The 2015 election results have left much for the pundits and pollsters to ponder. How could they miss the full extent of the discontent and desire for change across the country? Having recently traveled across Canada, I was struck by the depth of dissatisfaction and fear about the strength of our democracy.
Stephen Harper was not meeting with our premiers, access to information was very limited, scientists were not permitted to speak publicly about their findings, there was a sense that government was more closed and inaccessible and, in Ottawa, the public service was stressed and not feeling valued. Discontent was deep respecting the negative and divisive nature of the politics and political campaigns.
Embedded in this type of politics was the constant rush to disavow anyone who makes a mistake or might have said something wrong. We saw this tendency throughout the election campaign. Media, Twitter and social media exposed candidates' lives and thoughts to everyone. Yes, candidates sometimes say things that they regret. Some candidates were forced to step aside because of both recent and past remarks. Media seem to love making a big story out of gaffes and we have elevated our expectations to the point that our leaders may feel that they need to be nearly perfect. This is not to say truly egregious actions or comments should be ignored. Many so-called gaffes were not of this nature.
Closed government is an anathema to our now globally connected citizens, especially the generations who grew up in a digital world. Information is accessible at their finger tips and they share information daily. Voters expressed a desire for change with their voting choices and the significantly elevated numbers who exercised their right to vote.
Our new PM designate seems to understand the desire of many Canadians to have a more inclusive, open and positive engagement between citizens and their government. Already Justin Trudeau has made it clear that he will be much more open and willing to engage with the media, citizens and fellow parliamentarians irrespective of political persuasion.
Justin Trudeau spoke immediately after winning a majority about working together and the power of "positive politics" combined with a clear vision. While open government is desirable for all, it is not without many challenges and risks for the governing party. Mr. Harper tried to prevent gaffes and manage messaging by retaining tight control over both his ministers and the public service from the PM's office. He seemed to be successful for awhile but it became apparent this strategy had serious flaws too.
Our new challenge as Canadians and especially the media is to remember our desire for openness as the Liberals form a government and begin to govern. A new government led by a new prime minister who is already demonstrating that he is open and engaged may very likely make "gaffes." There will be new faces around the cabinet table who may have less experience in politics and in leading a ministry or initiative.
Governance is difficult at the best of times because public policy is complex and often entails more than one option and the consideration of a multiplicity of perspectives. Trial and error and mistakes are often necessary for success. We know this from many private sector ventures. Witness, for example, the evolution of SpaceX and Tesla. If Elon Musk and his team had not made mistakes, ignored the criticism of the doubters and learned from them instead of condemning their mistakes, they may never have successfully launched a rocket with Space X nor is it likely Tesla's electric cars would be on the road today.
We asked our new government to make change and to follow our expressed desire to be more open and engaged. If we truly want change we need to be able to support this process and be understanding of the efforts. Making mistakes must be acceptable in the process of rebuilding a more open government and creating positive politics.
Media and social media can strengthen the process by refusing to make a big story out of gaffes that come from well-intentioned actions. Let me make it clear, I am not speaking about inappropriate behaviours that none of us should be prepared to accept such as harassment or misuse of public funds. These actions do not constitute mistakes. Let us exercise restraint and applaud Justin Trudeau's new commitment to openness lest we destroy the very thing we want through constant condemnation.
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