Soon, we’ll be heading into the fall House of Assembly debate over Muskrat Falls — and, if recent history is any judge, it will probably have more than its fair share of contempt, disdain, pettiness, insults and maybe even downright hatred. Then, as Finance Minister Tom Marshall so brutally put it on VOCM back in April, “The opposition will get its say, then the government will get its way. That’s how democracy works.”
Just part of our political tradition.
But does it really need to be that way? And does that kind of confrontation really deliver the best possible results for the province’s citizens?
Martyn Brown used to be chief of staff for British Columbia’s now-departed premier, Gordon Campbell. He has held senior political positions for a host or premiers and a bevy of different political parties, so you could argue he knows the inside of political nastiness in provincial governments better than most people.
But what’s really interesting about Brown and the politics of hate is that he says it doesn’t work very well for people that the governments always claims to be looking out for — their constituents.
The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason had a look at Brown’s new book, “Towards a New Government in British Columbia” last weekend — and what struck Mason is not the way that Brown’s book looks at his experiences, but more at how attack-or-die politics is actually doing damage to governments’ ability to make good, informed choices.
Brown writes, “we need to vote positively, without being cowed by ideology, by the politics of fear or by the age-old myths that are manipulated for partisan advantage. … We need to place less emphasis on who forms the government and greater emphasis on the purpose of power, on the ends we hope to achieve, and on the way that power is exercised on our behalf.”
Presumably, here as anywhere, candidates are elected because they have something to offer.
But how is an opposition member supposed to offer anything, when they are treated as the enemy, and their concerns are endlessly derided as worthless or stupid?
Brown says partisan battles, “perpetuate a ‘politics-as-war’ mindset that frustrates constructive post-election relationships that could help to improve informed decision making.”
The villain in the piece? “It is petty, partisan politics and a lack of political will to change,” Brown writes. “We need to change that. We need to develop a more contemporary political culture that is less
ideological, less polarized, more assertive, more collaborative and more attuned to the drivers of social change that are forcing and limiting governments’ political choices.”
Amen to that. Fairly frequently, you hear that government committees in this province — limited almost exclusively to an annual review of government estimates — have a far more collegial atmosphere. The opposition members ask questions without theatrics or finger-pointing, and the ministers (or their senior public servants) answer those same questions matter-of-factly, and, dare I say it, even politely.
Judging from the buildup and tone of recent comments from politicians about Muskrat Falls, can we expect collegial or combative in the upcoming House debate?
Unfortunately, what’s coming will be a long way from Brown’s “less ideological, less polarized, more assertive (and) more collaborative” government.
It will be the politics of hate and disdain — in other words, business as usual.
And the chance of having any new and open-minded examination of the real issue at hand?
It’s common sense, really. Think of it this way: you’ve been publicly at war with your sister for 15 years — would you openly take her advice on how to raise your kids?
The opposition may or may not get its say. The government will certainly get its way.
But will we, as the electorate, be any better off for it? Or will we have a wasted opportunity to do something differently?
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.