Politicians and the truth
There is a memorable scene in the film “A Few Good Men”, where Jack Nicholson screams out: “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
This seems to characterize most politicians’ views about voters. For some reason, they believe that the electorate does not want to hear the truth, or cannot handle the truth. So we have a three day “thinkers” conference sponsored by the Liberal Party of Canada, where most speakers offered reasonable assessments of the problems facing the country. Yet, Michael Ignatieff, the federal Liberal leader, speaking at the end of the conference, offered platitudes and a few mundane policy initiatives which side-stepped completely the major problems and the tough choices facing the country. Was he afraid to speak the truth for fear that Canadians cannot handle it, and thus might turn on him the way they did on his predecessor, Stephane Dion, when he proposed a carbon tax?
We have a debate among the mayoral candidates in Toronto, and the leading candidates avoid the issue of road tolls to finance public transportation. The next day, the Toronto Board of Trade announces that Toronto now has the longest daily commute times among 24 major cities around the world. Indeed, the average commute time is 43% longer than in Los Angeles. Toronto has too many cars and a sub-par public transit network. Are the municipal politicians afraid to tell the voters in Toronto the truth for fear of being driven out of the race? Can’t the electorate handle the truth?
The U.S. has just passed a health reform bill, but many of the measures do not come into effect for another four to eight years. Further, the bill does not tackle cost controls, leaving major issues for another day and possibly for other politicians. Again, can’t voters handle the truth?
Whether one believes in climate change, there are still very good economic, geo-political and environmental reasons for the U.S. and Canadian Governments to introduce massive carbon taxes. But this has become the third rail of politics. Even the French Government shelved its plan to introduce a modest carbon tax, an initiative that had been the cornerstone of President Sarkozy’s environmental policy. People do not want to hear about a carbon tax.
Instead. politicians have toyed with cap and trade proposals, claiming these will not cost people anything. If you believe this, then I have some wonderful swamp land in central Florida which has been recently re-zoned for luxury condos to sell to you.
Why it does appear that can’t people handle the truth?
In part, because we are selfish and greedy. We do not want to pay. We believe we are entitled to everything, and that someone else should pick up the tab – future generations, foreigners, corporations, the rich – anyone but us. While we may believe that all levels of government are bloated, wasteful and inefficient, we do not want them to cut back on the programs which benefit us directly. We expect governments to increase funding on our pet projects and pass on the costs to someone else.
Politicians have nurtured our natural greed by claiming we are entitled to all types of largesse from government, and at the same time, we should not worry about the costs and how these programs will be paid for. They increasingly refrain from engaging in honest debates, spelling out the real trade-offs and problems.
We have become entitlement societies, unwilling to listen to anyone who points out that many of these programs are not sustainable or do not make for good policy; and eager to punish any politician who has the courage to suggest that we are going to have to pay for these entitlements one way or another (lower benefits or higher taxes).
The problems are looming and inevitable. Can the voters listen and understand the hard, cold facts and policy options? Probably.
Are politicians prepared to engage in honest and open discussions and debates? Probably not, until real leaders surface.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.