Perspectives on Politics
Publication
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 17 Jan 1985, p. 227-240
Description
Speaker
Stephenson, The Hon. Bette, Speaker
Media Type
Text
Item Type
Speeches
Description
On matters that have to do with trust, public life, leadership, and the rights and responsibilities we all share as citizens of Canada. A deterioration in trust in the past two decades. The Washington Post as an example of the news media at its best, and at its worst, but as a disseminator of mistrust. The rise of cynicism and a decrease in confidence in the institutions that serve us. A solution of prevention, an accountability to excellence, fairness, respect, trust, and a balance between rights and responsibilities. The difficulties in becoming well-informed. The meaning of leadership. Nourishing trust and responsibility.
Date of Original
17 Jan 1985
Subject(s)
Language of Item
English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
PERSPECTIVES ON POLITICS
January 17, 1985
The President Catherine R. Charlton, M.A., Chairman

C.R. Charlton

Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen: One of the general criticisms frequently aimed at career women - at least in the past - is that they put their careers before their families, to the detriment of the latter. Whether or not there is a grain of truth in this charge, the Honourable Bette Stephenson, our distinguished speaker, is living proof that it is far from being valid as a generalization. How many of us here can boast that we are living in the same house in which we were raised since the age of nine; that our parents live next door and that our brother lives next door to that! Or that one of our children turned down the chance of a glamorous trip to Switzerland, because it would involve not being with the family at Christmas?

It is obvious to anyone who examines her non-official life that to Dr. Stephenson, her home, her husband, and her children (comprising four sons and two daughters) provide a base, a source of renewal, a sense of purpose and security, which gives her the needed strength in her official life. It also keeps her human, and adds validity to her own description of her political style as, "Country kitchen ... sitting down, rolling up your sleeves and talking it over".

Our speaker was born in Toronto and studied medicine at the University of Toronto. A fellow student, and graduate, Dr. Allan Pengelly is her husband. Dr. Stephenson has been a general practitioner since graduation, and was named the first head of the Department of Family Practice of Women's College Hospital. She has served as president of the Ontario Medical Association, and in 1973 became the first woman president of the Canadian Medical Association. Since her election to the legislature, representing the constituency of York Mills, Dr. Stephenson has served with distinction in several cabinet posts, including Minister of Labour and, currently, Minister of Education - a senior cabinet post which two former premiers, John Robarts and William Davis, once held.

Despite the onerous burdens of her political career, she has never turned a deaf ear to the needs of the community, as shown in such commitments as a directorship of the Canadian Cancer Society, the Varsity Fund and the Ontario Health Planning Task Force.

I present to you a thrice-blest person: a wife and mother who has held her large family together with love and strength; a very much admired family doctor who, when she announced that she might have to give up her male patients, found that they would not give HER up; and finally, an outspoken political leader who has never ducked the challenge of speaking frankly on controversial issues.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Honourable Dr. Bette Stephenson.

Bette Stephenson

While listening to Mozart and having late night thoughts recently, it occurred to me that one day soon I would have the privilege of addressing this venerable and worthy group. In such moments, dilemmas are born.

As Minister of Education and Minister of Colleges and Universities, I first thought it might be entirely appropriate to address issues in education. They are many. I could tell you about the cost of education, for example. The fact that this year the tax-payers of the province of Ontario will be providing something of the order of $10-plus billion in support of educational processes from elementary to post-secondary in the province. And I would remind you that that is real money, not monopoly bills. But apparently it is not enough for some people, including, I gather, one of our leadership candidates. I sometimes question the desire for more, but then I suppose we all have it.

I could tell you, at some length, about recent reforms, about a more vigorous and relevant secondary school curriculum, or about impressive and substantial progress towards that elusive pedagogical paradise of equality of educational opportunity.

We have established, within the past decade, several rights. First the right of every child, regardless of exceptionality, to have an educational program appropriate to his or her needs, delivered to him or her by the educational system. And much more recently, the right of every student in this province to have the education which they need, delivered in their mother tongue, be it French or English. When I make the statement that we have established the right of every French-speaking student to an education in the French language in the province of Ontario, many people forget that the same right, as a result of that legislation, applies to every English-speaking student in the province who finds himself or herself in a minority language situation. I believe that the legislation related to the education of those with exceptionality is, in fact, the most enlightened piece of social policy legislation in recent memory, and I believe that it will meet the requirements of exceptional children in any part of Ontario for years to come.

Bill 82, as you all know, requires each school board in this province to deliver that educational program to those students, and it really does take us another long step toward the road to equality of educational opportunity. I think, as well, it provides us with a toe-hold into an uncertain future. We are this year, with the help of the private sector, establishing yet another toe-hold based upon the - I suppose one might call them experiments of the past - in which the private sector co-operates with the school system in providing educational programs both within the institutions and within the establishment, the business establishment. And we have encouraged co-operative education and will continue to do so in a very vigorous way.

Another step on the road to equality of educational opportunity and a toe-hold into an uncertain future is the introduction - through encouragement of and cooperation with the private sector - of the first and most sophisticated microcomputer designed exclusively for educational purposes in the world.

In measuring ourselves against the world around us, we can take some pride in the fact that Ontario has the highest post-secondary participation rate in Canada and the second highest in the industrialized Western World, including Japan. I could continue, but while listening to Mozart and having late night thoughts, I concluded that today I shall speak of other matters - matters that have to do with trust, with public life, with leadership, and with the rights and responsibilities we all share as citizens of this country.

In the past two decades - as we lived through the selfishness of the sixties (do-your-own-thing) and the rose-lapelled shrugs of the seventies - we experienced a deterioration in trust. It did not happen overnight. It evolved as an insidious, creeping and corrosive process. In Dallas and Los Angeles, we witnessed unbalanced assassins dismember a family of leaders. Every night on the six o'clock news, we saw a war nobody believed in. And we watched with helpless horror the rise of international terrorism. We saw a president fleeing in dishonour and disgrace for the portals of the White House, and we were sad-less for him, than for ourselves.

As trust became more tarnished, we increasingly used expressions such as - "Would you believe?" They reflected our growing cynicism based on confused disenchantment. We learned that a technology-driven industrial world could be taken almost to the point of ransom by oil-rich desert societies. We came to live with such words as inflation, unemployment, debt, divorce, drugs and disunity. And we became suspicious about the use and meaning of other words. We learned that a president who was labelled a conservative had created the largest government and biggest deficit in the history of the United States. Meanwhile, the communist in charge of collectivity at the Kremlin, has twenty-six cars parked in his garage. Would you believe it?

... One of the most vigorous and vocal disseminators of mistrust in recent years has been the news media ...

Cynicism has crept into our souls, and we have felt its chill. Our trust in others, as well as in ourselves, has been undermined. So has our confidence in the institutions which serve us, and in the people who lead us. Few institutions, including the church, the family, schools and universities, unions, corporations and governments - even the arts and sports have escaped the withering view of the distrusting critic. One of the most vigorous and vocal disseminators of mistrust in recent years has been the news media. This once heroic institution has fallen on bad times. Consider how bad. A few years ago, two reporters, Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post, exposed the White House cover-up of the break-in at the Watergate. A nation had been alerted, top presidential aides were jailed, a president resigned in moral tatters, and two reporters won the Pulitzer Prize. This was investigative journalism at its best - get it first, get it right. It stimulated an interest in the vocation that was unprecedented.

Three years ago, however, this same newspaper, the Washington Post, was nominated for another Pulitzer Prize. The reporter, Janet Cooke, had found and interviewed a pathetic eight-year-old heroin addict. The story was a shockingly poignant account of the theft of innocence. The problem was that Janet Cooke fabricated it and the Post printed it. She was fired, the Post lost both credibility and the Pulitzer nomination. The Cooke scandal at the Post was a sensational example of journalism at its worst, at its most irresponsible - made possible by the slothful use of non-attributable sources and absentee editing.

There are many other less sensational cases, however. In the United States, according to the Libel Defense Resource Center, the average jury award in libel actions is now more than $2 million. The press loses eighty-five per cent of its cases before juries, while manufacturers lose thirty-eight per cent, and physicians thirty-three per cent. Currently, there are at least fifteen multi-million dollar awards against the press - more in the past ten years than in the preceding two hundred. The heart of the problem is that in its attempts to uncover, the press has lost its balance and attempts to dismember. People have noticed, and they are concerned. The National Opinion Research Center reported recently that solid public confidence in the press has fallen from a lowly twenty-nine per cent in 1976 to under fourteen per cent today. I ask myself, why?

... In its attempts to uncover, the press has lost its balance and attempts to dismember ...

Some insight was offered recently to the Newspaper Publishers' Convention by Kirt Luedtke, former Executive Editor of the Detroit Free Press and author of the screenplay for the movie "Absence of Malice". He told the newspaper owners:

"On your discretionary judgments hang reputations and careers, jail sentences and stock prices, Broadway shows and water rates. You are the mechanism of reward and punishment, the arbiter of right and wrong, the roving eye of daily judgment. You no longer shape public opinion, you have supplanted it. There are good men and women who will not stand for office, concerned that you will find their flaws or invent them. Many people who have dealt with you wish that they had not. You are capricious and unpredictable, you are fearsome and you are feared because there is never any way to know whether this time you will be fair and accurate or whether you will not. And there is virtually nothing that we can do about it."

I think anyone with any sort of profile in public life would find Mr. Luedtke's observations valid. And they are as valid in Canada as in the United States. The only difference is a matter of scale. But our press had opened its own Pandora's box of innuendos, incompetence and malice.

We have had a former federal cabinet minister - one whose defence I normally would be loathe to jump to - libelled with intent and victimized by incompetence. In that one, the Toronto Sun paid John Munro. In another, we saw W5 libel a corporation which was awarded one dollar a viewer in damages. I was not aware that more than 800,000 people viewed W5.

... We have seen the press conduct itself in ways that lack honour and promote distrust ...

There have been others, and we have seen the press conduct itself in ways that lack honour and promote distrust. We even had one newspaper, the Globe and Mail, find a front-page story after foraging through a garbage bag - an appropriate source, one might say.

The real solution to such actions does not lie in remedies or treatments, but in prevention - not in the courts, the press councils, nor in self-righteous retractions hidden behind Anne Landers' skirts. The solution lies in an accountability to excellence, fairness, respect and trust - and a balance between rights and responsibilities. This is a solution for the news media as it struggles to regain some of the respect it has lost. But it is a solution for all institutions, and for all individuals as well.

Part of the problem in the past two decades is that we have lost the balance between rights and responsibilities and we have become a rights-"ridden" society. We have consumers' rights, women's rights, civil rights, human rights, animal rights, native rights, gay rights, students' rights, children's rights. We have the right to work, the right to strike, the right to life, the right to choose. In fact, every pressure group that marches on legislative buildings, sooner or later chants: "We demand our rights."

Fair enough, but let me ask you: when was the last time you heard a group of marchers chant: "We demand our responsibilities"? I am not prepared to predict that we will hear that chant, but as we leave the selfishness of the sixties, the apathy of the seventies, and step into the eighties with a growing sense of optimism, we will hear more about responsibilities. As this happens, I believe we shall hear more about trust as well. But trust can only come with reliable information and knowledge.

In politics, the electorate is not without responsibility in this area. The electorate has all sorts of rights, which it does not exercise very frequently, and responsibilities which it exercises even more infrequently. A major responsibility for the electorate is to really try to be informed. That is difficult to do when we are served by a media which is informative primarily in thirtysecond flashes - "the world comes to an end, details at eleven".

Nor is it easy to be well informed when those who are running electoral campaigns insist on selling their candidates as though they were bars of soap rather than anything else. But there has to be a way to assist the electorate to learn as much as it possibly can, to find out what the basic principles of each individual who is elected or seeks election are.

In an increasingly complex society, we must be able to trust our leaders, who will not be able to lead without followers - informed citizens from all walks of life who participate actively in the political and social process. Perhaps one of the problems of the past - and I bare a bias - has been that too many lawyers have occupied too many legislatures for too long - a lifetime in some cases. It is not surprising that lawyers, more than any other professional group, should be attracted to politics as a career - to the making and enacting of laws.

Others, however - particularly those who have been the beneficiaries of education provided by the state - have obligations to give of their time to public service. I question, however, whether we are best served if the majority of those who enter political life anticipate it as a lifetime career. Would it not be preferable if conscientious, concerned, contributing members of society were willing to devote a decade, perhaps a decade and a half, of his or her life to public service?

If we could encourage competent and talented people from all walks of life to enter politics for a flexibly understood time, more than likely we would be on the way to having an optimum political system. We would have the benefit of a wide range of experience with fairly intimate knowledge of the functions of society outside of government. The people would benefit, so would the political process. In this way, I could see legislatures, both opposition and government parties, made up of people with different areas of knowledge, excellence, expertise and experience in life - people from a variety of backgrounds in the private sector, scientists, educators, intelligent men and women - even doctors, even engineers. This connotes, of course, a model of leadership that is not necessarily to be equated with one individual, but indeed to a group of people, leadership built upon the demonstrated capability of a group of talented people.

To me, leadership means exercising wisdom based upon the best information and knowledge that can be developed in the interests of the people who are served. Sometimes - increasingly so, I suspect, as we face new issues requiring new responses - the directions that we will have to take will be perceived as politically unpopular.

... A leader in politics must be able to teach his or her constituency ... that no matter where they are, or what they do, they are inter-dependent with other people ...

But if these directions are arrived at by all on the basis of the fullest foundation of knowledge and trust, then they should be proceeded with. And therein lies probably the most important role of the individual who is involved in the political process. A leader in politics must be able to teach his or her constituency the most important subject, the most important rule which they will ever have to learn, and that is that no matter where they are, or what they do, they are inter-dependent with other people. That no individual is singular or the most important, and that in any circumstance - be it within the family, within a community, within a province, within a nation, or within our world - is any one of us free from dependence upon others. That is the Right Stuff. The stuff of trust. A leader must be able to relate to his time, and in a time of change he must be creative, finding how best to lead, so as to build optimal trust among his followers. And so, ladies and gentlemen, while listening to Mozart and having late night thoughts recently, words like love, trust, honour and faith came into my mind. As for our institutions - including the news media - love without criticism brings stagnation, and criticism without love brings destruction. We shall have to nourish our institutions as we would ourselves and those we love. And we can start by building trust.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by James H. Joyce, a Past President of the Club.

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Perspectives on Politics


On matters that have to do with trust, public life, leadership, and the rights and responsibilities we all share as citizens of Canada. A deterioration in trust in the past two decades. The Washington Post as an example of the news media at its best, and at its worst, but as a disseminator of mistrust. The rise of cynicism and a decrease in confidence in the institutions that serve us. A solution of prevention, an accountability to excellence, fairness, respect, trust, and a balance between rights and responsibilities. The difficulties in becoming well-informed. The meaning of leadership. Nourishing trust and responsibility.