If Stephen Harper could turn back time

What if, at the first hint of economic peril, the Prime Minister had acknowledged the possibility of something very, very bad happening? What harm would he have suffered if he had admitted that a recession was likely and deficits were almost certain? Would any of the people who supported the Conservatives in the last election have voted differently if he had been more forthright and more forthcoming on our economic state of affairs? What if he admitted that his government would have to make changes to its existing policy and promised intentions to deal with the situation?

I’m not sure Harper wouldn’t have been still been Prime Minister on October 15 if he’d been more direct. He might still have been able to argue that the economy was better off under his guidance than Stephane Dion’s. But then it would have been a riskier approach—in the short-term political sense—than the one Harper took. He would’ve invited scrutiny of his government’s actions. His opponents would’ve used such admissions to attack him.

Honesty in politics is a bit of a weird concept that way. We can demand it all we like, but if we only punish those who speak it, there’s no incentive to tell the truth.

Maybe it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Say a politician commits to always be truthful and direct. Inevitably there are going to be some problems, some moments when what he says is unpopular or his admitting a mistake is embarrassing. But, in the long-term, maybe he gains a unique kind of credibility. Maybe he wins an amount of trust beyond what is generally attainable for the average leader. Maybe he’s able to utilize that in the interests of not only electoral success, but also legislative achievement.

But how long a game is that? Could any politician survive the short-term well enough intact to get that far? Would we even like what we heard from him?

(Note: We obviously don’t expect normal, non-political people to always be honest. But it’s probably not too much to ask that politicians be honest in their representations to the public. The Prime Minister is surely not obligated to tell you the truth if you ask him whether those pants make you look too hippy. But there should just as surely be some expectation of honesty in how they explain what they’re doing in your name.)

Not that all politicians are liars. But they all come to the truth from selfish perspectives. And they certainly realize, to varying degrees, that it’s not always in their immediate interests to be as forthcoming as possible.

Thing is, that always, inevitably, catches up with them. There probably isn’t a single major political figure in the history of the Western world to have left office without some record of scandal, cover-up or outright deception. And we now generally assume that all politicians are duplicitous in their own ways. It’s just down to what they’re misleading us about, how egregiously they go about it and whether we’re nonetheless able to believe them in enough ways to make them worthy of our support.

That’s sort of depressing. That’s sort of the way things are. Though I’m not sure it’s much of a defence for anyone, let alone Mr. Harper.

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