That’s the choice
Tom Perry was one of the worst cabinet ministers in the Harcourt government.
Following the 1991 election Premier Mike Harcourt handed Perry the post-secondary portfolio. The Vander Zalm government had just left the new government an undisclosed deficit of over $1 billion and Perry’s job was to manage cuts while moving forward on promised reforms that included expanded access. Perry was a complete failure and was booted from cabinet eighteen months later.
Here’s Perry’s problem in a nutshell. He could articulate problems. In fact he had a healthy dose of chicken-little complex. But he was incapable of landing on a tough solution and sticking to it. In other words he wasn’t cut out for government.
How is this relevant to politics today?
Perry has an op-ed in today’s Times Colonist. In it he calls for a new kind of politics, where politicians are released from caucus discipline and can ask any question they want. It sounds good. After all who doesn’t want politicians to say what they think?
Perry provides an imaginary example of what can happen to a progressive government:
“The first cabinet meeting deals with an “emergency.” A decision must be taken today to close 20 small hospitals, including two in your riding. This acid test of “team playership” makes you queasy. You ask a feeble question about who will treat the sick that your party promised to protect. The answer is vaguely reassuring: The Centre has everything under control and inside a “message box.” Rely on the box and all will be well.
“A government caucus meeting follows. The backbenchers are restive, as your party promised the moon but can barely deliver the bacon.
“It seems appropriate to warn them of a coming storm in your area of ministerial responsibility. You plan, with The Centre, a short presentation. As the caucus chair calls the agenda item, the premier suddenly intervenes to end discussion: “This is not the place to be discussing that issue.”
Except Perry knows that’s bullshit. Here’s what really happens:
You’re a cabinet minister. You are supposed to scope the problems – all the problems – and provide solutions for your colleagues around the caucus and cabinet table. You expect them to ask tough questions and raise their interests. You’re prepared and you bring all the relevant information into the room.
They have a discussion and land on the best choice to meet all the issues identified. It’s usually not perfect. There are no perfect choices. But you and your colleagues make the best choice they can.
And once you have made the choice you are expected to make the case for that choice. That’s why you are in cabinet. It’s how you get things done and move forward.
Perry was incapable of making tough choices. He wanted people to like him. He hated people yelling at him.
I remember walking into his office for a briefing on college cuts that impacted faculty. They had to do more with less, but the alternative options were either tuition increases or no cost control a la the Rae government. There was no perfect solution. Perry was on the verge of a breakdown. These were his colleagues who were impacted and he couldn’t deal with it. He kept talking about how this was a decision he couldn’t make.
He wasn’t up to governing. He left government the next election, declining to run again.
Government is not about easy solutions. It’s never Sarah Palin simple. Government that’s about making important changes is even tougher. You battle entrenched and powerful interests. You face a conservative media and oft-times you know the pay-off is not immediate.
The battle for medicare is the perfect example. People forget that it cost Tommy Douglas his government. It called for very strong willed politicians to get it done.
Perry’s model exists. It’s called the US government, a weak party system full of checks and balances. Everyone is free to state their own opinions. Little is ever accomplished.
In the system Perry wants, there is no moving forward in the cacophony of opinions. At the end of the day that only serves the status quo. I want more from any government I help to elect.