Non-partisan partisanship

The conversation about rebuilding the Liberal party has been dominated by two different narratives. The first is that there is no shortcut to power and that a sustained renewal will take modesty, hard work, and time, rather than just a new leader and more divisive partisanship. The second is that while we have to pay lip service to the first position, Harper has forced our politics into a presidential mode; since people voted for Harper or “Jack”, we can do nothing without a name of equal measure to put on the ballot. That second position, one which I have generally favoured, took a beating yesterday with the allegations surrounding the attempted recruitment of Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney. This is a bad situation so we should take this as an opportunity to redefine our rebuilding conversation so that something like this does not happen again.

I can understand, completely, the impulse to recruit Carney; from the Globe piece on the subject: “Mark Carney was cast as the perfect alternative to Justin Trudeau.” He is a substantial figure, trusted nationally and internationally, and he covered just about every flank the Liberal party needed shored up with his combination of Western roots, fiscal credentials, and charisma and likeability.  Even better than his impressive résumé  is the trust that he inspired in Canadians. In a relatively recent piece by Andrew Coyne, titled In Canada, credibility trumps power. And it isn’t even close, he writes that people trust Carney in a way that they wouldn’t trust a Prime Minister. This trust is “partly personal, partly institutional” and it means that we recognize Carney as a man of principle who puts public service above his own interests. And, much of this is true; Canadians do have a high opinion of Carney, likely much higher than their opinion of Harper, making him a very attractive candidate for leader (on paper). The problem that his Liberal boosters didn’t seem to consider was how fragile that trust could turn out to be.

Partisan politics has become very ugly and with that has come a need to keep certain institutions above the fray. The courts, the Governor General, the Bank of Canada; all of these need to be kept beyond reproach for our political conversation to function. And while our history has been by no means perfect when it comes to keeping these institutions non-partisan, generally they function as such and enjoy the credibility that Andrew Coyne outlined. It is difficult to overstate how bad a politicized Bank of Canada could have been and so after the piece in the Globe ran, the reactions were predictably strong. One of the best was the sustained (but completely lucid) outrage from Mike Moffatt on Twitter:

Why central bank independence is important. Carney, IMO, has been too tight with policy. Honest mistake or is he trying to sabotage the CPC?

— Mike Moffatt (@MikePMoffatt) December 15, 2012

If I’m the NDP, I’m questioning how non-partisan Carney’s Dutch Disease comments were.

— Mike Moffatt (@MikePMoffatt) December 15, 2012

We’ve seen what happens when monetary policy is used for partisan ends.It’s a disaster.As such needs to be avoided at all costs.

— Mike Moffatt (@MikePMoffatt) December 15, 2012

I know the LPC want to reform, but trying to become like the sleazier parts of the Nixon Administration is not a great direction.

— Mike Moffatt (@MikePMoffatt) December 15, 2012

It’s important to include the last point, the Nixon comparison, because of just how damning that accusation could have been. Stephen Gordon, writing in Maclean’s, took a similar position to Moffatt’s about the damage this could do, saying flatly, “if we are extremely lucky, this episode will be quickly forgotten.” To be clear here, I think this is the most likely outcome; Canadians seem to be forgiving about attempted shenanigans and I predict the response generally will be “no harm, no foul.” So I’m speaking to Liberals when I say we need to accept and understand just how bad this could have been. We’re reacting here to the possibility of a recruitment; an actual recruitment could have been a disaster.

From the Globe article, Carney is alleged to have be Frank McKenna’s choice for leader. That needs to sink in because that means we’re talking about the Messiah’s Messiah. But instead of the second coming, we’re left with pre-made attacks from both sides just waiting for him. Rather than a new direction with a Liberal saviour, there would be a direct link that could be made between him and every sin of which the Liberal party has ever been accused. In context, an attempt to rise above the ugliness of partisan politics may have succeeded only at tarring another good man with the same ugly brush. And this is the lesson: there’s no rising above it.

As much as I hate to see the Liberal party pulled through the mud on account of some “unnamed senior Liberals” (again), on balance, I would say the controversy that is emerging around the party’s failed recruitment of Mark Carney gives us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. We are not going to get past the leader-driven reality of our political conversation but we also can’t short-circuit it; credibility is not all that transferable. There is no eminent Canadian, beyond reproach, who can step forward and lead us back to the promised land. They will get pulled down into it. That’s why, if Carney is the anti-Trudeau, I support Justin Trudeau now more than ever. Our only hope is a fighter who can get in the mud and get dirty, clashing with the other parties, who at the end of the day will remember their principles after they win. That, right now, is the best we can offer Canadians.

This is the counter-intuitive lesson of this whole experience: if we want to be non-partisan, we have to be partisan first. If we want peace and electoral reform and cooperation, we have to fight for it first. The Liberal party is full of good people, passionate about their ideals, who want to do good for this country, but so are the other parties. We’ll keep having these kinds of problems, as long as we keep pretending.

We’re not above partisanship.

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3 Comments on “Non-partisan partisanship”

  1. Andrew F says:

    My concern is that partisanship destroys earnestness and altruism. A partisan movement that attains power seeks to preserve the system that delivered it.

    The CPC’s promises of reform and transparency were blown away by the corrosive partisanship of that organization and its leader. I don’t doubt the same will be true of Mulcair and his NDP. These are not models I would want to emulate.

  2. Woodrow says:

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    Many thanks for sharing!

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