John Robson: Parties Need to Debate Sensitive Issues Instead of Marching in Lockstep Toward Partisan Victory

John Robson: Parties Need to Debate Sensitive Issues Instead of Marching in Lockstep Toward Partisan Victory
Conservative delegate Patrick Wuori talks to the crowd prior to Pierre Poilievre's speech at the Conservative Party Convention in Quebec City on Sept. 8, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot)
John Robson

As a journalist covering the even shabbier profession of politics, I’ve often thought we should send theatre critics to political conventions. But not cynically. Rather, since they are stage-managed events of a rather peculiar sort, I favour taking a step back from the familiar theatrics, familiar at least to those inside the bubble, and asking what on earth the participants are trying to do as well as how well they seem to be managing it.

How well matters. Regardless of what a party thinks it’s doing at its convention, or wants to seem to be doing, pulling it off is a useful test of basic competence in their chosen field. But it also matters what conventions are actually for, and political journalists often seem too close to them to ask.

Coverage of the recent federal Conservative convention in particular seems to suggest that its purpose was to prevent rustic eruptions of vulgar populist social conservatism. And most reporting of conventions across the spectrum reflects the sitting-on-a-volcano assumption that they exist to fake unity around focus-grouped positions. Just possibly it’s not what they really are trying to do, or should be.

Is it actually a problem if some local branch resolutions are “controversial”? Which I add in the context of a Tory convention doesn’t only mean “to the right of a garden-variety sociology professor.”

At least it shouldn’t only have that meaning. But a typical headline this past week read “Tories pass resolutions on prickly social issues” and quoted only delegates who opposed banning sex-change surgery on minors because, one said, it “stands against the values of our party to embrace freedom and bodily autonomy.”

The reporter also found a Quebec association president to deplore a resolution opposing vaccine mandates because “We want to ensure the election of a majority Conservative government” and didn’t raise “bodily autonomy” for some reason. Instead they got a sitting MP to say, “You guys want to make it an issue. The Liberals want to make it an issue. But the average Canadian and us here? We have a job to do, and that’s to win the next election.”

Oh really? The average Canadian thinks your job is to win, not to put forward good reasons why you should win? I beg to differ.

Having attended political conventions, albeit as an alien curiously probing the Partisanlings, I have been struck by how it all makes sense until you step abruptly from their hushed yet electric atmosphere into the glare and clatter of the mall. Out there, in what passes for modern urban reality, mighty few people even know the event is happening, and would flee in baffled horror if somehow they wandered in.

It’s like, say, a chess tournament. Except chess players don’t later get to move real people around. Politicians do.

So let’s ask naively whether it’s actually bad if people aiming to achieve power have a frank discussion about what they’d do with it where we can hear them. Is it actually good if instead they deliberately parade before the world in weird lockstep chanting hypnotic slogans on cue from a maximum leader? Or might such a thing prove self-defeating even tactically?

What if party devotees are overheard debating things normal people are debating? What if some display sufficient independence of mind to hold views outside the massaged and messaged mainstream, and sufficient strength of character to defend them? What, indeed, if on some significant issue a party were to take a position at odds with the public?

I’m thinking of Robert Peel’s mid-19th-century repeal of the Corn Laws. I would be. (And, negatively, of American parties then trying to shtum slavery.) But also more recently Ronald Reagan on winning the Cold War or Brian Mulroney favouring free trade. They tried to persuade instead of pandering.

Insider eyeballs roll. But for years Liberal conventions mostly featured resolutions leftward of official policy. They usually got mocked, and voted down or ignored while crafting a platform in turn largely ignored in victory. But they communicated that the party’s heart was more radical than its head and it mattered to voters, for better or worse, because it was true and revealing.

Indeed, looking forward to the next Grit convention, would you be more or less likely to support them if there were open dissent about the excellence of the leader? Or some policy resolutions said the party had become too post-modern, and should revisit the ideas of Louis St.-Laurent? Or delegates even seemed to know who St.-Laurent was?

Likewise, many who follow public affairs closely enough to have an opinion find Jagmeet Singh constantly walloping Trudeau with one hand while propping him up with the other aggravatingly obtuse. I’d like to know what NDP members think.

Who knows? Even in politics, honesty might upstage slickness. Let’s at least ask.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”