Candidates seeking public office must be honest about their past

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September 17, 2019

Candidates seeking public office must be honest about their past

Written by Robin Sears for the Toronto Star. Click here to read the original.

It is too much to hope that young people will not say and do dumb things. We all did. But is it too much to expect that they will not lie about them when they are seeking public office?

It shouldn’t be. But once again, a spate of bozo candidate moments has bedevilled the launch of each party’s campaigns.

Everything from domestic abuse to antisemitism, to white supremacy, to Islamophobic attacks have taken down candidates from every party.

Why?

Do these idiots think that in these days of eternal digital life for every dumb thing you have said or done that they won’t be exposed? How many cases of lives and reputations ruined do they need to hear about to understand that that has not been true for more than a decade now.

Here is the dilemma for the hapless party candidate vetters: If they cannot trust a candidate prospect to tell the truth about drunk tweets of a decade earlier, what do they do? Hire detectives? Stage an intervention? Invest thousands of dollars and hours doing deep digital dives of potential candidates under their names, nicknames and avatars on all available social platforms? Not easy.

My political mentor was keenly aware of the threat and the need to put the fear of God into candidates about their secrets. At the end of the final screening interview he would cast his terrifyingly cold gaze at them, wait a few beats and then say quietly: “Now, Joe. There’s just one other thing…We need to talk about any of the things that you have done in your past that will cause the party embarrassment when they are revealed…and they are always revealed, eventually. You know that time you and your girlfriend fought, your drunk driving incident as a teenager, the time you shouted a racist obscenity at the boss who had just fired you… that sort of thing.

“I’ll be back in five minutes to hear your thoughts when you’ve had a chance to have a good think. OK?”

Whereupon he would leave the terrified candidate sitting in his chair, quietly close the door and disappear. We did not have many bozo surprises in the six national campaigns he was involved in.

Sometimes a candidate, or even an elected MP would confess to a shameful act of their youth, and together they would work out a strategy to deal with it.

B.C. NDP MP Frank Howard had been convicted of armed robbery as a young man, and done his time. Decades later a young blackmailer tried to out him. Howard stood in the House, gave a powerfully emotional speech about the pain of his youth and the price he had paid for his stupidity, apologized and asked for forgiveness. He was hailed as a hero for his courage and candour.

Seeking the privilege of holding public office is not filling in a job application. The standards of character and integrity are much higher. For it is entirely appropriate when a hidden embarrassment is revealed, for voters to ask: “Well, if she will lie about that, what else will she lie to me about?”

Yes, the parties will need to continue to tighten their vetting processes, but few screening processes can pick out every determined liar, not even polygraphs.

So the obligation is on the aspiring candidate.

They are the ones who must ask themselves before seeking the trust of thousands of voters, is there something I have done that I am ashamed of? Are there things I have said I wish, years later, I could take back?

Most of us have examples of each in our lives. The next question is quite simple: If I disclose it and offer a genuine apology for it, could I still be accepted as a candidate?

If you honestly cannot see that happening, stand down.

In most cases it is possible to seek redemption and forgiveness.

But not if you lie.