Opinion Column

Politicians should get to change their minds

 Mark Sutcliffe 

Craig Robertson/Postmedia Network
Patrick Brown, leader of the PC party of Ontario, says he does not want to scrap sex ed on Tuesday.

Craig Robertson/Postmedia Network Patrick Brown, leader of the PC party of Ontario, says he does not want to scrap sex ed on Tuesday.

Patrick Brown was once opposed to same-sex marriage and the province's new sex-ed curriculum. Now he's in favour of both. He says his positions have "evolved" but to many critics, he's an opportunistic flip-flopper who was neither on the right side of history nor true to his convictions.

Whatever he is, Brown isn't alone. In 2006, around the time he effectively voted against same-sex marriage in the House of Commons, only about two in five Canadians supported it. Today, polls show more than three in five are in favour. The new sex-ed curriculum hasn't been around very long, but it's clear more people are accustomed to it now than they were when it was first introduced.

In a short time, there's been a dramatic change in how the North American public views and recognizes LGBTQ rights. It wasn't so long ago that even some progressive politicians avoided Pride parades and waited for the courts to decide on important issues such as redefining marriage. The Republican candidate for president, often criticized as a bigoted, fear-mongering monster, promised to defend the LGBTQ community in his nomination speech and received a rousing ovation.

In other words, society has travelled largely the same path as Brown. Perhaps we expect an elected official to be more of a leader than a follower, but it's hard to criticize him for reversing his position when a lot of other people also have done so. Everyone, including politicians, should be allowed to change their minds. That's precisely how a lot of important social progress is achieved.

When he finds himself on the wrong side of an issue, a politician has a choice. He can maintain his original position, displaying consistency but leaving himself open to being marginalized as an outdated ideologue. He can change his position and be accused of flip-flopping. Or he can dance around the issue, using language with lots of wiggle room.

Brown could have resorted to weasel words that might have been less provocative to the social conservatives who supported his leadership campaign, but he didn't. Ah, but he did it only because he had no choice, some people will argue, not because he really believed it. He's simply pandering to voters and abandoning his convictions.

But if a leader is on the right side of the issue, his motives are less important than his actions. It's better for a politician to go against his original, misplaced beliefs and attend a Pride parade than stay away out of ideology or fear of being branded as inconsistent. The world is a better place when more people publicly support LGBTQ rights, whether they come to it reluctantly or not.

It would have been better if Brown had never promised to scrap the sex-ed curriculum. But politics involves a lot of on-the-job learning and in the end, it's what you do that matters, not always why you do it.

We can't demand politicians listen to us, then pounce on them when they change their minds. And whether their positions evolve because they realize they were wrong or because they think they won't get elected is both impossible to know and almost entirely irrelevant.

Ultimately, the only evidence we can rely on is what they say they will do and whether they follow through once in power. If a politician promises to cut taxes and does so, it's not really important whether this was the result of some rigid ideological tenet or a more pragmatic and flexible response to the public's will or a sudden discovery of the right path.

A political climate in which it's OK to admit mistakes and realign positions is much healthier than one that forces people to stick to their views even when they determine they are mistaken or unpopular.

Mark Sutcliffe is an Ottawa radio show host.