Free Speech for Candidates

I was an in-studio guest yesterday on CBC Radio’s call-in show “Ontario Today”, hosted by Rita Celli. The title of the show was “Canning candidates: Is it good for democracy?” and the topic was the expulsion of candidates by the major parties for gaffes made on social media and elsewhere. A recording of the show is available here. A review of 20 of the “gaffes” from this election was published in the Globe & Mail here.

Two of the main points I made on the show were:

  1. Candidates and representatives must have freedom of speech.
  2. We should make a separation between a candidates’ private life and her public life in relation to her work as a political candidate.

The first point is essential in a representative democracy, in which the members of a community elect an individual to represent them in Parliament. Candidates who put themselves forward as potential representatives of the community must be free to discuss, debate, react, and express a wide-range of points of view on complex and challenging issues. They need this freedom in order to develop positions that represent their fellow community members; and voters need candidates to undergo this process so that they know what they are voting for on election day. As one caller to today’s show said, “everyone says stupid things, and smart people learn from that—the person who has never said anything stupid is the one who currently holds a stupid opinion.”

In an ideal representative system, the representatives truly are individuals; they are independent thinkers who consider the issues and make their own choices in their work as law makers. They may choose to compromise by joining coalitions with other representatives or by joining a party and agreeing to some overarching principles, but they remain at their core individuals elected by their constituents to represent them in Parliament.

In another system, political positions and messages are designed by corporate communications teams attached to the offices of the leaders of the major parties, and any candidate who strays in the smallest way from the party’s branding is swiftly terminated. The misstep can be something said on Facebook or Twitter many years before the candidate ever considered entering politics, and after nomination by the candidate’s local riding association. And because of the culture and the nature of the mass media, no candidate who is not affiliated with one of the major parties has any hope of being elected.

The present system as exhibited in the current election is much closer to the second option, albeit with some degree of democratic decision making regarding the formation of party platforms through the party membership, and some latitude for controversy committed by strategically important candidates or staffers.

It seems to me that a more reasonable approach to outrageous statements made by a candidate would be for the local riding association to provide a public platform for the nominated candidate to interact with the community and local party members: Did you really say that? What do you mean by that? If there was a Bill in Parliament on this issue, how would you vote? The riding association that nominated Mr. Jagdish Grewal may have taken this approach and expanded discussion of the issue within the riding’s community, rather than allowing the party elite to summarily revoke his candidacy and thereby end the discussion.

The second point is also essential and needs to be recognized: a person’s work should be considered separate from her private life. The only question we should ask is, “Did she act that way as part of her work as a political representative, or did those actions actually harm her work as a political representative?” Politicians, like all workers, must be free to have their private lives to themselves, regardless of how immoral, outrageous, or controversial their private lives may seem. If they engage in criminal behaviour, then that is the domain of the police and the courts, just as it would be for any other citizen.

Many examples exist to illustrate this point—JFK, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. are a few that come to mind. How would the civil rights movement have been affected if King’s private sex life had been exposed the way it might be today on the internet, or had been judged to be relevant to his transformative political work? The more we can separate the private lives of political candidates and representatives from their public, working lives, the more they can be brave and principled in public life. [1]

There’s something Canadians can do to create more democracy in our society: we can choose not to accept any actions by powerful groups that restrict and remove freedom of expression of individuals. This is true for all institutions and organizations, and it’s true for all parties that field candidates in an election. Let’s have blunders, outrage, head-scratching, and argument, rather than the present strict adherence to top-down branding that cleanses out the conflict of ideas that we need to understand one another and create new and better political positions.

[1] Note about muckraking: As citizens interested in optimizing democracy, we should protect the rights of muckrakers, while simultaneously recognizing the complexity of the human person and the irrelevance of most features of private life to the ability to be an effective and principled leader in public affairs. If a candidate makes statements that she intends to be unrelated to her public work, then we should recognize her privacy as worth protecting.

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