Thursday, July 28, 2005

Here's what so bad - and good - about being a politician

VICTORIA - Almost 60 per cent of Canadians say there's no way they want their son or daughter to become prime minister.
And two-thirds don't want their children to go into politics at all.
The concern about being prime minister is understandable. It's a hard job.
I sat beside Jean Chretien at a dinner when he was about three years into his first term, as things were falling apart in the former Yugoslavia. It was a big problem, he said. If I send Canadian soldiers, some of them will be killed. If I don't send them, people will be massacred. Tough decision.
Chretien seemed like a decent, worried human being that night - even if things later went wrong. (I'm not a soft touch. A couple of encounters with Brian Mulroney just left me feeling like I needed a shower.)
The poll suggests a concern that goes beyond the workload and tough decisions. Elected office has become disreputable, like being a hung-over salesman in one of those used-car lots that opens on Thursday and is gone by the end of the weekend.
I write mostly about provincial politics, and the MLAs I've met have all been people who got involved because they wanted to make life better in their communities.They won the nomination because they were good organizers, and seen as smart, fair and able to bring people together. They won the election because a lot of people thought they would do the best job. Being an MLA pays $75,400; many of them took a pay cut, most abandoned careers and turned their lives upside down.
But then things fell apart.
Look at the way politicians talk about each other. Liberal cabinet ministers accuse New Democrat MLAs of wanting to drive everyone in the province on to welfare, and the New Democrats come up with equally outrageous slurs. (Stephen Harper and Paul Martin and their minions are even worse.)
If politicians treat each other with public contempt, braying their way through debates, is it any wonder that polls find that they are are held in low regard? If they say the people on the other side lack honesty, decency and compassion, why shouldn't people believe them?
I don't understand what happens to people who get elected.
They're reasonable, smart, forthright, people of integrity, respected in their communities because they listen, and can build consensus. And they get elected and lose their minds. If the premier says the sky is purple - or that the government hasn't expanded gambling - they agree.
And then there is my small role in all this. A likable Liberal asked recently - again - about why I was so hard on the government.
My columns are generally about things that have gone wrong. I figure that's your expectation as a reader. What matters to you are the problems that need to be fixed. You expect that services will be delivered competently; that's why you pay taxes. If things have gone wrong, you want to know. (I take heart from the fact that the same people now disgruntled about the columns were big fans back when the focus was on NDP missteps,)
I am possibly the last naive person working in the rather splendid legislature building. So my hope is that when the new crop of MLAs arrives in September, they'll behave in a way that reflects their personal values, and the qualities that led their fellow citizens to send them to Victoria.
That's all it would take. The next poll, in a year or two, would find a lot more parents keen on their children growing up to be politicians.
It can be a great job. We all have the chance to change a few lives.
But our elected representatives, MLAs and MPs, have the chance to change thousands, millions of lives.
Nothing in society should be more important, or more valued.
Footnote: The real issue may be around MLAs' divided loyalties, between the people in the riding who elected them, and the premier who has so much control over their ability to be effective. And the real solution may lie in the kind of electoral reform that 58 per cent of British Columbians supported in the May referendum. Campbell's response is expected within the next few months.

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