindly for the governing party because Danny said it was a good deal. This harkens back to the Smallwood years when many put their total trust and faith in Joey. The problem with this sort of naiviety is that you get bad deals like the Upper Churchill and its latter-day incarnation -Muskrat Falls.

  • Eli
    August 28, 2011 - 15:44

    Stanley...Newly minted polititians, and old ones for that matter, were once "one of us". Whatever party they align themselves with they immediately toe the line of their backroom boys who set policy. What once might have been a "strong voice" is reduced to just another jerk chomping at the bit fo find out what's at the trough for me. Oink, Oink! It's that simple. As for people who put them there, well, we never to learn do we?

  • Sylvia
    August 28, 2011 - 10:17

    Ideally, voters should give strong, intelligent input to the politicians, then hold them accountable. And ideally, the politicians themselves should be well researched regarding issues and formulate ways of dealing with same. To my mind, it's meant to be a collaboration of informed, individual viewpoints. A lot of us don't spend as much time as we should though following what's happening politically. Shame that. There don't seem to be enough hours in the day. Of course for some, it just boils down to apathy too.

  • stanley
    August 27, 2011 - 23:26

    russell just can't seem to comprehend that politicians are not beamed down to earth from a distant planet. They are the person sitting next to you at your office, the person standing in line for a coffee. Why does he always separate "people" and "politicians", as if they are simply born into the role with no past experience, instead of people as members of the community and elected by their peers? It's always an us versus them complex with this author.

  • Norm L. Citizen
    August 27, 2011 - 08:13

    Well put. We all need to be reminded of what it is to be a citizen, rather than a sheep. As in personal affairs, it all comes down to responsibility. I worked with a man of limited english once whose simple wisdom was very similar. I think of it whenever I get fed up with the "way things are" "f%#* the rest" ...and I make my own way.