It's no secret I'm a fan of the exit interview in politics - it's a great way to get an honest take on the state of things and what can be done differently.
And what a fabulous exit interview, of sorts, Dr. Keith Martin had with CBC Radio's Anna Maria Tremonti last week. Martin is concerned, and thoughtfully-so, about the erosion of Parliament since he was first elected 17 years ago, in 1993. It was a sad, but important interview.
It's well worth 20 minutes to listen to it in full, but if you don't have time, I've noted the highlights below.
Martin, who was elected as a member of the Reform Party, began his interview reflecting on the optimism he felt when he first entered Parliament. As our upcoming report will reveal, this is a sentiment expressed by many newly-elected MPs. "What an incredible honour to be there... [and wonder] how a guy who was an immigrant to Canada ended up in the House of Commons," he said.
He recalled that, like most of his peers, he went in with a vision of what could be changed, and what individual citizens could do to address our big public problems. "It was a heady time," Martin said. "Many of us were new. We came with vim and vigor.. There was certainly a sense of urgency, a sense we were dealing with pretty big challenges... The economy was in bad shape... and we had a constitutional crisis looming on the horizon." He was also excited by Reform's aspiration to change the " traditional way of politics, where MPs are supposed to speak with one voice, and do what they're told."
Things have changed dramatically since those days, however, and Martin places the blame at the feet of party leaders and the paid political staff who do their bidding.
Dr. Martin recalled much greater cross-partisanship in his early days on the Hill, citing the signing of the landmines treaty as an important example. But as the Reform Party rose in prominence, its leaders soon learned that "the system isn't going to change so we better adapt to it." According to Martin, this meant "a larger role for the centre" and a culture where innovative MPs were seen "as outliers."
"The culture kept on changing and going downhill. The environment became more partisan, more rabidly partisan. MPs would be rewarded for being more hysterical... The more you criticized the other side, the more you could be moved up the ladder," Martin said, adding that MPs who were more thoughtful and bi-partisan were gradually selected out.
This led to a larger cultural change, one where partisanship trumped public policy. According to Martin, one acquires power "by throwing mud on the other side, instead of building a vision for the country."
At one point, Tremonti asked Martin if he blamed minority government or Harper. Here's his answer:
"If you look in Washington, there's no minority government. It's a cultural change. It's a disease that's affected Washington and it's now affecting Ottawa. This kind of destructive mud-slinging... has been adopted in Ottawa because it works," he said, before continuing. "This is an issue of leadership, and the leaders have to get together for the greater good of our country. We have to have a more civil tone, we have to deal with the bigger issues, and have a constructive discussion on them."
And in case there's any doubt on where he stands:
"I think the larger problem is within the leaders' office. The people around them are very young, unelected and very partisan... They control much of what goes on... They're not terribly experienced in the real world. They may be smart, but they haven't gone around and knocked on doors. They aren't as connected as people who have gone through the election process. The rabid partisanship - they tell MPs what to do," Martin said, adding that it was akin to a "perversion of democracy." These staffers "tell MPs what do to... They write the mean press releases. The leaders of the party lets them. It's not the MPs who write these questions and do these press releases," he added.
Martin framed the choice this way: "Do you want to get into power by virtue of trying to destroy the other side, or by holding the other side to account and providing more dynamic, innovative solutions for the public good? I think the latter."
And as for the future of Parliament, he's pessimistic, calling it "paralyzed... a place where innovation goes to die."
"Parliament must be a partner in dealing with the big challenges that face our people," Martin said, adding that it didn't happen that way anymore. Instead, Martin said to look to partnerships among universities, NGOs and the private sector. "Government will come along as a partner for some of those initiatives after the fact, but innovation is going to come from outside of Parliament."
Instead, we have to find new ways of doing things. 17 years ago, Martin said he'd encourage a smart young person to run, but not anymore. "I'd encourage them to develop those partnership outside of the system and you'd be much more creative and effective there. It saddens me deeply having to admit that," he said.
"We're seeing a decline in public participation in federal politics, and I think the reason is that is people are witnessing what's happening in politics and saying, 'It's not relevant, find another way of doing things.' It's a dangerous thing. We must change the culture to be more productive," Martin said.
While Martin doesn't know what he's going to do next, he shared a few ideas, all which involve public service more broadly. Hopefully we haven't seen the last of him in public life.
The full interview is available here.