Show Canadian Parties Who's Boss

Voters, think yourselves employers, and would-be politicos your job seekers. Give 'em hell.

By Crawford Kilian 9 Aug 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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If we are their employers, elections are hiring interviews. Job seeker photo via Shutterstock.

Ever since the failure of the B.C. New Democratic Party to win the May election, dissidents within the party have blamed everyone from Adrian Dix to campaign manager Brian Topp and party president Moe Sihota. Plenty of outsiders have offered their own analyses and recommendations, not always well meant.

No doubt the usual suspects deserve the criticism, but I suspect the real problem is voters' failure to remember that a democracy is an enterprise where the voters -- not the parties -- are the boss.

Politicians pay lip service to that idea, but they're happier with promoting themselves as "leaders" we should happily follow. The media take the cue from the politicians, running endless stories about what the prime minister, premier, or some cabinet minister is doing. Then they profess to be scandalized to report how politicians are exploiting their perks and charging $16 orange juice to the voters' tab.

Running in parties is a convenience for politicians, who get a better chance of election in exchange for accepting party "discipline." The parties are less convenient for voters because party promises rarely match performance. This leads to cynicism among politicians and voters alike, and that leads to apathy and still more political abuse. A democracy can't prosper with absentee owners; someone's got to mind the store.

While voters have ignored their responsibilities, all parties have ignored the demographic, environmental and economic changes transforming Canada along with the rest of the world. Older Canadians may still be voters, but they notably failed to bring up their kids to take voting seriously. Robins are showing up in the Arctic while swallows vanish from the Lower Mainland. Technology has made countless industries obsolete.

Reframing the parties

We won't solve our political problems with a reformed or abolished Senate, or a more civilized Question Period, or less whipping of backbenchers. We can't get rid of parties, but we should reframe them, so they always remember that they're just so many job applicants. We are their employers, elections are hiring interviews, and once hired they had damned well better deliver on what they promise.

Here's what every federal and provincial political party, regardless of ideology, should offer Canadians:

1. Its own concept of a social contract, explaining its view of taxes and what we can reasonably expect from our investment: a country where we collectively look after basic support systems so we can individually get on with our lives. The difference between parties would be in the definition of "basic support."

2. Redefinition of the role of MP/MLA, not so much as "people's representative" but as "people's agent," like the agents of movie stars and athletes: MPs would look after the details to ensure their constituents have both immediate work and meaningful long-term careers. Like agents' income, MPs' income would depend on that of the voters. Government MPs and MLAs would take pay cuts based on double their home riding's unemployment rate: a five per cent unemployment rate this quarter means 10 per cent less on the MP's next-quarter take-home pay and eventual pension. That might make backbenchers less whippable.

3. A detailed business plan for the province or country. This wouldn't be just to go on doing what we've always done, but also to argue what we should plan to do when the resources run out or a natural disaster hits. The Finnish government is currently working "to make Finland the most competent country in the world by 2020." Canada could and should give the Finns some competition on that score.

The business plan would include how to fund full healthcare, with demographic sustainability over next 50 years, minimum; provide free education to all as an investment to ensure sustainability; strong support for young families; and active recruitment of immigrants who can also maintain cultural and trade links with their home countries.

The plan would also include heavy support for scientific and technological research and development: R&D will drive change in all countries, so we need to keep pace. The next tech revolution could come in computers or synthetic biology, or something completely unforeseen. So the party wouldn't bet on training particular kinds of workers (which would subsidize industries that may already be finished), but on the general education of highly literate citizens who could well invent a scientific revolution we can't even imagine yet.

A party without such a business plan should be shown the door.

4. A vision of the poor not as a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be seized, through better education and the provision of more meaningful work. With so few young workers and so many retirees to support, we can't afford to waste the productivity of any worker. We may quarrel about levels of support, but not about support itself.

Listening like smart employers

When elections come, we should consider ourselves employers listening to very anxious job seekers who want control over very large sums of our money. They should be able to tell us what they'd do with that money, and what kind of return they'd get on it.

Smart employers know bullshit when they hear it, especially when it's obviously what the applicant thinks they want to hear: "Gee, I'm a team player, I've got ideas that will save you money, I've got a passion for this field, you won't be disappointed if you hire me."

Better to hear an applicant who looks you in the eye and says: "You've got big problems. This is what I think they are, this is what they're costing you, and this is how you might start to fix them. If you don't agree, thanks for your time and good luck."

We're too big a country for populist micro-management. But on the day the government calls a new election, it should be legally obliged to submit a balance sheet on what it's spent, what it's borrowed, and how many of its promises it's actually kept. The balance sheet would be drawn up by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, not by anyone answering to the government itself, and the Opposition would be free to present its own critique.

Reframing our parties along these lines wouldn't solve all our problems. As the great American journalist H. L. Mencken observed, "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

But we're all the common people, and we sometimes learn from experience whether we like it or not. We don't always fall for warmongers, racketeers, or pretty faces. If experience teaches us that the present party system (which has never been in any of our Constitution Acts) is treating us poorly, we can still remember who's supposed to be the boss, and who are just the well-dressed flunkies we've hired to work for us.  [Tyee]

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