Telling the naked truth is good politics

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinion
Published Monday, Dec. 19, 2011.    Allan Gregg

Even someone with only a passing interest in current affairs would know our political leaders are in big trouble. Each night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart runs a clip of a politician speaking and, without the benefit of any backstory or punchline, merely arches an eyebrow in response, and the audience erupts in gales of laughter.

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, and a leather-lunged know-nothing capturing the imagination of Canada’s cultural and intellectual epicentre?

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.

We all have the right to our own opinions, but we don’t have the right to our own facts. The idea that you can no longer speak the truth with impunity, that government doesn’t matter, or that repairing trust in our public figures and institutions is an impossible task is just plain wrong. And those who suggest otherwise must be challenged.

Allan Gregg, chairman of Harris/Decima, delivered the2011 Gordon Osbaldeston Lecture at the Public Policy Forum’s dinner in Ottawa last month.

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