It’s time to put politicians’ schedules on a diet

Guess who’s coming to dinner? It looks like Joe Volpe, Joe Volpe and Joe Volpe. He’ll be having the trouble. But is that us in the kitchen? Critics are feasting on our immigration minister charging taxpayers for two and even three dinners a day. Especially after the appetizer of Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew taking his chauffeur with him on a trip even when he doesn’t take his car.

The latter strikes me as majestic ... as in Louis XVI. On Mr. Volpe I have quite different concerns.

The press punched out headlines like “Volpe blasted over pricey dinners,” and “Critics lambaste Volpe for charging for two dinners in one night.” I dislike the “critics say” headline in all its forms because news should be what happened, not what people think of it, especially when what they think is painfully predictable. That’s what columnists are for. Besides, where Tory Diane Ablonczy complains that taxpayers aren’t eating three dinners a day and the NDP’s Bill Siksay that immigrants aren’t, I’m upset that ministers are. I worry not that Mr. Volpe’s justifications may be false, but that they may be true.

Wisest in her generation, Bloc Quebecois immigration critic Meili Faille laughed, “I probably end up having four breakfasts on Saturday morning” because MPs’ “crazy” schedules make it so hard to meet people that “it is common to see MPs and ministers eat dinner three times.”

I don’t doubt that Mr. Volpe routinely glad-hands from meeting to meeting, professing sincere concern about dozens of matters not one of which he has time to think about and shucks folks glad you could make it gotta go hope I can count on your vote grab me a burger next meeting whooooosh. And I’d rather see taxpayers pick up the tab than, say, people trying to buy access. But what’s with all these meetings?

Is this really how a human being, even a cabinet minister, should spend his life? That his spokesman should call Mr. Volpe “the busiest minister on the planet” partakes of the “reverse bragging” Susan Lightstone deplored in a recent Citizen’s Weekly, and the chronic tone of windy hyperbole set by Mr. Volpe’s boss. But it is also sadly hollow. Couldn’t you at least exaggerate his effectiveness?

To some extent, it’s the familiar problem that politics attracts hollow men and women. Yokels may suppose MPs lie about on tax-funded silk while half-clad maidens feed them grapes, but actually, unless they are very smart or very lazy, MPs spent their days in frenetically pointless activity in vaguely seedy surroundings, a physically and emotionally unhealthy lifestyle that appeals less to the covetous than the self-important.

In what other business can nonentities be the centre of 15 crises a day that only they can resolve?

One frequently sees a horrifying absence of inner life among the keenest and most enduring of politicians. Rush rush rush is a substitute for thinking, especially about really important things. But I also see a troubling reflection of the broader culture in what does and what does not upset us in our politicians. We elect them, and we never vote them out again for being scarily hyperactive. Instead, people complain if Parliament takes a long recess or otherwise shows signs of slackening its pace of work. Even those who think we are over-governed.

Surely it is time to ask instead whether members of Parliament are doing too much, whether they are too busy to do any of it very well, and whether there is not an unwholesome franticness to it all.

Simon Wiesenthal, his Citizen obituary just noted, devoted himself to Nazi hunting because he believed in the next life he would be required to account for how he spent this one. Of course it may not be true. But it very well may and, in any case, it is the ostensible view of many of our politicians. If it happens, are they planning to reply, “You know, Lord, I was in so many meetings I just never got to that question. I mean look, my croissant’s gone soggy, you wouldn’t believe, constituents at 6:30, lobbyists at 7:00, colleagues at 7:30, then a reporter called and actually I have to go now, hope I can count on your vote, I...”

Pending such a scene, we citizens might usefully ask why it appals us that a minister would put five meals a day on the public tab but not why he would work such a schedule as to need them in the first place.

We should ask first what quality of decision is likely to emanate from a cabinet exhausting themselves without even getting big SUVs, flat-screen TVs and kids who can play the violin in three languages to show for it.

Then we should ask what sort of governance we want, and whether we might not usefully elect men and women given to quiet reflection and effective prioritizing.

Finally, we might ask if we ourselves are much given to such things.

Ha ha! Just kidding. Pass me that burger and make it snappy.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson