Monday, January 02, 2006

Run for Parliament - No thanks!

An excellent column by Janice Kennedy in Saturday's Ottawa Citizen speaks to our democratic malaise.

Unfortunately, the column is apparently not available online, so here it is. My comments are below.

Run for Parliament? No thanks

A few high-profile candidates from past campaigns are sitting it out this time around -- and they're fine with that

Janice Kennedy
The Ottawa Citizen

They are not on the hustings this time, thank you very much. And that's just the way they want it.

Past political adventures have left some former MPs and candidates bitter, exhausted, disillusioned, cautiously optimistic -- or all of the above.
But mostly they have left them wiser.

"Political parties are completely nontransparent and corrupt," says former Hamilton MP Sheila Copps with characteristic bluntness. And that's only one of the things wrong with the system.

At a time when "democratic deficit" has become a global catch phrase and "electoral reform" a cri du coeur, these politicians and would-be politicians bring an informed perspective and a hard-won credibility to the discussion.

"It's been a year of politics, instead of a year of governance," says outgoing Mississauga MP Carolyn Parrish of Canada's most recent minority Parliament, "a waste of everybody's time and money. If (Prime Minister Paul) Martin were serious about the democratic deficit, he would have brought in fixed terms."

"Before we start changing what legislators do," says Walter Robinson, unsuccessful 2004 Conservative candidate in Ottawa-Orleans, "we need to change how we actually put people in the House of Commons."

From autocratic leadership to incestuous party dynamics, from flawed models of representation to a lack of concrete support for women in politics, the perceptions of Ms. Parrish, Mr. Robinson and others ring with an authority born of experience.
Monia Mazigh also has a few ideas about what's wrong with the system and how it can be fixed.

"I was disappointed, yes," admits the NDP's star candidate for Ottawa South in 2004. "I was expecting more votes."

After it was all over that June evening, she had come in third with 8,000 votes, well behind Liberal David McGuinty's 25,900 and Conservative Alan Riddell's 20,600.
In a riding with a population that is 29-per-cent immigrant and 10-per-cent Muslim, Ms. Mazigh -- who is both -- failed to attract significant support from those communities.

Her high profile as the wife of Maher Arar, whose release from a Syrian prison she had lobbied for tirelessly, didn't provide much of a boost, either.

In the 18 months since, she has thought a great deal about her immersion into active politics. And when the Jan. 23 election was called, she had already decided she would not repeat the experience -- though not because of her disappointment.

"It was such a huge, tremendously demanding thing." The investment of time was overwhelming, she says, with such expected campaign activities as knocking on doors and participating in all-candidates debates combining with the demands of additional media attention from across the country.

She had asked her organizers to build a break into her campaign days so she could pick up her daughter from school and spend a little time with her daughter and toddler son, but the pressure was always tight.

"We hear from everywhere, 'We should have more women in Parliament.' But I don't think the system right now is ready to accept more women" -- at least women who want to have families. In her view, the demands of both campaigning and, worse, functioning as an MP make that a virtual impossibility.

These days, Ms. Mazigh, 35, puts her McGill doctorate in finance to good use as a policy researcher for the federal NDP. And even though her BlackBerry buzzes at odd hours outside the office, her life is framed by normal work days with normal office hours.

For Ms. Parrish, 59, there was no question of running again. Since becoming an independent MP last year after one too many outspoken comments as a member of the Liberal caucus, she has been unhappy in the House of Commons. The life of an independent, she says, is miserable, ineffectual and negative.

But she could not conceive of returning to the current incarnation of the Liberals, which, she says, suffers from serious leadership problems.

"It's no secret that I'm not happy with Paul Martin and the Scott Reids of the world," she says, referring to Mr. Martin's communications adviser of recent "beer and popcorn" notoriety. "He's surrounded himself with young Turks willing to drink the Kool-Aid for the leader."

She has become disillusioned with the party and what she calls "the cult of the leader," which she finds stifling and insupportable.

"It's not, 'Are you loyal?' It's 'How loyal are you? Will you drink the Kool-Aid?' "
Under former prime minister Jean Chretien, she says, Liberal caucus members had plenty of leeway to express themselves. His understanding reaction to her "bastards" episode, she says, was typical of the forgiving climate.

That 2003 incident, in which a boom microphone picked up her muttered reference to Americans in the context of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, she characterizes as the darkest moment of her political life.

"I'm outspoken and I'm colourful, but I'm not coarse. It was really embarrassing. For about three days, I hid under a blanket, and people brought me tea and chicken soup."

Stifling leadership was one of the things that drove Ms. Parrish away from federal politics. The other was the stifling climate on Parliament Hill generally.

"It dissuades emotional and passionate people. In Ottawa, people have to learn to curb their enthusiasm and passion, and that's not always a good thing. It's a weird place, especially for women."

Ms. Parrish says that most women who make it in politics have had to have a little extra fire and spirit to overcome the obstacles -- which they're then told to damp down. They have to change what they were, even though that's what got them there in the first place.

"To cope in Ottawa," she says, "you become grey."

For Ms. Copps, who essentially lost the 2004 Liberal candidacy in her long-held Hamilton riding to new boundaries and a candidate designated by the party brass, the systemic trouble is fundamental.

"It's a political party problem," she says, in a structure that has almost no oversight of parties other than financial audits. "They'll continue to play fast and loose with money and rules." She thinks Elections Canada should turn its attentions to how parties operate.

Ms. Copps charges that the Liberals are captives of lobbyists and other interest groups and "don't even pretend to be transparent anymore. There won't be a change in the ethos of the party until they're punished by the voters."

She finds ironic Mr. Martin's claims that he will address the country's democratic deficit. When Enron and the other corporate scandals splashed across the front pages, she says, there was a resounding call on the private sector for more accountability. "That hasn't happened in political life. It's the experienced people who don't want change."

At the same time, she adds, some good people do continue to enter political life -- she cites Michael Ignatieff as an example -- because they haven't yet learned how undemocratic the party apparatus is.

"The public's level of cynicism is higher now," says Ms. Copps, "but there are still some idealistic neophytes in politics."

Such idealism will be dulled with time, she suggests. Among current Liberal MPs, she claims, there is a much higher level of cynicism than there was in 1993, when the Chretien team came in fresh after years of Conservative rule.

"The party system is corrupt, and they know it," she says. They just feel kind of helpless about it.

Mr. Robinson, 39, understands that feeling of helplessness. In what had been a traditionally Liberal riding, he lost the 2004 race by 2,728 votes -- the detail is seared on his memory -- reducing the margin of Liberal victory from 25.5 per cent in the previous election to 4.7 per cent.

"2004 was the perfect confluence of events for me," he says, noting that his national profile as head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation was at its peak. "I thought my chances were excellent, and I did pretty well."

But the end result, despite endless, exhausting hours on the campaign trail, was still a loss. "The most disappointing thing for me was that, no matter how hard you work, you're still only a small part of the equation." The majority of votes are a function of national issues and party leadership.

"As much as I knew all that intellectually going in, it really hit hard afterward. You can not not take it personally, even though it's out of your control. Facing up to that reality was the hardest thing."

Mr. Robinson says he is committed to the objectives of Fair Vote Canada, a national non-partisan group lobbying for electoral reform. Among the aims of the group -- which boasts an advisory board that includes such diverse political personalities as Lincoln Alexander, Ed Broadbent, Judy Rebick and Hugh Segal -- are broader and fairer representation, accountability, some form of proportional representation and real voter choice.

Mr. Robinson says he would like to see the kind of voter reform that enables people to vote for someone or something, and not just against.

He chose not to run again this time around for several reasons. Professionally, he's just started a new job as an executive with a life sciences industry association, and he felt that if he took himself out of circulation now, he would be jeopardizing his earning potential. With a young son at home, he says, he has to think of education savings plans and mortgages.

And his boy, almost eight now, gave him another solid reason. During the 2004 campaign, he says, his son was sometimes disturbed by things he saw on his father's campaign signs or comments he heard at school.

"When I told him that I was not going to run this time, he gave me the biggest hug. Regardless of my angst, I knew then that this was the right thing to do. I'm still a card-carrying partisan, but this was not the right time for me."

Nor was it the right time for Ms. Mazigh.

"There was really only one big reason for me not to run now," says Ms. Mazigh. "My family."

As a result, she thinks the system should recognize in a concrete way the value of having more women in Parliament, including more women with families.

"If you have a supportive partner, that helps for sure. But on top of that, we need something institutionalized. In other countries, they have been able to get more women by providing some kind of day-care support."

Ms. Mazigh would like to see that, as well as other funding and perhaps university scholarships to attract more women to political life. "We have to encourage more young women, starting at university. We have to show them that the two choices, family and politics, can be compatible, can go together."

Despite the demands, Ms. Mazigh hopes to take another run at elected office some day, when her children are older. "I'm not disillusioned. I think it was a great experience, but I don't just want to run and use my name and not do the real job. It's a big responsibility, and I don't want to betray people who support me. But it was a very good experience, and I will probably repeat it another time in my life."

Taking another swing at it seems to be Mr. Robinson's position, too. "I'm a democrat before I'm a partisan, and, as the son of a veteran, I think it's a privilege to put your name on a ballot."

He says he'll start thinking politically again soon. "I gave myself 2004 to sulk and 2005 to be bitter. In 2006, I'm telling myself, 'Get your ass back in the game.' "

Ms. Copps, 53, won't be putting her name on a ballot any time soon. She's too busy enjoying a professional life that includes writing for the Sun Media chain, doing television work for French-language TVA and working on a series for The History Channel.

"It's lots of fun, it's free, it's liberating."

She doesn't rule out a return to political life some day, but that day is not in the foreseeable future.

As for Ms. Parrish, who has two young grandsons to dote on and a book offer from McClelland and Stewart to mull over, there will be no more political involvement at the federal level.

But that doesn't rule out the municipal. She'll make her decision after Jan. 23, but she says she'd love to throw her hat into the ring for Mississauga city council elections next November.

It's hard to get politics completely out of the bloodstream, says Mr. Robinson. He confesses to a longtime political addiction, kickstarted when, at age 13, he campaigned for Michael Wilson in Etobicoke. He and his wife met as Mulroney supporters. So no, he says, he has "absolutely not" ruled out the possibility of running again.

"2004 was a lesson learned," he says, chuckling. "I like to think of it as destiny deferred, not destiny denied."


Walter Robinson's comments, of course, relate directly to fair voting reform, and The Canadian Taxpayers' Federation has been a long-time supporter of Fair Vote Canada, but the other comments also reflect poorly on our current voting system.

The problems attracting women to politics in Canada have a lot to do with the cut-throat nature of the political game, and this is conditioned by our winner-take-all voting system. First-past-the-post voting divides us into a few winners and a lot of losers. Proportional voting means that power has to be shared, puts a premium on negotiation and compromise, and generates a more consensual and civilised style of politics. (Relatively speaking -- let's not kid ourselves here!)

Proportional representation also calls for a 'something-for-everyone' strategy for selecting candidates, and thus generates direct incentives for nominating more women.

Together, these reasons mostly account for the fact that virtually all of the forty or so countries that do better than Canada at electing women have proportional voting systems.

The "cult of the leader" is also directly related to the voting system. The single-party monopoly phony-majority governments usually generated by our current voting system make Parliament irrelevant and party discipline paramount.

Pierre Trudeau said that opposition MPs were nobodies 50 yards from Parliament Hill. The fact is, ordinary MPs are nobodies even on Parliament Hill, and the situation is even worse for government backbenchers than it is for opposition members, who at least get to speak out.

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