Saturday, August 29, 2009

Harper's Senate picks and MLAs' lost minds

After a fair stretch watching politics up close, I remain baffled at what happens to people once elected. Consider, for starters, Stephen Harper and the latest batch of brazen patronage appointments to the Senate.
Among the most recent nine were the Conservative party election campaign chair, who is also an effective fundraiser, Harper's long-time, loyal communications assistant and - for Pete's sake - the Conservative Party's president.
Harper used to rail against such abuses. The Senate shouldn't be a retirement home or rich reward for political backroom types, he said. It should represent Canadians. No more payoffs to party backers at taxpayers' expense. (Senators are paid $130,000 and get a rich pension.)
Now, Harper is another old-school politician, just fine with the same kind of cronyism he once condemned.
The official Conservative explanation is that since Senate reform is stalled and the upper house has a majority of senators appointed by past Liberal governments, Harper needs to get loyalists in place to support government legislation and Senate reform.
Anyway, the Liberals did the same thing, the apologists add.
I can understand the idea of trying to grab control of the Senate. It's not particularly noble and contradicts everything Harper stood for as an outsider determined to bring reform. But it's pragmatic.
That still doesn't mean, though, that he had to use Senate jobs to reward loyal friends. There are hundreds of competent, committed conservatives sympathetic to the government's direction and known and respected in their communities. Why not seek them out? (And, in the process, increase respect for the Senate and politicians generally.)
The second excuse - that the other guys were worse - is more destructive. It's an admission that right and wrong aren't important, and inevitably means a race to the bottom.
It's not just Harper. It's a contagion every bit as infectious as swine flu. In opposition, the B.C. Liberals seemed genuine about doing things differently, in ways large and small. You'll never see our ministers being trailed by aides when they have to walk a few steps to a cabinet meeting, one told me. But they are, and the number of support staff hired to record the ministers' every word and carry their files has multiplied.
And MLAs spoke their minds. Here's Kevin Krueger on gambling: "Women in B.C. will die because of gambling expansion ... So children may die as a result of gambling expansion, and their blood will be on the heads of the government that expanded gambling and of the MLAs who voted for it."
Now he's silent.
I was thinking about this when the 26 new MLAs sat down in the legislature for the first time Tuesday.
It's a great honour, to be selected by your fellow citizens to represent them. Generally, it's been earned in community service, working co-operatively with people of varied views and backgrounds. The chamber looks great, the Speaker is dressed up, people are sitting above, watching.
And then everybody starts yelling and catcalling across the way. Questions are barbed; responses are empty prattle. Pound the desk for your guy; jeer at their guy.
It's embarrassing. And it's inexplicable. How could good people let this happen to them?
Next door in Alberta, Conservative MLA Guy Boutilier was kicked out of the government caucus. His crime was publicly raising concerns about the cancellation of a long-term care centre in his community of Fort McMurray. The project had been approved and announced by Premier Ed Stelmach months before the 2008 election. Now the government said it would be put off four years and Boutilier spoke up to say that wasn't right.
We have a party system. Members have to share core principles and policies to allow election of a government that reflects the public will.
But there's nothing that says they have to turn into desk-thumping zombies, follow all orders or quit speaking for the people they represent.
Is there?
Footnote: I am genuinely baffled at how this happens. MLAs should be important. They represent the people. Yet they are shunted into minor roles. Government MLAs were as surprised as the rest of the public by the imposition of the HST. They weren't asked how it would affect their communities or what they thought. They were just given talking points.


DPL said...

People do strange things when they know their so called leader has the power to dump them should they acrually use their previous convictions to say or do something that is not in agreement with their party boss . Cabinet meets and comes up with a position so the member can either support it or resign losing a lot of money and possibly eventually their seat. It gets pretty comfortable sitting there, getting the perks and being called Honorable as their convictions fade away. Very few MLA's or MP's turn their backs on the seat they worked to get, to support their electors. My God, my MLA is a so called leader, She wrote to tell me that she wasn't my advocate when I asked for some help with a very long delay in medical care.90 minute operatio took about three years to get done. The only one hurting was me so tough shit fellow. Got a bit testy when asked why a community office funded by the tax payers was in placed yet the claim was that it wasn't there for advocacy work. Broke long time party policy on the use of agricultural Land as a treaty issue, without the usual regulations being kept in place. So why do we support such community offices and the people who we vote into office? Guess we always live with the hope that the elected ones will actually do what they so often claim they will do. Work for the voters in the riding.

I can and will outlive a few more leaders and hope to see one who can and will do the things they promise to do.

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of blame to go around, Paul:
- Yes the politicians themselves. They need to be stronger in dealing with the party and caucus insiders.
- The media: So little insightful analysis. Instead of covering real issues, they focus on the meaningless theatrics of question period. And so the parties focus all of their energy on that. Debate on legislation is a waste of time because everyone's mind is already made up. But maybe if that legislative debate was given a little more attention, and people got a glimpse of what the MLAs were saying about a piece of legislation (as in, MLA X made a good point here, while MLA Y showed he hasn't two brain cells to rub together with this comment), maybe more effort would be put into that debate.
- most of all, the fault lies with the public. When half can't be bothered to get off their butts and go to the polls once in four years, they get what they deserve. MLAs are more apt to show deference to their voters if and only if the voters hold them accountable. It means voting, yes, but so much more.

The price of liberty - meaning, effective democracy - is eternal vigilance. Until people pay as much heed to the operation of their government as they do to American Idol, this problem will continue.

Anonymous said...

Oh My Anon 8:57!! One of the most excellent comments I've read in a long time. So very, very true.