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What Changed was the WorldWhat Changed was the World

What Changed was the World

Shortly after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer—and following the death of his mother, Virginia—journalist, author, policy advocate, elected senator-in-waiting, political candidate and co-founder of Alberta's Wildrose Party Link Byfield sat down to chat with Convivium's publisher, Peter Stockland

16 minute read
What Changed was the World February 1, 2015  |  By Peter Stockland
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CONVIVIUM: In your working life, you've done what it's said shouldn't be done in that you've carried out the integration of faith, journalism, politics and activism or policy formation. It's been seamless for you, in a sense.

LINK BYFIELD: One led to the next.

C: The conventional expectation is that you can't be a journalist and do all those other things. Yet both you and your dad did exactly that.

LB: A little bit. I mean, I left journalism behind for the most part when we lost the magazine in 2003. Licia Corbella had me writing in the Calgary Sun for a couple of years until we got cut back. They had to decide whether they were going to keep dad or me. Preston Manning talks about the difficulty of being the son of a famous father. I've always been acutely aware of that. He is a better columnist. I think they made the right choice. Anyway, I really ceased to think like a journalist at that point.

I was unaware, until I did cease thinking as a journalist, how peculiar the mindset of a journalist is. When you're covering politics as a journalist, you consider yourself to be, if you've been doing it for any length of time, part of the system, part of the scenery. "I have my role; they have their role. They understand their role; I understand mine." Actually, most of them don't understand your role—and you don't understand theirs. You can't think like they think. That was what struck me like gangbusters.

I noticed how complete the transition was when Danielle Smith became our leader in the Wildrose Party. She had her first press conference. We're all sitting there in our little chairs.

Small room. Quite a few reporters—Don Braid, Graham Thompson, lots of others. In comes Danielle and I started clapping, because that's what you do when the leader comes in. They all looked [at me]. I thought, "Oh, shit, I forgot." [Laughs.]

The mindset is so different. I don't think journalists, even very experienced political journalists, realize just how different their mindset is from the mindset of all the people they're writing about.

The people they write about are constructive. They do not seek confrontation. They do not seek radical change normally. If they do, especially in this day and age, they don't get anywhere.

I found that when I went from journalist to policy advocate to politician—that was a total transformation of what I call my secular priorities. The kind of people you deal with, the kind of things you might write—as an advocate you're positive. You have to be positive. You can be negative about particular things, but you always have to give a positive alternative.

I've noticed that a good columnist, most of them anyway, looks for a way to say something clever. Hopefully, it is actually true and useful, but they have to say it in a clever way. That's one of the disciplines, especially of a political columnist. Policy people don't have to. In fact, you're much better if you don't, because if you sound too clever, too "look at me wordsmith my way through this and say nasty things about people without sounding too nasty," well, you're not doing your job as a policy advocate.

It's different again when you step over to partisan politics. I went into politics assuming that two thirds of what I was going to be talking about as a politician would be about interests rather than principles and ideas, but there would still be lots of room for principles and ideas.

I found there's none. There's virtually none outside discussion with certain people at a party. Nobody's interested in principles and ideas. That's got nothing to do with anything in politics. Politicians are interested in their interests, whatever they may be. That's just the way it is. You're there to broker their interests. That's the job. You have to just accept it. There's no point bewailing it; there's no point disrespecting it. That's what you're there to do. At some point, eventually, some principle might arise. Not very often.

C: What you say about journalism is what I've come to see as a deformation of journalism. The journalist is proud of not having a full understanding. There's little or no effort to come to a deeper understanding of what's actually going on. There's construction of an artificial conflict model where no conflict necessarily exists.

LB: That's certainly true of reporters. Do you think it's true of columnists as well?

C: My instinct is that almost all journalism right now is very much trapped in that mode.

LB: I fear you're right. It does extend to the columnists, perhaps less obviously. It's sort of a winner-loser mentality. You see why it would almost seem inevitable. It does seem a shame because there's more to it than that. That's an aspect of it, but it's not the only one; and sometimes it's not even the more important one. However, we get what we get.

The cynical observation, nonetheless true, is that people get the government they deserve. They pay no attention to what's going on. They think: "Politicians are all the same." Well, they're not all the same, and anyone looking at the system knows they're not all the same. The parties are not all the same. The individuals representing those parties are not all the same. Yet people will routinely dismiss the entire effort of finding out more by saying: "They're all the same. They're all just in it for themselves."

To some degree, that's a reflection of the person saying it, isn't it? What are you in it for? It becomes a downward spiral, and we all resist that as best we can.

I used to have to give people hell, not often but occasionally, when I heard that "you're all the same" stuff.

I'd say, "No. We're not all the same. Do you know who I'm running against?"

"Well, not really."

"Do you know the party that I represent?"

"Not really."

"Well, how do you know we're all the same?"

Quite often, I figured at that point I had nothing to lose. If you don't sound too angry about it, and I try not to, it might be a bit of an edge. Usually they just say, "Well, bugger off. I don't want to talk to you." But occasionally I've found that taking that approach is pretty good, because people would be honest enough to see for themselves that they were actually avoiding the issue. That's mainly why people say those things. They think they're true, but they only think they're true because it enables them not to think about it at all.

I don't know where that attitude came from. I don't get the sense it was top-down corruption the way many political corruptions are. I think that was bottom-up corruption. The people have become philosophically attuned to the thought that "basically I'm in this life for myself." They end up with politicians who, all too often, are also thinking that way.

I think there's much more to humanity. Certainly much more potential and often more actuality than just "I'm in it for myself." That's not really true of most people or for most people for most of what they do. Why do people have families? Why do they have kids? Why do they pay attention at all? Most people do in some ways. Not so much politically anymore.

Anyway, I don't want to sound too cynical about this because I think that people are having trouble. Their best judgments and their best instincts are being buried by modernity and post-modernity to the point where it's very hard for them to make sense of politics anymore. I don't really blame them for that. Most people don't profess to be economists.

I think what's missing from people is the right sort of moral assertion. They've been browbeaten into a particularly useless form of moral assertion. People are quite good at it. If you leave your baby in the car for more than 30 seconds, some people are phoning the police. That's a moral assertion. It's not a very useful one.

People are always to some degree morally assertive, but our better days of moral assertion, or better forms of it, have become quite obscured.

C: I tried to get at that with an essay in Convivium about a connector path to the Saint-Henri metro station in Montreal that runs along the right of way of the Canadian National. There's a path that people have worn, a shortcut to the metro station. CN put up a fence to stop them, so somebody cut a hole in the fence. CN patched up the hole. So somebody cut another hole.

LB: No doubt a bigger hole.

C: CN patched it up again and people kept cutting a hole in the fence until CN finally gave up and effectively said, "Okay, there's a hole in the fence. We'll let it be." To me, that's the kind of moral assertion you're talking about. We will walk where human freedom should allow us to walk.

LB: We've always walked here. We will continue.

C: Yes. There's a commons here, and it's natural for us to walk this way. Your corporate interest cannot force us to take the long way around.

LB: It comes, though, in the part that matters the most in public affairs. I think it comes in this change in moral assertions. It comes down to Christian values in the end. What's the meaning of the good life?

I said earlier, and I'm going to rethink this thought, that this was a bottom-up corruption. In a way it is. But when it began, it was a top-down corruption. That was in our understanding of goodness, of the public good. That's a tricky concept for people who can't agree on what makes for public good. What about the good life? What does that mean?

To a Christian, it should mean living a good life, a life of virtue. The good life was a life of goodness. The good life now, for most people, means a life of consumption. When those confusions build or those cross-purposes start to be felt, democracy's going to suffer. It can't do anything but suffer. We're seeing that now; yet underneath all that, there's still an instinct in people to lead what is the real meaning of a good life.

There are all kinds of things they do in their lives that have nothing to do with being a consumption machine. But when you look at their life overall, the consumption imperative, as I think of it—not just an empirical consumption but life—is about me, my lifestyle and my preferences. That's actually a very guiding philosophy. Look in the bookstores at all those life skills books. There you have it. It's all about you. We're certainly heavily encouraged to think so.

That impacts politics pretty obviously, and public life and everything else. As long as that's your assumption about life and what people are all about, you end up in the area of euthanasia and of abortion, all those things. People don't understand that you would sacrifice at some point for the good.

C: The moral assertion, when it's intrinsic, can come out in surprising ways. The e-mail update you sent out about your health is an example. Your complete nonchalance, the naturalness of your decision not to undergo chemo, in part because it's futile for your condition but also because it's going to cost $100,000 and you don't want to spend other people's money on something that is unlikely to get results.

I've never encountered anybody who would think. . ..

LB: Anybody stupid enough to say. . ..

C: No, who so naturally bridges a public policy imperative with his own health.

LB: But that would have been standard thinking among politically literate citizens 50, 80 years ago. They all would have thought it. They wouldn't even articulate it. It would just be something they would think.

A friend of dad's tells this story about his own dad. He grew up one of a dozen or more kids, half of them adopted. Nobody was really sure which ones were adopted and which ones weren't. The dad was a house painter in Sault Ste. Marie and a heavy duty evangelical Christian. The kids used to have to stand out on the corner of the street with tracts on Sunday. He was a very sincere man, a fervent Bible Christian, Scottish and poor.

He had all these kids and one income. Not a lot of money, so every penny counted. Dad's friend said that when he was a little boy—he was about six or eight—his mom took him down to see his dad in the hospital. This would have been in the early '60s. There were these new hospital insurance plans that the provinces were running. This was before medicare, or federal medicare, but the provinces hadwere their earlier equivalent.

He said he went in to see his dad. He said his dad was in his bed surrounded by medical stuff. There were tubes everywhere, and he had this mask on. He took his mask off and he said, "Richard, is that you?"

"Yes, Dad."

"Come here."

"Yes, Dad."

"You see all of this stuff around here?"

"Yes, Dad."

"It's all free!"

Well, it isn't. It's an understandable mistake people make: it all costs the same, which is nothing, so why not? But it isn't all free.

C: But you didn't respond that way. Your character let you see it differently. Where does that come from?

LB: It comes from "Thou shalt not steal."

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C: But that must come from growing up at a dinner table where it's an important part of conversation.

LB: Yes, my whole upbringing went that way. Actually people thought I was nuts when the magazine was going under: I returned a cheque to the federal government. We had asked for this money because we did every year. We were trying to transition the magazine at the very last minute, much too late, into a policy magazine, a conservative policy magazine similar to many of the ones in the United States. Canada at that time didn't have one.

I could see how fast we were running out of gas. The cheque was about $350,000. It was our mail subsidy. I thought, "Why should someone else have to pay to mail my magazine to a bunch of conservatives?" Would I want to pay for David Suzuki to mail his magazine to his friends? This whole thing really ought to be just free market. Give people a tax credit if it is in the public interest. Follow the American policy. The American policy—most of the time they're pretty enlightened—is that if it's not for your own personal profit, if it's just for the general good of the country or society, [then] you can have a tax number. Don't get too political. When they say too political they mean saying: "Vote for Joe Smith." [Canada] should do the same.

We put out a press release: "We're sending this cheque back. We did ask for it in good faith, but we realize now that was wrong." An awful lot of our supporters just thought, "You idiots. Get what you can get." I still think we did the right thing. I think we should have made more of an issue out of it much earlier. We should have said: "We're not going to ask David Suzuki to pay for our magazine. Now can you please ask his people, the people on his side of the philosophical fence, to stop making us pay for their crap?"

Now I'm in the business of alternative health and the first thing about alternative health is if I want an IV, a vitamin C IV, and I did for six weeks or so, I go pay $200 every time I plunk my butt in that chair and someone sticks that needle in my vein. If it were part of conventional treatment, the charge would be 10 times higher and the cost to me would be zero. I don't mind paying the $200. I really don't. It's not that I'm fabulously wealthy, but it's just my decision. I should do it.

On the other hand, all these chemo people, all these radiation and surgery people, they all get the public trough. [We've] created such a vast distortion in medicare that it's hard to figure out an answer to it. I'm not saying they should necessarily pay for all these alternative forms. I'm not sure they should. I'd rather they didn't, because it forces them to stick to stuff that works. Does that leave the other people, most of us, totally without radiation? I used radiation. I had to so as to eat. I don't know what it cost. Nobody ever knows what this crap costs. I'm glad they did it, because I'd reached a point where I was down to soup practically.

I'm not saying I've got an answer here. I don't think I do. There's an awful lot about this stuff I don't trust.

C: It's a calibration point of that top-down versus bottom-up corruption you talked about, isn't it? It's the point at which we realize it's not all free.

LB: Who decided it was all going to be free? I've always admired Preston Manning even though we had our falling out towards the end of the Canadian Alliance process. That was a very unhappy time for all concerned. The thing I never forgot about Preston was he was about the only guy in the entire House of Commons that never took that stinking MP pension. He said he wouldn't and he didn't. He just watched millions of dollars in capital value disappear. He just kissed it away. That man's got character. Wherever we may differ on political issues, that makes up for it.

C: Ted Morton has said that you can't understand politics in the '80s or '90s without understanding Alberta Report's or Western Report's contribution to it. Do you feel the magazine contributed positively? Obviously it released a whole bunch of incredibly talented journalists, for whatever that's worth, into the body politic. I think it cultivated some political careers. Do you look back on it and say, "We did good"?

LB: Yes. What killed us were several things acting in combination after the year 2000. We'd been feeling the noose tightening on us for a couple of decades. The Internet changed circumstances so dramatically. There was a palpable sense at the time that we were really the only truly conservative journal out there. We never changed our views on anything, as far as I'm concerned. Not in any significant way.

What changed was the world. What we were allowed to say when Dad started [the magazine] in 1973 was not what we were allowed to say when we closed it in 2003. We just went on saying the same things; our views hadn't changed. By that time, I must confess, I was starting to suffer the sense that we'd said all this so often that there's not much point in continuing to say it. That's actually why we were transitioning it into something a little more positive.

I know Dad was constantly berating me and the rest of us for being so negative. That's the trouble with news, as they say. If nothing went wrong, if every plane landed safely, where's the news? Dad always conceded that but was concerned that we just sounded so negative about everything. The whole world's going to hell in a handcart and here's what happened last week. Hope you like reading about it.

It was becoming an impossible paradigm to continue with. I was actually relieved when it finally did end. We were out of gas. We were out of money. There was no point pretending otherwise.<?p>

Did we do good? I think we fulfilled a necessary role.

C: You've said: "Imagine how much worse things would have been if we hadn't fought the fights we fought." Alberta Report spent a good chunk of its life fighting Pierre Trudeau.

LB: At least he was the smart Trudeau.

C: You know T.S. Eliot's phrase, There are no gained causes because there are no lost causes. I said that to John Robson once, and he said, "What about the Abyssinian Empire? I think that's a lost cause."

LB: Pretty much.

C: I said, "Well, be patient. You never know."

LB: It may come back.

C: We almost felt like we had something of a gained cause in the final demise of Trudeau père, and now we've got the son. Does that portent of dynasty fill you with despair?

LB: Not at all. I wrote a book under contract for a guy in Edmonton. It was the third volume in what he hoped would make a four-volume history of Canada. I ended up with the Trudeau- Mulroney period. I actually understood Trudeau for the first time at a level I had never understood him before. I still disagree pretty violently with everything he stood for, but I admire him more. I admired his character a lot more when I actually came to understand him, just by reading most of the standard books that I'd never read before.

I remember thinking Trudeau was obviously a man of some principle, which I had never been willing to give him before. He was obviously a very Christian individual, not in the way some Christians would consider it best, but nonetheless. Rather prone to drawing subjective distinctions where perhaps they shouldn't be drawn by a good Christian or Catholic. I finally got to understand how his head worked to some degree.

It doesn't actually change my view of the man in any practical sense. At least it explains him a little better, because I've always found the guy bizarre and phony beyond belief. I just didn't quite understand what was driving him. Now that I understand it, I still think he was going in the wrong direction.

C: You and I and Ted Morton had dinner in Montreal years ago, and towards the end of the evening we got into a discussion about where Canada was going. You said, "It's still a good country. Canada's still a good country."

LB: Yes. And you said, "If it were a good country, your dad would have the Order of Canada." I remember that. I thought, "Good for you," but it's still a good country.

C: I said, "It used to be a good country. I don't think it is anymore and I don't think it will be." You said, "No, it still is." Do you abide by that?

LB: I do. I learned that from politics. The journalists will always tend to see the negative. That's what the story is: something went wrong. I'm not in any sense denigrating the journalist. That's his trade. It's a necessary one, too. The politician's job is to point out what's good. Even then, as I got into my advocacy role, which we were just in the process of—going from magazine to citizens' centre, I was beginning to realize that Canada is actually a good country. We're pissing it away awfully fast. Nonetheless, it's a good country.


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