BASTARDS & BODDHISATTVAS – from high hopes to high office

Common Ground, May 2019

This month I’ve been tasked to write on “why voters don’t trust politicians once they get into power.” The simple answer is that they’re all a bunch of lying bastards. There, that was easy. See you in a future issue, folks!

Perhaps I should expand on that.

Through bitter experience, voters are conditioned to believe the worst in elected officials. However, memories are short. Well before another election, we’re back on Facespook debating the relative merits of Thing One versus Thing Two, and whether or not Thing Three is a spoiler. Usually one of the Things is charismatic enough to capture a critical mass of voters’ hearts and minds, and is swept into office on a tide of hope n’ change.

From there it’s all downhill, as the voters’ starstruck devotion shades into the contempt of jilted lovers. Ah, the power of projection…it’s so Hollywood! Think Barack Obama in 2008 or Justin Trudeau in 2015.

It was difficult to not fall for the media-massaged triumph of Obama’s campaign. But even professional skeptics like me were unprepared for how disappointing the Chicago politician would prove to be. Newly installed in the Oval Office after the 2008 credit crash, he packed his cabinet with suits from Goldman Sachs, who helped him author a bank bailout that set Wall Street’s moral hazard light on a solid green. He more than doubled the number of Bush/Cheney foreign wars, and nixed a law that forbade domestic propagandizing of American citizens. His administration prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. But who cares? He was “so articulate” – one helluva Teleprompter reader!

To this day, the Obama cult still runs strong around proper-thinking progressives, who generally respond to such criticism with, “But Trump is worse!” It’s impossible to disagree, but the Commander in Tweet is just a more unsightly spawn of the same Military-Financial Entertainment swamp responsible for “Terror Tuesdays”: Obama’s weekly meetings with Pentagon officials to decide which people where to drone into nonexistence.

So why don’t people trust politicians after they’re elected? Well, one big factor is “regulatory capture,” which means the hijacking of governmental policy by corporate benefactors. Even though Canada has a law on the books forbidding corporate campaign contributions, there are going to be nods and winks and even outright violations, as revealed in the recent revelations about SNC Lavalin’s illegal Liberal Party donations.

But the problem runs deeper than this. When you’re a critic of the governing system you are by definition outside it. Those who “speak truth to power” generally don’t have much of it. And those who move from outsider status to insider political careers soon find that honest, principled exchanges get problematic, as Judy Wilson-Raybould discovered.

Once you are in office, you have certain kind of power. Will you risk this power by speaking truth to the more powerful (the boss), even if it remains a private exchange?

A few years back, a friend of mine was approached by the provincial NDP to run as an MLA. They told me that as a condition of running for the NDP, they were obligated to support the dictates of the party, over any conflicting position from their constituents, or their own conscience. They would follow the party’s dictates on all matters. Keep mum and play along, was the message. They refused, and that was that.

It’s a near certainty that lockstep agreements like the one cited above aren’t limited to one political party. This means the system self-selects for the kind of people ready to sign away their conscience. According to the late BC journalist and former Socred minister Rafe Mair, this pattern of electoral groupthink also holds at the federal level.

“Our system is neither democratic nor responsible, but rather a dictatorship of the Prime Minister with the elected MPs utterly irrelevant,” Mair wrote at the intro of his explosive little tract from 2017, Politically Incorrect: How Canada Lost it’s Way and the Simple Path Home.

MPs play do nothing in shaping or preparing legislation, he claims. “They play no role in this and their opinion is not only irrelevant, if an MP bothers the PM on such matters, he’s seen as a nuisance…” The MP’s chances of political advancement are then radically reduced.

“If MPs tell you they discuss policy all the time it’s bullshit. They may talk about it in the nearest watering hole, or in bitching sessions, but they play NO role in making it, changing it, or making decisions on legislation, whether it’s needed, if so what subject, what it should or shouldn’t say and so on,” Mair observed.

The cantankerous journalist (God bless his soul) supplied testimony of legislative powerlessness from former MPs, which I won’t depress you with. Where I differ from Mair is his choice of words; he insisted we live in a “dictatorship of the PM,” but I prefer the less rhetorically charged “virtual democracy.” While we can’t say we have an Athenian model of parliamentary representation in Canada, there are no four AM visits from stormtroopers to pesky artists and activists. It’s kind of a Truman Show with ballot boxes and Timbits – largely farcical, but not near as silly and scary as the inverted totalitarianism south of the border.

The “Mair Solution” as the author called it in the penultimate chapter of his book, is to make all members’ votes on house bills secret. This way the party leaders can’t hold members’ decisions against them later. And critically, it would be structured so that a failed vote wouldn’t topple the government. Among other advantages of this arrangement, it would incentivize the PM to bring MPs into the policy decision-making process.

Significant tweaks like this to parliamentary procedures would help Canadian voters trust their elected representatives more – if only because they would have a greater chance to perform, rather than perform. With luck, we might see the return of the “public service” meme, encouraging a few more bodhisattvas and few less bastards.
Geoff Olson is a non-Pulitzer prize-winning writer and cartoonist.

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