Tuesday, June 25, 2013

IN PRAISE OF ANDY SCOTT

One time, when my pride had led me into a tough political situation, my friend Andy Scott came to see me.  "You're ready to hear this now", he began, "so I'm going to give you some advice."

"You've had the option of running people over in a debate. I never had that option, so I learned to convince them. Now, you've reached a job where you're going to have to learn that, too."

It was brilliant advice. I probably could have used it years before, but Andy knew when I was ready to hear it.  It was one more reason I, like many in Fredericton, considered Andy Scott my mentor. I make no claim I learned well, but he was one hell of a teacher.

Andy kept convincing people, his whole life. If you disagreed with him, if you attacked him, he just kept talking and listening and engaging with you until he squeezed the opposition right out of you.  When I was in student politics, Andy was a legend. If we organized a demonstration when the Prime Minister visited, Andy made sure leaders got to meet him and tell him what we were worried about. If we proposed ideas, Andy made sure we got to present them.  We all were recipients of the 11pm call from Ottawa where Andy made sure we knew that what we were saying got heard.

Over the years, you could see that this wasn't an isolated case. You saw the folks who handed out leaflets attacking Andy in one election campaigning for him the next. I remember a lot of Bernard Lord cabinet ministers telling me they hoped Andy would be re-elected because they knew he would work with them. Few dared to have town hall meetings on the emotional issues like gun control and same sex marriage, but Andy's ended with both sides applauding, if not agreeing.

You might think this would make those late night policy phone calls seem less special, but Andy in his every word and deed made it clear that he saw any citizen willing to engage as special --even if they never voted for him.  As a result, many eventually did. 

Sometimes, politicians who make everyone feel listened to succeed because their views are elastic and vague, but that isn't the case here. Even insider accounts of the Chr├ętien government's early days cite Andy as an acknowledged leader of the MP's fighting to protect the social safety net. He engaged everyone, but he supported marriage equality when it wasn't clearly politically safe to do so, and faced physical threats for his stand. His advocacy for people with disabilities, expressed through a committee report notable for its passion and clarity, is still nationally known.  He was a leading voice in achieving the Kelowna Accord.

Andy's political success was never built on negative attacks or flashy appeals, but on the facts that he spent the time needed to learn the issues and stayed up a little later educating others. That these things stand out might tell us something worrisome about the state of politics, but it tells us more that was good about Andy Scott.

Friends from away were amazed that Andy's margin of victory grew after the unfortunate incident with Dick Proctor, but no one here was. Andy often treated citizens like they deserved to hear what was really going on in Ottawa, and even if he went over the line with the best of intentions, the snark and nastiness that followed told us more about the system than it did about the honest, forthright, humble guy from Barker's Point we had sent into that morass on our behalf.

That Andy kept going after that incident and thrived is a testament to the man. It also illuminates what so many people found loveable about Andy. In a cynical age, he never lost faith that government could be a force for good, that hard work and good intentions would win out and that good ideas would eventually get heard. Perhaps, when the social media spats and scandals of the day dominate our public debate, we could all keep a little of the same faith in the power of citizens. 

I think Andy would really like that. And if there's a way to call you at 11:00pm where he is, you can bet the house that he'll find it.