Even the CBC morning show host didn’t quite know what to make of it all. The normally unflappable Anthony Germain had to admit, at the end of his show, that he was somewhat in shock. Let’s hope that the provincial New Democratic Party does figure it out, though, before too much damage is done. This is bigger than they may realize.
On Monday of this week the CBC broke a story emanating from an email that was sent, on behalf of four of the elected NDP members to the fifth, their leader. There’s some expressed confusion about the intent of the letter but in either case it calls for the present leader to step down and make room for some sort of leadership review. The leader was taken by surprise. She had, in fact been out of the country—a personal matter—when the events leading up to this happened.
The reaction to the news of the letter was generally negative. The leader was clearly hurt by being informed in such a public way and the general public mostly supported her, seeing the remaining four in a generally negative light as a result.
On Wednesday morning, one of the four, M, spoke to the media, expressing deep regret over the decision to sign the letter, along with the others. Germain, who was clearly fairly comfortable with M asked several frank questions including: whether M saw the actions as gutless; how he felt about the current leader; and who, exactly was behind it. M, to his credit did not put out any of the bluster popular stereotypes have led us to expect from politicians when asked difficult questions. No, he admitted to his own frailties and, more than anything else, made it clear that the events were weighing heavily on his conscience. He indicated that it had not been his idea, but, maybe, that of K, another of the four. He also indicated that he wanted to wash himself of the whole thing. Whether he outright stated it or whether Germain’s relentless questions led the generally-trusting M to that conclusion is a matter of debate. At any rate the listener was left thinking it was likely that K was the instigator.
Shortly after, and during the same show, K called in to state his side of the story. Unlike M, K did not try and absolve himself of responsibility for the letter but he did indicate that at least some of the impetus for writing it in the first place came not from him, but from M. He went on to say that the leader was not handling it well and should instead call an emergency meeting. The phone-in lasted a few minutes but did get a bit intense when Germain asked, several times, why K, the person Germain figured who started the mess, was so worried about the leader now doing the right thing.
It seems that quite a few listened intently to the story. Our province’s current political climate is, as usual, tense. Politics here is the provincial pastime; a full contact no-holds-barred sport. The PC party, currently in power, has not been doing well at the poles of late. The Liberal party (#2) has been making strides at the expense of the PCs. The NDP (#3) were, also, for the first time, a credible alternative. With eyes on an election in 2015 it was, in all likelihood, too close to call.
Now the confusion. Let’s start with the obvious: the NDP, despite having a fair bit of public support, has never enjoyed luck at the polls. The last election, even though they had a higher proportion of the popular vote than did the Liberals, they only won 5 of the 48 seats, only good enough for 3rd place. This, though, was their best showing ever. In some minds this was an indication that the party was on the rise. With the PCs popularity on the wane, maybe they could even secure the majority next time round. This series of events, though, jeopardizes all that. With the obvious dissent among the members—after all, with two of the four blaming each other it’s not just about the leader any more—the other two parties are obviously hoping for a meltdown.
But, you know what, that’s not what really concerns me. I am not a member of that party, after all. Two other things are, perhaps, even more disturbing.
The first is the nature of the outcry from the general public. As always, there are many opinions but the aggregate can only be classified as confusing. Consider two cases.
M chose to let down his guard and to show remorse. One would think that’s something to admire, right? Not if you judge based on the many written comments you see on the website and on social media. Apparently, therefore, he’s weak and incompetent (not my opinion). Based on reaction to M, the public wants its politicians to be strong, to make the hard decisions, to stick the knife in any which way and then to feel no remorse.
K, instead, chose to wear it. While he does not accept sole responsibility for the letter he does wish to stand by the essential message: the party needs a leadership review. Apparently, therefore, he’s a back-stabbing Judas (not my opinion). Based on the reaction to K, the public wants its politicians to be kind to one another; to seek compromise and to try first to talk things out before summarily ousting opponents.
Polar opposites; irreconcilable! Is it possible that much of the outcry and criticism is not really about the actions of the four at all? As previously mentioned, politics in NL is blood sport and clearly there’s an appetite for some general mayhem right now. The real reasons? OK, outrage at what certainly seems an injustice—you can have that one BUT, let’s add a few. How about: (1) partisan stuff—some of this is just mudslinging on behalf of those who support one of the other two parties (2) sadism—try as we might, civilization just can’t seem to get past its fascination with watching others suffer. All five are on the ropes now and there are some who just want to watch while it continues.
Whatever others do is, of course, their own business but you can’t help but think that merely criticizing politicians regardless of what they do, in the end, helps nobody. It instead drags the conversation down to the lowest levels—places where nobody takes anything seriously; where nothing really ever changes for the better.
It’s particularly scary to think that public opinion and policy may just be affected by those mostly noxious, thoughtless and incongruent thoughts, isn’t it?
There’s another thing that’s equally bothersome: the way the party handles this may set the tone for other, future, conflicts. Politics tends to have a nasty element in it. Rather than do better deeds or present better ideas many would much rather destroy. While learning to run faster is one good way to win a race, crippling your opponents is an equally effective strategy; one that is becoming increasingly popular–witness the rise of attack ads in recent elections.
Helped along, perhaps,by the intervention of the media significant exchanges related to the letter have taken place in public and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Yes, increased government transparency is something we all want but THIS is not it. It is not a public matter at all but, rather, one confined to the NDP. It is one that should be settled within the environs of the party and not out there for all to see. By allowing the exchanges to be so public: (a) the credibility of the whole party is suffering (b) egos are being dragged in unnecessarily and doing irreparable damage to relationships (c) worst of all people are getting the incorrect message that this is how it should happen. That hurts us all. Public affairs are messy enough as it is and the desired end goal of “Civil Conversations” will never happen if society expects that every single internal matter is to become a public spectacle.
Do you know what’s saddest about all of this? All five involved are good people; skillful, hard workers with solid track records of public service. There should be no doubt that all of them acted in what they thought was in the best interest of the party. Ironic, I suppose.
For the past several days this story has dwarfed all others in the province of NL. No doubt it is a time that will be referred to frequently in future political science and history publications. One wonders will the story be about the time the NDP fell to ego and pride then subsequently self-destructed or about the time it decided to rely on wisdom, patience and trust and, in the end, emerged stronger than ever.