Spot the amateur in our politics

Before you get all excited about this budget, the next election or some other kick of the political mule, let me remind you that we all know politics is sordid. We must know it. Why else would politicians from William Henry Harrison to Jimmy Carter to Belinda Stronach keep campaigning as outsiders? In January, complaining about Ms. Stronach's refrain of "I am not a professional politician," my colleague Susan Riley said "Imagine someone boasting 'I am not a professional pipe-fitter.' Wouldn't the response be, then find me one, quick?" And in the March 22 Maclean's, Paul Wells noted that Ms. Stronach "has the outsider cachet that inexplicably draws supporters to the candidate who knows least about politics. When my pipes burst during the last cold snap of winter, I didn't say to myself: 'Here's the proof that traditional plumbing has failed ... It's time to bring in a non-plumber who can do plumbing differently.' No, I called a pro. I'll never understand why people think politics requires less expertise."

Maybe they don't. Maybe there's a more convoluted explanation for our chronic enthusiasm for drawing people into politics who have no experience and thus presumably no understanding of it. It certainly requires explanation. Plumbers may attract apprentices who don't know the trade, but then they train them to do it the old-fashioned way. Your grandfather joined pipes so they didn't leak; your father joined pipes so they didn't leak; you will join pipes so they don't leak. No one talks about reinventing plumbing. Yet even people who've been in politics for years suddenly tell us that as soon as it's totally different it will be great.

As The Globe and Mail's Murray Campbell wrote on Tuesday, "One of Dalton McGuinty's ambitions is to 'reinvent government.'" One of them? If a guy set out to reinvent science you'd probably say "Good luck mate" but if he pulled it off you'd say "Great, take a break" not "To infinity and beyond, and make it snappy." But in politics, total change is just the start. In November, Paul Martin, after 10 years in government, said "our governments and our leaders must change the way they conduct themselves." In December he promised "fundamental changes ... to the way we are governed." And in February he promised, "If I can't change the political process, I'll get out."

Huh? Didn't that process produce socialized medicine when his father was in cabinet? If your dad built you the greatest hot tub in the world would you pledge to bathe in a horse trough? Surely if Mr. Martin has to promise to make government into something totally different or it will stink, he's admitting that it has stunk for the past decade and that he knows we know it. Naturally he concedes that it stank for the decade before that when those awful Tories were in power let alone during the Dark Ages when taxes were low, morals were high and nits like Francis Bacon went around babbling: "It is good also not to try experiments in states."

Based on his actions, it is clear that Mr. Martin values expertise in politics; he just completed a highly professional, ruthless takeover of the Liberal party. As for Belinda Stronach, she relied on cagey, even cynical political operators to run her campaign. But as politicians, presumably they say what they think we will like. The real question is why we like it, even though we find Yes Minister funny. Or why one Paul Wells, in the Jan. 26 Maclean's, praised the B.C. government's assembly of 160 citizens drawn at random to find ways to reform government as "a stirring rebuttal to the cynicism that infests so much of Canadian politics and journalism"? If an airline were to adopt a similar process, would we call it a stirring rebuttal to cynicism in engineering and rush to buy a ticket on the maiden flight?

I say the reason we won't accept the argument that experience works here too is not that we don't understand what's wrong with politics. It's that we do. Deep down we know politics is about government and government is about force. If we dwell on that ugly truth for any length of time it will dawn on us that any proposal to do things by government is a proposal to do them by force and that, therefore, anything that can't be done by force can't be done by government and anything that can't be done efficiently or kindly by force can't be done efficiently or kindly by government. Which is fine if you accept a limited role for government and extensive social obligations for ourselves as private citizens. Instead, having demanded that government make us healthy, wealthy and wise, we wait breathlessly for it to become completely different so it can.

If you don't agree, tell me why government "charity" costs so much and achieves so little. Better yet, tell me how long you'd stay in the chair if the guy in the white coat pried your jaws open, fired up the drill then declared that he was going to reinvent dentistry right now or else quit the profession.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson