Monday, March 09, 2009

Noblesse Oblige, R.I.P.

John Tory departs the political scene, taking a vestige of old politics with him

As the official PC blogger on TVO’s “election battle blog” during the last provincial campaign, I would be remiss in allowing John Tory’s departure from the leadership of the Ontario PC party to go unremarked.

Needless to say, my opinion of Tory is higher than that of many Blogging Tories. Fair enough: people are entitled to their opinions, and I would rather be on a blog roll with people who speak their mind, however cruelly, than with careerists spouting party talking points.

Frankly, my regard for Tory is relatively fresh. Prior to his run for Toronto mayor in 2003, John Tory was not among the party figures I looked up to, though I was certainly aware of him. I counted him among the Bill Davis/Red Tory guard that seemed little acquainted with conservative principles.

But that changed with the 2003 Toronto mayoral election. I have never seen anyone go so smoothly and confidently from backroom advisor to candidate, as did Tory during that campaign (well, anyone since Tom Long when he ran for CA leader in 2000). As I recall, there were approximately 50 all-candidates’ debates, with Tory performing impressively at all of them. (His proposals to hire more cops and clean up Toronto’s filthy streets have since been adopted by David Miller.) So I happily volunteered, even venturing out on a dark and rainy night to drop flyers with two other friends, and then helping get out the vote on Election Day.

As PC leader, Tory brought an energy, work ethic, and – particularly after losing the 2007 election – commitment to listening that surpassed that of many leaders.

But his bids for public office struck me more as exercises in noblesse oblige, than the logical offshoot of a burning desire to fix particular problems or implement specific policies. As both mayoral candidate and PC leader, Tory had long lists of policy proposals and an impressive ability to speak authoritatively about every single one of them – plus any other issue that happened to come up. But other than the faith schools proposal, what policy could the average person identify with John Tory?

Even his plan to bring independent faith schools under the aegis of school boards came out of a sense of duty, not ideological fervour. The policy is probably not something that Tory would have proposed on his own. But the fact is that the Harris government’s independent schools tax credit addressed a genuine inequity in education. And the McGuinty government’s ugly and thuggish demonization (and reversal in the middle of school year) of a half-measure of fairness extended to fewer than 1 in 20 children could not be ignored, though a more ruthless leader might have done just that.

Tory put a lot of sincere effort into initiatives that the media are perpetually exhorting politicians to do: elect more women, appeal to ethnic communities, and raise the level of conduct in the Legislature. Fat lot of good it did him: the media were just Lucy Van Pelt to Tory’s Charlie Brown, yanking the football away as he came running to kick it. Perhaps the fact that the Queen’s Park Press Gallery has morphed into an internship program for government communications staff has something to do with it.

Noblesse oblige is an admirable impulse, and it can make for good premiers and prime ministers. But in this era of consumerist democracy and aggressively positioning one’s opponents, it makes for less-than-effective politicians. What possessed Tory to help David Miller retire his campaign debt – after Miller did everything he could during the mayoral campaign to tie Tory to the record of the Harris government (which Tory had less to do with than I did) – I will never understand. No surprise, Miller continues to milk the Harris scapegoat to this day.

In politics, noblesse oblige is the equivalent of sock garters. Oddballs like me find them attractive, but among most people, they evoke furtive sniggers. And they slow a man down.

So John Tory goes on to his next challenge with my respect and thanks. He also leaves conservatives with fresh reminders that (1) what the media say politicians should do, and the behaviour they reward, are two different things, and (2) leaders must be prepared to do what it takes to win. In 2011, Dalton McGuinty – or whoever is Liberal leader then – may wish that last week’s by-election had a different outcome.


Simeon (Sam) George Drakich said...


Dennis Prouse said...

Well put as always, Joan. I too am a right winger who nonetheless had a soft spot for John Tory.

Like you, I will forever roll my eyes when I hear the talking heads waxing on about wanting a "different" kind of politician, someone articulate, with manners, constructive ideas, etc. They had all of that in spades with John Tory, and they tore him to shreds. One of the most electorally successful politicians in recent history was Jean Chretien, a crass political street fighter who was the living, breathing embodiment of old school politics. So yes, the next time you see one of those columns that sounds like a lonely heart on Craigslist, looking for a politician who enjoys poetry, romantic dinners and long walks on the beach, remind them of John Tory.