One of the great lines put forth by political candidates when they hit campaign mode is their willingness to “listen” and “communicate” with people.
But election time is the only actual moment when they seem readily accessible to the public and respond to queries — while they mine the eligible voters for their support.
Things change radically when they are elected because voters have used up their usefulness after the election and successful candidates can now concentrate on construction of a wall between them and the public. It happens at every level of government from municipal to federal and too few politicians are willing to break the communication barrier after they assume office.
We had a horrific winter where snow removal became a hot button issue and our new city council faced a big challenge. My brother contacted a councillor and our mayor about the hourly cost of city employees and equipment to compare against a private contractor for snow removal because both were used this past winter. He simply wanted to understand whether the snow removal needs of Red Deer would be served better by private contractors through a basic cost analysis.
He was deflected to a city employee on both occasions and she told him he would have to pay for the information. My brother asked the two elected officials to gather the information for him and they deferred to the same city employee who trotted out the same story. There was no follow-up by either elected official to get my brother the information so it could be compared to a private contractor arrangement with no future pension liability hung on the citizens of Red Deer. The door of direct communication was shut tight for him.
Another example of poor communication was a request made to Justin Trudeau to discuss his late father’s beloved car. Pierre Trudeau owned a rare 1957 Mercedes 300SL that was his signature car as a young bachelor politician and it is now one of Justin’s most prized possessions because of the links with his father. It was an apolitical feel-good car guy story that we wanted to use as a feature story for our online car website so we approached Justin’s people about the idea.
The whole process got very complicated in a hurry and, after several months of one sided (us to them) communication with little response, Trudeau and his handlers turned down our request for a simple car story. We gave them a golden opportunity to attach Trudeau to a story designed to humanize the guy in a region where he will have a tough time with voters and he took over four months to say no to our modest proposal.
The complete opposite occurred last week when Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall took an hour from his day and discussed his own collector cars as well as a charity auction custom Mustang. It took one email to set the wheels in motion for the interview and follow-up photos were sent to us minutes after the interview.
It would be fair to say Wall is busier than any of the aforementioned politicians and yet he was the easiest to access directly in terms of communication. He is a poster boy for our expectations of our politicians and we cannot even vote for the guy. Wall is also responsible for one of the most incredible economic turnarounds in the history of this country.
For me the lesson is very simple: Wall is a big picture guy who understands the value of actual communication after an election because a great leader is also a great communicator.
It is an invaluable lesson lost on most politicians the minute the campaign phase of their careers end for them.
Jim Sutherland is a local freelance writer.