Tin Ear Lizzie

There is one truism in modern politics that its practitioners always seem to forget: politicians have never been, and will never be, “hip.”

It’s the nature of the beast. To have a career in politics implies an ability to display “leadership,” whether you’re an actual leader or a backbencher, as well as an understanding that one will play within the existing rules of order. “Hip” may imply internal integrity (“I follow my own code”), but in the event of a clash between one’s code and society, responsible politicians are expected to let the latter prevail, while “hip” ones risk their own external position by heeding the former.

It’s a distinction that seems to be lost on the Green Party MP, Elizabeth May.

The problem with Ms. May is that she absolutely, positively cannot do “hip.” This isn’t necessarily a handicap; neither Stephen Harper nor Hilary Clinton can do “hip” either, because “hip” is not a natural bent in either of their personalities. The trouble begins when an “unhip” politician tries to do a “hip” thing, and then either two things will happen: either they misunderstand “hip” and things fall flat, or they go over the top and risk destroying their internal credibility.

(Before you start: Stephen Harper’s piano playing isn’t “hip.” It’s something he only displays in public because he’s nagged to do so; he’s competent at it, but he’d never cut an album, not even for charity, and everyone knows that.)

The Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner is one occasion when both Ottawa media and national politicians get together to have fun and blow off steam. (No, it’s neither “dining with the enemy” nor the “old network.”) This is an event when doing “over the top” can be forgiven by the mostly insider audience — provided it’s done well. Imagine the late Herb Gray, a button-down Liberal, singing the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” dressed in vinyl trousers and studs and you’ll get an idea of what sort of entertainment can be considered successful.

Ms. May is an activist, and an anti-Tory partisan. This pretty much requires her to live and breath politics, in public, pretty much all the time, and her instinct is to do that whenever she has a public opportunity. The problem is she wanted to do something that would entertain with shock value, and the performance she put on unfortunately wasn’t far enough from her perceived public persona to be actually entertaining.

A lot of those who don’t like Ms. May are calling on her to resign, but personally I don’t think that’s worth the effort. First, as things stand now Ms. May is a leader of a fringe party and her performance has done nothing to persuade anyone that Green is worth voting for, but since that’s been the party’s standing over the past four years that performance isn’t exactly a threatening deterrent. Secondly, with an election coming up in less than six months, if she were to resign now the inclination would be to let her vacated seat be vacant until October, and even then there’s no guarantee she won’t run again.

And if she does run? Well, that video is out there, and no amount of lobbying YouTube or Google will guarantee its erasure from the public consciousness. Whether she likes it or not, Ms. May is likely going to have to explain what she did, over and over again, and explaining and justifying are never going to be winning strategies in an election campaign.

Posted in It Ain't Easy Being Green, Politics | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Random Thoughts On An Orange Alberta

  1. Well, those who would have thought Jim Prentice would be Stephen Harper’s successor should be thankful they didn’t bet any money on the idea.
  2. No, I’m not going to weep / wail / mourn the so-called “death” of conservatism in Alberta. Conservatism hasn’t “died,” it’s just suffered a long-overdue setback.
  3. Yes, I wrote “overdue.” Any political party that stays in power for over four decades runs the risk of growing stagnant and complacent. And ideology never confers immunity from voters desiring change.
  4. Do I expect the Alberta PC Party to go the way of its Saskatchewan counterpart, or the old Social Credit party in BC? I’d say the odds are pretty good that’s going to happen. If Wildrose plays its cards right, it’s a party all ready to fill the shoes of the main voice for Alberta conservatism.
  5. Some of the punditocracy seem worried that the new premier, Rachel Notley, may follow the example of Bob Rae’s first (and last) NDP government in Ontario. Frankly, she’s got better role models: the Romanow era in Saskatchewan is the most likely model of governance that Alberta’s progressives will strive to emulate, and that’s not a bad one, so far as provincial governments go.
  6. It would be a mistake — big mistake — to try to see an impact on the federal scene. Jim Prentice was away from federal politics too long for him to be seen as a born-and-bred Harperite in the same way that John Baird, Tony Clement and Jason Kenney are, so the idea of “Alberta will reject Harper” won’t fly. Premier Notley may get a “honeymoon break” from provincial voters, but that’s not really the sort of thing that can help Tom Mulcair.
  7. Yes, I know, it’s apparently snowing in Edmonton. That’s just the weather. It’s not a divine comment.
Posted in New DiPsticks, Politics | Tagged | 2 Comments

Why Peanuts Should Matter to Margaret Wente

There’s a passage in Margaret Wente’s otherwise readable Globe column that bothers me:

No matter how outraged we may be, the actual amount of money scammed from the public adds up to peanuts. The cost of Mr. Duffy’s lengthy trial, to say nothing of all those auditors monitoring the meals of all those senators for the past 14 years, will be many times more than that. Is this whole circus even worth it?

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. One: Camembert cheese, even under our milk marketing system, is not actually that expensive if you buy some at the grocery. It’s mainly because it has a … um, unique taste and texture that it’s considered a staple of the one-percenter’s daily diet.

Two, we are talking about airline food here, and that particular style of feeding people has never been especially considered to be a treat. Senator Nancy Ruth might have elicited more sympathy had she pointed out that eating airline food is not necessarily a hardship that citizens should put up with if they had a choice. Where the debate should have arisen is whether the Senator should have expensed her breakfast as opposed to paying for it out of her own pocket.

I wonder if Ms. Wente remembers the old saying: “look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves.” What we’re looking at here is a situation that perfectly evokes Parkinson’s Law of Triviality: citizens may not understand the nuances needed for legislations that helps further the cause of women’s rights or national defence, but by gadfrey we do understand our own personal spending habits and the need for discipline for our wallets and credit cards. Yes, we do expect our political elite, elected or otherwise, to spend money wisely, be it the taxpayers’ or their own; and no, we won’t buy the excuses that “it’s been done in the past and no one complained” or “everybody else does it, why not me?”

The National Post’s Matt Gurney articulates Ms. Wente’s plaint a little better:

Canadians have a weird cheap streak when it comes to our government and related trappings of state. We are not an opulent people, but we are a great and rich nation, with tens of millions of citizens and a trillion-dollar-plus economy. We can splurge a little at the top. Our government can have nice things … or should be able to have them, without it being frontpage news. Our habit of freaking out about stuff like this is why 24 Sussex Drive will probably collapse in on itself before any prime minister dares investing in fixing the damn place up, lest they be slagged for spending money on their own “personal palace” or some similar nonsense.

Ah, but there’s a reason why we have this “cheap streak.” When you’re bombarded for the past forty years with news stories highlighting the rapid expansion of government at all levels, complete with doomsday diatribes of deficit spending and pundits wringing their hands about the aging of the baby boomers and the shrinking of the revenue base, and when you throw in those stories about the elites in government splurging on 18-dollar orange juices and demanding privileges that are out of the reach of mere middle-classers — is it any wonder that taxpayers are a tad reluctant to trust the political elite with their conception of petty cash?

Posted in Can Cons, Politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Why Sensible People Don’t Become Members of Parliament

So what do you think of your MP? Odds are: not much.

I don’t mean that you have a low opinion of your member of Parliament. I do mean that whatever she or he does, doesn’t occupy a significant chunk of your waking time. (Unless of course you work in politics, which is a different matter entirely.)

I mention this because this recent matter of two ex-Liberal MPs should be giving the politically-engaged a bit of pause. Rex Murphy is of the opinion that the investigations process should have been made public. I honestly think such a move would have made matters worse.

First, it would have meant identifying the two female NDP members who made the accusations. The consequence of this would be that reporters would be assigned to profile and get background information on these two — and, because they are public figures (even more so because of this “open” nature of the investigation), their private lives would have been invaded. The media might apologize afterwards, but the damage would already be done.

Second, it would also mean the doings of both accused and accusers, past and present, would be fodder for the social media crowd. As a Facebook user I was startled by the sheer vitriol that popped up in my newsfeed against the dental students of Dalhousie University, when that “gentlemen’s page” scandal erupted. Since we’re talking about elected officials paid by the national taxpayer, I’d expect the vitriol to be at least ten times worse, fuelled by the more immature partisans out there.

Third, even though this involved only members of the Opposition, it’s all too easy to see this as a trap for Tory MPs, who would be tempted to make some smug remark about relative morality. Which is all the excuse the media needs to pounce on their lives, with every communal trip to the pub potentially magnified as the activities of an incipient alcoholic, every misstep torqued into potentially criminal misbehaviour.

Do you think it can’t happen? More to the point, would you trust our media, both commercial and social, to be responsible about handling this information?

I suppose it’s only natural that, when we elect our political representatives, we sort of expect them to be paragons of virtue. We take it for granted that they know how to behave in public, and that their private behaviour is scrupulously correct.

What we do forget, though, is that MPs, because they represent us, the great unwashed masses, are also human. And that, despite all their training in childhood and their education and whatever vows they took concerning their profession or their family lives, they can yield to temptation. They can fail, and fail badly. Ted Kennedy and Chappaquidick is the worst example I can think of. And today’s media environment, with its incessant opinion-spouting and rush to instantaneous judgement, means the consequences of a fall can be long-lasting, devastating in proportion to the actual transgression — and a deterrent to those people who could contribute something significant to the political debate, but are confronted by a high-and-increasing personal cost.

We need mechanics and engineers and physicians and, yes, academics to be in Parliament; we’re not going to get them if they feel that Big Brother has put them on a tightrope and expects them to do cartwheels on it 24/7.

Posted in Federal Government, Politics | 1 Comment

Note To The Wise: Political Parties Never Leave People

Does this sound familiar to you?

For a long time now I have found myself defending my membership of the Labour party while wondering what values of mine it defended any more. I didn’t leave the Labour party. It left me, and many others besides. Yet we, the “defectors”, are lambasted as traitors, since it’s easier to launch personal attacks than political arguments, easier to insult and scaremonger than to reflect on why so many core and loyal voters are edging away uncomfortably.

You may recall that when Garth Turner left the Conservative Party, he made pretty much the same argument (“I didn’t leave the Tories, the party left me!”) It’s a cliché, and it’s a bad one because it feeds a delusion of the politically engaged: that sometimes, people are mistaken about the causes they espouse.

Contrary to what some pundits will tell you, one person, alone, does not comprise a political party; you need at least two, because that shows that the ideas of a party can be shared. And as a party gets bigger, its ideas are still shared, but not all of them are shared by all its members. I call myself a Tory, but I don’t support the death penalty, although many other Tories do.

Ms. Monroe, here, is a rising star of the Guardian. She can be saluted for enduring poverty as a single parent and being creative in feeding her family; that she decided to declare her politics in public is also commendable. But there’s a whiff, in her declaration in that Guardian piece, of the conceit that “since all reasonable people think like me, people who do not are therefore not reasonable.” To declare that “the party left me” may sound to the author like “by embracing policies A to C, the party has made itself unworthy of support.” In reality, it looks more like, “The party doesn’t want to listen to me, so why should I stick around?”

It is not a statement of the treacherous, but one of the petulant, of the spoiled, of the person who’s yet to learn to subsume his or her ego to the pragmatism of practical politics.

If Ms. Monroe wishes to condemn the British Labour Party, she could certainly do better than the plaintive cry of “the party left me.” Since it’s not her party anymore, she should do better than cry.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Original Mister Spock, R.I.P.

When he published an update to his previous memoir (entitled I Am Not Spock), Leonard Nimoy changed the title to I Am Spock. It was a rueful acknowledgement, and acceptance, that while it severely limited the number of roles he could take as an actor, he still created one of the most iconic roles in television history.

Note: not science-fiction television history. Not just that particular genre. Consider this:

Spock, while an extraterrestrial, is the second-in-command of a crew of 430, mostly from Earth. The series producer, Gene Roddenberry, was optimistic about mankind, wanting to send a message that humanity could accept other intelligent people as intellectual and social equals, but he designated Spock as an alien because, as an “outsider,” he could be an observer on contemporary events as reflected and portrayed on the show.

Yes, you had the character in strong suppression of his emotions, which led non-fans to criticize his performance as wooden. But in episodes such as “Amok Time” and “This Side of Paradise,” the viewers discovered that this was a facade: Spock did have emotions, powerful ones, which he kept in check because that was expected of him by both his culture and his contemporaries.

No other character in series television, at that time, carried that off. Not in the Westerns of the day, not in the sitcoms, not in the crime dramas. It’s one of the reasons Spock was so resonant with teenaged viewers, who experienced that same sort of conflict, dealing with a family and society that expected them to keep themselves in check just as they were beginning to assert their independence and individuality. It’s not surprising that, by the time the series ended in 1991 (yes, 1991, I’m counting the six movies as part of it), we knew more about Spock as a character than any of the other Enterprise crew, including Captain Kirk.

It would be illogical to wish Mr. Nimoy “live long and prosper,” because at 83 he’d already done that. But “it has been an honour” is definitely a fitting epitaph for this man.

Posted in R.I.P. | 1 Comment

We Don’t Need More Sana Hassainias — But We’re Going To Get Them

Sana Hassainia, you ask, what the heck is that?

Actually it’s a who: Sana Hassainia is the independent (but formerly New Democrat) MP for the Quebec riding of Verchères-Les-Patriotes, and according to the CBC she is the MP with the poorest attendance and voting record. Today, she’s announced that she won’t be running for re-election:

In a statement posted to her parliamentary website, Sana Hassainia said that she would continue to represent the citizens of Verchères-Les-Patriotes to the best of her ability as a “maman-députée.”

Okay, yes, Ms. Hassainia was one of the “Orange Crush” MPs who probably never expected to be elected. Her riding used to be held by the Bloc Québécois’ Luc Malo, which is one of the reasons why you’ve probably never heard of it (Bloc MPs usually don’t get coverage outside Quebec). What’s worrisome about this news story, though, is its description of how Ms. Hassainia saw her duties as an MP:

She also points out that it was the NDP caucus leadership that chose not to assign her to a House committee, and didn’t put her in the regular rotation for question period.

“I wasn’t among the star MPs who deserved to ask questions,” she said.

In an interview with CBC News last week, Hassainia said that she missed the votes because she didn’t feel that her vote as an opposition MP mattered with a majority government.

“So I allowed myself to do this, because it’s not my little voice that makes a difference,” she told CBC News in French.

I’m sorry, but even as a partisan Tory I’d be ticked off at that kind of attitude from any MP. Even granting her status as a mother of newborns (with which she excuses her poor attendance record), to carry the attitude that “my vote doesn’t matter because it makes no difference” does a disservice to the people who voted her into office. Even if she voted straight down the NDP party line, she can at least say that her vote is her own exercise of judgement on behalf of the people of Verchères-Les-Patriotes, expressing their concerns and will on the legislation and business before the House.

(Mind you, it’s not quite true that she didn’t have any committee work. According to the Parliamentary website, she was a full member of two committees: Status of Women and Scrutiny of Regulations. So, she’s not really a total slacker. Even so, her attitude is still a bit worrisome.)

It’s worrisome because, come the next election, we’re going to get a lot more MPs into the House. And, no matter what side they’re sitting on, the odds that some MPs will show the same attitude as Ms. Hassainia are going to be pretty good, whether they’re freshly-minted government backbenchers or Opposition newbies staring in despair at their numbers.

Posted in New DiPsticks, On The House | 1 Comment