Today's politics: boring, yet horrible

One thing I cannot stop myself doing is noting all the press releases the federal government puts out touting the myriad ways it has spent public money trying to buy support. What a lack of monument to democracy. No reasoning, no eloquence, just cash changing hands.

It's one thing to be obsessed with insider stuff. But as these releases pour into my inbox I wonder in horrified incredulity who on Earth the senders think wants to read them, even among political junkies. Can they even interest their authors?

I mean, what public or partisan interest is served by telling the Parliamentary Press Gallery about your government supporting two affordable housing developments in Burlington, giving over a million bucks to Pneus ABC Tires Inc. of Atholville, N.B., to create "up to 15 new jobs," $15,763,384 to Francophone communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, $534,820 for "25 arts and heritage projects in Newfoundland and Labrador," and "more than $48,000" to visitor services at the Cape Jourimain Nature Centre in Bayfield, N.B.? And that was just Wednesday morning. By 8 minutes past noon they'd added $52,826 in EcoAction Community Funding for Regina and central Sask-atchewan, and before 1:30 Fraser Specialty Products Ltd., Beaulieu Plumbing and Mechanical Inc., and IPL Inc. of Edmundston, N.B., had bagged almost $2 million ... and on it went.

I also don't think I need two press releases on consecutive days telling me Bob Rae would hold a press conference on Wednesday "to discuss Liberal opposition to Conservative census cuts;" I don't even want to hear him discuss the cuts let alone dwell narcissistically on his opposition to them. "Navel lint in K1A" shouts the headline, or would if anyone covered it. (Plus his colleague Mark Holland had sent two releases threatening to do the same boring thing six days earlier.)

Then why, cries my last remaining reader, do you spend a whole column telling us you don't care about things we don't either, in agonizing detail?

Two reasons. First, you need to know this is what the guardians of the public purse (governmental and opposition) consider important. It is where they put their time and energy and while they're sending dozens of these every week they aren't doing, or thinking about, anything else. And it is costing you plenty, as the Tories try to buy support from every conceivable constituency and the opposition parties hammer them for not doing so on nearly a lavish or shameless enough scale.

Second, I just started reading a book of Wilfrid Laurier's parliamentary and public speeches before he was prime minister. Oh, there's an issue of interest to Canadians, comes a sarcastic shout from the back. Yes but, I shout back. Things used to be genuinely different, and could be again if we grasp what went wrong.

As an 1889 tribute to Laurier put it, "To be a Parliamentary orator, in the genuine sense of the words, one must bring to the discussion not only an agreeable voice and a chaste style, but a rare faculty of organization, a very practical mind, and a great knowledge of facts." Whereas the modern House is dominated by the likes of John Baird, a master of ersatz outrage and obfuscation who never said anything anyone reading this column can remember. And I think there's a connection between the two.

So humour me. Think of your favourite parliamentary orator. You've drawn a blank, haven't you? There may be politicians you like. But not one prompts you to say, as a contemporary did of Laurier in 1874, "His eloquence springs rather from the mind than from the heart ..." and he clearly "understood that the orator must be an honest and a good man."

Many of our MPs are honest, intelligent and dedicated to the public good, on all sides of the aisle. And I'm sure Laurier knew the black arts of politics; you don't succeed in any era without them. But when he put a man down he did it with lethal elegance, for instance pre-empting a windbag in an 1886 public debate with "You will speak after me, but I know what you will say and I will therefore answer it at once. For a long time past I have known the circle in which the ball chained to your feet permits you to travel."

Today's would-be statesman, with the ball chained to his lips, burbles things like: "We are the coalition, the Liberal Party of Canada is the coalition, I'm not running to make coalition with anybody else, I am running to win a Liberal government." Suggesting the only tax he doesn't like is syntax.

How did we get from there to here? I say it's because modern politicians aren't appealing to principle or invoking morality. They're trying to appropriate public money for every imaginable private interest that might respond with votes. This is the logic of modern politics, and its dismal eloquence.

Boring, yet horrible. I can't look away, and neither should you.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson