Those who know me, and the volume of daily messages I receive, may be surprised that I remember a single text from almost four years ago. But this was a message I’d been anxious about ever since I heard that Mira Oreck was considering a run in Vancouver Granville for the NDP in the 2015 federal election.
Mira wanted my support. She and I had worked together for years, sometimes sprinting through 18-hour days for weeks on end as we did in the 2008 municipal election. My commitment to get progressive women elected is well-demonstrated and, while I don’t often endorse candidates, I am a vocal supporter of my NDP MP, Don Davies. The challenge in Vancouver Granville was that Jody Wilson-Raybould had already declared her candidacy for the Liberal Party.
"Jody Wilson-Raybould has shown the difference one person can make in the quality of a government. Imagine what could happen if we all showed up," writes @andreareimer
So, on a sunny day in spring 2015, I found myself taking a walk with Mira, her dog and an awful dilemma. She wanted my support but I didn’t know how to give it. There were practical barriers — Wilson-Raybould was months ahead in door-knocking and campaigning — as well as professional ones. I was worried that Mira’s community work would be damaged by taking on a likely future cabinet minister. Ultimately, however, I just strongly believed that the election of Wilson-Raybould would be a game-changer and I got into politics to change the game.
Mira made a strong case that regardless of the strength of Wilson-Raybould’s character and skills, the Liberal Party itself had irreconcilable policy contradictions and needed to be held to account. We parted that day without agreeing.
The results of the 2015 election are long-settled (Mira lost although she was the only NDP candidate in B.C. to increase support from 2011 “Orange Wave” levels) but it took until Wednesday this past week to settle our disagreement.
It turns out we were both right. This is the unshakeable problem for Canada right now: there is every reason to believe Wilson-Raybould and none at all to believe Trudeau. This credibility gap didn’t start last week or even emerge from the succession of heartbreaks caused by Trudeau’s abandoned promises on everything from respecting communities and international climate treaties, to taking action on electoral reform. It didn’t even start with our more distant disgust at prime ministerial scandals like Stephen Harper’s Duffy affair or Jean Chrétien’s sponsorship scandal.
No, the albatross around Trudeau’s neck is not a Liberal legacy or even a Canadian one but rather the echoes of the horrified gasps from denizens of western democracies when we got our first good look at modern political sausage-making through the Watergate scandal. The Watergate break-in, and the subsequent revelations of abuse of power in Richard Nixon’s White House, are well-recognized as the cliff that voting rates and democratic participation fell off. Not surprising: Watergate confirmed our worst fears about what happens when we give authority to the few to govern the many.
Such authority was never intended to be unchecked. Yet, although committees, clerks and commissions to check power abound, they are populated by political appointees and the one thing every political party can agree on is that the process of policy-making — the craft of democracy — is best left to what has essentially become a guild of elected officials and professional advisors.
That Wilson-Raybould fought so hard to force cabinet to allow her to speak about the internal workings of the Liberal sausage factory is precisely what gives her so much credibility: her desire for light and oxygen on these issues echoes our own.
The fact that the defence from Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and political staffers is, 'we did not break the law' illustrates how low this professional political class sets its bar. It’s a predictable response from a guild under threat, but this guild is the executive branch of the Government of Canada. Instead of aiming for the highest ethical standard, government is now only trying to avoid criminal action. We can do better.
Doing better, however, is not about walking away in disgust and I applaud Wilson-Raybould for sticking with it. I know there are thousands of people, many who are friends and past colleagues, who worked tirelessly to get this government elected. They deserve a lot better and, while I can’t guarantee that they will get it by sticking with the Liberals, I can guarantee that an exodus of principled, committed, grassroots members will make things worse. It’s the very dilemma I dreaded in counselling Mira not to run: not getting involved in democracy rarely, if ever, leads to better outcomes.
If Wilson-Raybould’s courageous testimony is a call to action for those already on the field, it’s a sonic boom for those on the sidelines. You get the democracy you deserve and Wilson-Raybould has shown us how much difference one person can make in determining the quality of a government. Imagine what could happen if we all showed up.
Andrea Reimer was elected for four terms to municipal government in Vancouver and is currently a Loeb Fellow in urban policy and civic leadership at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.