by Hilary Clark Thursday March 8, 2012

Every day politicians talk and talk and talk, in the legislature, at public events, before this niche audience or that. Every day, most people tune it out, leaving it to political junkies to parse, repeat, refute or reject their familiar and well-scripted phrases. Average citizens are not the only ones who think that politicians talk a lot but say very little. So much of what our elected officials do these days (perhaps always did) seems to be about controlling the message and answering the questions they want regardless of what question might have been asked. The exception comes when a politician steps in it somehow. Then, it can go viral and fast. Everyone hears about and talks about it.

So last week, when Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s comment that he’d prefer a lower dollar to a booming oil gas sector grabbed attention from coast to coast, reaction to it at first seemed to almost put it in the gaffe-grabbing-headlines category. "What did he say?" seemed to be the response. What nerve, some said, loud enough it seems, that the premier beat a retreat of sorts. You can see some of the reaction here, here, here, here and here.

But rather than view this as borderline slip of the tongue – or as the premier indicated, a failure to self-edit – perhaps it’s a shining example both of why politicians rarely say what they really think and perhaps why they should do it a lot more often. Sure, McGuinty took a bit of a beating in the press. But as the week unfolded, the premier’s "slip" led to some reflection on the core issue he inadvertently put on the table. Some came to his defense, asking, why wouldn’t the premier of the once-powerful-now-struggling manufacturing powerhouse, who incidentally has put green power at the core of his energy policy, be an unreserved booster of the Alberta oil sands? For example, see here and here. That is, it turned out that there was at least a discussion worth having about the impact of the dollar on Ontario’s economy and what that means going forward. The Agenda will talk about that tonight.

So, when by the end of last week, the premier had “clarified” his statement, softened the message, and endorsed the idea of a national energy strategy, the political universe had returned to normal. The premier was back under control (if not entirely retreating), on message and getting to what he wanted to talk about, green energy. Conversation tamed, crisis averted. Public tuned out?

McGuinty was reportedly  surprised by ‘petro-dollar’ comment backlash, but I can’t help wonder what would have happened if he’d used it to launch a larger conversation about the future of the Canadian economy, or perhaps call for an national industrial strategy as former federal Conservative Minister of Industry Jim Prentice recently did. After all, it’s not a settled question that the oil sands should be the foundation of Canada’s economy with all other sectors re-tooling to bolster a resource economy from sea to sea. In the end, that may be exactly what Canada decides is the best way forward. But wouldn’t it be nice if a bit of frank talk leads to a serious, sober discussion about the direction of the country's economy? Instead, we missed an opportunity to have that kind of conversation, because everyone’s gone back to reading their parts of the script.

What do you think – should politicians be a little lighter on the self-editing? Would it generate a better public debate? Or was the premier just off base, so let sleeping dogs lie?

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