A Political Dream

Just today there were a few articles in the news on politicians and their failings. The continued antics from France are hardly worth mentioning save to comment that I am glad someone is having fun… David Brooks in the New York Times had a hopeful op-ed piece called ‘The Leadership Revival’ with his thoughts on the people who get into public service and how they might improve their leadership qualities. In the end, he was not very optimistic. Andrew Coyne at the National Post took a different view in ‘How little we expect from our leaders’ – highlighting Governor Christie and Stephen Harper. I would certainly add a few other names to the list.

Living in Ontario one certainly learns to have low expectations from the political class. We have a government enthusiastically pursuing programs of dubious benefit to the public, wasting vast amounts of the publics’ money. And when scandals break or some new abuse comes to light, there are a few days of political theater and commentary in the press, then it’s back to business as usual. While the occasional unfortunate may lose their job, no one goes to jail. And what is worse, their masters don’t even express dismay and promise to reform (not that anyone would believe them). Clearly, crime does pay – one just needs to have an appropriate scale and the right connections.

Even cataloging the issues is hard – eHealth electronic records, Ornge air ambulance, the politicization of provincial electricity (one example – wind turbines producing power that cannot be effectively used pushed into rural areas over the objections of the residents and in violation of the oh so flexible environmental rules). Province-wide school curricula that demand unique (unintelligible) and expensive textbooks, and produce deteriorating results on international tests. New licensing and restrictions on trades; a push to turn community colleges into four year schools – shutting out those who just want to learn employable skills. And even better, a recruiting blitz to lure even more foreign students (they pay higher fees) and give them special permits to work — a move that many say locks even more Canadians out of the universities, since no money is being spent to add spaces.  And since there is a shortage of spaces in both hospitals and long term care facilities, people are being quietly pushed out and sent home (nominal limit is after two weeks) with care needs and equipment that once was the province of critical care wards — guess we have all grown smarter.

Clearly these folks feel they are right, have a clear insight into what is needed (regardless of the evidence) and are completely disinterested in the results of their policies or even the opinions of the taxpayers who end up funding it all. And what is worse, they are contemptuous of any requests for ‘why’ or where the benefits are for the Province as a whole.

In the midst of a bought of depression brought about by thoughts of yet another provincial election – ‘what, from that lot????’. ‘Red’ seems incapable of doing anything that does not generate more (accounting) red. ‘Orange’ is really just another shade of red, I certainly cannot tell the difference – especially when I find that party is behind some of the big wind plant rollouts. And ‘blue’… just makes me blue. Forced amalgamations, service downloading and selloff of provincial assets did not produce the predicted savings, just as ever lower business taxes stubbornly do not produce more jobs. Bad memories all.

Thinking about all this I had a wild thought:

What if our leaders approached public service as though it were a responsibility bestowed by the electorate? Could any of the current crop stand before the taxpayer and truthfully say that they had been careful with the tax dollars entrusted to them and had produced results beneficial to the province? As opposed to the elephants taking turns ‘guarding’ the peanuts…

What if public policies were piloted? Whether popular or not, the result of policy changes are generally not deterministic – as the old saw says, in spite of the most careful controls and design, the experimental animal just does what it pleases. The weasel words on a financial prospectus are exactly right – ‘past performance is not a guarantee of future results’. Could our leaders consider and articulate the intended results of a policy change or initiative? But more important, could they be clear as to how those results were to be measured? And to be even more radical, could they report how things were going and have the guts to cancel a failed program before too much of our precious tax dollars were wasted?

And is it too much to ask that they explain themselves to those self-same taxpayers and attempt to communicate their reasons for the things they do? Instead of being dismissive of objections and suggesting that one is either (blindly) with us or the child molesters (or whoever…).

One further wild though occurs. What if the people in charge actually had some expertise in the area they were responsible for? So people with engineering and large scale project management backgrounds to run the power utility.  Or medical backgrounds to decide about health care. Not career politicians who likely have a better understanding of backroom deals than when do families need to cook dinner and need affordable power.  Some decades back, when the ‘MBA’ was just starting to creep out onto the business landscape, there was this mythology being pushed that if one understood the principles of management (from the ‘right’ schools, of course) then one could successfully run anything — be it a steel mill, a farm or a restaurant. The disastrous history of corporate conglomerate empires demonstrated this. But the idea of the minister in charge of a portfolio persists. One hopes they can at least spell it, but the results suggest this is unlikely.

Perhaps these are such alien ideas, certainly on this side of the border, because so many politicians have done nothing else. Oh to be sure, they may have gotten a university degree in economics or animal husbandry. But instead of working in the real world (they would have different opinions) they associated themselves with a party and forged a lifetime career in politics. One response to a comment years ago was that a political career requires decades of training to understand the delicate art of the deal. A cynic might suggest the difficulty is acquiring an instinct to know what to kiss and when… but the field might simply eliminate those for which this does not come as second nature. Personally, I dread those who have no idea what life is like outside the hothouse when they are making decisions about my life.

One fears that our leaders more and more behave as a self-appointed aristocracy that has their candidacy occasionally rubberstamped by the electorate but are otherwise not responsible or accountable. The phrase ‘let them eat cake’ would seem to roll out naturally as they borrow more money to give us a ‘discount’ on our power bills or hand out gift cards to some groups (but not everyone) affected by the recent blackouts while making sure the cash flow to their buddies is not interrupted.  And the last G8/G20 conference in Toronto seemed to show that they are also willing to turn the guns of the police on the citizenry if it suits them.

So one can dream of enlightened leaders that will make a positive difference in our lives. But the reality seems quite the reverse – and every time ‘it cannot possibly get worse’ is thought, some new abuse comes to light. Are we in the last days of this new Rome? Makes me wonder what will be left for my children and grandchildren.