Politicians should discuss policy before leaving office

What’s the matter with elections? If we can’t discuss ideas, can we at least discuss why not? After years of pondering what would constitute good public policy, with results many people consider preposterous, I find myself increasingly preoccupied with why it doesn’t matter. For instance, ex-politicians Preston Manning and Mike Harris just released the second volume of their Fraser Institute series A Canada Strong and Free. And while the ideas it contains, such as private medical insurance and half-price school vouchers, are not as radical as I would like (what is?), they are almost all sensible. And quite doomed.

The media are partly to blame. At the press conference on Mssrs. Manning and Harris’s first volume, other than two technical ones from yours truly, every single question was about politics. Indeed, all were variants on: Won’t your right-wing lunacy sink Stephen Harper by revealing his secret agenda? Then the journalists went off to write about how politicians aren’t interested in discussing issues.

Not entirely without reason. A recent story in one of the Citizen’s sister papers noted that the president of Toronto’s Empire Club deliberately invited Jack Layton and Stephen Harper to speak at a time when an election was unlikely so they would discuss policy. An election lurched into view anyway, prompting Mr. Layton to tell the club on Nov. 7: “I had a speech written for today about how Canada’s prosperity depends on investing in people, infrastructure and our environment” but instead would speak about Gomery, scandal and politics. “I hope you will appreciate the circumstances that have led to a change in topic.”

Not me. I don’t care for the timing of this election. But the circumstance I really don’t appreciate is politicians thinking an election is no time to discuss serious issues. I very much doubt Jack Layton has workable answers to our environmental and infrastructure problems. But why isn’t an election the ideal time for him to try to persuade us he does? And not just him. In his joint address to the Empire and Canadian clubs the next day, Mr. Harper likewise shelved “many important issues on the national agenda” in favour of “the overriding question of ethics and accountability in our national government.”

Here Mr. Harris and Mr. Manning have something to answer for and indeed could do so. The former was premier of Ontario for seven years, the latter leader of the Official Opposition for three in name and seven in fact. Where were any of these right-wing ideas then?

I don’t object to people growing wiser with time; I might even try it myself some day. But it is one thing to explain that when I was a politician I didn’t do any of this stuff because ... and quite another to pass over this awkward question in silence. Ex-libertarian Stephen Harper immediately dismissed the proposal in volume one of A Canada Strong and Free for “substantially amending or replacing the Canada Health Act and transferring responsibility” and “financing, including federal tax points, entirely to the provinces” as “a non-starter,” but I’d bet he’ll immediately support it on leaving politics. So we badly need a volume from Mr. Manning and Mr. Harris exploring why, as Paul Wells recently noted in Maclean’s, ex-politicians reliably experience a mysterious surge in courage and clarity. Can the Lucien Bouchard now calling for “lucid” debate on making Quebec more open economically and intellectually be the same man who, as premier, angrily declared any attack on the Quebec model an attack on Quebec’s identity? Oh yeah.

I have a theory: Politics notoriously attracts people better at making promises than keeping them, which is why Paul Martin recently said “I really, really like campaigns,” and Bill Clinton still wows crowds with glorious speeches about the great stuff he’d do if he were president. But it is not entirely cynical. These guys really think good people wanting good outcomes is a policy proposal. As a result, they genuinely believe they are addressing issues when they explain how much nicer they are than their stinking mud-slinging foes. But there’s more. And it’s even more our fault than electing such confused people.

I believe modern democratic politics has become profoundly corrupt, not in the Adscam sense but in the sense that governments hand out enormous benefits to the middle class in return for our votes. It is not something we like to talk about, partly because we don’t really understand how it produces bad effects like driving federal budgets higher every year than anyone including the cabinet intends. But we also don’t like to talk about it because we know perfectly well we’re buying what the politicians are selling. We’re just haggling over the price. Does anyone doubt what would become of a politician who ran on eliminating subsidies for middle-class children’s university education, or cutting EI in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces?

Elections are supposed to be about the common good but they’re really about massive redistribution in favour of articulate, educated and well-organized voters and deep down we know it. I don’t imagine they’ll talk about that on the stump. Or that we’d listen if they did.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson