Confrontation vs. Diplomacy: Why confrontation works

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

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In our first He Said, He Said blog entry, the flip of the coin has resulted in me arguing why a confrontational approach with senior levels of government has worked as a political tool. But before I delve further into this issue, I think it is important to note there are many ways to measure political success.

If a confrontational approach results in our civic politicians making the front page of their local newspaper and topping the radio newscasts, hence giving them more profile, should that not be ultimate measurement of political success? After all, isn’t the goal of every civic politician to rise above their council colleagues and become a household name?

It’s not a stretch to believe that the goal of every civic politician is to get re-elected. A confrontational strategy has proven time and time again to be very appealing to the electorate who are looking for someone to stand up for their issues.

When city politicians attend endless meetings, make phone calls, send countless emails and corner various ministers at public functions to advocate on the city’s behalf, do you think this makes the 6 o’clock news? The simple answer is no. There is simply no glory (or story) in diplomacy.

And if the public hasn’t seen you do anything, rest assured that some members of council will be more than willing to jump in front of a camera to tell voters that their Mayor and Council are doing nothing to resolve the serious issues facing your city.

In fact, in the lead up to the recent civic election in Vancouver, confrontation vs diplomacy was part of the debate. Councillor Heather Deal told the Vancouver Courier that she was tired of Mayor Sullivan’s nicey-nice (her words) approach with senior levels of government. She was quote as saying "We're not seeing him [Sam Sullivan] in the public the way you do with some other mayors of major cities and demanding action and causing a kerfuffle. You have to make it painful for other levels of government. The nicey-nicey approach doesn't produce much."

Subsequently, her party Vision Vancouver was rewarded with a massive majority on Council, while all but one of her “nicey nice” diplomacy-oriented council colleagues were handed their walking papers. Days after her electoral victory, Deal continued the approach she started prior to the election. On December 5th, she was front and centre on the cover of 24 Hours magazine proclaiming “our cities are suffering, we need another government in Ottawa.”

Whether you look at former NDP Premier Glen Clark in BC, Premier Danny Williams in Newfoundland or Mayor David Miller in Toronto, they too have all successfully used a confrontational approach to get the attention of senior levels of government.

Look at what Premier Danny Williams was able to accomplish with the previous Liberal Government. After pulling Canadian flags off of Newfoundland government buildings, and raising a royal east coast stink about sharing oil revenues, he successfully got the Martin Liberals to agree to a multi-billion revenue sharing agreement. The agreement-in-principle, meant that Newfoundland would get at least $2 billion over 8 years. Although the agreement fell through when the Liberal government was defeated, it is still a clear example of how confrontation translates into billions of new revenue.

Now imagine what might have happened to Toronto Mayor David Miller if he had simply made a quiet phone call to the Solicitor General’s office to advocate for his gun reforms, while another of his citizens was shot down on Yonge street. Do you really believe the public and the media would have felt he did enough to raise the profile of this issue? No. The public and the media expect and demand more from their city politicians. It would appear that Miller had no other choice but to call in the media and assure his citizens that he was on top of this important issue. When it comes to banning handguns on the streets of Toronto, Mayor Miller knew that a few phone calls and snail mail likely wouldn’t cut it.

A confrontational approach will help civic politicians grab the headlines and put their issue at the forefront of senior levels of government. It can also lead to your issue being dealt with faster, and more effectively than the slower, methodical approach of rationale diplomacy. And by the way, did I mention it will help you raise your political profile too?

Read Mike's argument for the Diplomatic Approach.

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