Wednesday, July 05, 2006

David Emerson
Feb. 17, 2006

The funny thing is, I’m feeling a bit sorry for David Emerson.
Not that I wouldn’t be spitting furious at the man had I been a Liberal voter in his Vancouver riding. But his genuinely shell-shocked response in the days since he crossed the floor to become a Conservative cabinet minister has nonetheless been painful to watch.
Sometimes, political parties are so similar in their platforms that a defection from one to the other is be news.
But there are significant differences between Canada’s Liberal and Conservative parties these days. If you voted for the guy whose party was supportive of gay marriage and social programs and then watched him morph into exactly the political rep you didn’t want - if you heard him promise to be “Stephen Harper’s worst nightmare” if elected - you’d have every right to be apoplectic right about now, especially with it all playing out just two weeks after you voted for the guy. And imagine how angry Conservative voters must be.
Still, you have to feel just a little for a guy who clearly never even saw it coming. Emerson appears to have had no idea that people were going to be outraged at his transforming into a Tory mere days after they voted him in as a Liberal. He was, as my elderly ex-pat Scots uncle might say, gob-smacked.
It’s no defence, of course. But Emerson being gob-smacked by the public reaction to his defection is the really interesting part of the story. How could a smart guy like him not know what would happen to a man who was elected on a platform of hating Conservatives, only to become one himself two weeks later?
It would all be quite unbelievable, were it not for the fact that Emerson barely has a whit of actual political experience. His background is in the background - as a deputy minister, and then a well-regarded businessman. The possibility of being voted off the island isn’t something he’s had to consider.
And so Emerson fell on his face, and in grand fashion. He may function well in his own world, but that wasn’t where he was operating. So when Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked him to dump his newfound Liberal friends and be a Conservative cabinet minister instead, Emerson appears to have given nary a thought to the tremendous political price he would pay for his indifferent betrayal of voters.
Finding the middle ground between running the business of Canada while still respecting a democratic process isn’t easy. Governments have a great deal to learn from people whose skills lie outside of politics, and a guy like Emerson is an obvious choice for cabinet if you’re looking for someone who knows how to run things.
But Canada isn’t the corner office. The voter ultimately chooses.
In this case, they did choose Emerson, but as a Liberal. Did he think the political principles he was espousing during the election campaign were nothing more than words from his mouth? In a way, both parties perhaps encouraged that in him, because first one and then the other recruited him with little concern for whether his political beliefs - and really, what ARE his political beliefs? - were genuinely aligned with theirs.
And now here we are, probably heading into a Vancouver byelection if the momentum keeps building. Emerson is sweating it out every day in the headlines, each new story citing somebody else who’s really, really mad at him. He’ll certainly never underestimate the power of political displeasure again.
No one wants to see democracy threatened by political parties too arrogant to play by the rules. But at the same time, it’s unfortunate that our political system leaves us to be governed by whoever wins the popularity contest, because we sure could use some business smarts in the way we run our country. Running this business of Canada requires vision, wisdom and heart, and that may come down to being able to bring in fresh talent like Emerson without having to ensure he also passes muster politically.
But if Emerson’s skills are needed at the federal cabinet table, that’s a problem to be solved by Canadians addressing it directly. A tweak here, a tweak there - we’d be able to figure out how to do things differently. Bring it on.
Disenfranchising thousands of voters, on the other hand, is exactly how not to do it.
And that is what will linger about the defection. Whatever his intention, Emerson’s astounding inability to consider the wrath of his voters - and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s disregard for his party faithful - speaks to the great gulf that has developed between the government and Canadians.
The leaders of our country went ahead with their carefully laid plans as if Canadians’ opinions on any of it mattered not at all. Surely they have to know why we might be mad about that.

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