Politics: Too important to be left to the professionals
Posted on November 08, 2013 by Richard Einarson
This hasn't exactly been the best week for politics in Canada (and if there's a bigger understatement out there please let me know). The evidence before us is pretty damning: Rob Ford. Three suspended senators. Some pretty nasty and very personal exchanges in the Alberta Legislature.
It's no wonder voter turnout is at its lowest level in history and fewer people every day seem to care about politics. The question is, why has politics come to this and what can we do about it? Who are these professional politicians who run our governments?
Very often they're ambitious people who haven't really had to collaborate with others to get a job done in their lives before politics. They’re often bullies and their single-mindedness serves them well in the climb up the political ladder.
That's until they get to the top step and often fall off. I've long said that politics and governing are two very different things that require very different skills. Politics usually requires ruthlessness, where governing requires diplomacy, managerial skill and an ability to work well with others in order to get things done.
This results in the well-known phenomenon of over-promising and under-delivering. Put another way, politicians make promises during election campaigns and talk about all of the wonderful things they plan to do but then develop a very selective memory of what they’ve actually done.
Let's take one simple example from this week. Despite promising a significant funding increase for post-secondary education our provincial government delivered a $147 million cut. When they put back $50 million, they proudly announced "promise made, promise kept".
Really? Who do they think they're fooling?
The people of Alberta aren't stupid. We're aware post-secondary education is still nearly $100 million short and the impacts have already been felt in the classroom. The added money is welcome, and it might even be good politics, but cutting education in the first place was terrible policy.
The question is, how do we change politics?
To change politics we need a new breed of politician, political amateurs if you like, who have a track record of working collaboratively with others to get things done. People who understand the world operates in shades of grey and that planning is much more important than plotting for political wins and losses. We need people who see politics as a calling, who see that political office can serve a higher purpose rather than those who see it as simply a job, or those who seek power for its own sake. We need people who are strong on policy and bring a sense of humour and humility to the position.
In practical terms our political leaders should return question period in the Legislature to its intended purpose; that is, for government to explain its actions and be accountable for them. Put simply, just answer the damn question. Tell us about your values, your policies and where your current actions fit in the context of a long term plan. Share your vision for our city/province/country. Defend your position forcefully and back it up with real evidence. Don’t descend into petty personal attacks. Be bigger than yourself.
Politicians also need to own up to their mistakes. I've written previously about a mistake I made when I started my Alberta Party leadership campaign. Although we were in close contact with Elections Alberta throughout, as the first party to conduct a leadership campaign under the new campaign finance disclosure rules we didn't realize we couldn't raise money before I was officially registered as a candidate.
In spite of advice to simply cover it up (which led to the dismissal of a key campaign advisor) I owned up to the mistake and returned the money. I did it not because someone forced me to, nor because it came up through a Freedom of Information request or through the work of some enterprising journalist. I did it because it's the right thing to do. We all make mistakes even when we have the best of intentions. A good friend reminded me the sin is not in the error, the sin is in the cover-up.
And that, I think, is where politics has gone wrong. Today's political leaders instinctively cover up their mistakes or make outrageous excuses for their behavior. They let their disagreements become personal and they seek power for power's sake.
Our province needs leaders who are authentic, who connect with people and who have a plan for our province and a vision that extends well beyond their own political survival.
We had such a leader in Peter Lougheed. We need one again.