Confrontation vs. Diplomacy: The diplomatic approach

Post by Mike Klassen in

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Daniel got the coin toss in favour of the confrontational approach. I'm going to observe why junior levels of government can succeed using the quieter diplomatic approach.

NEWS FLASH: Politicians have egos. Details at eleven.

Yes, this may be a shock to our readers, but the people we elect to public office for the most part have a healthy image of themselves and the work they do on behalf of the public. Be glad that they do, too. Nobody wants to vote for an ineffectual sap as their elected representative.

Every political representative I have met, no matter how high or low on the food chain, likes to take some credit for policy and initiatives that benefit their constituents. Sometimes they want a LOT of credit.

Bearing in mind this truism of politics, you can understand why the "diplomatic" approach to working with senior levels of government has the highest probability of success.

During Vancouver's 2008 election campaign one of the key debates was who would best be able to work with senior levels of government? The reasons for this question may seem obvious. The federal government is run by Conservatives with virtually no elected representation in any of Canada's major cities. In Victoria, the BC Liberals run the government. A former member of the provincial opposition is now mayor of Vancouver, and his party is made up mostly of NDP party stalwarts.

Gregor Robertson took great lengths, as has Vision Vancouver itself, to be seen as part of the political centre. It was perhaps the critical ingredient of their electoral success. I've always argued that as left wing as Vancouver seems to the rest of Canada, it is the centre that rules in this city. The NPA's dominance at City Hall over the past 70 years proves that time and again.

Sam Sullivan was attacked regularly by the Vision opposition as being a "do-nothing" mayor, and the label stuck in the public's imagination enough to make him vulnerable, even from within his own political supporters. Sullivan embodied the diplomatic approach. He may, as he so candidly let slip in the Citizen Sam documentary, want to step on his opponent's throat, but Sam never once was openly hostile to any of his fellow politicians.

Sullivan's critics froth at the mere suggestion his 3-year term held any successes. Those with a more dispassionate view of the past 3 years at City Hall can't overlook the deals struck around 12 new social housing sites, and the promises around the UBC line extension. Did the diplomatic approach set the bar higher for what cities can get from their provincial masters?

Agitating or embarrassing the Prime Minister, a Premier or their ministers may play well to social warriors and malcontented voters, but it's a surefire way to get a target on your back as a politician.

Former B.C. Premier Glen Clark made a reputation out of hurling attacks at Ottawa, but does anyone remember if it ever worked? It certainly failed miserably during the Nanoose Bay fiasco where Clark challenged the rights of US ships (that possibly carried nuclear weapons) to dock at the Canadian naval base, and Prime Minister Chretien simply expropriated the land from B.C.'s control.

Premier Gordon Campbell promised to calm relations between Victoria and Ottawa, and he has stuck by that principle during his seven years in government. It hasn't always brought the expected gains from the Feds. Campbell wants destination travel status with China, offshore drilling rights, and forest industry support which Ottawa has failed to deliver on so far. But the list of partnerships struck by Campbell's government and the Chretien, Martin and Harper administrations is too long for this little blog post.

Back home in Vancouver, local reporters made a very big deal out of the recent agreement on homeless shelters between the province and Vancouver. Some went as far to suggest that by sitting next to Gordon Campbell at the announcement that Gregor Robertson was evidence of Vision Vancouver's new rapprochement with the BC Liberal government. I say don't hold your breath on that idea, but it's possible Robertson is pushing from within to take a pragmatic approach.

Holding back on the vitriol, and using honey instead of vinegar is just smart politics. Politicians like most of us have egos, and not even the most thick-skinned political veterans appreciate being attacked in the headlines. Wise politicians opt for the diplomatic approach.

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