BY CATHERINE HOLT, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
I would like to add to the growing concern in this community about the populist tactics of City of Victoria Councillor Ben Isitt (see “Isitt is playing a political game that we have seen before” by Alan Allnut) from the perspective of business and the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair recently provided an excellent description of the risk of populist politics while commenting on Brexit, a tragic waste, and growing threat to British parliamentary democracy. Brexit leaders are textbook populists who intentionally create confrontation to divide people into opposing camps. The job of each camp then becomes to discredit everyone in the other camp and to suggest their viewpoint and participation in public discourse is not valid and, ultimately, they should be excluded from participation in society and government. The aim is that only one camp, with one viewpoint – their’s – is left standing.
Whether led from the left or the right, that outcome is always dangerous. It’s an ego-driven approach to leadership — look for someone to blame and to defeat, rather than a solution.
Here’s the other trap when dealing with populists: most of us in life, politics and business, are looking for a way to get along with people and make things work — not to attack them. We value democracy, free speech and public participation. So when a populist comes along, we are in a tough spot. Do we take their bait and address their extreme views, or do we maintain a dignified silence and hope their provocative language and fringe views speak for themselves?
The risk of staying silent is that they get more strident with time and gain credibility because no one is opposing them.
The Chamber is explicitly non-partisan and we do our best to work with, and to critique, all parties and levels of government. We advocate for a strong economy and safe and healthy community. We seek real solutions for issues such as housing affordability, street drug overdoses and climate change. We try not to make it personal or single out individuals for their political tactics.
But when Ben Isitt chose to attack a legitimate and popular business for no gain other than his own, we decided it was time to end our dignified silence.
The last straw for us was Isitt’s targeting of the horse carriage industry.
In sharp contrast to Isitt, Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe has spent countless hours listening to public concerns and looking at evidence. For many years, she has worked with these businesses to get answers and make improvements as needed. Her pro-active approach has resulted in a horse carriage industry that is supported by horse experts and animal advocates, and can be a model for such operations around the world.
All of those efforts were disregarded and disrespected by Isitt when he brought forward his motion to ban the industry.
It was classic populism. A dramatic gesture that forced people to takes sides, and used emotion to trump reason.
The result would not improve an industry that, by all accounts, is well-run. Rather, it would be — as Donna Friedlander the owner of Tally-Ho Carriage Tours put it — “equivalent to sentencing our companies and our horses to a long drawn-out, complex and heart-wrenching death.”
As we know, what did happen was a groundswell from organizations like ourselves and members of the public that chose to abandon their dignified silence and push back.
Before council could vote on the motion, there was a protest outside city hall. Many speakers addressed council late into the night. It was unnecessary confrontation leading to a necessary outcome.
The matter has now been delayed, and I choose to believe Victoria council will find a way to move past this non-issue and get on with the real priorities facing the city.
However, Councillor Isitt continues. Most recently he responded to criticism of his suggestion that Veterans Affairs and Department of Defence fund policing for Remembrance Day with a ludicrous characterization of this newspaper as being in cahoots with “neo-fascist ‘alt-right’ formations.” As Allnut said in his column, maligning the media whenever they don’t agree with your viewpoint is a tactic used by the grand-daddy of all populists, President Trump.
I like to think people eventually get fed up with leaders who stir up negative emotions and pull them into artificial camps to make false choices. We expect all local politicians to look beyond their echo chambers, listen to a diversity of voices, and make informed decisions in the best interest of our city and region.
We need less drama and more results.
This column was originally published in the Times Colonist on June 15, 2019.