Politicking In Government

It’s not hard to distinguish between the role of a political party and the role of a government. One is a purely partisan group that works to gain power. The other serves at the will of the people to deliver on the promises made while its members were politicking.

Between elections, politicians become governors. Whether in power or in opposition, they’re sworn to respect the constitution and to work in the best interests of the electorate, defined as broadly or narrowly as their office may require.

During elections, they needn’t trouble their consciences with thoughts of the public good. Instead, they must shape perceptions of the public good, and gainsay their rivals whenever possible. Once they’re given a mandate and take office, they need to think about how to deliver on their promises. At this point, partisanship must give way to pragmatism.

Yet “politics” and “government” are used coterminously in common speech, as if they shared one meaning, or no specific meaning at all. This was illustrated perfectly during a July 2016 spasm of debate about transit planning in Toronto.

It is good politics to build a multi-billion dollar subway to a lone stop deep in Scarborough, rather than to build a fully funded light rapid transit network that collects and drops people at seven. All three levels of government have colluded to make this case to the people of Scarborough, helping federal and provincial Liberals into power as a result. In return for collaboration in this insanity, the senior levels of government have promised to fund other transit initiatives that are actually critical and legitimate.

In contrast, it is good governance to do the opposite. All the experts in planning, transportation, and finance agree that the LRT is vastly more beneficial and less costly than a one-stop subway. As fiduciaries, the City Councillors who decline to participate in the Mayor’s insanity were acting in the best interest of the majority, just as they pledged to do when campaigning for office. Every Councillor who has switched their support from the 2009, Council-approved LRT plan, to support Mayor Ford and Tory’s tunneling obsession, is failing at government, whether or not they’re succeeding at politics.


This would be obvious to any second-grade civics class, learning the fundamentals of democracy. Using billions of dollars for political self-interest, as certain Scarborough MP’s, MPP’s, and City Councillors have done, is clearly wrong. Likewise, it would be obvious that pursuit of the highest value and lowest cost option, for the good of Scarborough residents and for tax payers across the City, is clearly the right thing to do.

What’s extraordinary about this is the degree to which it has become acceptable for elected officials to do the wrong thing. In this case, former Mayor, Mel Lastman, weighed in on the issue, and judged the subway to be disastrously wrong for Toronto, yet argued that it was politically necessary. In his words, Lastman said council should stick to the subway plan even if “everybody loses.” More astonishing to me was the uncritical reporting of his statements in the media.

As far as Lastman and the media are concerned, Tory is doing the right thing by building the wrong kind of transit for Scarborough and burdening tax payers with billions in avoidable debt. Political wisdom directly contradicts the best impulse of government.

I have often made the argument that politics and government are incompatible activities. Politics is an intermittent evil that we all endure to determine who will govern. But once elections are over, governing begins, lasting until another election is necessary. Lastman’s statements, and Tory’s position, are evidence of the need to alternate between politics and government, rather than allowing one to infect the other.

Apparently they are indistinguishable from a media perspective now. But what good comes from this confusion, and who benefits from it?

I know the answer politicians have in mind, but it doesn’t bear scrutiny once spoken aloud. It was actually a long time East York politician and foot soldier, in both the Lastman and Ford regimes, who made it utterly clear to me in a quiet conversation. He said, “We’d all like to do the right thing, but we have to follow the electorate. We’re not in a position to do much good if we do the right thing and get thrown out of office for it.”

Think about that for a minute. The politician’s presumption is that the voter gets things wrong and will punish good acts if a politician leads rather than follows on the issues. This ignores the fact that politicians lead public opinion by making arguments and promises when they’re politicking, and by using the bully pulpit of the legislature to propound their ideas.

So to say that they are helpless victims of public opinion is an abdication of duty. It also ignores the degree to which politicians shape public opinion. This was certainly true in transit planning for the former City of Scarborough, where each of the last three mayoral terms have sold constituents on completely different transit plans, each with lower service levels, higher costs, and later delivery dates.

Today, journalists are wringing their hands at the delivery of staff reports warning that little of Tory’s new Smart Track plan can actually be built, that most of it was already planned by the Province, that it will take five years longer than the seven he promised, that costs were underestimated and revenues were overstated.

They seem to be asking how this could have happened, oblivious to their own role in the undoing of past plans. Remember, seven years of planning went into the fully funded, seven stop LRT that Miller got through Council and the Province in 2009 for completion before the Pan Am Games in 2015. By the time Ford had finished shredding that plan in 2010, and Tory had overlaid his ill-conceived scheme in 2014, the media had been on this story for more than a decade. Now, at 14 years (and counting) the media still avoids calling out the politicization of transit plans, while blithely chronicling the symptoms of this sickness.

Once you toss out the idea that politicians are simply following public opinion, instead of leading people down the path they campaigned on, it becomes harder to excuse the practice of partisan politics by those with a mandate to govern. Sadly, the distinction between these pursuits, in word and deed, has been obliterated.

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