Eves shows listening still not a Tory talent
Jim Coyle
SOMEWHERE IN the great beyond, Ambrose Bierce must be laughing himself silly. Or, Bierce being Bierce, grinning sardonically. Or perhaps just indulging in a modest smirk at how well and truly he had humanity's baser nature pegged.

Bierce, of course, was the American author -- before venturing off to revolutionary Mexico in the early 1900s, never to be heard from again -- of a splendid little volume variously known in the years since as The Cynic's Word Book or The Devil's Dictionary.

In the world according to Ambrose Bierce, a coward was, "one who in perilous emergency thinks with his legs," education "that which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding," and politics "a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles."

A Pollyanna the man was not. But amid the treasures of his biting wit and acid epigrams, which even he must have at times considered mere spoofery, surely none can be read today in Ontario with such startling recognition as this: "Consult, v.t. To seek another's approval of a course already decided on."

Welcome to the cynical, Biercian era of Premier Ernie Eves.

This week, after a Superior Court judge had earlier thwarted the government's privatization plans, Eves announced he will press ahead with the planned sale of Hydro One by immediately appealing the court ruling and also passing legislation that will let him proceed in any event.

And, by the way, he will hold public hearings. This process, to be overseen by Energy Minister Chris Stockwell, the fading revolution's most effective fast talker, will be, the new Premier insisted, a "meaningful consultation."

Only in the world according to Ambrose Bierce (or in that awkward political spot between a rock and a hard place in which Ernie Eves finds himself) could such a consultation process as announced this week -- "the seeking approval of a course already decided on" -- be considered meaningful.

During this "consultation," Chris Stockwell will probably have more to say than Chairman Mao, while listening attentively only to that which he is predisposed to hear.

Poor Eves. A new premier so keen to put some distance between himself and his bullying predecessor ends up looking, in his first major act, like nothing so much as Mike Harris with a better suit.

His times being what they were, Ambrose Bierce never had the chance to define megachutzpah. It is a word bestowed on the English language not long ago by Mr. Justice Stephen Borins, an Ontario judge who heard a constitutional challenge to the Harris government's 1996 legislation to merge the several cities of Metropolitan Toronto into a single jurisdiction.

As it happened, Borins dismissed the challenge. But not before sternly rebuking the government for its disrespect of both constituents and the democratic process.

The government had failed to perform "the type of public consultation which should have preceded the introduction of the legislation," he said.

"The government displayed megachutzpah in proceeding as it did, and in believing that the inhabitants of Metro Toronto would submit to the imposition of the megacity without being given an opportunity to have a real say in how they were to live and be governed."

In similarly denying Ontarians a "real say" in how their province is to be run, Eves seems willing to continue in the view that leadership can be seen as the imposition of some superior vision -- whether or not followers concur.

Unhappily, Ontario has seen what that did to the school system, to overburdened municipalities and to all manner of relationships in the province.

Listening is a talent never claimed by the agents of the Common Sense Revolution. It is not, truth be told, a skill much encouraged or valued in modern times, where everyone from the age of 2 on is encouraged to express themselves, to spout their opinion, to hightail it down to Speaker's Corner, whether or not they have anything of value to say.

In a long essay on the qualities of leadership some years ago, the American writer Garry Willis wrote: "In a democracy, supposedly, the leader does not pronounce God's will to the people but carries out what is decided by the people.

"The leader needs to understand followers far more than they need to understand him," Willis said. "This is the time-consuming aspect of leadership." (Which, of course, is Eves' problem. The boys and girls on Bay Street are salivating at all those millions in privatization fees.)

Followers, unless considered by the leader a witless bunch merely to be dominated, mesmerized, manipulated or flattered, need to, "have a say in what they are being led to," Willis said. "A leader who neglects that fact soon finds himself without followers."

Of course, none of this is the fault of Mr. Eves. The Hydro One file is his own little legacy from Harris. On that score, as on others, he would do well to recall Ambrose Bierce.

"Legacy, n. A gift from one who is legging it out of this vale of tears."

Jim Coyle's column usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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