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The Shady Presence of Politics' Back Room Boys

Posted: 10/07/2013 1:58 am

Two recent reviews of Michael Ignatieff's new book, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, by two former political insiders reveals that the old backroom political dynamics in Canada are alive and well. It reminds us of Robert Caro's observation that, "You can use a biography to examine political power, but only if you pick the right guy."

Both Warren Kinsella and Scott Reid achieved success in their choices of the "right guy" in the past -- Kinsella assisted both former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, while Reid was deputy chief of staff under Prime Minister Paul Martin. Together they tag-team on a fairly vicious takedown of former Liberal leader Ignatieff. Their efforts remind us that the cutthroat machinations of the "old boy's club" in Canadian politics continues to use every opportunity to flex its muscles. They are present in every party and utilized by every leader.

Let me say at the outset that I worked with Michael Ignatieff for five years as a Liberal Member of Parliament and that I only briefly met Kinsella and Reid in my time in Ottawa. They were the shadow figures, lurking on the periphery with complex motivations that few could understand. What was clear, however, was that they were energized by the thought of power.

Kinsella takes the most direct route in his criticism of Ignatieff, going so far as labeling him the "treacherous aristocrat." He openly confesses he didn't come to critique the book but to "bury the man." Scott Reid takes on a more farcical tone, composing the alternate title, "Diary of a Dilettante" and accusing Ignatieff of lacking substance.

For whatever reason, these former kingmakers, having had their day, refuse to ride quietly over the horizon. But for all their expertise and experience, their veiled arrogance hints of the kind of political class thinking that increasingly repels the average citizen. The brutality of their language sounds exactly like the regular partisan rants that emanate from the House of Commons on any given day of the week. It is the old politics that sees voters turning away from the political space in droves.

What is indeed troubling is that both Kinsella and Reid appear tone deaf to all this. Theirs is language of "inside baseball," except that there's nothing secretive about writing in the public domain. By just doing what comes naturally, they reveal once more a political power elite that Canadians view as being little more than melodrama. Game of Thrones author, George R.R. Martin, reminds us of the threat inherent in such politics in A Clash of Kings: "Power resides only where men believe it resides ... A shadow on the wall, yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow."

There is a new democracy slowing emerging to fight such shadows, not only in Canada, but in other nations at present that is calling for increased respect, an instinct for cooperation, that is commensurate with the significant challenges faced by communities and reacts with revulsion to those who play at politics while unemployment rises, jobs grow more scarce, our infrastructure deficit runs in the billions, and our middle class facing the greatest challenges in a generation. In such a world, the playground of former kingmakers appears not only out of place, but downright maddening.

The new democracy is more about citizen activism than backroom shenanigans and pressing for transparency than secret dealings. It ultimately opts for cooperation over contention, public policy over punishing partisanship, and a sense of the integration of power over its ideology. This is the politics more and more Canadians are requesting, but it's all fluff and airy ideals to the likes of Reid and Kinsella. They prefer the smell of the trenches over the messy work of the grassroots. Elections are their game, not engagement.

Ironically, our public fate in Canada depends on the outcome of the war between these two practices of democracy. How can citizens possibly win out over such courtiers, when power itself prefers the secret corridors over the public thoroughfares? Well, it's slowly happening regardless of the backroom boys. Activism in our communities is inevitably filling the vacuum left by an increasingly vacuous hunt for political power for its own sake. But this doesn't suit the power players, who show little interest in our daily struggles and who, ironically, are guilty of the same trait they accused Michael Ignatieff of: they're just visiting.

 

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