Robin V. Sears (The Toronto Star):
Politics is defined by dialogue. Successful politicians know how to listen, to respond respectfully and through that dialogue, learn. Some Canadian politicians’ increasing fascination with steely message discipline at the expense of listening or respectful response is dangerous for democratic dialogue — and, often, for their own careers.
In 40 years of training candidates, leaders and corporate executives in communication one thing has always been true: merely pounding memorized lines into a student’s head is dumb, and sets them up to fail.
Successful political dialogue requires listening and empathy. When a constituent tells you of their grief, their dreams or their anger you may not respond with rote defensive talking points.
This week we saw the culmination of this dumb and demagogic approach to politics in the self-destruction of Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.
There is no excuse for the appalling response that Alexander offered CBC’s new election star Rosemary Barton. Nor for his surly defensive nonsense about the government’s record on refugees. His scowling adolescent attack on the media for its failure to give the story adequate attention would have been laughable if it were not so appalling. Especially in the face of the mounting human tragedy and the Canadian — and international — failure to respond adequately to it.
His return the next night, after being summoned to Ottawa by his masters, clearly put through hours of message training “refreshment” was less disastrous in performance but more damaging in substance. He told a series of whoppers that will now be fact-checked and return to bite him and the government.
But spare a moment of sympathy for this young politician so publicly failing his first public crisis. Alexander was an intelligent and experienced international diplomat. Before his entry into politics he was hailed as among our “best and brightest” for his work in Afghanistan and as an innovative thinker on the new realities facing Canadian foreign policy. He was capable of self-deprecating humour, empathetic responses to the tragedies he had witnessed, and even an ability to take sincere critical advice in public.
As one friend put it, he must have been given a Pierre Poilievre blood replacement treatment, so thoroughly have they crushed his humanity. Since becoming minister he has spoken in a wooden, angry snarl in interview after interview. Perhaps frustrated at the nonsense he has been instructed to deliver, he repeats it in a surlier tone. Few of us are able to be smiling, convincing liars in public. It is perhaps a testament to the angst he feels about the role he has been ordered to play that he does it so woefully.
The refugee story looks as if it might now become the pivot issue of the campaign. It speaks to the deep humiliation that many Canadians have come to feel about the harsh vision of Canada the Harper government flaunts to the world. (Alexander’s TV meltdown made the BBC’s front page online.) It speaks to their ferocious defensive attack in response to any criticism from any quarter. And it underlines how far their mean-spirited response to this crisis is from the values of a majority of Canadians.
Consider for a moment the impact on those perceptions of this government and its disastrously performing minister, if they had responded as politicians who understand the importance of listening, of empathy and of dialogue. If Alexander had performed as he would have 10 years ago before being put through the Tory war machine’s brainwashing, its tone-deaf message machine training:
“Like every Canadian tonight, I grieve at the horrible deaths, the fate of members of the Kurdi family on the shores of Turkey.
Like many people watching tonight, I looked at that photo of their lifeless son, Alan, lying like a broken doll on the sand, and I confess, I sat down and I cried …
I called the prime minister immediately. His reaction was that of a husband and father first, and then he said, “Chris, get me some thoughts on how we can do better, how we can do more, by the morning. This is unacceptable, to me and to our values as Canadians.
I called my department, told them I would be there in a few hours, and we worked all night to ensure we could respond quickly and powerfully to this mounting tragedy. Here’s what the prime minister has ordered us to do … Let me close by saying this. We could have, and we and the world should have, done more. We have acted too slowly, we have not been innovative enough or forceful enough in pushing the changes required to be able to rescue more families. That changes today. I will be reporting weekly to Canadians on our progress.”