Written by Natasha Arsenijevich & Siobhan Mullally
*Note: We present these realities with ugly and bad first, followed by the good, because Glen always leaves you on a good note, smiling.
What is the state of Governance? Politics? Politicians?
I imagine a reality somewhere in between House of Cards and The Office – where power hungry men vying for adulation collide with indifferent and jaded lifelong public servants. The perception of politics has changed with each passing generation, and while some aspects of society evolve over time, I am not sure politics is aging very well. If you ask a Baby Boomer what they think of politicians, their response will be very different from Generation Z. Politicians and our governments in general, were once trusted, respected, and admired; now, politicians are synonymous with sex scandals, corruption, and lies. Social media is certainly a factor here. Celebrities crossing the threshold from the big screen to the political stage haven’t helped either. What possesses someone to enter such a volatile arena? Can meaningful change happen within bi-partisan politics? Can one good politician really make a difference? We had the opportunity to sit down with Glen Murray, Canadian politician and activist, to discuss the good, bad, and ugly realities of politics, today.
The state of politics has gone from professional to personal. The once respected role of a political leader has turned into a reputationally risky career path where any form of privacy is unattainable. Politicians are no longer in the ivory tower; they cannot escape the limelight of social media and news scandals and are subject to scrutiny akin to celebrities, as Glen Murray can rightfully attest to.
“Reputation is everything. I realized that politics had changed in my political career from where you would leave hopefully with your reputation solid and intact; that is almost impossible. I’m one of the very few politicians who’ve escaped scandal. I’ve been the victim of one that I’d only describe as completely manufactured. [Dalton McGuinty] said, ‘The one thing I do leave with is my integrity – I know what I did, I know why I did it, and when I put my head on my pillow at night, well, I certainly took reputational hits that were devastating, but I know the truth and was able to leave politics with my integrity. I don’t second guess myself on the rightness of the things I did with the information that I had at the time.’”
“It’s also social media. Anyone can take your picture. I had very aggressive cameramen who were pretty homophobic and would follow me into all kinds of places that weren’t appropriate … I had death threats, and when I was mayor even years later, I had to wear Kevlar jackets to work. There were attempts on my life. People set my house on fire. I got beaten up, often by police. It was a really hard time – I mean, “fearing for my life” unsafe at times. So now, for my generation, creating safe spaces is what some of us have to have the courage to do, which means it’s like being a soldier going to war. You’re taking your life in your own hands to be a political leader. There’s an expectation around young people that other people have to have created the safe space. That concerns me. I’m trying to be more understanding of it, but I come from a generation where there were few safe places, and leadership was about creating them. You have to make a decision in your life whether you can pay the price, take the risks, and live the kind of life that’s required to take situations that are completely unsafe for you and turn them upside down and make them safe for other people.”
The venture of politics has also turned into a reality show full of theatrics and drama. Candidates are more likely to spend their energy destroying another’s campaign than putting positive effort toward enhancing their own. A large part of this stems from the division in society between “left” and “right”. The “other side” has become the enemy, and most recently, the phenomenon of “cancel culture” has enabled us to completely attack and ostracize the “other”. It has allowed us to dehumanize one another, leaving no space for the heart and the emotional connection that politics needs. It has turned into a blood sport, with players using dirty tactics and rules being thrown out the window; there is no such thing as a penalty anymore – only separate losses and zero collective wins. Between global pandemics and climate change, now more than ever, we need political leaders to play on the same team and leave rivalries on the field.
“I always say to people, knock on doors like crazy – personal contact. Most people vote for you based on reputation and image, and in a minute or two at the door, they can conclude when they walk away whether you were cool, emotionally aligned with them, where you seem to have sensitivities, and most importantly, are you likeable?”
“The biggest thing that’s going to happen in two minutes, which you may get with as many voters as you can, is the emotional experience that they have with you – did they feel respected, did they like you, and generally, are you the type of person that they’d go for a beer or coffee or glass of wine with? Politics is very emotive and personal, and when you put that on steroids on the internet and you dehumanize people, you disconnect people from their humanity, which happens easily on one-dimensional social media. It’s pretty tough, so anyone thinking about a career in that space really has to be that way.”
“Electing people’s really important because we have no other process in our society to create change in the way that we do by electing someone and standing with them. The ballot box – if you’re a good politician and you’re a smart voter – is a contract that is made. Power is not something that politicians get in an election to keep, it’s something they get to give back … For me, being an MPP was an organized way of orchestrating and lifting other people’s voices up. Not trying to be the voice of 150 thousand people, many of whom had been in the country for 3 months and some who had been here for 90 years. It was about a political process. How you work together in politics is more important.”
“I’ve changed political parties in my life, but I’ve never changed my politics.”
It’s not about the party, it’s about the politics. Glen’s politics haven’t changed even though his party affiliations have. It’s about the people and the vision, and any party can provide a platform for that. You should not abuse your position based on what party you conform to; don’t get caught up in the labels. Get caught up in the actions and the hearts of the politicians. From there, real change – and positive change – can be made through politics.
“I’ve changed political parties in my life, but I’ve never changed my politics. I’ve never changed the kind of people I’ve wanted to work with. The parties are dramatically different in different cities depending on who the leadership or the culture is, and they change on a dime. To be involved in politics and government is not just about the institutions, it’s about the people. Contextually now, any of us who are alive today are living with a whole different runway and the friction of time. The amount of time and the possibilities we have are shorter and constrained, and the consequences of our choices in the near term are more consequential than any other generation in human history. That sense of urgency and context underlies everything. It’s hard to create dramatic change, and sufficient change.”
“You’ve just got to be prepared to make a difference. At 14, I was organizing a gay/lesbian youth group with the downtown Montreal [YMCA]. Who does that at 14? Don’t be afraid to live your life out loud. Most people live their lives for what they’re afraid of and the people they fear. And a fear of being outside of your social norm, which is brutal for social media because it’s such a prison we put people in. You can’t have any nuanced difference of opinion because you’re immediately labelled as a member of the other team. It’s the collective fear factor. So, don’t live your life for the things you’re afraid of and the people fear. Live your life for the things you hope for and the people you love, and that takes more courage than anything else … As a gay man whose father disowned him and didn’t talk to him for 3 years, who was beaten up by police, who thought my job choices were a ballet dancer and interior decorator or hair stylist because those were the gay jobs at the time, hope was all I had. Real courage is fuelled by hope. You have to have something you’re hoping for. You have to have a personal narrative of the world you can imagine that you find the courage to spend your life trying to create and deliver.”
“Don’t worry about credentials, worry about knowledge and competency.”
“University’s got all kinds of good stuff, but if you’re talking about the meaning of life and want to be a change agent, I wouldn’t worry about a poli-sci degree … I realized that everything you learn in university at one point just becomes a super specialization; the language becomes different and people’s knowledge becomes a centimetre wide and a kilometre deep. The problem when you’re in government is when you’re trying to get economists and sociologists and biologists and public health folks to be a part of a bigger vision and understand the space between their professions and connect that, and that’s really hard. So, my advice is don’t worry about credentials, worry about knowledge and competency. And understand culture, and critical thinking skills, emotional skills, self respect, and learning to love yourself, so you can love other people.”
Erase your preconceptions of what it takes to be a political leader – the credentials, the poli-sci degree, the standard qualifications are not the real requirements. Politics has shifted from behind closed doors and in the halls of academia to the global stage of social media and in the streets. This shift has helped give a voice to the voiceless by spurring action from the everyday hero; in today’s world, the modern politician can be anyone – a single mother, a business owner, a waitress. All you need is conviction, drive, experience, strong people skills, imagination, heart, courage! Do you have what it takes?