Foot-in-mouth disease runs across party lines

Great leaders and great parties have many things in common.

Great leaders and great parties have many things in common. One of the unhappier things is the hidden enemy from within, the unwitting Trojan Horse that exists virtually unnoticed until the moment he or she can exact the greatest harm on the cause they claim to support.

What kind of things do they say? To give you a sense, let us pause for moment to reflect on these not-so-famous moments in Canadian politics:

“I think, as a Caucasian, I have an advantage. When different community leaders, such as a Sikh leader or a Muslim leader speaks, they really speak to their own people in many ways. As a Caucasian I believe that I can speak to all the community.” (1)

“I actually think one of the great stories that was missed by journalists was that Mr. Mulcair, with his arm twisted behind the scenes, helped to hasten Jack Layton’s death.” (2)

“Damn Americans. I hate those bastards.” (3)

9-1-1? We have a four-alarm situation going on in the House. Call in the backup.

The speaker of these and similar comments is the backbencher, often the mediocre intellect who has little chance of ever reaching cabinet, and has little value to the party, other than to show up and vote on command. They come in all political stripes, and they aren’t just old white guys, either. They can be women and they can be from any cultural background.

It might be unfair to call these people stupid, although there are critics who have done just that. Perhaps they are just people who can’t rein in their passion. Perhaps their personal ideologies or religious beliefs blind them to the consequences of their words. No matter. What does matter is that when the leader least expects it, the enemy from within slips a sabre between the shoulder blades.

Et tu, Rob?

In a different political environment — Stalinist Russia, for example — you might just march these dumdums out the back door, and reassign them to Siberia. And, let’s be honest, there are times when such a solution might seem to make a lot of sense.

But, of course, we live in a democracy. And that means that — love ’em or hate ’em a leader has to “dance with the one who brung ya,” to borrow the words of ex-PM Brian Mulroney, a man who had to scramble on occasion to control the damage from some loose-lipped ministers such as the incorrigible John Crosbie. Translation for Mulroney’s words: The MPs (or MLAs) who run in each riding are the ones who are going to help you form government. Your fortune rises and falls on their success. Think twice before you banish them from your team.

Now, there are examples of politicians who have gotten themselves evicted from caucus, but it is usually for defying party directives or engaging in some overtly unethical or illegal behaviour. In other words, by the time they’re tossed, there’s usually a good case for pushing them out the door.

It’s not so easy to exact punishment on someone who may simply show a shocking degree of cultural ignorance or who just can’t curb the impulse to speak before he or she thinks. Political parties that try to stifle internal dissent, or that discourage open expression of ideas, end up getting branded as censors. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been hit pretty hard by the media, for example, for exercising too much control over his MPs.

The irony is that no matter how much control a prime minister or premier tries to exercise, it’s damn near impossible to silence the loose cannons. They’re just too unpredictable.

But the consequences can be devastating. In the case of the first example above, Alberta’s Wildrose Party seemed destined to achieve an historic victory in this year’s provincial election. All leader Danielle Smith needed to do was to assure voters there was no hard-right socially conservative agenda lurking in the shadows. Candidate Ron Leech’s ignorant outburst undid all of the party’s hard work, and may well have single-handedly cost them the election.

I don’t have the solution to this problem for party leaders — if I did, I’d be a wealthy political consultant. But I do know that no one can succeed by trying to suppress dissent. The healthiest parties allow free-flowing internal debate, and encourage the expression of unconventional ideas.

The hope is that over time the best ideas and brightest minds rise to the top. As for the ignorant few? If they can’t figure out for themselves that they don’t really deserve the public’s trust, let us hope their constituents are willing to deliver the message.

And, if the voters fail to act, it might be time to reconsider that one-way ticket to Siberia.

THE OFFENDERS:

Alberta Wildrose party candidate Ron Leech, April 16, 2012, drives a spike through his party’s election bid.

Conservative federal MP Rob Anders, Oct. 1, 2012, embarrasses the prime minister, forcing the PMO to jump into immediate damage control.

Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish, on her way out of a meeting on February 26, 2003, the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief of Troy Media, and national affairs columnist.

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