Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Jack Harris - Good Bye and Good Night

Like many of us of a certain age, I had the period in my life where the ideas of democratic socialism had a certain appeal. And why wouldn't they? They expressed some of the highest ideals of human generosity, belief of control over our destiny and the sense that all people deserve basic fairness. And further, it seemed that all those things were within the grasp of government to deliver.

But then as Aristide Briand said, "The man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at forty he has no head."

Jack Harris, I'm sorry to say, never found his head. Nor did he ever find his calling as the leader of a provincial political party. When you look as his record as a political leader and contributor to provincial public affairs, the best one can say is that he always demonstrated potential.

The problem was that he generally managed to perform way below his perceived potential. On occasion he surprised us all with occasional flashes of true political competence worthy of his inflated reputation. More often he just disappointed us all.

Let me give you just two examples:

I have to be a Party Leader too?

I've worked within partisan organizations and I’ve worked for, and observed close up, several party leaders wildly differing in their personalities and ways of approaching their job. From that direct experience and reading just some of the many thousands of words written on the subject, it turns out that there are very basic principles that all party leaders must live by.

First and foremost is the idea that the Leader is the leader in all and every respect. That does not mean that they have to do everything but it does mean that, ultimately, they are responsible for all aspects of partisan operations. That means policy, fundraising, organization. Being a Leader means taking on that mantle of responsibility and discharging it in a responsible and effective way for the good of the party and the province.

So imagine my surprise one morning, not long before the last provincial election, listening to an interview with NDP Party Leader Jack Harris. He was being interviewed about the state of his party’s readiness generally. Specifically he was asked why his party could not ensure a full slate of district candidates.

His response? He made it explicitly clear that he was not responsible for the party organization and churlishly noted that he was merely the party's political leader. (They ended up with only 34 candidates for 48 seats contested.)

Another highlight of that election was his regular failure to get off the Avalon Peninsula to support other candidates in their campaigns as well as passing on Leader's debates in other parts of the province.

Clearly Mr. Harris missed the day at the office when it was announced that the buck stops at the Leader's desk.

In that election the NDP went on to retain their two seats - one more than they deserved to win.

(I should mention that Randy Collins, Jack’s benchmate, has done yeoman’s service inside the House and outside, for his party and his district. And it’s pretty clear Jack has had nothing to do with either.)

Policy wonk gone wonky

Of course there are the Harris apologists who say that his true strength was never organizational - it was policy.

Then it's too bad that his infrequent public policy pronouncements demonstrated the same conservation of energy as his organizational efforts.

Most recently, upon the Premier’s announcement of the collapse of the Hebron negotiations, Jack reflexively offered his support and that of his party. He stated that if the Hebron partners were willing to offer $8-10 billion in royalties alone over the life of the project, then what were they holding back? Hold out, he said, and things will get better.

In his hasty effort to back his former law partner (who controls appointments to the provincial bench but no matter) Harris took no time to consider the effects of this ill-considered rejection of a perfectly respectable offshore petroleum project development deal.

Those effects include the very real impacts on the provincial royalty revenues in the coming years which provide support for his cherished social programs. Never mind the direct impacts of reduced economic activity on the people who live in the heart of St. John's and right in his very own district.

I hope he goes door-to-door in the next campaign in support of his successor so he can hear first-hand the effects of this decision. Somehow I doubt he’ll make the time.

And anyways: why should any of those deleterious practical impacts get in the way of the People Owning the Means of Production?

In the end, it was that kind of facile, glib, ill-considered and expedient public policy statement that put the NDP where it is today - a distant third, moving fast out of political irrelevance and marching headlong into total obscurity (more on that another time).

Better luck next time

I feel bad for many of the dedicated supporters of the NDP because they have been snookered by a peculiar cult of personality that said that the party must support the aspirations of the Leader while receiving little in return. The NDP, in the latter years, became the Party to Support Jack above all else just as surely as the Liberal party became the vehicle to support Smallwood.

The difference was that Jack just wasn’t very good at it.

Jack Harris has been the face of the NDP in this province for more than a decade. After a brief term in Ottawa as the second elected NDP MP from this province, he rode that lucky political accident (against political opponents like Tom Hickey and Steve Neary, almost any new face would have succeeded) straight into the House of Assembly.

That was a good place to start 15 years ago but the party results since demonstrated a total inability to grow beyond that. What should have been a floor evolved into a ceiling.

He maintained that seat through multiple elections by ensuring that every NDP resource across the St. John’s region was dedicated to keeping him there. Even then he was never secure; he had some close calls most notably when Pete Soucy came withing 175 votes of unseating him.

His brand of superficial Hush Puppy/Volvo/Fabian socialism, while inoffensive and innocuous, never took hold and so he and his party treaded water year after year.

The potential never became real.

If you dedicate yourself to being a party leader then you have to dedicate yourself to putting yourself and your party into a position to take power. A party should never settle for less and the province deserves at least that from it’s party leaders.

Otherwise you really should find a more satisfying hobby for yourself.

Looks like he finally found one.

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