When the Centre Cannot Hold – Tips for Solution Based Advocacy (14)

What happens when a political leader has lost his/her credibility or moral authority? When a leader is so far down in the polls there are rumours about a leadership change?  Prevailing wisdom suggests in these circumstances the politicians are so busy, and the public service so paralyzed, the business of Government doesn't get done.  But is that always the case?  Here's an exception that proves all advocacy rules deserve to be broken now and then.

In this case, former British Columbia Premier Vander Zalm had lost the support of many in his caucus. Some Cabinet Ministers had left Cabinet. Others were considering sitting as independents. The situation was desperate – an election could be forced, one he wasn't ready for.  Or a leadership review. As a concession to his caucus he agreed to appoint two of their members to Treasury Board, the key decision making body on financial matters. Treasury Board is usually reserved just for Cabinet Ministers.

While all this was happening we had submitted a major proposal requiring Treasury Board approval.  We proposed significant funding to assist families care for their sons and daughters with disabilities, 'at home'. This was new territory at the time (1980's) – i.e. providing financial support for the additional costs of caring for a child with disabilities at home.  We had done our homework – we knew the savings were significant if children didn't go into costly out of home care.  The appropriate Minister brought it to Treasury Board and was turned down.  There was no hope, he declared. 

Fortunately a supporter suggested we meet with her MLA who was a disenchanted member of the government caucus.  In fact he had just been appointed as caucus representative on Treasury Board.  To my surprise, he offered to coach me.  "Your first request wasn't well presented by the Minister – he was just going through the motions.  Ask for re-consideration by Treasury Board. Rewrite the proposal to emphasize the additional 'extraordinary' costs of caring for a child with a disability.  Here's a sample format to use."

We did what we were told.  It was resubmitted accompanied by one gentle but ticking ultimatum.  We were convening a meeting for families and their children from around our province at Robson Square (a facility in downtown Vancouver that seats 400) in 4 weeks.  The Minister was welcome to attend and make his announcement or try to explain to families (and the media) why he couldn't support their request.

The upshot. One month later over 350 families and their children were in attendance to hear then Premier Vander Zalm (at the last minute he over ruled his Minister and decided to make the announcement himself) announce Canada's first At Home program.  A program still available to families today!  And sitting in the back seat was my new coach (the government caucus rep on Treasury Board) smiling at the irony.

If your elected political leader is on shaky ground it may provide an opportunity to move your agenda.  There are allies everywhere – in caucus, in Cabinet, on the back bench – who went into politics to make a difference; who may have a grudge to settle; who want to leave politics having done something they can look back on with pride; whose spouse has encouraged them to take a stand.  Solution based advocates never give up and they look for allies and opportunities in every circumstance.

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  1. Tim Ames

    Well Since Gordon Campbell is at an all time low within his party over the HST how about petitioning for some funding to build a belonging centre ?

  2. Al Etmanski

    Tim – the opportunity is there with several governments to present big ideas. We should make sure the first thing to stop us isn’t our attitudes. Thanks for your comment.

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