Our poor politicians. They just can't win.
One day, we're complaining that our MPs are a bunch of know-nothings, political amateurs unschooled in the way of Parliament and our government, and the next, we're upset that they're a bunch of lifers who have little experience beyond that of the partisan mud pit of our politics.
According to Jeffrey Simpson's recent national affairs column in the Globe and Mail (a column he's been writing since 1984), "many contemporary politicians" view politics as a "lifelong career," beginning in university or shortly thereafter. Buttressed by their high salaries, these guys (and occasionally gals) just won't leave, and in doing so, contribute to a continued decaying of our politics.
Unfortunately this column provides, at best, an incomplete picture of our political leaders and the causes of our political malaise, and at worst, a misrepresentation of the facts.
We'll start with those. As Aaron Wherry neatly summarizes, it's been well established that Canada lacks a "political class" and today's Parliament is no exception. The average MP has been at the job for less than 7.5 years and only 10 MPs have served for longer than 20 years. Furthermore, according to research we've compiled, the average age at which the current crop of MPs was first elected to federal office was 46, meaning they spent about a generation doing stuff other than being an MP. In fact, if those who participated in our MP Exit Interviews are anything like the average MP, their pre-Parliamentary lives were varied, and often didn't include formal politics.
Yet even if one believes that 7.5 years constitutes a "lifer," it's impossible to link that to Parliamentary salaries, which were notably raised in 2001 and again in 2004. As Ned Franks' research shows, in that year (2004), 18% of MPs decided not to run, more than double the 7% who chose not to run in 2000, when salaries were less than half of today's.*
There is an important nuance to Simpson's column, however, that is worth exploring further. Perhaps the picture Simpson paints is really one about the current Cabinet, versus the entire slew of MPs. He points to 8 cabinet ministers,** all who feature prominently in the news, who are experienced politicians, all with experience in provincial and local politics in addition to their federal stints.
Yet is this so strange? Isn't is natural, and heck, even desirable that a prime minister would choose his most experienced members to serve in Cabinet, particularly if that experience includes a close connection to a large and electorally important province (i.e., Ontario)?
And even then, it's hard to call our current Cabinet a house of lifers. Those same 8 cabinet ministers have served in Ottawa for an average of 8.3 years, less than a year more than the House as a whole (7.5 years). Furthermore, they only represent 22% of the total cabinet, whose collective tenure is in the same ballpark at 7.9 years. And 'cause I know you want to know, the Conservative cabinet members with the longest tenures are Chuck Strahl and Diane Ablonczy (16.8 years of MP tenure and counting), neither who Simpson mentions as lifers.
It is this nuance that brings me to a larger concern with his column. In it, Simpson links political experience to an overall loss of "independent thought" in our politics, citing the census debate as his sole bit of evidence. In doing so, he takes a singular example which has, and will no doubt continue to be, widely criticized, and extrapolates what is one decision involving a few Cabinet ministers to make a wider point about politicians, a point that is entirely unsubstantiated by evidence.
He also misses an opportunity to raise more interesting and constructive questions about the type of politician we would like to have in this country. For example, what kind of experiences, personal or professional, to do we want them to bring to Ottawa? Should they come from a wide set of backgrounds, generally in line with the Canadian population (which isn't the case today), or would we prefer a different mix? Should they have deep community experience, or would we prefer a more national, or international perspective? Should they have a background in government? What about in local or provincial politics? And if so, how much is too much?
My sense is that we'd like our MPs to have some experience or appreciation of Parliament, a view endorsed in a recent Globe and Mail editorial, but we'd also like more than that. Maybe we'd ultimately like them to be more like an abstract sense of "us," a motivation which, by the way, many MPs themselves cited as a reason for running in the first place. Who knows? It's easy to throw stones, but answering these questions is a much more difficult task.
Perhaps, when all is said and done, Simpson is upset about this particular government, or the behaviour of handful of players within it. Perhaps he's articularing a larger frustration about some of the ways Canadian politics have evolved in the quarter-century he's spent observing it. He is, of course, free to hold these views. He's likely not alone in holding them either. And as a columnist, he's paid to express them, and to help those of us who live outside Ottawa understand what's going on there.
But if his criticism is against an individual, or a handful of them, or even against the entire system, he should say so, and resist evoking wider claims unless there's evidence to prove it.
*See page 6.
**Flaherty, Cannon, Baird, Clement, Toews, Nicholson, MacKay and Day.