Now that we’ve done the heavy lifting, casting our ballot, where will we turn our attention next? For most of us, it likely won’t be to politics. Having pondered about whether the Liberals or the New Democrats will do the most good and the least harm, we’re ready to move on. Anyway, our democratic system encourages electors to get out of the way and permit the government to make all decisions.
There are several insidious black flies in this ointment, however. They hide behind a curtain of tradition and secrecy and bedevil politicians, federal and provincial, and also tax paying citizens. Their chilling influence is experienced by those on the government benches and also those on Opposition benches. Recently some frustrated retired politicians have drawn our attention to a number of disquieting issues in our political system, in the hope there will be change.
One of the key issues is the rigid control exercised by political parties over elected representatives at both the provincial and federal levels. Alison Loat, formerly a fellow and instructor at the University of Toronto, and billionaire businessman Michael MacMillan, have cast a glaring light on Canadian politics at the federal level. In “Tragedy in the Commons” they report on interviews with 80 former MP’s from all parties across Canada. According to Loat and MacMillan, “MP’s rarely speak out against their leader or party, fearing they will be demoted, removed from caucus, unable to fully do their jobs, or will not be considered for cabinet positions or promotions.”
One of those interviewed was Russ Powers, a former Liberal MP (2004-2006). He said, “the party tells us to say we are there to adopt national policies for the betterment of all in the country. Reality though, is we are there to adopt policies that are self-serving and beneficial to the party in order to stay in power and get re-elected. You had to adhere to the policy or endure the wrath of the Whip.”
Graham Steele, Nova Scotia’s former NDP Finance Minister, adds another unsettling thought. In “What I Learned about Politics,” he contends that “the desire to get elected drives everything a politician does.” He adds, “in politics regrettably, the undecorated truth is usually unwelcome.”
In spite of these gloomy observations by former politicians, all may not be lost. Knowing it’s extremely unusual for currently elected politicians to voice concerns regarding our political system, I was surprised to learn that a number of MP’s, representing all parties, have recently expressed their views in a new book just released last week. The title is “Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy.” In a news release about the book, Samara Canada states “MP’s from all major parties and ridings across the country joined together in a rare display of unity to make change a reality, explaining why reform is so urgently needed and proposing practical, achievable suggestions for making it happen. It has chapters from MP’s Niki Ashton, Michael Chong, Michael Cooper, Nathan Cullen, Elizabeth May, Scott Simms, Kennedy Stewart and Anita Vandenbeld.”
What does this mean to us living comfortably in our beautiful Similkameen Valley? While we may consider it unlikely that we can play a part in cleaning up the political mess in Ottawa or Victoria, this may be an overly complacent, pessimistic conclusion.
We could begin by changing what we expect of politicians. When we ask, “what will you do for us,” are we not implicitly agreeing to be bribed with our own money? Understandably, politicians experience great pressure to outbid the other party. Leaders believe we are more likely to support them if they promise what we demand. To get elected and to be given consideration for committee positions, the lower ranks fall in line, even when at times those at the top make decisions that will adversely impact an unsuspecting electorate.
We need to view governance as a shared responsibility. This means we don’t ask for more than we can afford. It also means we remind our leaders that what we really value is integrity, honesty, truth, prudent decisions, etc. By shifting our focus from the material realm to a values realm, we may be able to begin a dialogue with our representatives about what is really important to us and our nation.
Graham Steele suggests that “the only person who can change our policies is the engaged citizen.”