There were a wealth of newspaper tributes to Mel Swart this week–one of the founders of Canada’s New Democratic Party, dead at 87. I won’t echo the tales that everyone has heard.
But I have a few personal memories that stick with me. Mel’s example of a life-lived together with his various words of wisdom have always been a big part of my own definition of democratic politics at its best. And that’s important to reflect on in times when we most often see democratic politics at its worst.
I’d met Mel first in the 1980’s but I only really got to know him when I was working on Peter Kormos’ 1996 campaign for the leadership of the Ontario New Democrats. This was an enterprise that most of us on the campaign team knew had a slim to no chance of ultimate success. Despite this realistic assessment, our view was that this initiative had to be undertaken in order to get some items of principle onto the convention floor for discussion. And in that latter task, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams– as issues which had been shut out of the leadership debate came to be its central focus.
During the campaign, I ran into people who said things to me like, “You’re insane.” “You people can’t hope to win.” “What are you doing?”
What these people didn’t understand or had forgotten was the many successes of the NDP in opposition. You don’t have to win to have a voice and, ultimately, the success of the ideas outlives the success of individuals.
Mel was the fundraising chair for that campaign. I was the media chair. I remember calling Mel on the phone the first time and cracking up at the phone message. First there was about 10 seconds of nothing but wind sound and then a crackling voice like an old Edison cylinder that began with … “This is Mel Swart talking to you on a (pause and carefully enunciated) telephone answering machine… ” crackle pop.. I asked people, “How long has Mel had that answering machine, anyway?” It turned out–to my surprise–that it was brand new.
Throughout the time that Mel had been an MPP in Ontario he’d never had an answering machine at home, was always listed in the phone book and answered his own phone. Only when he “retired” did he feel that it was permissable for him to put the public at a little distance by purchasing an answering machine. It was his unfamiliarity with the device that caused him to be awkward in recording his message.
In this regard and many others, Mel really believed himself to be a “public servant” and lived that way. It just didn’t seem right to him that he should not be as available as possible to the people that elected him to help them in any way he could and he was famous for pinching every penny of the legislative budget he was given. He never took an apartment in Toronto. Instead he drove two or more hours back and forth to his home riding of Welland everyday, sometimes making it in time to attend mid-week events and meetings. Of course there are also a lot of stories of him crashing on his office couch and being seen tiptoeing to the Member’s loo in the wee hours.
Perhaps the thing that sticks with me most was an anecdote that Mel related that seemed humorous at the time but took on broader meaning as I have reflected on it over the years. A group of us were shooting the breeze about campaigning in general when Mel said,
“Well people want to talk more than they want to listen. So when you’ve got nothing they think want to hear I think it pays to listen. I worked a few times on some just hopeless campaigns and I’d walk up and say just one thing, ‘what are you thinking about the election.'”
“And then I’d shut up and let them talk.”
” They’d spout off for a few minutes and no matter what they said, I’d just smile and say, ‘You sound like a New Democrat to me!'”
” I’d leave them scratching their heads wondering what they had said that fit with our political program and my hope was that it got them thinking and listening more to what we were about. I don’t know whether it did or whether it didn’t, but it sure was better than arguing and leaving them angry and closed-minded.”
It’s a funny story and a clever strategy but it’s more than that.
Mel was telling us that politics IS more about listening to the people than trying to ram any “key messages” down their throats. And politics at its best is about developing some positive ideas–a political program–and engaging people in thinking about those positive ideas and reflecting on them. Would this set of policies would improve things for their family and community? His advice was to engage people in supporting your positive ideas and you don’t have to waste your energy in in negative attacks on the policies of other parties.
Mel was passionate about ideas but always able to separate a difference of opinion from respect for individuals. He could hate an opponent’s viewpoint on one issue while liking the individual and respecting him/her on other achievements or opinions. This statesman-like stance is so at odds with the unfortunate divisive politics that have become the norm. Communities are helped when politicians across the political spectrum can work together on issues in common.
It’s unfortunate that in recent years the NDP has been better at throwing people out than attracting new people to share in a positive vision. Most recently the furor surrounding an initiative to attract spiritual progressives comes to mind. Mel was all about listening, about bringing more people into a big tent of progressives that shared key values. It was that positive, inclusive, spirit that made me want to work for the NDP as a campaign worker, volunteer and staff member. I hope as we individually and collectively reflect on Mel’s legacy it helps us all to find that spirit again.