A quick glance at my Canadian politics post archives illustrates how much I’ve gone off politics on this blog. Part of it is that I have a new outlet, thanks to the Kitchener Post, and part of it is weariness. I’ve said a lot in the past ten years, and in some ways I’ve begun to repeat myself. So I’ve found myself slipping into a bit of a dormant period, politically speaking, though I do look back fondly when I was more engaged.
So I was surprised when I received an e-mail from the campaign team working to have Gerard Kennedy replace Dalton McGuinty as leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and premier of Ontario.
Dear Mr. Bow -
Hope you are well. I am a volunteer on the Gerard Kennedy campaign and one of our supporters Calgary Grit recommended you as a smart, interesting commentator on many Canadian issues.
We have some openings in our media schedule tomorrow between 2pm and 6pm and were wondering if you’d be interested in a 15 to 20 minute phone interview with Gerard. Sky’s the limit in terms of material. Really just looking to break outside of the strictly partisan din to give a chance for more general political and online journalists like yourself to pose questions on stances or any issues important to you.
Calgary Grit is a bit of a blast from the past, a fellow blogger when the Canadian political blogosphere was a much tighter-knit community, and one whom I still owe a beer to. I remember now that he had committed himself to the Gerard Kennedy campaign before. This meant (and means) a lot to me because Calgary Grit — or Dan Arnold, as his mother named him — is one of the least partisan Liberals I ever had the pleasure of knowing. He is a passionate supporter of his party but he is never afraid to admit mistakes, or call out his party when they do wrong. That gave me (and gives me) a lot of trust in his endorsements. His endorsement of Gerard Kennedy is more valuable to me than any major politician. And I am flattered that he remembers me and recommended me.
So, I felt this was an opportunity. I’d never conducted an interview with a major politician about politics before. And I had concerns about the direction the Ontario Liberals were taking and I was interested in seeing how Gerard Kennedy would address those concerns. And the campaign had given me complete independence in this interview. I was not told to send them my questions, or vet them in any way. So I made an appointment, and tried to put together a service that could record the phone conversation on my iPhone (this proved to be more difficult than I expected. More on that in another post). Mr. Kennedy called me, and we talked for a good fifteen minutes or so. And indeed, he had a lot to say.
Unfortunately, my call recording system almost completely failed. Fortunately, I was prepared in case the system failed, and was madly trying to type out Mr. Kennedy’s words as he said them. Unfortunately, while Mr. Kennedy is a very clear and erudite speaker, he is also a fast speaker, and it had been some time since I’d practiced my speed-typing. So I struggled a little to put together a coherent transcript of the discussion. I believe I have covered most of what Mr. Kennedy said in the way that he said it. Some material was cut and some reworded for clarity, and the Kennedy campaign asked me to make no changes.
The transcript is below:
Q: Mr. Kennedy, you have stated that you hoped to recall Queen’s Park immediately if you are elected leader of the Liberal Party and premier of Ontario.
A: “My view of prorogation is that it must be used as an administrative tool only. We need to be accountable to the House as the lead party and we need to make the House available. I’m making it clear that no other agenda should belay that. There are precedents for new leaders of sitting governments being sworn in and running in by-elections concurrently. It is more important that the democratic process take place.”
Q: If I recall correctly, restarting the legislature requires a throne speech to be read and passed and that’s a confidence motion. Do you expect that either of the opposition parties will allow the throne speech to pass, or do you expect that we’ll be having an election this coming spring?
A: “Those are questions best left to the opposition in the sense of what their decision is to be. I think they recognize that a major decision was made by Mr. McGuinty and they understand that Ontarians have a desire for some fair play. To what extent this enables the parties to work together, that’s up to them, not to me. The public returned a minority government. The parties have had difficulty cooperating, but there are other ways to try. There are other ways to get people seated at the table. There’s room right now to get rid of some of the poison and adversarial atmosphere in what I hope the opposition will recognize as fair. I can’t speak for them, obviously, but I’ll bring a new approach and we’ll see how successful that will be. That’s my first choice and, I think, the preference of the public.”
Q: Mr. Kennedy, I think my greatest concern about Ontario politics is how polarized things have become. If we look at the map of the province, we see that the Liberal brand is strongest only in the urban areas. The Conservatives have a lock on rural southern Ontario, and the NDP hold most of northern Ontario. No one seems to have room to grow unless they step outside these boundaries. What do you see as the best way to grow your voting base and how do you intend to take the Liberal party back to majority government?
A: “If you don’t mind, I am going to start by, in some ways, not accepting the premise of your question. I agree wholeheartedly that what you described has happened, but I don’t think that good politics is about tactically growing the base — I think that’s part of the problem. I want to change the dynamic.
“So, for example, I think we need to give up some of the power of the leader to a larger voice for members of the caucus and MPPs. I feel that the legislature as a whole should express some of that diversity across the province that is now exclusive to some of the parties.
“We have to do this if we are to drive towards a consensus among that diversity, and not come up with some kind of mushy set of policies that please certain bases. I note that most of the important things that have been achieved by the Liberal Party, from medicare, to ((the Canada Pension Plan)), to some of our education policies, has come round to being accepted broadly, when they weren’t necessarily accepted by everyone right at the beginning.
“I believe that’s the role we need to play to rebuild, and I don’t think we should have just favoured audiences for that. I believe there’s a fair-minded coalition out there, who acknowledge that there is a role for government, but who don’t believe that the government should get overly cumbersome. But the question is, what then? What kind of policies can we put into place that would, for example, offer young people some certainty as they graduate? How do we help people in these hard times and maintain their dignity?
“This is why I say, stop calling them “social programs” and call them “potential programs”, because in this time of really serious fiscal restraints, these are the things we need to try to hold out the promise of upholding people’s dignity more, and to cost the province less over time. And we don’t do this by micro-targetting. There’s a need to broaden the consensus, and get away from politics that demands devision.
“So, I’m with the public when they say we don’t want elections that aren’t necessary. Yes, the premier’s resignation changes the situation significantly, but most fair-minded Ontarians see the minority government as something that matters and they are looking for this change to be something that is good for them, not necessarily to just the Liberal Party.”
Q: Speaking specifically on northern Ontario, on September 28 I rode the last Ontario Northland passenger trains into and out of Union Station. On board, I heard a lot of northerners who were deeply displeased at what they saw as a series of governments in Queen’s Park that were largely ignoring northern issues. What, if any, are your plans to address the concern of northerners, and do you think it is possible for northerners to trust the Liberal Party enough, or any politician at Queen’s Park, to vote for it?
“A: I am looking at the Northland issue. I am looking at how well we’re dealing with the economic issues of the North. I grew up in a community north of 53 in Manitoba, and I recognize the need to respect these communities which provide so much of the GDP but don’t get their voices heard so much in government. I’ve not settled on what that respect can be. I am going north in a few days and holding some discussions with some people, and I think we have to deliver some specifics there that deal with community building.
“I understand that the Northland wasn’t entirely successful, but we need to find the best tools we can get behind and get behind them, because I do not abandon in any way the idea of a strong and growing North. But I am looking at what could deliver that. I’m not going to pretend to have arrived at that just yet, but it is an ambition that I hope people hold me to.
“I don’t think it should be a bidding war for the different things we can do. We need a more integrated approach. Australia and Scotland have done some very good integrated work on building and growing rural communities — the situation is not exactly the same here, but, it’s the sort of attention we need to give.
“I very much doubt that I will be able to reverse the decision regarding the Northland, but we can’t just cut services. If you take the school out, you’re not going to be able to attract the families. This is one reason I imposed a moratorium on the closure of rural schools when I was Minister of Education. We have to look at the quality of life issues that could well end up buttressing communities.”
Q: The last question is, you have the mike: what do you want to say to Ontarians as you look for their support to vote for you as premier?
A: “It’s time for a new politics that doesn’t take people out of the equation. Pretty much everything I’ve seen recently is that political leadership has been about a concentration of power. The average voter and the average MPP matters less. And one of the things I’m going to do about that is give up some of that power as leader. I am going to be accountable to my caucus and be subject even to recall.
“Steps like that assures people that they’re more likely to have their voice heard, and people will start to see a more obvious democracy. If the debate is confined to the caucus rooms, I think it hurts the process. So I’m going to put my fate in the hands of the members of the party and other elected officials and make more use of those caucus members and cabinet. You can’t drive to consensus without systematically engaging all the groups.
“I encourage everybody to get involved, to take a leap of faith and participate in the leadership selection process. Obviously, I hope people will vote for me, but honestly, I hope that people take that leap of faith and sign up and vote for whoever they most want to become Liberal leader, and I think they will be pleasantly encouraged by participating. Because ultimately, this is a democratic exercise, and it’s good, not just for the Liberal Party, but for all Ontarians, to have a say in how their government is run.
The Kennedy campaign did ask me to reiterate, as other campaigns are doing, that it is possible for any Ontarian to participate directly in the selection of the next premier of Ontario. It’s dead easy: you spend $10 to join the Ontario Liberal Party (you don’t have to stay a member), and then register to vote. All you have to do is prove that you live in Ontario, and are over 14. The deadline to do this is this Friday, November 23. And, as Warren Kinsella (who is supporting Sandra Pupatello) points out, this is a historic opportunity:
“Listen: being able to cast a direct vote for will be the next Premier of Ontario is something that doesn’t happen every week. The last Ontario Liberal leadership was 16 years ago. The last time the Ontario Liberal Party directly selected a sitting Premier was 60 years ago. So get involved now…”
I may be a centrist, but I am not a Liberal, so though I am tempted to join in and participate, it just doesn’t sit right with me when this is not my party. But I will say that I feel Gerard Kennedy said a lot of things that resonated with me.
I admit that I feel his thoughts on dealing with northern Ontario alienation were a little short on detail, but if indeed he is heading north to speak to people and come up with ideas, I encourage him to speak to a lot of people, and listen hard to those ideas. For northerners who haven’t seen all that many southern politicians these days, the kind words will be appreciated, especially if they’re backed up with actions.
I also like that Mr. Kennedy spoke out against the prorogation, and talked about giving the average MPP and the average voter more power. And the way he talked about breaking out of the blocs the province had fallen into — and for the good of the province, not necessarily the Liberal party — that means a lot.
It is refreshing to hear a politician advocate something other than the cynicism we hear these days. Whether or not Mr. Kennedy will be able to implement his vision remains to be seen. But I honestly wish him the best of luck.
P.S. One request, Mr. Kennedy? Please disable the video that automatically starts playing on the front page of your website? It’s a pet peeve of mine, but I don’t like it when my computer suddenly starts talking when I haven’t told it to start talking. And I don’t think I’m alone.