Columns

Truth and consequences

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 3 2000
Columns

Truth and consequences

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 3 2000

Truth and consequences

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

One truth about politics in a democracy is that truth is a commodity used sparingly—and so, for that matter, is democracy. Consider Canada's two most important political parties. No matter how many times Jean Chrétien says he’ll lead the Liberals into the next election, there are doubters who note that the PM couldn’t say otherwise even if he does plan to step down. Then, there’s Paul Martin, who recently said what is self-evident: if the PM’s job were open, he’d be interested. But Martins assertion, Paul Adams wrote in The Globe and Mail, “signalled his supporters not only that they should not give up their efforts on his behalf, but that they also no longer need to hide their allegiance to his protocampaign for the leadership.” In other words, by telling the truth about his hopes for the future, Martin was declaring war on the Prime Minister now.

Then, there’s freedom of speech, which generally exists in least abundance inside political parties. Preston Manning welcomed debate on whether Reform should dissolve and reinvent itself—until key party people opposed him. Randy White, the highly efficient House leader, was fired, and Gee Tsang, who chaired the executive council, quit under pressure. Then, there are the Libs again, a party in which you can say anything you want—so long as it jibes with what the leader says. For most recent proof, ask those MPs who said their constituents think the PM should step down. They were told to sit down and shut up by their leader—who added, for good measure, that they were probably speaking out of malice because they are mere MPs, not ministers. Now there’s a great way to make the approximately 125 Liberals who are not in the cabinet feel fulfilled and useful. And just wait till the next time those ingrates go looking for money from Jane Stewart’s department.

Pierre Trudeau once said, famously, that as soon as they are “50 yards from Parliament Hill,” MPs are “just nobodies.” Actually, it’s the reverse. At home in their ridings, MPs are people of relative substance, able to resolve problems for constituents, and to promote or shoot down attempts to win government grants. If you think no one cares what they do, ask any MP to whip out their Day-Timer: guaranteed, it will be full of weekend engagements for everything from novicelevel hockey games to riding association meetings to church, synagogue and mosque brunches. On the Hill, backbenchers morph into automatons: the party whip tells them when attendance is mandatory, when and how to vote, when and what questions they may ask in the Commons, and what answers are acceptable on the odd occasion that a reporter actually cares about their opinions.

The qualities it takes to get ahead in government are exact

opposites of those that make for a good riding MP At home, it’s important to have a high profile and firm will, to guide constituents through mazes of bureaucracy, and to steamroller civil servants who get in the way. That’s disastrous behaviour in Ottawa, where bureaucrats alternately snicker at and ignore lowly backbenchers, and a deputy minister will, if the MP gets too shirty, ask the clerk of the Privy Council to ask the prime minister to get the backbencher to back off. A devoted MP reflects constituents’ views without fear or favour—even when it means saying the PM should step down. But guess your chances of making the cabinet if you do that? And elected MPs aren’t alone in facing conflicting pressures that affect their livelihood. Lobbyists and lawyers often like to say they don’t make any money from volunteer political involvement. That’s technically true—but name one consultant or barrister who ever lost business through being an intimate of the prime minister. But that cuts both ways: if you’re a big Paul Martin supporter, this isn’t the best time to bid for that big government contract.

When it comes to encouraging politicians to dissemble, hide their true thoughts and toe the party line at all times, the media are not only enablers—we encourage such steps. When Liberal MPs Stan Keyes, Diane Marleau and Nick Discepola said many constituents thought the PM should step down before the next election, the PM wasn’t the first to suggest they might have ulterior motives: several columnists beat him to the punch. So much for expressing your views forthrightly. And there’s a paradox in Canadians’ view of politicians: we routinely think less—but demand more—of them than we do of ourselves. How many Canadians would absolutely, definitively swear they’ll stick with the same job for the next four years—even if something better were to come up? And how many people would discuss personal plans at all with a mob of reporters recording every word?

It’s reminiscent of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry is doing his nightclub act, and a friend of Kramer’s heckles him wildly. The next day, a furious Jerry shows up at the hecklers office to rag her back: she becomes angry and baffled when she’s subjected to the same treatment she meted out.

It’s right to rip politicians for sneaky, self-serving things, like funnelling grant money to supporters for questionable projects—or if the prime minister proves cynical enough to do so, calling an early election this fall for self-serving partisan reasons. But the flap about disclosing personal plans is something else: you get what you deserve, and that applies to voters as much as to the people they vote for. It also explains why politicians today can consider three categories of fibs: lies, damn lies—and the ones we make ’em tell to keep their jobs.