Robyn Benson, PSAC

How to crititicize a politician


I’ve been idly following the verbal eruptions that followed Justin Trudeau’s infamous “Ladies Night,” not to mention his off-the-cuff remarks about China, and his star candidate in Toronto-Centre claiming Sarah Palin as a “true feminist role model,” and trying to get a sense of what it all means.

The commentary has ranged from reasonable to downright vicious, and it got me thinking. Canadians for some time have been lamenting the cheapening of political discussion in this country, and I think they’re on to something, but suppose we take that critique a step further. Do politicians themselves, too often the targets of cheap rhetoric, offer less than they did once upon a time? Are they part of the problem?

What do we want from them? That was an easy question once. Politicians (other than Senators) are people whom we have elected to represent us, and who are accountable to us. We have expected them to stand for certain principles and policies, and remain true to them. Some do better at this than others: at their best, though, they can inspire as well as carry out their duties on our behalf.

These days, however, things don’t seem so clear. Now it’s too much about image, optics, and talking-points. Politicians can go an astonishingly long way on appearance alone, and an ability to memorize “the message.” Don’t look for substance, or you’ll be disappointed.

On the other hand, maybe we get the politicians we deserve. It’s not that they all lack quality by any means, but political life at present doesn’t necessarily encourage the best and the brightest to get involved. There has been a marked decline in civility—the courteous expression of differences, a willingness to consider other points of view, and the boldness to express new ideas and communicate a vision of the future rather than to attack opponents.

Politics is a rough-and-tumble occupation: no one expects it to be a hand-holding exercise. But there should be rules. Civil discussion allows for the free exchange of opinions and information. It allows for the occasional gaffe—I stress the word “occasional”—and for apologies where called for, without those apologies being seen as a sign of weakness.

All of us who have been elected to various positions of leadership in the labour movement have encountered criticism, sincere, well-intended, sometimes sharply phrased. It’s not only a way of keeping us accountable: it helps us navigate, it informs us, it brings new information and ways of thinking that can only be to the benefit of both leaders and rank-and-file members.

The best criticism doesn’t hold back on matters of substance. But—as readers of comment threads on online newspaper articles know very well—there is that other criticism, too: rude, insulting, sometimes verging on slander, where the object is to tear down rather than to engage. This, too, goes with the territory; it’s an occupational hazard. But when it overwhelms the serious airing of differences by concerned members, it can hollow out any notion of solidarity. It can also be profoundly discouraging to those activists who might be considering a run for office, whether it be at the Local, Component or national levels. And it can paralyze us in moments of crisis.

We’re facing extraordinarily tough times ahead, and there will be more than a few anxious moments for all of us. Nerves will fray, and tempers will rise. Our opponents will do their level best to divide us against ourselves—which is what the current “union boss” slur from the President of Treasury Board is all about. But we are a democratic organization, and so long as we keep our channels of communication open, and remember how important solidarity is and will be, we can and we will prevail.

We should be unafraid of our differences. Solidarity doesn’t mean only one permissible opinion. But at the end of the day, we have more in common than not. Building on that shared sense of purpose is what makes us strong. We should pay heed to the current state of federal politics, and take a lesson from it. We have always demanded respect from the employers—but respect begins at home.

Let’s engage, at every level of our Union, and have the intense discussions over strategy that we need to have. As a part of that process, criticism is not to be discouraged, but welcomed. Like other PSAC leaders, I may have my own views, but no views, certainly not mine, are forever set in stone as our circumstances rapidly change. Speak out! We’re listening, and all of us are continuing to learn. Surely that’s what serious politics, and politicians, should be all about.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on November 15, 2013 8:30 AM.

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