Martyn Brown: At what point does Compromise let Hypocrisy rule?

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      "Hypocrisy: a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not: behavior that contradicts what one claims to believe or feel; especially the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion."

      As someone who has been accused of being many unflattering things—sometimes fairly, other times not—I am no stranger to Merriam-Webster’s definition of hypocrisy.

      In politics, as in other walks of life, I have too often been a comfortable hypocrite: too motivated by ends over means, too slow to learn from the many mistakes I made, and too old to much give a damn what others now think about what I did or do in speaking truth to power.

      My detractors might relish the ammunition that admission gives them to assail and ridicule my political commentaries. As if any alleged hypocrisy on my part somehow negates or answers the substance inherent in my critiques of parties, policies, and politicians.

      Fire away, I say.

      For the point of this article, at least, is to pose a question that probes an unsettling truth, one that has almost nothing to do with me or my motives.

      It's one that has everything to do with who will govern us in British Columbia and what each player in that power relationship is, or is not prepared to do, in the name of "compromise".

      That question is this: at what point does Compromise let Hypocrisy rule?

      That is the question that should concern all British Columbians—and all parties—as we enter this next week of political uncertainty and ongoing "wheeling and dealing".

      No matter how the final vote count shakes out, neither the B.C. Liberals nor the New Democrats will be able to last long in government without the three Green MLAs’ ongoing support in the legislature.

      How far will the two contenders for government go in courting the Greens’ jealously guarded balance of power? What compromises are they prepared to make, to get Andrew Weaver’s blessing, and how deeply will they compromise those parties, in the eyes of anyone who voted for them?

      As Gary Mason’s revelation in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail made clear, no leader or party—not even the self-styled "Saint Andrew" or his B.C. Green party—is above acting hypocritically, least of all when it comes to grubbing for money in pursuit of power.

      All the while the Greens were chastising the other parties about their abiding interest in Big Money, and claiming that only they had "clean hands", we now learn that they were speaking out of both sides of their mouth. They were secretly asking wealthy donors to contribute up to $30,000 to their cause.

      Talk about hypocrisy. Yet it doesn’t stop there.

      The Greens would have us believe that they might indeed be prepared to make a deal with the devil incarnate—their avowed ultimate ideological enemy, a.k.a. Christy Clark—if the price is right.

      Pledging fealty to the Clark government would necessarily oblige the Green party to sell its soul, just as making that pact would involve the B.C. Liberal party to do likewise.  

      Mutual soul-selling, masquerading as compromise. That would be a first for B.C., in putting in place a minority government.

      If Christy Clark reaches a deal with Andrew Weaver, it would be amount to mutual soul-selling masquerading as compromise.

      The NDP and Greens should be an easy, natural fit, but even John Horgan needs to think about his willingness to give Weaver whatever he demands as precondition for his party’s support.

      The NDP might be tempted to "compromise" some of its core commitments, values, and integrity to sign a blood oath that reeks of hypocrisy, with Weaver’s small caucus.

      Nothing would hurt more in that regard than if Horgan were to sell out his campaign commitment to direct democracy on the issue of electoral reform.

      Some commitments should be inviolable.

      Assuring all British Columbians a direct vote on any new electoral system that would change the way their votes count should be one of them.

      Over 80 percent of the electorate gave no mandate whatsoever to their new government—be it Liberal or NDP—to change their method for electing their representatives, without first seeking their express permission and approval by way of referendum.

      That is what Horgan promised. Dishonouring that pledge, as the Greens are essentially demanding, would be a travesty of democracy that would forever define the NDP as hypocrites of the first order. Surely Horgan knows that.

      The polite way of thinking about hypocrisy—about saying one thing and then doing another—is that old dictum that makes most politicians and political hacks feel so much more comfortable.

      "Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best," Chancellor Otto von Bismarck so famously observed.

      It is the mantra of all hypocrites in positions of political power, as I know so well, from my own "compromises" made in defence of the indefensible.

      How often did I hear some version of that, especially from that little voice inside my head, over my many years in the blood sport of B.C. politics?

      Spend even a few moments in almost any cabinet deliberation and you will quickly learn how mutually desirable principles tend to collide.

      The political fight for power, no less than the administration of power, is a moral quagmire.

      It makes hypocrites out of even the most nobly intended individuals, as hard reality forces "trade-offs" that decision-makers tell themselves are all fair enough compromises to serve their higher ends.

      NDP Leader John Horgan promised not to change the electoral system without a referendum, but is he prepared to break this pledge to become premier?

      Realpolitik is inescapably that messy business of compromising certain principles, values, and express commitments, in pursuit of that which we reason is not only possible, but also, desirable.

      What is it that determines those decisions?

      The answer is whatever is deemed to be most desirable, usually starting and ending with what is judged to be most politically opportune.

      Decisions hang on the balance of those compromises that momentarily elevate one "principled" objective over all others, even when partisan politics has nothing to do with the matter.

      Making such choices is sometimes a philosophical quandary that obliges decision-makers to subordinate one laudable social objective to another with which it directly conflicts.

      Other times, it just comes down to doing something that you likely know is more wrong than right, except to the extent that it advances that which is politically most important. Or turning a blind eye to the problems you know are being aggravated by your inaction, and rationalizing that you are doing the right thing.

      The Liberal-fuelled affordable housing crisis is a classic example.

      "Conscience" has its own way of reconciling its perceived hypocrisies in the name of higher virtues, which deep down, it knows are just handy arguments for rationalizing unconscionable actions.

      All parties are at times "master rationalizers" of such deeds that beg to be exposed for what they are: the naked pursuit of power, motivated by partisan self-interest.

      A case in point is the Liberals’ lame defence of the current "wild west" system of campaign finance that is so beholden to Big Money.

      Another is the NDP’s politically-motivated doublespeak on climate action, where its claimed commiment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions are often contradicted by its other commitments and actions.

      Perhaps the most glaring example of hypocrisy justified as a virtue is the Greens’ preposterous position on the process for changing our supposedly "unrepresentative" electoral system through a simple majority vote of the members of the legislature.

      They argue that our current system is so unfair, so unrepresentative, and so unresponsive to the support that each parties proportionally receive from the electorate, that it must be changed ASAP, as they see fit, using that same flawed system to do it.

      They essentially rationalize that two wrongs make a right.

      B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver's holier-than-thou pronouncements on money in politics were punctured by a Globe story showing his party's eagerness to collect a $30,000 donation.

      They contend that because the voting system was momentarily changed without a vote, back in 1952, and then changed again without a vote the following election, that their position is not without precedent.

      True enough.

      But if it was wrong then to impose a new voting system without giving all citizens a prior direct say on the matter, it is doubly wrong to do it again today. Especially since there is hardly what you might call a groundswell of public support agitating for a change to the current system, however desirable that might well be.

      The Greens can tell themselves that it shouldn’t matter that the last two binding referendums we had on electoral reform failed to win the level of approval required to bring in that proposed new system of proportional representation known as STV.

      They can tell themselves that 58 percent voted for that change in 2005 and overlook the fact that only 37 percent voted for it in 2009.

      They can pretend that that vote was not also indirectly a referendum on our current first-past-the post voting system, which it implicitly also was.

      They can tell themselves that their "righteous cause" of proportional representation—whatever model that might be—should be imposed by the same means used to impose the system that has governed us all for the past 150 years. 

      Namely, through a vote of the legislative body that the Greens claim is otherwise "unrepresentative", if not downright illegitimate.

      The Greens can quietly assure themselves that it is not hypocritical to embrace that "compromise", which they demand of the NDP and Liberals in their competition for power, as a "deal-breaker" that Weaver maintains is crucial to his party’s support.

      They can choose to overlook the fact that any such action to impose a new voting system, without allowing all citizens a right to first vote on it, would fly in flagrant contempt of the vast majority of the people it is intend to serve.

      But they would still be wrong. And they would still be hypocrites for doing so.

      If the NDP or Liberals were ever so craven or stupid as to allow themselves into being bullied into accepting that condition, they too would prove that there is a fine line between compromise and hypocrisy.

      It is a line that is all too easily crossed by those who are willing to compromise what they know is right, for all the wrong reasons, which largely comes down to a question of partisan advantage.

      These are the trade-offs that each leader and each party must fairly and honestly consider in trying to cut a deal for power—one that is true to their "brand promises" and that honours their democratic obligations in upholding the public trust they swore to serve. 

      We might quibble about the amounts that should be invested on any public priority, or about the levels or types of taxes that are needed to pay for crucially important public services.

      We might haggle on the margins about the platform commitments that each party made in seeking the voters’ trust at the ballot box.

      We might think one party is right and one or more other parties is wrong on just about any issue.

      Fair enough.

      Those parties ran on their platforms and promises. Indeed, we should expect them to honour them, even if reasonableness dictates that acceptable accommodations might be made in how or when they are acted upon.

      But please, let’s not pretend that doing one thing that is diametrically opposite to what was promised is somehow "compromise". 

      It is hypocrisy. Pure and simple.

      And the truth is, some hypocrisies are simply worse than others.

      The worst of all them would be for the B.C. Green party to essentially sell its soul for a "quick win" on proportional representation, in partnership with a government and a party that they well know deserves to be consigned to rot fo a while in purgatory.

      As I have been arguing since the election, the Greens should have no truck or trade with the Clark government, or with the B.C. Liberal agenda that is so abjectly at odds with the Greens’ platform and with their ostensible raison d'être.

      And close behind on that score would be if the NDP were to ever drink the Greens’ Kool-Aid on its preferred model for advancing PR.

      It is demonstrably undemocratic and hypocritical beyond belief.

      Making that wrong choice would only serve to compromise Horgan and his party in an unconscionsable way that is untenable and also politically shortsighted.

      On that point, as on the need for a sensible alliance in the form of a time-limited NDP-Green partnership, the parties should compromise as warranted.

      But not to the extent of letting hypocrisy rule. 

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, and he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at