When Politicians Fail To Make The Right Choices

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Executive Chairman
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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 4, 2018.

Politicians and political staff start off with good intentions, but when put in high pressure situations, don’t always make the right decisions. Hiding what happened after the fact, however, is always the wrong decision.

In my day job, I work as a high-stakes public affairs practitioner, which involves helping clients to manage challenging situations; ones they never imagined they would face.

These challenges come fraught with both media scrutiny and internal pressure, and are highly complex.

As a result, people are left facing some of the biggest challenges of their lives, facing legal risk, reputational damage and, inevitably, with more questions than answers. And when they look to me for my thoughts on how to approach a situation, the single best piece of advice I can offer is this: you always get it right when you do the right thing.

It may be trite, but it’s true.

In the short term, there will always be negative coverage, and there will always be people who challenge what you choose to do.

It may even be the more difficult decision, but I can promise that if you try to hide something you shouldn’t, or if you try to cut corners, or if you take an action that you wouldn’t want your mother to read about in the newspaper, it will eventually be in the newspaper.

It’s a lesson that Patrick Brown and his staff should have learned before attempting to run Canada’s largest province. Politics is a heady brew of ambitious and driven politicians, who are in turn supported by ambitious and driven staff.

This is not to suggest those politicians and the staff supporting them enter politics for nefarious reasons. On the contrary, they enter with the best of intentions. But ambition can trump intention, especially in the cut and thrust of daily political exchange.

To compound the challenge, not only do difficult political situations bring with them questions laden with moral dilemmas, public safety, fairness and equity, they bring media attention and the intense scrutiny of the opposition.

I know how challenging it can be – I have sat in those rooms and been forced to help make decisions in short periods of time without complete information and with tons of pressure bearing down upon all involved.

It’s not easy. That’s why it is easy to understand why this week we saw two examples of how that high-stakes political decision-making process can lead to profoundly negative results. And we saw it happen on two sides of the aisle.

On Wednesday, David Livingston, Liberal former chief of staff to Dalton McGuinty, spoke at his pre-sentence hearing for his role in destroying computer records of the government. Livingston, who will be sentenced on April 11, apologized to his friends and family for his behaviour and acknowledged that knowing what he knows today he would have “acted differently.”

On Monday, Brown, former leader of the Progressive Conservatives, ended his leadership of the party after this paper reported that Hamilton police announced they would be investigating the involvement of several individuals from the PC party in a nomination that has become the subject of alleged fraud and forgery.

That news was only the latest volley of malfeasance lobbed at Brown and some members of his office – but it was by far the most damning, complete with emails that many would have preferred to not be splashed across a major national newspaper.

I can all but guarantee you that none of those people entered politics with the intention of having their names associated with such acts. All entered with the intention to make our province a brighter and better place, and in the midst of all of the pressures that they faced during the normal course of their work, made decisions that have permanently affected their reputations.

I am not pretending that I am a saint by any means.

I have struggled with similar decisions in the past, as we all have.

But this week has served as an excellent reminder to all who enter the realm of public service and face monumentally difficult decisions: you always get it right when you do the right thing.

After all, doing the wrong thing can define you for years to come.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

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