By Allan Gregg, Chairman of Harris-Decima, in Globe and Mail, December 19, 2011
For most of my adult life, I’ve worked with political leaders and marvelled at how otherwise funny, thoughtful men and women can be transformed at the podium into blustering B.S. machines. They pillory opponents with hyperventilated allegations, feign outrage at modest grievances and take exaggerated credit for shared accomplishments. Especially painful is their complete lack of appreciation of the public’s incredulous response.
Polling backs this up: Most Canadians no longer believe their leaders speak the truth; they expect little of government and feel disengaged from the whole political process. Asked this year how often a typical politician would tell the absolute truth when making public statements, four out of 10 claimed less than 50 per cent of the time. Put another way, almost half believe that, any time politicians speak, there’s only a 50/50 chance they’ll be told the truth.
Yet, it’s the truth and authenticity we crave, more than anything. Citizens have become saturated with authenticity in their day-to-day lives. Consider the explosion of technologies and the freedom and control they provide: We’re no longer limited to “banker’s hours,” can access video on demand and get breaking news in real time. TripAdvisor and Chowhound have replaced travel agents and restaurant critics, while Facebook and Twitter have increased the intimacy and immediacy of our connections with one another.
Feeling more knowledgeable, connected and in control of our personal lives has also directly reduced our reliance on authority. As a result, we have little incentive to uncritically swallow the claims of political leaders who don’t seem to understand our concerns, share our experiences or speak in a way we find authentic. Our political leaders have not only failed to adjust to this new reality, they also avoid honestly and directly engaging on our most pressing issues. And that’s what we desperately need.
What if someone stood up and said: “Because our treasured health-care system is not sustainable in its present form, we need to offer more services through the private sector.” Or: “Although we must invest in green technologies and alternative energy, for the foreseeable future, our responsibility to the planet and future generations requires us to monetize and tax carbon.” Or: “New Canadians are falling behind; their sense of ‘belonging as Canadians’ is shrinking and cracks are beginning to show in our multicultural fabric.”
Based on experience, I think I can safely predict that such statements would be roundly pilloried by journalists and opponents alike – even though those very critics also know that current approaches are unsustainable.
And yet I believe that, in today’s environment, telling the naked truth can be good politics. How else do you explain a socially progressive Muslim being elected the mayor of Cowtown (Calgary, Alberta), and a leather-lunged know-nothing capturing the imagination of Canada’s cultural and intellectual epicentre (Toronto, Ontario)?
It was the unapologetic uniqueness of Naheed Nenshi and Rob Ford that made them seem more authentic and believable. Even more remarkably, in both Calgary and Toronto, the percentage of eligible voters who went to the polls increased by almost two-thirds over the previous municipal election. In fact, low turnout is a rational voter response to choices that matter little. If politicians stand for nothing and avoid the truth, why would you bother voting? When politics is made to matter by politicians who represent an authentic alternative to the other available choices, the evidence suggests that voters engage.
We could do worse than to echo the prescription offered by Rex Murphy during the last federal election. In a vintage rant, he exhorted politicians to throw out the scripts and really talk to people. End the ads and deal with the three most important issues at length. And tell us why your party is right, not why the others are wrong and evil.
Authenticate truth-telling in a country so anal and change-resistant as Canada, would be like telling a six-year-old there really is No Santa Claus. We fret over the most minuscule of pettiness and we bumble on when dealing with real crises. Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson is pilloried for taking 50 prominent Canadians on a tour through "northern countries, at taxpayer expense, when seeking common ground, common markets, common interests in community-building and social programs would predictably converge in such countries. Demonstrating to leading Canadians, too, that we are indeed a northern country, is more than worth doing, given its neglect for the last century.
Currently, with over 100 First Nation communities suffering the indignity of inadequate or unavailable housing, health care, education, clean water and employment, we send in another bureaucratic accountant, putting the reserve under 'third party management'....and shift the conversation to the $90 million already spent on that reserve.
Our media, including our pollsters, our lobbyists and our political elite are so incestuously entwined that no member of the elite would dare to "bring truth to power" in a "gloves-off" kind of way, a condition necessary for the mold to be broken, in order for a new one to have a chance to find fertile ground. Long-time media talking heads now sit in the Senate, at Harper's pleasure; those are the same people whose grooming included decades on public and private television where "conventionality, and respectability, and moderation" are the glue fastening any talking head to his/her anchor chair.
Evan Solomon (CBC's Power and Politics) even brags about never been "unfair" while touting his "toughness"....as if to say that CBC refuses to have an opinion lest it lose the confidence of the Harper gang, and thereby its funding. We want to know your opinion on "X" but we will never offer our own!
Because to do so would be to violate some unwritten charter of "mediocrity" rather than to cross the line into calling spades, shovels.
Sun television will be immediately referenced to disprove my point. And we all know that the heads there are filled with straw so what emerges will be little more than straw-dust.
When those teaching journalism demand "balance" in their students, when they cover stories, that is a good thing. One opinion, in favour, requires the balancing of another that opposes.
However, articulate writers, and editorialists, constitute an integral organ of the public discourse. They are dedicated to sharing opinions that do not swim well with the establishment; they are leading a discourse from both research and courage, the research that brings little known or unknown facts to the table, and sees them through a lens that is also unavailable in conventional political discourse.
We will not have truth-telling, and authenticate political discourse unless and until the editors, publishers and show directors and producers regain their individual and collective spines, enabling them to call a spade a shovel even if and when it makes some people squirm.
Certainly there is a current government that is offering a forest of unpicked apples of "material" for journalists and editorialists and interviewers and radio and television hosts to feast upon. And we should not have to rely on Ron James, and formerly Dave Broadfoot, and intermittently, Rick Mercer in his outstanding Rant, to provide the meagre diet of controversial opinion, in a country starved for both healthy political debate and authenticity...as an integral part of a healthy citizen diet.