Welcome to the era of pragmatic politics

First published: November 16, 2006

With the resounding defeat of the Republican-lead Senate and House of Representatives in the United States last week, 25 years of neo-conservative ideology gave its last gasp as the dominate political force. Beginning with Ronald Regan (Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Brian Mulroney, to a lesser extent, in Canada) in 1981, neo-cons fundamentally shifted the popular public perception of government and its role. Policies slashing budgets, reducing services and streamlining government were the vogue, while tax increases, debt, and social programs were vilified.

By the 1990s, the neo-cons hit their zenith. Even Democrats, like Bill Clinton, were reducing the size of government, not raising taxes, creating balanced budgets or surpluses, and talking about social program while making little progress towards needed reform. In Canada, Liberal Paul Martin hacked government spending with a zeal that would make Tories blush. Hardcore practioners like Alberta’s Ralph Klein and Ontario’s Mike Harris cut government to bone as social program were choked by under-funding or sent into oblivion. The Reform Party was formed and changed the Canadian political landscape permanently.

But, as time passed, the policies became less driven by necessity and more by ideology. George W. Bush came to exemplify this as he and his advisors drove American into a war in Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the 9/11 attacks. Using fear and uncertainty as levers to push through one piece of legislation after another, Bush slowly reduced freedoms and privacy, at the same time driving the national debt through the roof. He embarrassed the country and America lost its international status as a leader. At first, the American public stood behind their president. But, with one blunder after another, Bush’s presidency was given a resounding thumping. If Regan is the call to arms, George W. Bush is the final whimper.

The ideology-driven agenda is quickly being replaced by a pragmatic one. Democratic Illinois Senator and presidential contender Barack Obama, in responding to his party’s victory, said a solution must be found for Iraq and implemented with a timely withdrawal as the only measuring stick. With this single statement, he made it clear rhetoric would be replaced with action.

The same is happening in Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to tax income trusts was a realistic response to a situation with the potential to cause the loss of billions of tax dollars, which would be naturally passed on to income taxpayers. Certainly, this earned the scorn of the business community and investors, but it was a realistic approach, not an ideological one.

The transition to a more pragmatic form of politics begins. Realism, not based on party principles, but based on decisions transcending political boundaries to what is best for the situation and all who are affected.

For the new councils about to be formed in January, it means a completely new approach: one that genuinely engages citizens in a consultative process and policy reflecting the wishes of the broader community, not just those for or against.

It is true a majority of incumbents were returned to office. Cobourg Mayor Peter Delanty won handily, as did Linda Thompson. And there were old faces returned in both Cobourg and Port Hope: Gil Brocanier, Bob Spooner, Dean McCaughey and Bill MacDonald, along with Jeff Lees, Karen O’Hara, Ted Watts and acclaimed Ward 2 councillor Cal Morgan.

But, the voters in Cobourg sent a strong message to the old boys club. Miriam Mutton and Stan Frost won by a large margin, nearly 400 votes each ahead of the nearest incumbent Bob Spooner. If this doesn’t send a message to council about taking a new tact, then nothing will. A key issue during the election was council’s openness and its ability to listen to citizens.

Maybe it is time for all councils to reconsider how they do business. Just like the early 1990s, when politicians came to power on promises of no new taxes, stripped down services and tight budgets, councillors should be jumping on the new bandwagon. They need to takea a page from the inclusive politics of people like Obama. He can acknowledge a diversity of ideas and positions without alienating or forgetting all sides. Here is a politician who agrees with conservatives that teen motherhood and the glorification of “gangsta life” keep young blacks from escaping the ghetto, but can also offer progressive policies using public funds and local business initiatives to provide low-cost childcare, neighbourhood health clinics, and job programs for ex-felons.

He does this because he can transcend accusations and talking points to offer a fresh vision that addresses what are traditionally unsolvable problems.

Cobourg and Port Hope need these kinds of politicians. We need people who can rise above the petty disregard that is divisive and disrespectful. Instead, we want representatives who can find solutions to the nuclear waste issue, along with addressing concerns around Cameco and Zircatec in Port Hope. But, in Cobourg, council must address the local police force without replacing it, plan future development without building endless subdivisions and condos, stop the string of big box stores that kill local entrepreneurs, solve the parking problem, reignite the vitality of the downtown, provide waterfront access for all without making it an enclave for the privileged.

This can only be achieved by those politicians truly dedicated to building a consensus, committed to true consultation and provide results that reflect the diversity of opinion and the possibility that the answers lie both inside and outside council chambers.

Welcome to the era of pragmatic politics.

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