Is Dignity on the Ballot?

As a recovering politician, I’m often ribbed about the lack of dignity in politics. Being a lawyer has conditioned me. To get ahead of all this, I’m often the first one to share jokes at a party…

Did you hear the one about… the honest politician, a generous lawyer and Santa Claus get into an elevator. As the lift travels from the ground floor up to the 10th floor, one-by-one they notice a $100 bill lying on the elevator floor? Which one picked up the $100 bill and handed it in at reception? Answer: Santa, of course, the other two don’t actually exist!

Seriously, though, we need to talk a little more about the dignity of politicians and the dignity of the people they represent, the voters. One of the most memorable moments in the 2016 U.S. election (yes, there were many) was Hilary Clinton’s warning that “dignity and respect for women and girls is also on the ballot in this election.”

But isn’t dignity always on the ballot?

When I’m deciding who to choose as my representative—in federal, provincial and municipal politics, or on the board of directors of my local Co-op grocery store—one of my key questions is “how will this person see me, and others in my community?” Handing over my decision-making to someone else, which is what politics is all about, is a big deal. I want to have a strong sense that anyone who speaks on my behalf has the self-worth and the empathy required to engage diverse viewpoints (not just special interests with the loudest voices) and is committed to doing the hard work of generating practical and creative solutions, taking these different perspectives into account.

I’m looking for politicians who preserve their own sense of dignity, and who likewise can recognize the dignity in me, the citizen.

One of the questions most often posed to me, right now, is why I agreed to sit on the transition team for the Progressive Conservative party of Alberta following the election of Jason Kenney as the party’s leader. As a ‘progressive’ in the PC party, a few party members and many people with different political affiliations, have said I betrayed progressives by accepting a seat at that table. So, why did I accept? The answer to that question is rooted in dignity.

Having a voice at a decision-making table is not something I accept lightly. I’m incapable of window-dressing, and abhor tokenism. And, there is no compensation, so critics can’t accuse me of grabbing the cash. It’s a serious decision. It involves diligence, an understanding of the people I’m there to represent, and a willingness to speak up, with respect and all the influence I can muster, especially when my opinion isn’t mainstream.  Sitting at a table where I’m obviously a minority point-of-view, I have to hold on tight to my own dignity.   The idea of betrayal suggests a lack of loyalty, nothing could be further from the truth – the distinction is that my loyalty is not to a dogma but to value, the value of responsible representation.


PC youth wave at the Varsity constituency Progressive Conservative AGM this spring (and a few of us who aren’t so young)

The reason I accepted a seat at the transition table is to ensure that the interests and ideas of generations younger than the baby-boomers are represented. “Whoa”, you say, “she’s 57, a baby-boomer, and how is it she feels qualified to make sure that the priorities of younger PCs are heard in the PC-Wildrose merger talks?” Fair question. For the last 18 months, I’ve been surrounded by Albertans, most under the age of 40, who want to have their voices heard in political decision-making. Mentoring these Millennials, Gen X’ers, Gen Y’s has been inspiring. Over cups of coffee and glasses of beer, I’ve learned a lot about what they want and how they see the world. In the coming elections, IF these generations choose to vote, they will have more influence in decision-making than the baby-boomers and older generations. This will be a turning point in our democracy.

May 2017 019Steven Lumbala, a young leader engaging youth perspectives in Alberta via twitter account @TheYoungBluesCA

What do younger voters want? To move beyond anecdotal experiences, I’ve taken a deep dive into the research. Not surprisingly, most of the focus has been on Millennials (people born in 1980-1999), the largest cohort of eligible voters for the first time ever in the next election cycle. Environics Institute has done a social values survey on Millennials. The Manning Centre has also commissioned national and provincial research.  Abacus Data has recently released some helpful data on the changing Canadian electorate.

What am I hearing? Many younger voters (especially those paying taxes) don’t believe money grows on trees; they want balanced budgets and economic stewardship, and often look to market-oriented approaches to solve tough issues like environment and health care. That’s wise; there are a fair number of us baby-boomers, and most of us will hopefully live long enough to need seniors’ housing and care.

They care about individual rights and freedom of choice, and protecting the vulnerable. And, yes, many want to make sure that includes the vulnerable in the LGBTQ community. So, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in junior and senior high schools serve a much needed purpose. As an MLA, I saw the same inside schools. GSAs allow kids, gay and straight, to come together and have shown to decrease teen suicides as some homes are not welcoming to LGBTQ kids, and a GSA can be a safe place for them. We have to defend that space.

May 2017 007My husband, Laurie, and I joining others in Calgary’s Gay Pride Parade, September 2016.

And, younger voters don’t like political tone that is negative, reactive and divisive. If you have a different point of view, fine, but frame it with a ‘why’ and offer a different approach (don’t just say no to things, like a price on carbon).  This means calling out politicians who use anger to rally voters. And, it means being willing to talk across party lines.

IMG_4781Margo Purcell, Calgary (on left) moderating this panel as co-founder of a beyond partisan political movement in Alberta, The Political Accelerators

More than three centuries ago, Kant, the Enlightenment philosopher often considered to be the source of the contemporary idea of dignity, cautioned the elite not to exploit people or treat them as a means to an end. Good ideas endure.

The other thing I’m doing is encouraging younger generations to consider running for elected office. Being a politician isn’t for the faint of heart, though, and individuals considering this pathway need to prepare themselves and their families. Falling from grace in the political world is costly and the public reaction is merciless. Why are people so quick to judge their politicians? Even seeming to relish politicians’ indiscretions? It’s a bad sign, really, because it often signals that citizens have severed their identification with politicians, the very people they elected to speak on their behalf.

That younger politicians, and citizens, may be motivated to change political tone is heartening. There is great dignity in politicians offering themselves to voters as authentic, competent and accountable, and to citizens holding them to account. In 1859, John Stuart Mill famously said: “The worth of the state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.”  In 2017, allow me to edit slightly: “The dignity of the state, in the long run, is the dignity of the individuals composing it.”

I’ve witnessed dignity in the voice of not only the Millennials but all age groups that simultaneously hold progressive social and conservative fiscal ideas and the voices of those who are tired of fear-politics, dogma and divisive ideals.  This is why I’m at the table, because I believe that my voice matters.  Walking away, as a sign of solidarity with ‘progressive’ ideals, leaves the table more of an echo chamber.  I’m not betraying anyone, I’m choosing to believe that our political system is as strong as its voices; thanks to history and hard work I have an invitation to be at this table. I accept this invitation and its inherent responsibility seriously. I’m here to represent; that’s what politics is all about.

How do you see dignity on the ballot? 

Donna Kennedy-Glans


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