Aspiring Politicos: Don’t Check your Conscience at the Door

A shorter version of this essay appeared in The Mark, December 20, 2011.

The Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions recently organized a conference on “Why Don’t (More) Good People Enter Politics?” One of the main conclusions of the conference was: we need to empower ordinary parliamentarians. There is a pretty powerful logic behind this idea.

Let’s start with the basics. What do we want from a leader? I think it is fair to say that nobody likes a phony. We don’t want people in politics who we don’t believe and can’t trust. But politics seems to attract just that kind of person. Why?

One of the reasons why “good” people (for the sake of argument, lets say we mean by this people who try to be truthful and treat others with respect) don’t want to go into politics is that they have to pretend to be something that they are not. As Carole Taylor put it, “we expect politicians to be perfect, and if you’re not perfect then you better pretend you’re perfect. And if you do that then you rule out most of the world.”

She said that when she has tried to encourage people to run for office they often say things like: “I could not withstand the kind of media scrutiny that looks at everybody I’ve ever dated, every business I’ve ever been in, every person I’ve ever had coffee with, and say that I have led an error free existence.”

Media scrutiny discourages good people from participating—and encourages those who do to pretend to be something that they’re not. This is an especially powerful inhibitor for women who don’t want their children to see them dragged through the mud and slandered.

Another way politics selects phonies (or turns otherwise good people into phonies) is by creating disincentives to admit mistakes or to change one’s views. In an adversarial game there is no incentive to admit your opponent may be right. “I’ve never belonged to a political party with which I agreed 100 percent of the time,” said Rick Anderson, a leading political strategist and consultant. “There is no such beast. But day after day after day partisans are expected to go out and pretend otherwise. The other folks are always wrong, we’re always right. The other folks are all here for the wrong reasons; we’re all good folks, here for the right reasons. These things are not true, and the beginning of a deceptive approach to politics starts in that partisan caucus mentality. We can’t acknowledge that the other people have anything to say.”

When we talk about partisanship, we’re talking about parties. As a political scientist, I am reluctant to criticize parties because I know they are an essential part of democracy: modern, large-scale democracy does not work without them. And yet, Anne McLellan, former Deputy Prime Minister, citing a recent report by the Samara Foundation, noted that for many parliamentarians “their own party was identified as the reason they could not do the job they believed they were set to Ottawa to do on behalf of their constituents.” Parties have become, as Anderson puts it, “vehicles for obstructing critical thinking.”

The problem is not parties per se, but the fact that partisanship has reached such toxic levels. Again, Carole Taylor said: “I don’t think [politics] should be a bash-bash kind of thing… it should be about the arguments of ideas and different approaches to things, and there should be an arena…where I can say I think we should do this, the other party says this.” In other words, there should be scope for meaningful debate and deliberation. Instead, parties implicitly tell candidates: “Come to me with your good ideas.” But, says Taylor, there is a hidden transcript: “Walk through the door and I’ll never hear your ideas again.”

Taylor is not saying there should be no party discipline: “I do think if you say matters of confidence, money bills, we’re all together, but there is room if it is some issue that’s really, really important to you for you to speak up and express it. If you can’t express it and in some instances you can’t even express it in caucus why are you there? What is the point?” If we make politicians pretend that they always disagree with the other side, and their side is always right, then the political process manufactures phonies.

“You do see some good people who agree to run,” says Taylor. “You know their past, you know what they’ve done; you can’t wait until they get in there. And they get in there and they’re squished because they have to absolutely do what the Prime minister or the Premier says and don’t have any chance to debate. So question period is meaningless – I mean it is meaningless – because everybody is going to toe the party line, so they just yell at each other. There is no chance to say ‘I want you guys to think about this from this point of view—you might change your mind.’”

Of course, not all partisanship is a bad thing. “Democracy,” former BC Premier Mike Harcourt reminds us, “is war without bullets.” Sam Sullivan, former Mayor of Vancouver, also puts it colorfully: “You’re a boxer, you get in the ring,” he said. “And when someone smacks you in the face, it’s your job, that’s what happens.” Politics is clearly not for the thin-skinned! “There is nothing wrong with partisanship about ideas about values” insists Harcourt. As a former criminal defense lawyer, he appreciates the value of an adversarial system, “allowing different values and different ideas to clash.” The problem is when partisanship becomes “becomes a grotesque sideshow, as question period has become. It’s when you get into really vicious negative advertising that is just there to pummel somebody—and it works,” he adds.

So what are the limits of partisanship? Can we be ethical partisans? When does partisanship serve the public good, and when do it hurt it? The answer is, surely, rooted in the very principles that underpin our democratic institutions. And these principles need to be better understood and articulated.

We make ordinary members of parliament irrelevant when we assume that parties are made up of people with a Vulcan mind-meld on all matters of policy. We make matters worse by insisting that parliament is an electoral college for forming government. And we compound the problem by subordinating the role of the opposition to ineffectually criticizing but never getting in the way of government business. We might as well do as comedian Rick Mercer suggests and tell parliamentarians to stay in their ridings rather than go to Ottawa: “Do something useful; help someone fill out a passport application.”

Perhaps the underlying problem is that we have lost the ability to articulate visions of the public good and we’re losing confidence in the ability of our political process to generate them. But our institutions cannot work unless their incumbents are committed to the idea that democracy is about more than voting for elective dictatorships.

As Rick Anderson put it, the purpose of parliament is not to pass the government’s budget or legislation but to decide what they should be! Parliament is supposed to be a check on the power of government to raise taxes and spend public money. It is not supposed to simply do the government’s bidding. And it is supposed to legislate on matters of public interest. But these powers are gutted to the extent that party leaders and their whips control access to cabinet positions, committee assignments, and other resources that are absolutely necessary for parliamentarians to do their jobs.

This is compounded when members of parliament enter office with only the foggiest sense of the job description. And they make it worse when they passively accept the idea that there is no place for free votes and meaningful deliberation in the House.

So how can we make our democracy better? In the spirit of generating an ongoing conversation on these matters, here are some initial thoughts on an agenda for democratic reform that came out of the conference at UBC:

First, the purpose and role of parliament and parliamentarians in our constitutional system needs to be re-examined, with an eye to strengthening our understanding of its essential function in the separation of powers as a check on the executive.

Second, the culture of politics needs to be cleaned up. Independence should be rewarded and celebrated, not punished; leaders should expect less deference from their caucus members.

Third, with the caveat that disciplined parties are essential in a parliamentary democracy, there is scope within the political process for more free votes, stronger committees, and less centralized decision-making.

Fourth, votes of confidence should be used to reinforce parliamentary power over the executive; it should not be a bludgeon used by the executive to subordinate the parliament.

Fifth, the nomination process needs to be better regulated and less controlled by the party leadership so that individual MPs may be freer to act as powerful and responsive representatives of their constituencies.

And finally, for all those would-be candidates out there, here is a further thought. Carole Taylor said “today if I were starting all over again and the Prime Minister asked me to run I would make it a condition of my running that I would be free on very important issues to me to not vote the party line. Otherwise, I wouldn’t go.” Anderson imagined saying: “I’ll run when 50 other people run at the same time – and I don’t care whether they’re left wing or right wing, for this party or that party – but that our common agreement is that we’ll support each other when we break with our party line.”

If you’re asked to run, don’t check your conscience, free will, and ethical principles at the door.

Download the full report on the CSDI conference here.

Watch the videos of the conference on YouTube here.

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