CAMERON — What’s in a word?

One of the things I concluded before running for political office was that I would “speak out fearlessly on critical matters to my City”.  I’ve now been at it for about two and a half years (yes it’s been that long!) and I’ve learned a lot. One of those learning revelations has been just how a few unfortunate words used in a debate on matters before Council can reach dizzying heights of importance that were never intended. There have been two recent examples I would like to muse on for your reading pleasure.

Let’s talk about “flaky”. Yes, I did use that word. I was stuck, blabbing at the Council table about a consultation process recommended to us by Administration that would involve a very expensive “new age” engagement process that involves Citizens, chalk, sidewalks and an art project.   Now, I have no problem with new approaches to gaining citizen involvement as that’s what I do in my “day job” as a consultant. But, as a Councillor, I have perhaps a broader perspective to bring to the matters before us.

Of no surprise to my readers, I’ve been reminded many many times that Citizens do not like tax increases, and would prefer to see budget containment at the City. We’ve worked at that, and I have to say I’m pretty sensitized to this critical subject brought to yours truly by my fellow tax payers!  So, when an expensive art project came to Council I wanted to get across the point that we really need to see the values of the project to the long-range planning objectives of the policy work in hand, namely the City’s sustainability plan! This is important planning stuff and needs to be well managed; indeed it is very well-managed by highly competent people in our Administration.

So, Kirk, casting around for just the right word to get across that we need to be careful to justify significant expenditure of public funds, my mouth opened, and just before the left foot was firmly planted therein, the characterization of the innovative consultation process was made: “sorry for the word, but flaky.”  Oops.   Well, at least I apologized in advance, but I’m afraid that was not good enough.

Imagine my chagrin that this found air time in both papers, and in every segment of the news for at least half of that week. I was mortified! But that’s just how it works. The unfortunate poor choice of language is the sound bite “du jour” that will get traction way beyond its relevance as politics in the public eye roles out.

And now, after my “lesson-learned” mid-February this year, I do it yet again.  Great lesson; poor student!

At Council last week we again debated a very important planning document that will be a legacy for this Council, the Transportation Demand Management Plan. We have a problem in Whitehorse.  We are a spread out community, one of the largest in geography in Canada. We like our space, and we like our convenience in driving, well, just about everywhere. The Plan is a visionary document looking forward 25 years to define ways to change attitudes that will hopefully result in less reliance on the automobile and more on alternative sources of transportation including bussing, walking, cycling, and car-pooling, among others. It’s all great stuff, and as a matter of fact was one of the main reasons for me getting into politics in the first place.

I live downtown, and I used to walk to work every morning about 15 blocks to my office; a lovely way to start the day.  At one point I started counting the number of vehicles coming into the downtown core with only one occupant. The numbers, though by no means a scientific study, were staggering! I thought if I got into politics I would do something about this.

So, you can imagine how “gob smacked” I was to read this past week that I’m now seen as the champion of the vehicle user!

I circled back to what I said, and indeed, in one of my usual preambles to a great speech I did say: “A lot of us enjoy our cars.”  The Whitehorse Star article of April 7, “City could aim to get more commuters to use vehicle alternatives” dutifully notes my observation, and does go on to say that “moving to other methods of transportation, he said, would require a dramatic shift in attitude for many” and “despite his concerns that there needs to be a major change in attitude, Cameron described the plan as ‘a great step forward for us.’”

Okay, there we go, balance in reporting.  But that’s not where it ends. The article online enjoyed considerable readership attention.  No less than 80 people wrote in to comment on the article; that’s a staggering number when compared to the next greatest interest in recent times which garnered reaction from 17 readers for an article on oil.

And, in all of the commentary, here’s what resonated about my comments:

“And…I agree with K. Cameron.. I LIKE my car.”

“Councilor Cameron is right, we like our cars and the convenience they provide us.”

“Kirk Cameron is onto something. We like cars. We like them because they mostly keep us dry and warm, and they help us stay in control of our schedule.”

“I said earlier, as Kirk Cameron did, that we like our cars.”

“Kirk Cameron is right: we love our cars.  Drive up to Copper Ridge.  The garages are all stuffed with junk so the car(s) and truck(s) and fifth wheel and snowmobiles and ATVs spill out on the driveway and into the streets.”

Five references among 80 may not sound like much, but two things stand out.  First, they were the only observations relating to the Council debate that were noted and not criticized by those writing comments.  Second, the “Likes” associated with these comments were also, well, big!   In order: 82 likes/16 dislikes; 56/13; 58/11; 32/9; 23/5.

Now as an opportunistic politician I could see this as a great victory! However, again, as with “flaky”, one unfortunate turn of phrase results in a focus that completely misses the point.  I’m behind the transportation plan in a big way, and indeed this is what propelled me to take action to run for Office in the first place!  If anything I am disheartened that there are not more Citizens interested in finding ways to reduce our reliance on the completely NOT sustainable hydrocarbon-fueled vehicle.

So, what are the messages from these two examples?

First, you have to watch the words, and if the “right” word does not come to you as you’re blabbing to the microphone, just shut up! A poor (perhaps colourful) choice of words might get a lot of attention, and even short term political gain in certain circles, but may overshadow the main message you’re trying to convey.

Second, media is looking for this sort of thing, so all the more reason to be careful with the words.

Third, context that is a reflection of public attitude will most certainly resonate with the media, and more importantly with the public that holds this attitude! Therefore, stay away from the context and go for the point, if indeed the mission is to emphasize “the point”!

And fourth, if you’re just in it for the political gain, well, don’t listen to me…

On a positive note, I am blessed to be part of a very dynamic and involved community. There is no shortage of interest in matters before this Council, and indeed the territory and country generally.  It is nice to be part of this energy!

Image credit: woodysworld1778 under a creative commons license.

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