“To get good people to run for public office, you don’t need to offer them more money, benefits or enhanced job opportunities after politics. Instead you need to offer them the freedom to be themselves, the opportunity to make a difference and a hope that, while they may fail, they have the chance to make the world a better place.”
August 24, 2010
The spectacle last May of Ed Broadbent and Jean Chrétien meeting to discuss noncompete and/or coalition agreements between the NDP and the Liberals dismayed me.
I thought of Leslie Frost, perhaps the wiliest and the most successful Ontario premier since Oliver Mowat. Known both as Old Man Ontario for his embodiment of the province’s political culture and as the Silver Fox for his consummate political skills, he developed Ontario’s service state under the successful “Progressive Conservative” brand. They governed Ontario for 42 years. Frost himself wisely retired after 12 years as premier saying simply, “Politics is a young man’s game. Young men should run it.”
Good advice. The younger men in charge of Broadbent’s and Chrétien’s parties should be engaging in the politics of politics. Mr. B and Mr. C. have earned their retirement. They should take it.
But why aren’t more good young people running for public office?
Five factors come immediately to mind. The Reagan-Thatcher-Harris revolutions over the past 30 years have embedded in our consciousness that taxes are bad and the market should be king. Working to limit government’s effectiveness, the right has managed to persuade us that governments are irrelevant. Citizens have been turned into mere consumers.
Canada’s 12-headed educational system does a very poor job of teaching citizenship. Our political culture has become obsessed with rights and freedoms but we do little to emphasize the responsibilities of citizenship. A wise teacher I knew once said, “Everyone should have two avocations, one of which should be politics.”
Too often politicians are portrayed as corrupt, self-serving, and inept. When was the last time you saw a political cartoon in praise of a politician? I do. Away back in 1986, the Star‘s Duncan Macpherson memorably showed Tommy Douglas inquiring about medicare, employment benefits, and a fair distribution of harps when he met St. Peter at the pearly gates.
Since the 1960s, idealism — as opposed to ideology — in politics has been in full retreat. Think how the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King sucked the political hope out of a whole generation. Think how Pierre Trudeau’s War Measures Act killed his promise of participatory democracy. Think how Brian Mulroney’s rolling of the dice on Meech Lake killed the federal Progressive Conservative party so that today right-wing American Republicanism inhabits its corpse. Think of Bob Rae’s abandonment of the left.
Why would you seek public office when you’re faced with constant public scorn and media suspicion in a job that many consider — and too many leaders try to make — irrelevant?
Because — whether we like it or not — our lives are affected by politics every day. Think of these disparate issues of the last few months. Scrapping the long-form census? Political decision. Scrapping the new sex-ed program in Ontario? Political decision. Investing or not in Toronto’s public transit? Political decision.
So how do we get more good young people to enter politics?
We could start by saying “thank-you” to our politicians when they do a good job. The press needs to; the public needs to; and politicians themselves need to.
We need to rehabilitate words like “compromise,” “politician,” “liberal,” “democrat” and “socialist.” While Aristotle was absolutely right that politics is the art of the possible and, therefore, of compromise, a dynamic political discourse and a healthy political culture depend on diversity, dissent and a wide spectrum of views.
While genuine conservatives dedicated to preserving the valuable traditions of the past need to repudiate the destructive neo-cons in Ottawa who are systematically destroying the Canadian parliamentary tradition, the left needs to find again its focus, its courage and its integrity. It’s too easily forgotten that Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP won government on the People’s Agenda and public auto insurance.
Politicians of all stripes — but especially those on the left — need to acknowledge and advocate the legitimate and necessary role of the public sector both in the social and the economic spheres. It’s crucial that the public sector not just spend on social services such as medicare, but that it demonstrate its ability to create jobs and wealth through efficiently run crown corporations.
After all, it was that wily old Silver Fox, Leslie Frost, who ensured the development the St. Lawrence Seaway — the greatest Canadian public sector economic enterprise of the last half of the 20th century. It opened up half our continent — and especially Ontario — to unparalleled economic development.
We need to say loudly and clearly that both the public sector and political service are vital to our country’s well-being.
To get good people to run for public office, you don’t need to offer them more money, benefits or enhanced job opportunities after politics. Instead you need to offer them the freedom to be themselves, the opportunity to make a difference and a hope that, while they may fail, they have the chance to make the world a better place.
Jim Foulds served in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario from 1971 to 1987 as a member of the New Democratic Party.