Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Proportional Response

Nation, the detractors of the Stelmach government in Alberta have been positively giddy over these past few weeks, with public miscues and sensationalistic headlines dominating the papers and the blogs.

From children-in-care committing horrifying acts (some writers, I suspect, had to stop themselves from grinning, so eager were they to take another shot at Minister Tarchuk) to continuing criticism of Bill 44 (rightfully so, in my opinion) to the past week's hullabaloo over remarks made by Minister Evans and Edmonton-Calder MLA Doug Elniski, critics of the Progressive Conservatives have found themselves in what could be described as a "target-rich environment".

Children committing murder is absolutely horrifying. The fact that there are pundits and politicos out there trying to turn it into a political issue is beyond heinous. The desire to find answers, to discover WHY something so tragic and needless happened is understandably strong. But for those with only partial information to jump immediately to a conclusion based more on personal political bias than actual evidence is intellectually lazy. We don't know WHY these children killed. To blame Janis Tarchuk, or her department, for the acts of a few extremely disturbed children at this point (all for political gain) is as ridiculous as if you were to hypothesize, based on the Lyle and Erik Menendez case, that all people who saw Michael Keaton as Batman went on to commit patricide, and so obviously the fault for those deaths rests squarely on Warner Brothers and Tim Burton.

WHY this happened is unclear. I'm just one voice, but here's a crazy idea: Before we start talking like these kids were all staying in Janis' basement in Cochrane, listening to her records backwards, why don't we - just for a lark - actually INVESTIGATE what happened? I'm a little old-fashioned that way, admittedly.

SPEAKING of old-fashioned... let's talk about what Iris Evans said last week. Everyone's entitled to their interpretation, and I'm sure I'll get the standard NDP and Liberal party lines showing up in this post's "comments" section, which I'll be happy to post (I've rejected fewer than a dozen comments in just about 3 years, most of them due to offensive language). When *I* first read Evans' comments, I thought she was making a comment about her own family. When she talked about "we", she was talking about her community. As Iris Evans, wife and mother and grandmother. Not as "Iris Evans, official spokesperson for the government and people of Alberta". Or, at least, that's how I think SHE thought of herself at that moment.

There is, however, a time and place to speak as an individual, and a time and place to speak as an employee of the Government of Alberta. AS an employee of that same government, I know this all too well: There are many times when my personal opinion on an issue is in stark contrast to government policy within my department. When the rubber hits the road, though, I have to use this general rule of thumb: If I'm speaking, and I'll get a paycheque for this time with the Alberta Government logo on it at the end of the month, then their opinion is the one that comes out of my mouth.

I imagine, should I be fortunate to sit as an MLA in the future, that personal rule will change somewhat to reflect the reality that I'd be getting paid to represent not the government per se, but rather specifically the people of the riding that elected me to represent them - so, OFF-THE-CLOCK, the opinions I express can be my own. ON the clock, however, a big part of my job is swallowing my own opinions in order to convey the message that my boss(es) tell me to.

Now, I'm a little unclear as to why, exactly, Iris Evans was at the meeting where this whole mess began. If she was invited to speak by organizers and was going to be paid directly by them, then she can say whatever the hell she pleases. If, in the Evans house, they call cribbage "backgammon", then she's perfectly within her rights to say so if she's speaking at a function as Iris Evans.

If, however, she was at that luncheon speaking as a representative of the government - and, therefore, the PEOPLE - of Alberta, then she made a big mistake in using that platform to express a personal opinion that, quite frankly, many people don't happen to agree with.

For the record: My mother stayed home with us until her youngest was in Grade One, and then she re-entered the workforce, because that's what she thought was best for us. I agree, it was what was best for US - for our particular family, and the particular children involved. Your circumstances are your own - and what is best for you and your kids is your own business, not mine or the government's.

If you listened quietly to the uproar from the Opposition parties following the Evans comments, you can hear almost a tinge of regret. Admittedly, they're massaging and spinning the heck out of this - and good on 'em. Kudos to their communications teams. However, you detect a hint of regret from them that the comments came from a FEMALE cabinet member... I'm sure they had press releases saved in the "just in case" folder decrying "Minister (fill in the blank) is a sexist and misogynist and this attitude pervades the Tory caucus", and instead they lost the ability to call Evans a sexist and misogynist, and instead have to sadly shake their heads for the cameras since Iris is so brutally and obviously backwards...

Just like my mother was.

And hundreds of thousands of other mothers in this province. And hundreds of thousands more who WANT to stay home with the kids, but can't afford to.

If Evans was waxing philosophical about her personal views on the company dime, that was wrong of her. But to attack her for her views is wrong on the part of the opposition - their focus should be whether she was representing the people of this province and went off-script into personal opinion. Her message, whether the Liberals or New Democrats like to hear it or not, is one that resonates with a LOT of people - and by attacking it, rather than the circumstances under which it was delivered, they're attacking a group that (minority opinion or not) deserves respect, not ridicule.

The response to the Evans comments was nearly instantaneous... the response, though, to Doug Elniski's comments has been absolutely contrived to draw them out and keep them in the media cycle (again, to the credit of the opposition communications teams). He made his tweets from the Pride event in Edmonton on June 13th... this "Twitter" thingy delivered the comments straight to my computer, eliciting a "yikes! Doug - what are you THINKING!?!" response from yours truly. Both of those things happened on June 13th. BEFORE the Iris Evans speech. The media and blogger outcry to the comment, which was public domain, began a full WEEK LATER, AFTER the Evans statements made headlines, when a special interest group decided that it had been offended, and sent out e-mail notices to bloggers and media. At which point it became "Elniski season", and his blog and tweets were gone over with a fine-toothed comb for any other potentially embarrassing statements - of which there were at least a few.

Now, full disclosure: I've met Doug Elniski. Not that he knows it, but I have. I *like* Doug Elniski. Doug Elniski is not a caveman, a woman hater, a pervert, or a homophobe.

What Doug IS is a man who, like many (perhaps MOST?) men, tries to be funnier than he's sometimes capable of being. In MY position, people just shake their heads and walk away. In YOUR position, they probably do the same. But, when you're an MLA - it's like a smorgasbord of "inappropriate comments and behaviour" for the people who are trying to take your job.

Now, once again (as above with Iris) I don't want to spend a whole tonne of time on Elniski's comments - he's apologized for making them, and I don't believe he feels the way he's been characterized and vilified in the media as feeling and thinking. I honestly believe he was trying to be funny, and missed the mark.

Where Doug's BIG mistake was - he made these tweets, blog posts, and comments in his capacity as an MLA. Once again, as with the Evans situation: If Elniski said these things over a beer with a friend, or in an email to a cousin, or to his High School Reunion class, the story would be over. But his blog and his Twitter account both have "MLA" right there in the name... it's understood that what he says, on either, is coming not from Doug Elniski, private citizen, but from Doug Elniski, MLA. He exercised poor judgement, he got raked over the coals for it, and he's ready to move on. Like the co-worker who tries to be funny, makes an inappropriate joke, gets yelled at by the boss and gets sent to a mandatory "sensitivity training seminar". I suggest that we let him move on... and here's why.

Because we're going to have to get used to the idea that the politicians and others who serve us (the people), are going to eventually embrace this "social media" thing if they feel it's worthwhile. And the ability to actually SPEAK with your representative, rather than mailing a letter and getting a form letter back from their constituency assistant, is a fantastic advance made possible by this medium. If we expect them to consider Social Media a worthwhile risk, we have to be willing to forgive some mis-steps in the name of the learning curve.

Put another way: If Doug Elniski loses his job over Twitter and a blog, how likely do you think it is that we'll see more politicians using either?

How likely do you think it is that we'll see politicians bailing on Social Media like rats off a sinking ship?

If they disengage from the masses so as to avoid being "Elniski'd" by their opponents, then any advances we've made in these past few years in trying to re-connect the people with their elected representatives will have been lost.

If the people of Edmonton-Calder decide to toss Elniski out on his rear end because they've decided, after 4 years, that he's not their cup of tea, then that's politics. But the current frenzy, by non-constituents, over his tweets and his blog and his speeches and something he said in line at a Mr. Sub and a note a dry-cleaner found in his pocket - this is all contrived, artificial rage being gleefully drummed up for partisan reasons because the man sits in an "in-play" riding, and his opponents smell blood in the Tory waters.

Doug made a mistake. Not out of malice, but out of ignorance. He learned from it. And if we don't want to lose Social Media access to our politicians altogether - if it's not too late already - I think we need to move past this, no matter what our political stripe, for the greater good - instead of crucifying this man in the name of party politics, and costing ourselves a chance at truly responsive and engaged representation and governance.

... or should we start hiring party staff to catalogue drunken text messages sent by the respective parties' Youth members at conventions, just in case they end up as MLA's someday? Keep them on-file in case the "wrong" person wins election, and then try to compel them to resign mid-term?

Wow. If this is where we're heading, maybe I DON'T want to run for office someday...


Derrick Jacobson said...

I think we should be OK my PC MLA told me they would change from within (haha and things will be different after Ed resigns and they have a new leadership race.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, although everyone is free to have their own opinion about every issue, when you are an elected representative, in all practicality it just doesn't matter in what capacity you are acting when you make comments that are potentially highly offensive to your constituents.

You may have met Mr. Elniski, but how well can you really know a person's character? The fact is that he has sexist thoughts about women, and those beliefs may or may not translate into his day-to-day work. I don't want him to represent me if he thinks so little of me as a woman.

He suffered no consequences other than embarrassment for acting like a complete douchebag. How am I supposed to support this?

More than anything, I feel terrible for his wife and three daughters.

C.Morgan said...

Rest assured I am no friend of the PCs in any way.

That being said, the abuse being heaped on Tarchuk is unfair. She is holding one of the most difficult and thankless posts in the entire government. How would the Lib/NDP gang has reacted if Tarchuk had called for kids in group-homes to be put under lockdown in anticipation of such an event? She would have been pilloried.

The Stelmach PCs have given great fodder for critique and have earned abuse and disdain. There is no need to expand into attacking ministers for not having seen the unforseeable (if there be such a word).

Trevor said...

@Anon 6:54

You dismiss ES' characterization of Elniski because " well can you really know a person's character?" Yet you have judged the man based on some sense of his character you got from some posts on twitter. Give me a break.

Tiny Perfect Blog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leanne said...

Great post, ES.

A friend and I were talking about this last night. Exactly like what you were saying, with social media comes figuring out how you can/can't use the medium. We're getting more personable politicians, but it's easy for them to forget that line while trying to entertain the masses.

I hope this won't dissuade any politicians from getting involved with social media, as it is a pretty cool way to get to converse with your elected officials.

Frankie said...

One step closer to having the only people who run for office the most blandest, boring people in the world.

Anonymous said...


If he'd said objectional things to ES in a conversation, but was perfectly nice on Twitter, I'd have the same opinion. The forum doesn't matter - the fact is, he didn't hesitate to express sexist opinions. I don't want someone - anyone - who would act that way to represent me, so certainly I will judge him as far as his suitability to be an elected representative. You give ME a break.