Hustings is one of those arcane words that only comes up at election time. The word goes back to 12th century England, it means a place or meeting where politicians make election speeches.
I first got involved in politics in 1968. Trudeau-mania was sweeping Canada, powerful enough and pervasive enough to reach a small prairie town and resonate with a 19 year old on summer break. Trudeau was out on the hustings and came to Medicine Hat; a group of us drove 60 miles or so to see him.
Pierre Trudeau epitomized a rebellious break with my known world where Social Credit thrived, more conservative than the Conservatives. I felt enervated, a rebel with a cause. That summer encounter changed the trajectory of my life.
In the fall, the Dean of Engineering and I agreed that the world would be a safer place if I chose NOT to be an engineer. I followed my newfound passion with Canadian politics into grad school in Ottawa, a few early jobs on the front lines of politics and a lifelong fascination with this infinitely interesting, vital game of life.
Politics is a huge puzzle, with millions of moving parts – people – and an endless array of possibilities; messy and boisterous and challenging. Politics brings out the best, and worst, in people. Its mesmerizing pull is the grand debates of pivotal issues and the constant tension of whether the means justifies the ends; infinite shades of gray, nuance so subtle as to be distinguishable only to the practitioner, all the subject of great literature from philosophical treatises to popular TV scripts.
Forty seven years later, forgetting far too many elections of late nights, mind-numbing menial tasks, intense conflicts, compromises and conundrums over issues I cannot now recall and against my better judgement, I have jumped back into the deep end of the politics pool.
Because to me politics matters.
I was once asked why I was a Liberal. It is challenging to adequately answer such a simple question but it boils down to these three rationales. Liberals are the champions of Unemployment Insurance, a practical social program that matters, Liberals have sustained universal health care offering an alternative to struggling alone with the cruel nature of fate. Finally, Liberals offered me a network of friends, a family I chose for myself, one that adopted me and allowed me to adopt it.
I grew up in the lower middle class in rural southern Alberta. I’ll spare the details because social class or gradations of poverty did not frame our lives, as a family or as individuals. My father had seasonal work, the winter months could be difficult. It was not for lack of trying, it was almost shameful to be out of work, but it was a reality to be endured. Unemployment Insurance payments made a difference. I’ll never know how much of a difference but I have decided, upon reflection, that UI was a profitable investment by society in my father and in my family. Tough times happen, but UI got us through and we emerged intact as a family and as productive, tax paying individuals. The Ayn Rand libertarians advocating total self-reliance and limited government cannot convince me, my experience proves otherwise.
Universal health care helped pay hospital bills for a family member that we simply could not have handled. Without health care we would have sunk into debt, mortgaging our family’s future in a struggle against insurmountable costs. Universal health care was not a Liberal idea but it has been a core bedrock Liberal principle, a part of the Liberal DNA. It worked for my family at a time of profound need; my personal experience trumps the esoteric arguments of private health advocates. I remain befuddled by the American system; we are a better society for our collective approach to care for individuals in need. It is what makes us Canadian.
Finally, when I went to my first Liberal event back in 1968, I didn’t expect to join a family; I didn’t set out to meet people who would be my closest friends some 50 years later. I was only going to a rally.
The deep river of friends running across the country, business associates, mentors, best-buds, brothers/sisters-in-arms, the web of most of the deep relationships in my life can be traced back to the source waters of my first Liberal meetings. They’re my family; how could I ignore them in their hour of need after all I have gained.
The social nature of my relationship has tempered any dark tribalism; a simple act of serendipity led me to my team – it is easy to understand that friends are on another team, determined by their own chance encounters, ensuing relationships and shared experiences. There is room for us all.
So, I am back on the hustings after a long time away. I’m chairing the campaign of Terry Beech, Liberal candidate in Burnaby North – Seymour. I’m stuffing envelopes when needed, a task unlikely to be eliminated by technology. I am out door-knocking. I am asking people for money for our campaign. I’m writing, I’m talking, I’m debating, I’m arguing, all to convince about 15,000 people I have not met to vote Liberal on October 19. It’s exhilarating – when it isn’t tedious and mind-numbingly boring.
It is infinitely preferable to the alternative – sitting on my sofa, muttering and shaking my fist at the TV news in impotent rage over some high crime of one politician or another.
It feels good; to be doing some small thing, to be on the hustings not on the sofa.