No wonder our politicians don't know how to govern well

Oh boy. It's the leaders' debate. Time for beer and popcorn. Uh, make that pablum. And a hanky. What has me on the edge of tears is that politics in this country is an unskilled profession. Our politicians, though desperately keen to govern, aren't just bad at it; they seem uncurious about how it's done. Like Paul Martin trying to repair relations with the United States through abuse. You could argue with the goal; the NDP and Bloc did. But what rational person could expect to achieve it this way? Or to cure Western alienation (another top priority) without setting foot in Alberta in this election. Or to stop global warming by not doing anything.

We suffer a silent plague of such stuff. Remember how Dalton McGuinty spent 13 years in opposition, seven as leader of the Opposition, campaigned on neither cutting nor raising taxes, won, said golly I didn't know the budget looked like that and raised taxes. The power of the purse (backed by the sword) is the essence of government. For 13 years his whole job was to pay attention to it. And he didn't. Nor did he check electricity generating capacity against projected demand before promising to shut down Ontario's coal-fired reactors. What was he doing all those years? His own party's website boasts he's too politically hyperactive to pursue hobbies.

I also refer you to Randall Denley's Thursday column on Ottawa city council's budgetary process. Or my wife Brigitte Pellerin's on the mayor of Montreal who got re-elected in November on a promise to fix the roads without new taxes and immediately tried to raise taxes, saying he didn't realize how bad things were. After four years of his own budgets. (Voters successfully stared him down.)

I don't bring this up only to ridicule politicians in quest of a cheap laugh. But it may be all the relief we get. On the key issue of health care, I, and you, have suffered through endless debates about what should happen without any attention to how. Or any progress, intellectual or medical. The two are not unconnected.

Our politicians appear to have no model of the state. They seem to have no opinion on what, in natural law or our written Constitution, permits government to undertake a thing. (Paul Martin calls child care "a right," for instance: Where's that in the Charter?) Or on how the mechanics of government would permit it to be carried out, from Parliament's unanimous vote to end child poverty by 2000 to Dalton McGuinty going off to persuade Americans the Ontario driver's licence is a secure document for border crossings without first checking on the issuing process (riddled with security flaws).

There are those who say things like the Liberals' 1993 promise to eliminate the GST are just cynical lies. In some ways that would be reassuring. After all, unlike fools, rogues take vacations and, knowing their promises are hollow, return with backup plans. But I'm not happy with this theory, first because it explains everything after the fact without predicting it beforehand, and second because politicians seem generally caught off-guard by the fallout from their silly promises. And if you say they are both cynical and short-sighted, I say that qualifies as not trying to understand government.

When Ontario's auditor general said 99 per cent of phone calls to the provincial office that registers births, marriages and deaths don't get through because they'd hastily installed a costly new computer system and brought in some strange new level of management, the Citizen quoted then-minister Jim Watson as saying: "I'm satisfied with the work that I did as minister." I don't doubt it. I wish I did. And what's with Stephen Harper promising a special prosecutor for Adscam only to have his own deputy promptly note that such prosecutions are provincial? Or his claim that he can undo same-sex marriage without invoking the notwithstanding clause: One can debate the merits of using it for this purpose, but not the necessity. Why doesn't he know that?

Jack Layton is also making promises he knows won't be expensive though he can't say what they'd cost because ... Well, why? Then there's Mike Harris and Ralph Klein shadow-boxing with critics over spending cuts that never happened because none of them figured out what governments spend or why.

Now take the handgun ban ... please. Some say Paul Martin's plan to forbid murdering people with illegal handguns is obviously silly but plays well with key demographics. If that's the defence, what's the indictment? I'm glad you asked. It's presiding over the long-gun registry schmozzle and then setting up another one without any visible sign of attempting to learn lessons from the first. Of course, like some of Stephen Harper's tax promises, if it's deliberately bad policy but good politics it's shabby but at least it's not raging ineptitude. If only we could be certain they were lying.

If that strikes you as unworthy, listen for any talk in the debate about methods, any discussion of how some proposed thing might be done rather than whether anyone opposing it is just a big meany.

If not, keep the beer and popcorn but change the channel.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson