A politician's entire raison d'être is to play politics

And they're off. No wait, they're not. The Layton horse seems to be nuzzling the Martin horse. Uh, now he's ... biting him? As for the good-government nag, I think it was put down years ago. Newspapers are full of their own and the politicians' speculation about whether this is a good time for an election -- meaning how well will various parties do if it is called now. Polls are endlessly fascinating, even though the responses are not necessarily honest; if honest, not necessarily accurate; and if accurate, not necessarily enduring.

Still, I'd like to look up from the racing form long enough to ask, at least in passing, not whether the people want an election, but whether the country needs one. How poorly is our government functioning? Here one can expect little help from the politicians who, even when they accidentally state their true opinions, add little of value to the discussion.

Take Paul Martin -- please. On Tuesday, he explained the Liberal-NDP budget deal thusly: "This agreement is fiscally responsible and progressive. Why are we doing it? We are doing it to make Parliament work." But whether something is working depends on what it's meant to do and how. Parliament needs a government that wields the power of the purse, and an Opposition that exposes government weaknesses to advance an alternative spending program. By which standard, having the Opposition prop up a government that has lost control of the purse is deeply dysfunctional.

I don't think Mr. Martin is lying. I think he genuinely doesn't understand our constitutional system. Note that in his televised, urgent, pointless Adscam speechlet, he promised an election within 30 days of Justice Gomery's final report. Why? If his government is successfully implementing a progressive and responsible program, why have an election? And if it isn't, why wait?

As for Mr. Layton, his pseudo-explanation was, "We're not actually supporting a government, we're supporting a budget. When the vote comes on the government, believe me we'll be running hard against them." But the government, in a parliamentary system, is that group of MPs reliably able to pass money bills, so supporting the budget is supporting the government. To spend public money is to govern, and vice versa. Mr. Layton's statement is utter bosh. As for his claiming voters hadn't sent New Democrats to Parliament to play political games, there's a reason they're called "politicians."

Winning elections for a politician is like breathing for an organism or profits for a business: not the point, but a necessary precondition. Unfortunately, nowadays it seem to be all they think about. Literally. It isn't just what occupies the bulk of their attention during the working day. It seems to be the only thing on which they have opinions.

For instance, Stephen Harper says of the new deal "This is not how Parliament should work." Unlike, say, the Official Opposition making the unprecedented decision to abstain on the original budget while feeling no apparent obligation or perhaps capacity to explain why the precedent didn't apply here, or why it even existed. They read some polls and all their brain cells were full. As to how they could swallow a projected $50-billion spending hike by 2009-10, but not postpone some corporate tax cuts, does that much policy make their heads hurt? (What makes mine ache is that only the Bloc Quebecois seems to grasp that its job is not to keep Paul Martin in power.)

I don't expect marble statues to run for office. As Sir Humphrey Appleby says, statecraft is about surviving until the next century; politics about surviving until Friday afternoon. Especially in this parliament. And I have no illusions about government in the age of Alexander Mackenzie, Mackenzie Bowell or Mackenzie King, let alone Charles I or Caligula. But this brings me back to my central complaint: Do the people pathologically desperate to govern us even know it's hard?

Not to judge by their words, or how they use their time. They really seem to feel that, because we're us and they're them, all practical difficulties will vanish if we win. I, too, dislike corruption in government and think the Liberals need to be hosed down, then benched. But there's a lot more to good government than decent bookkeeping plus horseshoes.

Why doesn't Mr. Martin dare campaign on what he thinks he should govern on? And why don't Jack Layton and Stephen Harper dare campaign against what they think Mr. Martin should not govern on? Especially as, no matter how fast or slowly they run, all them horsies seem to be going around in a circle.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson