A New Year's Resolution

Last year I suggested a jolly family-destroying New Year’s game, Robson’s Kith and Kin Kleanser, where you make resolutions for those close to you instead of for yourself. If you followed that advice, those close to you are a lot farther away now, leaving you ample free time to join me in another variant on the antiquated notion of self-improvement. This year let’s all play my fun new game Political Promiser, in which we make a New Year’s resolution for politicians. Good heavens! May I remind you this is still a family newspaper even though you disencumbered yourself of your own family 12 months ago using my patented method? Wash your word processor out with soap and try again.

Hard, isn’t it? There are so many attractive choices it boggles the mind. “No behaving in ways that embarrass schoolchildren in Question Period ... no envelopes full of cash ... refraining from saying exactly what we all knew you were going to say. ...” Well, I don’t want to spoil the fun by turning over all the cards in the Suggestion Stack at once. But while you’re weighing your options I’ll put forward my own, courtesy of the poet Robbie Burns.

No, not “eat more haggis.” In fact the parliamentary cafeteria is making a determined effort to serve more wholesome food, which should help some MPs make a resolution beneficial to us as well as them: In 2008 I will live healthier. I do not jest here. The time pressure, stresses, and lack of opportunities for a balanced diet, exercise or quiet reflection in political life would raise eyebrows at a law school and do not contribute to thoughtful legislation or dignified conduct.

It would not be amiss for MPs and provincial legislators, in the interest of being less overwhelmed and underinformed, to resolve to appropriate more money for office staff in the coming year so that each could employ, for instance, an expert on health care, and for that matter a lawyer and a forensic accountant as well.

As I said, there’s a lot to choose from (and the great thing about this game, as opposed to my once-off Kith and Kin Kleanser, is that we can probably play Political Promiser again next year with exactly the same tokens, cards and board position). But my choice was, and still is, from Robbie Burns.

“Oh would some Power the giftie gie us,/Tae see ourselves as others see us,” he wrote. And while poets are thinking “Oh would some Power to us permit/The dropping of letters so rhymes will fit,” I’m thinking politicians should make a serious, private pledge that in the coming year, before doing or saying anything, they will ask themselves how it would look to the typical non-politician. That braying display of disrespect in QP, so amusing to one’s caucus-mates, for instance: How would it be received in an office, a saw-mill or a living room?

To be fair, politicians may privately consider the reactions of some of their constituents difficult to fathom. If so, let them instead simply think back to their own youthful, idealistic selves, before they went into politics. (That this step is impossible for those who were reading Hansard in their early teens is one more reason not to elect such people.) I spoke fairly recently to someone who may well become an MP next time around, who said one of her ambitions was to bring a more civil tone to Question Period. Good plan. So I asked whether it did not seem likely that 90 per cent of those now in the Commons had not had exactly the same goal before they were elected, and what she thought had gone wrong in each and every wellintentioned previous case. It turned out she had not thought about it but felt she should. Me too. Especially if she gets elected.

So, Mr. and Ms. Legislator, please resolve that in the coming year, before you utter some fatuous defence of a partisan position, excuse some egregious piece of rule-bending or simply engage in the chronic bad manners of political debate, you will consult your younger self, the person you were before you knocked on your first door, when your pamphlets and slogans were but a twinkle in some consultant’s eye. How would this thing have struck you then, especially if done by someone from a party you did not support? Perhaps you will then decide to do it anyway. I realize the requirements and rhythms of politics are not those of other professions. But please make a habit of thinking about it.

Is everyone with me? Good. I thought so. Let’s just hope politicians aren’t playing some silly reversed version of this game where they resolve that voters will earnestly contemplate how they themselves look from Parliament Hill. That wouldn’t be any fun at all, now would it?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, PoliticsJohn Robson