Should elected officials charged with taking care of local, regional or provincial matters be weighing in on issues of international scope?
With the controversies caused by comments about the Middle East from B.C. politicians like former post-secondary education minister Selina Robinson, it has become a question being raised more often.
UBC political scientist Stewart Prest says one factor in answering it depends on how the issue matters locally.
“So we have people within in B.C. who are directly or indirectly affected by events half a world away,” he said, adding local constituents with strong views want to have an outlet for them.
Politicians who speak out on those issues could be considered fulfilling their representative duties.
“Politicians are still members of society and they have a duty to represent their points of views and what they consider to be the points of views of those they consider to be their constituents,” Prest said.
Provincial and municipal politicians may also choose to weigh in on global issues with an eye toward contributing toward a certain outcome.
“In many ways, any kind of conflict involves a battle for global public opinion, trying to generate support for one side or for another,” he said. “So when local councils are getting involved, they are essentially trying to register their view in that much larger conversation.”
But weighing in on global issues bears risks.
“By championing a cause that is not directly within the context of your own daily work, while winning the applause from one segment of your constituency, you may alienate another constituency,” Prest said. “You may find yourself creating … or reinforcing divisions that while present, were more latent.”
Case in point is the “real political firestorm” around Robinson following her comments about pre-1948 Israel as a “crappy piece of land with nothing on it” that eventually led to her removal from cabinet.
Not only Robinson’s conduct, but also Premier David Eby’s response to it show the potential drawbacks of commenting on global issues.
“Politicians are elected to particular offices to undertake specific responsibilities and by engaging in issues that are outside the scope of those positions or in some cases beyond the interests of those politicians in a local context, they may end distracting or derailing the more central work of those (bodies),” Prest said.
Prest added that Robinson created a “real distraction from the issues at the heart of the provincial government’s agendaa’ and alienated a “significant part of the B.C. electorate generally and the coalition supporting the NDP, particularly those who identify with Palestine.”
While the Middle East conflict doesn’t directly affect the majority of Canadians, it is “deeply polarizing,” Prest said, adding it’s difficult to articulate a clear position that is not going to provoke opposition.
“It’s not an issue that everybody cares about, but those who care about it, care about it passionately,” he said. “Many Canadians will have a default sense of where they think the issue should go.”
The polarizing nature of the Middle East conflict stands in contrast to the support for Ukraine in its defence against Russia’s full-scale invasion. That said, Prest pointed out debates about Canada’s support for Ukraine are intensifying, with the accompanying polarization and dangers for politicians who weigh in.
“Nobody in formal Canadian politicial circles has come out as pro-Putin, that is fair to say,” he said. “But that is not the same thing as saying it’s a slam-dunk to come out on that issue (in favour of Ukraine) and expect everybody to support you, because even there, we see the left-right divide that so often emerges in our politics.”
If some global issues bear the risk of distracting provincial and municipal politicians from their main duties, a related question is whether certain global issues are worth the risk of taking a stand.
“No one is going to answer that question the same way on all issues, but it is fair to say that there are some issues, where politicians will feel a need to register their views, to try to generate broader support for an issue,” Prest said.
One such issue would be the environment, where various municipalities have passed resolutions declaring climate emergencies.
“That is not to say that it is not without risks, but sometimes it is the worth the risk for individual politicians,” he said.
Another issue on the table is the United States, with former president Donald Trump poised to make another bid for the White House.
Prest said the answer as to how local politicians should respond depends on the context, and the importance of maintaining working relationships.
“So I would expect very measured, careful responses from officials within different levels of government,” he said. “But there will be a subset of politicians (whose) consciousness demands they say something if they see a miscarriage of democratic values.
“Or on the flipside, as you say, there is a relatively small but existing subset of the voting public in British Columbia, who would have affinity with Donald Trump and the cultural politics, he engages in. You may even see some expressions of support (on) the far right of the politicial spectrum.
“That will be interesting to watch.”