In Defence of Politics

The Honourable Bob Rae
Lawyer and Former Premier of Ontario

17 April 1997

I would like to thank you for braving the Ontario weather and coming tonight. I very much appreciate it. My only advice to Allan tonight was that he shouldn't inhale and I certainly hope he didn't inhale after listening to Senator Grafstein's speech. I want to thank the University for this honour. When President Riley phoned me and asked if I would come down and give this speech, the first Allan J. MacEachen Lecture, I was very honoured, I was surprised and I was delighted to be able to accept. I was not able to be here at the earlier celebration when I was invited because I couldn't get away, but I did write a letter to the dinner which I'm sure was not read because it was not from a Liberal, but anyway, I wrote it and it was sent in good wishes.

An opponent of George Bernard Shaw described him as "a good man fallen among Fabians" and I have always felt that Allan J. was "a good man fallen among Liberals." I wanted to come tonight to pay tribute to him because of the great admiration that I have for him. When I first saw Allan J. MacEachen in action, he was the Minister of Labour. I was a student watching the debate from the gallery. I was philosophically and politically inclined to support another political party at that tine, as I still am today. But, I must say, watching Allan J. give a political speech in the House of Commons was something that I will never forget. Some years ago somebody was asking me who I thought were the greatest speakers in the House of Commons that I had listened to? Was it Mr. Trudeau, was it Mr. Diefenbaker, was it others that I had listened to, and I said, no, certainly not. The best speaker I ever heard in the House of Commons, the best analyst, the best person who could give a range of speeches, was Allan MacEachen, without hesitation and without qualification. And to those of you who want to go back and read some of those Hansards, I recommend you do so. It was before these things were televised, so you will get no recollection from them on television.

The key to Allan's success, in my view, is that unlike a great many of his contemporaries, and unlike a great many of his opponents, and unlike a great many people in political life, he always had more than one gear. And that is very important. It may seem a pedestrian comment to make. Allan had a way of presenting an argument starting very slowly, building up the various elements of the argument and then beginning to wind his way through, to work his way to the point where, at the end of the speech, you weren't really sure what other possible position there would be to take. So, we would all, when I was back in Opposition 20 years later (after that time) we would all have to go back to our caucuses and try to figure out how we could construct an argument which could possibly match that of Allan J.

So, a good man fallen among Liberals. This occasion struck me as an almost ideal one in which to say some things about politics and politicians. I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to speak at this great University whose influence and power far exceeds the numbers of its graduates. There are very few of us in Canadian life who have not been touched or affected by a graduate of St. Francis Xavier University and certainly I know in terms of my own party, that the work of Father Coady, the philosophy of Father Coady, the drive that he brought to this University, is one for which I feel a great affection and affinity.

I was particularly reminded of this because last night, just per chance when I arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in Halifax a copy of Senator Graham's book was waiting for me - almost as if delivered by a miraculous messenger. Al said if my book turns up, will you give me a plug and I said of course I will, so I've done that, but only if Al will give my book a plug later on this evening.

One of the most interesting things about Senator Graham's book is that he describes with great humour and with great humanity his early years as a student at this University and what this University represented for this community, for the community of Nova Scotia and for Cape Breton and the students who came here, and the families who sent them here and the tremendous opportunities which this University provided, the great leadership which it bestowed. To be invited here is for me a source of enormous pride.

Let me now turn to my title, which is not original. For those of you who are interested (and I have become sort of a part-time academic so I occasionally have to cite sources to people), there is a very good book by a British political writer. Bernard Crick. Its title is, In Defence of Politics. It was written 35 years ago and it's still a very good book. I have over the years always been struck by the number of people from a whole different range of experiences, ideologies and points of view who take a very dim view of politics, of party politics and of what it means and what it represents.

Politics which I would simply define as the art, - not the science, because it is certainly not a science, and those who try to make it a science have taken it down a very false path in my view - the art of pursuing common interests through means of active listening, advocacy, public persuasion, compromise and negotiation. It was Aristotle who understood that politics is, in a sense, the master art and that it represents the pursuit of balance and the pursuit of a common interest, but always with the knowledge and sense that there will be paradoxes, there will be ambiguities, there will be compromises and there will be negotiations. In the Aristotelian approach (which is the soundest one), the key word is balance. I am reminded of Churchill's definition of democracy, which all of you will know, "democracy is the worst possible system of government, except for all the others." That is how I think we have to look at politics and have to look at the political process. It has flaws which we will get to in a moment and its practitioners are not perfect; indeed they are highly imperfect.

Perhaps I can speak with a slightly greater degree of credibility now that I'm no longer an active politician but what my wife calls a "recovering politician," going through the twelve stages or whatever it is one has to go through. We all know the extent to which politics is held in ill repute. Every one of you, I am sure, when you think of the word "politician" or "politics" senses a negative connotation. I remember a conversation I had with a friend who was describing a particular difficulty that he was having in an argument with his family, and he said, "You know I had a choice." And I said "What was the choice?" Then he said, "Well I could either deal with it honestly and straightforwardly or I could do it politically." To which I said "Thanks very much."

The consequence of this attitude, however, if we allow this attitude to grow unchecked, and we can certainly see it in situations where it has been allowed to grow, is that people think there is a non-political alternative when the reality is that there is not. The non-political alternatives are always much, much worse than politics itself.

Let's look to the history of party politics. One of the best places to start, one of the best analyses is not with a Liberal or a New Democrat or partisan analysis, but with that of the father of modern conservatism, the conservatism that I respect, and that is of course, Edmund Burke. Burke was writing in the middle of the 18th century. He was an Irishman who went to London to make his way in the world. There he found himself embroiled in the middle of the fundamentally English political system. It was a system in which the King had a great deal of power and in which there was emerging within the economic and political structure of the time, a sense that there needed to be balance in the British constitution. Of course this is nearly 100 years after the so-called Glorious Revolution in which James II was deposed - which I know is a very touchy subject at this particular University. I say this having dined in the shadow of Bonny Prince Charlie for two meals now.

Burke wrote compellingly about the importance of parties. His opponents, the King's friends, as the Tories were known at the time, were saying that factioned party formations in the House of Commons were a bad thing. The King wanted to control the House of Commons through all of his placemen as they were called, all of his appointees who were patronage appointments (something about which no one in this audience would know anything about). It was the abuse of power by the King that led Burke to join with a small group of "Whigs" which, after all, is the origin of the Great British Liberal Party and, therefore, of the Canadian Liberal Party in many respects. And Burke became the philosopher of this political party.

Burke underlined the essential role that parties played in the creation, not only of a public philosophy, but in the formation of government and public policy. He described parties in a wonderful phrase as "these little platoons of loyalty bound together by common affection and common conviction." And, of course, the party which Burke was describing went on to achieve enormous change in the British constitution and in the condition of the British people. Burke was not a reactionary. Burke believed that one had to reform institutions in order to preserve them.

Looking at political history in Canada, the United Kingdom and in the United States, to mention the three countries whose political history I am most familiar with, it is hard for us to look back and see any significant period of reform or change or improvement in people's lives that was not brought about by "little platoons of loyalty bound together by common attraction and common conviction." I cannot think of a significant reform achieved in any one of our countries that did not come from this sense of people coming together and committing themselves to a common cause, committing themselves to a common approach and agreeing that they would, through means of advocacy, public persuasion, compromise and negotiation, attempt to achieve a change. It wasn't the civil service that brought these changes. It wasn't business that brought these changes. It wasn't interest groups acting by themselves who brought these changes. It was political parties which brought these changes, which effected them and which saw them through.

I think of the achievements of Burke and his group itself. I think of the great reforming administrations of Gladstone, of Asquith. I think of the great Labour Administration between 1945 and 195I which greatly extended the welfare state. I think, of course, of the achievements of Roosevelt and of the Democratic majority between 1932 and 1938, which literally transformed the political, the economic and the social condition of the people of the United States and set an example for others. I think - and you will say, perhaps, what a terrible example - but I think of the recent attempted counter-revolution in the United States (which I didn't approve of and still don't) led by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. I don't agree with the "Contract for America." I don't agree with the "common sense revolution" in my own province - obviously not, it led to my career change - but I know that it was through the political process and political parties that it is taking place.

When we look at our experiences in Canada, both provincially and federally, and we look at those periods that have been periods of remarkable change and transformation in the social and political life of our country, they have been led by the political leadership of the country. They have been carried out, not by some process of good ideas falling from the sky, or good ideas simply emerging because people decided through some spontaneous process that each was a good idea. Each was carried out because there were people who believed it should happen and who made it happen.

Many have referred to Senator MacEachen's own achievements as Minister in the Pearson government. I happen to believe that the Pearson administration between 1963 and 1968 was one of the most remarkable reforming administrations in the history of Canada, and I say this not as one who is not a Grit. Consider that period between 1963 and 1968. How did we get Medicare? My own party had something to do with it - lending its experience from Saskatchewan and its political support during the minority administration between 1963 and 1968. It was a minority government, a precarious government, but an enormously successful one. But, we wouldn't have the Canada Pension Plan if it had been up to the bureaucracy on its own. If it had been up to the Canadian Medical Association, we wouldn't have Medicare. If it had been up to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, we wouldn't have the Canada Pension Plan or the Canada Assistance Plan. None of these interest groups or people who have a variety of points of view or roles to play within the system, could possibly have brought about these achievements.

These achievements were brought about because political parties, the little platoons of loyalty bound together by common affection and common conviction, advocated, persuaded, compromised and negotiated their way to achieving tangible, real, practical progress. That's what politics is. Compromise is not a dirty word. Compromise is a necessary part of the process, as is negotiation, as is advocacy and so, above all, as is persuading the public. How often have I had people from various perspectives say they had a better idea or a better approach. Well, there are always more good ideas than there is money. I used to say to a lot of people "knock on a few doors, tell me how people feel about your good idea, then come back and see me."

There are, of course, major detractors of politics. I want to deal with the four major schools. There are the experts, there is the business community; there is the media; and there are the ideologists of the left and the right.

First, the experts. We know them most evocatively through that wonderful British television program, "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister." Civil servants as well as the collective expert community both in the university and outside, frequently take the view that there is a right answer. The right answer is never too hot, never too cold, but it is an objective answer that is found by a process, frequently of deductive reasoning. I found in government that there was a certain arrogance on the part of those who felt that they were the permanent government. The politicians who were in the room were really just there by sufferance, here today and gone tomorrow, while the permanent government would go on forever and ever. Well I can understand how that attitude has grown up. I am, after all, the son of a civil servant, although I have been called the son of many other things I can assure you. I am not here to denigrate the work of the public service. But simply put, administration on its own is a dangerous thing. It has to be led and informed by politics.

Now the second group, who are partly connected to those I call the ideologists of the right, are, of course, the businessmen who believe in something called the magic of the marketplace, those who advocate a laissez-faire philosophy in which their view is "leave everything up to the economy." In this view, economics not politics, should be the master science. And again, here is this so-called bogus scientific view that there is an objective answer that stems from the natural workings of the natural market economy and that any attempt to interfere in any way, shape or form with the magic working of this marketplace will lead to disaster. Therefore, in this philosophy, there is nothing really for the politician to do except to bow down to the altar of the marketplace and simply to let business do its thing and for politics to be completely subservient to the economy and to business.

This is an increasingly conventional view. In my own province, it has become a kind of political orthodoxy according to which everything that ever happened prior to 1995, whether it was carried out by me or by one of my Liberal predecessors or even any Conservative predecessors, was bad because it was too "interventionist." Therefore, in his view, we have to revolutionize government, take government completely out of the field of the economy and let the economy do its thing. Like all examples of a conventional wisdom, this excess of business-class logic will pass. Of course, the economy in which we live shapes the context in which we practice our politics. It is true to say that the way our economy works has to be understood. It has become increasingly global. As it becomes increasingly international, we have to focus on what we can do best as governments. But the idea that the economy itself makes politics irrelevant or meaningless or unhelpful to the human condition is nonsense. It was ideological nonsense when it was put out by the political economists at the beginning of the 19th century and its remains nonsense today.

The third groups of detractors, and they can't be here tonight because of the poor weather, are my friends in the media. And I don't mean here to single out any one particular media. The dominance of "television culture" has turned politics into a branch of the entertainment industry. If this were not so funny, it would be a serious matter. There is a very good book written by an American sociologist who teaches at New York named Neil Postman, who has written a book called "Entertaining Ourselves to Death." in which he describes the difference between the political culture at the time of the American Revolution and that of today. And we could do the same in describing the political culture at the time of Confederation, the political culture in which we tried to reform the constitution in 199I and 1992, and in which previous First Ministers and others had to try to reform it in the late 1980s. It is my view that this phenomenon of politics as entertainment, of news as "infotainment," in which it becomes more and more difficult to describe anything to people in clips longer than 30 seconds, in which it is more and more difficult to communicate issues requiring thought, reflection, discussion and debate, is a major problem because the medium itself defines everything in the context of entertainment.

I have no answer to this dilemma. Certainly, censorship is not the answer. Neither is more government regulation. Yet clearly a first step is for us is to discuss the problem. The power of the media should not go undiscussed or unchallenged. The media investigates and exposes every institution in society except itself. This is a major problem. The media is controlled by the people who are rich enough to buy the companies that produce it. This is also a major problem.

Finally, the greatest enemies of politics are the ideologists of the left and right. Historically, the ideologists of the left have, of course, always seen politics as a kind of epiphenomenon, a super phenomenon on top of the broad economic forces at work, in which it was seen as an unnecessary interference with pure administration. We confront today the fundamentalist, religious, and naturalist modes of intolerance. But now, there is a slight addition to these. One of the most ironic descriptions of the anti-political approach was when Premier Parizeau came to Toronto, just before the Referendum, and in an effort to sell the benefits of sovereignty and of separation to Toronto said, "just imagine what it will mean." He was saying, look, you know you are all bored with the Constitution, you know you are all fed up with all this constant round of discussion and negotiation. "It's like an endless trip to the dentist," he said, this constant Canadian preoccupation with the Constitution. Imagine, if we vote "Yes," we'll have a few discussions, it will be all over, no more trips to the dentist. This is the ultimate anti-political fantasy. And what a total fantasy it is.

All of us in our common commitment to dental hygiene know that a trip to the dentist is not a bad thing. It happens to be something you have to do. It's something you do every few months. It's a way of taking care of your health. If you don't go to the dentist, your teeth tend to fall out. But, the other thing that Mr. Parizeau was forgetting, is that whatever form the Canadian dialogue takes in the next year or three years or five years or ten years, negotiation is not something to avoid. Negotiation is life itself.

I suppose if you are standing in front of a mirror, you don't have to negotiate. But, in any other context, as soon as you are trying to relate to another person, as soon as the breakfast conversation, or the first business conversation begins, you are into negotiation. You are into a dialogue. You are into that part of life which is quite different from the abstraction of somebody working out a problem in their own mind and thinking they have a "solution." And to me this is, in a sense, very much what the problem is with the lack of dialogue, the lack of intense discussion, which is what is taking place in the province of Quebec. The sovereignists in Quebec, the separatists in Quebec, have been negotiating with themselves in front of a collective mirror for the last 30 years. It's not producing a very realistic result. It even produces the fantasy which says that there is a non-political solution to the future of Canada.

However, as Bernard Crick has pointed out, politics does occasionally need to be protected from its friends. There is a partisanship which goes too far and I think that in fact there are times in our public life this has happened. One of the reasons that I wanted to accept this invitation (though I am sure there are many partisans in my own party who would say you mustn't go to some sort of Liberal - party celebration for Mr. MacEachen), is because we shouldn't fail to at least salute from the other side those in other little platoons whom one respects and for whom one has affection. Nor should we neglect the fact that we define our politics in Canada by the fact that not only can we disagree as partisans but also we can agree and work together. I take great pride in the fact that as a New Democrat, I supported the patriation of the Constitution with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when I was in the Opposition and Mr. MacEachen was the Deputy Prime Minister. I think Prime Minister Brian Mulroney showed great courage and great energy in his defence of the country and I fully supported his attempts to further reform the Constitution at Meech and at Charlottetown. I have not hesitated to say so privately, and I certainly would not hesitate to say so publicly.

I think it is important for politicians to recognize that our opponents are occasionally right and that occasionally we are wrong. A loyalty which assumes that only one party has the pipeline to virtue may make people feel better, but it is not a very effective way to build thoughtful party politics.

Finally, it is important for us to remember that the claim of politics is always a relative claim. It is not a road to salvation. There may be roads to salvation. Politics is not among them. It is not the road to eternal truth or to eternal verities. We cannot aspire to this level of certainty. Those who proclaimed to have achieved that kind of certainty in politics have always led people on the road to disaster. Those who have proclaimed to be building a heaven on earth have always ended up making it a lot more like hell.

Our century, the twentieth century, has been the most violent century in the history of the world. We have a lot to learn from those wise and sage souls, whether it be Aristotle or Machiavelli or Burke or Orwell or Isaiah Berlin, who have reminded each generation of the limits of politics, of the importance of civility and of the need to understand that from this crooked stick, this stick of human nature, nothing straight was ever made. We should not try to make it too straight. Politics is not about perfection. It is about trying to improve lives as they are really, actually lived. As Burke put it, "to improve the life of this generation is already a great task."