Ten Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

In TV’s political drama West Wing, C. J. once bemoaned a trivial incident being reported as news and said, “Everybody’s stupid in an election year.” Charlie replied, “No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year.” With the first debate in Canada’s long electoral slog heading toward the October vote now over and the campaign gathering steam, sadly, it appears that C. J. was correct. But there remains time to change. Canadians can enjoy the campaign they deserve if party leaders obeyed the following rules:

10 Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

(Photo: kelownalakecountry.liberal.ca)

  1. Don’t call us voters or taxpayers. We are citizens. Citizenship is a profound concept that informs our collective identity, individual rights, and responsibilities to others. Don’t cheapen citizenship’s nobility by confusing it with voting and paying taxes. They are merely two of its duties.
  1. Don’t tell us we’re choosing a prime minister. We’re not Americans picking a president or Human Resource directors involved in a hiring. Rather, we’re architects designing a House. The 338-member House we create will decide which party enjoys its confidence and that party’s leader will become ours.
  1. Don’t deride coalitions. Canada fought the First World War with Borden’s coalition government. In 2010, Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders negotiated a coalition that successfully and responsibly governed Britain for five years. Coalitions are a legitimate option in any parliamentary democracy.
  1. Don’t offer false choices. The most obvious example is the old chestnut of picking either a thriving economy or sustainable development. Respected scientists and economists have argued for years that we can have both or neither.
  1. Don’t employ terms without definitions. Promising tax changes for the rich and middle class without defining either invites cynicism. Promises to help families are similarly shallow when the concept of family is so broad.
  1. Don’t try to scare us. We know that foreign policy discussions must involve Canada’s support for aid, international justice, environmental stewardship, and fair trade. We know we must sometimes go to war. Please don’t pretend that foreign policy is about nothing more than tempering liberty to battle terrorism that, after all, is not an enemy but a tactic.
  1. Don’t bribe us with our money. Monthly cheques for this program or that are just dribbles of our cash that you held for awhile. Come tax time, you’ll get part of it back again anyway. We are not children and our money is not your candy.
  1. Don’t devalue social media. If you shade the truth or outright lie, change your message in various regions, or contradict a previously stated principle, we’ll know instantly. We’ll know before you can react or spin. Your TV ads won’t save you because fewer of us watch them than follow Twitter and Facebook.
  1. Don’t underestimate us. Kim Campbell once said that campaigns are not a time to discuss complicated issues. The unusual length of this campaign offers a unique opportunity to prove her wrong. Trust our intelligence and attention spans by engaging us with complex ideas and grand visions. We just may surprise you.
  1. Don’t forget character. Impress us by your ability to rise above empty slogans, staged events, sophomoric behaviour, and bully tactics. Speak not at us but with us. Speak with journalists who inform us. We all suffer slips of the tongue so if you commit a verbal gaffe, apologize and move on. Relax. A leader’s most important attribute is not a bursting war chest, lists of promises, strict adherence to a script, or even, forgive me, nice hair. Leadership is about character. In fact, that’s all it’s about. Show it. We’ll recognize it. We’ll reward it.

West Wing’s Leo McGarry once said, “We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.” We respect all those working to earn a seat in our House. Just imagine if party leaders, in turn, respected us by obeying the ten rules and adopting McGarry’s goal as their guide. We could then engage in a campaign worthy of Canadians.

If you liked this, please send it to others through Facebook or your social media of choice. This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, and Maclean’s online.

It’s Time to Put R. B. Bennett on the Hill

It’s Time to Put Bennett on the Hill                                                       

History matters. It is the stories we tell ourselves and others about whom we are and who we aspire to be. Among the important ways we tell those stories are through the monuments we erect on Parliament Hill; the lawn outside our House. Sir John is there. So are Diefenbaker and Laurier, the Queen, the Famous Five, and more. But Parliament Hill’s story is incomplete for it is without a statue of Prime Minister R. B. Bennett. He deserves to be there. We need him there for visitors to ponder his life and contributions as reflections of the values we cherish as Canadians.

Bennett was a remarkable man. Born to a poor New Brunswick family, he was a school principal by age 19. Wanting more, he attended law school. Senator James Lougheed was so impressed with the young student that he offered a full partnership so that Lougheed-Bennett was born in the Wild West boomtown of Calgary. Bennett was soon president of several companies and on the boards of more. Through hard work, connections and good luck he became a multi-millionaire. But he was never inspired or impressed by wealth. He owned neither a car nor, until retirement, a house. He gave nearly all of his money to individuals, charities, schools and universities.

Bennett was an engaged citizen. He believed in the nobility of public service. He was a city counsellor, territorial representative, and then a member of Alberta’s provincial parliament. He was the first leader of the Alberta Conservative Party. He won a federal seat and served in cabinet. In 1927 he became leader of the federal Tories and then, in 1930, Canada’s prime minister – the first, but not the last from Calgary.

After suffering defeat in 1935, Bennett was an effective opposition leader for two years but then fulfilled a life-long dream and retired to England. The Second World War drew him back to public service. He led the preparation of the Royal Air Force by coordinating the building of planes and air strips. Churchill rewarded him with an appointment to the House of Lords where he worked hard to prepare for the post-war years.

Bennett was a transformational leader. He became prime minister just as the Great Depression was entering its darkest days. The Red Tory principles that he had espoused throughout his life led to policies that respected the positive power of capitalism and a constructive role for government.

Bennett’s government provided immediate relief for those in need and then restructured the economy to mitigate the impacts of future economic calamities. He modernized unemployment insurance, established a minimum wage and limits on work hours, extended federally-backed farm credit, enacted anti-monopoly legislation, and saved thousands of farms with a revamped Wheat Board. He wrestled control of monetary policy from chartered banks with the establishment of the indispensable Bank of Canada. To protect and promote Canadian culture and national unity, Bennett formed the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission that became the CBC.

His legacy also includes increased trade with a host of countries and a trade deal with America that was enacted weeks after he left office. He negotiated a treaty that later served as the framework for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Bennett’s bold actions led to a reinterpretation of the constitution that allowed the creation of many of the social policies which Canadians now proclaim as their birthright.

Bennett was not a perfect prime minister. There is no such thing. He was not a perfect human being – none of us are. But he was a remarkable man, a generous philanthropist, an engaged citizen and a transformational leader. His contributions, principles, and the questions his life forces us to ponder helps us understand ourselves and our country. R. B. Bennett’s story deserves to be a larger part of our collective story. We should begin our consideration of its place and lessons by placing a commemorative statue of R. B. Bennett on Parliament Hill.

(For more on R. B. Bennett see Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation (Goose Lane Editions) available at: amazon.ca and chapters.indigo.ca

(This was published as an op. ed. column in Ottawa’s Hill Times on April 28, 2014)