It’s time for a charm offensive. Calling Terry O’Reilly, Part 2

It’s not like we haven’t had disagreement on public policy in New Brunswick over the past 150+ years.

In Richard Wilbur’s annual review of the New Brunswick between 1960 and 2006, he uses the word ‘protest’ 115 times or an average of more than one use of the word every three pages.

There were protests in the 1960s against municipal tax reform (deja vu, anyone?).  In 1967, three schools were burned in protest “over delays in welfare cheques” and a government wharf was burned by local fishermen confirming my long held suspicion that New Brunswickers are the nicest folks you will ever meet, until we aren’t.  If you hurt our feelings, watch out.

In 1969, we had this little incident in Fredericton:
“five hundred men, mostly employees of the Irving-owned Saint John Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, wrote another chapter in New Brunswick’s colourful and often stormy political history. Their rowdy demonstration, ostensibly to protest increases in motor vehicle registration fees, forced the House Speaker to call in the RCMP to clear the gallery – an unprecedented action. The angry, and in some cases drunken, mob dispersed, but not until they had ripped one of the huge Legislature doors off its hinges.”

There were significant protests and vandalism against the Mactaquac dam and head pond.  A lot of folks were opposed to the development of a nuclear power facility.  There were almost constant public sector strikes and actions during the early years of former Premier Frank McKenna.

Despite this, I think in the past few years something has fundamentally changed in the public discourse.  Anger and frustration aside, there were arguments to be made for and against the big ideas.  Now, you are “either with us or against us”.

I heard it again this week on municipal reform.  If we want to change people’s minds on this issue, we need to make strong arguments and then get out there and sell, sell, sell.  This is a democracy.  But I hear many leaders on this issue just dismissing those who disagree with them, basically, as idiots.

Now you tell me.  If you want to change someone’s mind, do you think you will be successful by calling them an idiot?

There are people in this province that don’t understand why we need more immigrants.  There are those that are deeply concerned about global warming and others who aren’t.  There are those who would like to see oil and gas development in the province and those stridently opposed.  There are those who want municipal reform to ensure fairness and stronger local government, and there are those who couldn’t be bothered.  There are those that want to turn inward and ‘take care of our own’ and those who want New Brunswick to be even more globally focused.  Social issues, bilingualism – you pick any big and important idea out there right now and the strategy seems to be to dismiss opponents as stupid.

My recommendation to the advocates – on any side of issues – is to get back to the subtle art of persuasion.  As I have said before, we need more Terry O’Reilly (of Under the Influence fame) and less of this stridency.  Even if you are right – on whatever issue – I doubt you will get much traction.  No matter how shrill you get – people will just tune out.

Let’s have a charm offensive.

Sure, your case has to be based on facts and good arguments – but it is clear that isn’t enough.

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One Response to It’s time for a charm offensive. Calling Terry O’Reilly, Part 2

  1. Herb Emery says:

    Great post and one that gets at a big issue… the failure of rational, evidence based approaches to finding a solution. For a great discussion of the US-Them problem in discourse, and whether people will, or can, change their minds on an issue, take a listen to this episode on Freakonomics radio: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/change-your-mind/

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