It was inevitable that much of the attention paid to a new book by the chief of staff to departed B.C. premier Gordon Campbell would focus on criticism directed at his former boss’s successor – Christy Clark.
Martyn Brown’s view that Ms. Clark has steered her government along an erratic course was too juicy to ignore. As was his examination of the controversy over the introduction of the harmonized sales tax – a public policy fiasco that ultimately cost Mr. Campbell his job.
Mr. Brown’s insider view of that debacle and his enlightened perspective alone are worth the six bucks it costs to buy Towards A New Government in British Columbia , recently released as an e-book on Amazon.
But it is what Mr. Brown has to say about politics in a more general sense that I found most profound. And certainly he’s been in a position over the past couple of decades to witness up close how politics in British Columbia works, in all its nasty and most vitriolic forms.
Mr. Brown’s bona fides speak for themselves: He served in senior positions under three provincial premiers and five provincial party leaders in three different parties, as he states in the book. He was the top strategic adviser for three of those leaders – including Mr. Campbell for most of a decade – and was chief campaign strategist for two of those parties.
And as he acknowledges, for much of that time he was a take-no-prisoners partisan, who ignored good advice and viewed politics as a constant battle that was to be fought, and won, by virtually any means possible.
Mr. Brown was let go from government soon after Ms. Clark arrived on the scene in February, 2011, so it would be easy to dismiss his views, especially those critical of her administration, as sour grapes. That would be a mistake, however, as much of what he has to say about Ms. Clark’s government is spot on – especially the notion that she seems to be governing devoid of any grand vision or strongly held convictions and principles.
It is apparent Mr. Brown has had time to contemplate the nature of politics in B.C. since moving on from Victoria. And upon reflection, it would seem he experienced a conversion, of sorts, a realization that the politics he was part of, the politics he advocated, was wrong. And in arriving at his new position, Mr. Brown has some sage words for voters.
“Fundamentally,” he writes, “we need to vote positively, without being cowed by ideology, by the politics of fear or by the age-old myths that are manipulated for partisan advantage.
“We need to place less emphasis on who forms the government and greater emphasis on the purpose of power, on the ends we hope to achieve, and on the way that power is exercised on our behalf.”
Mr. Brown says the negative sensibility that has existed in the political realm in B.C. almost forever does little to help build public understanding of the immense challenges that the province faces on any number of fronts. “It also perpetuates a ‘politics-as-war’ mindset that frustrates constructive post-election relationships that could help to improve informed decision making,” he states.
In the truer-words-were-never-spoken department, Mr. Brown says that the biggest barrier to social progress isn’t money or the scarcity of resources. “It is petty, partisan politics and a lack of political will to change,” he writes. “We need to change that. We need to develop a more contemporary political culture that is less ideological, less polarized, more assertive, more collaborative and more attuned to the drivers of social change that are forcing and limiting governments’ political choices.”
If only it were that simple.
Politicians have talked before about trying to change the province’s infamously malicious and divisive political ethos. Most attempts, such as they were, were futile. Spitefulness and meanness is often the default setting in B.C.’s political arena, and it’s difficult imagining that changing any time soon.
To his credit, Mr. Brown acknowledges his contribution to that dynamic. He says he learned too late what a destructive and ineffective approach it is.
In a lifetime of reading books about politics and the nature of governing, I have to say that Towards a New Government in British Columbia is one of the best and most insightful tomes I’ve come across. The most depressing part of it is that much of the hard-earned wisdom contained within it will no doubt be ignored.