In this morning's Globe and Mail, former MP Belinda Stronach made a case for term limits for MPs. You can see the whole argument/op-ed by clicking on the excerpt I've cut and pasted below:
I found the proposal interesting, intriguing, even. As timing would have it, I read the piece after I was up early, reading some sample chapters of a proposed book by someone who's also been put off by the whole business of politics -- specifically, the rampant careerism and cynicism at the heart of party machines. It occurred to me that Ms. Stronach and this would-be author should have some kind of public discussion about this unfortunate aspect of politics, which is too little discussed. The Samara organization is the only one that's taken a real crack at it, at least in recent memory.
Anyway, being a bit cynical myself, I wasn't too surprised to see some of the reaction. Ms. Stronach, probably because of her famous defection to the Liberals, seems to provoke her critics into out-of-proportion reactions to nearly every utterance, or even her mere existence. That in itself is an argument for everyone to detox themselves with time away from Ottawa every now and then, it seems to me.
Also, again because I'm a bit of a cynic and have been around Ottawa a while, I immediately looked for a motive for Stronach to write this piece. Why is she entering the political fray again? Is she thinking of a comeback? But then I also recalled a conversation I had a few years ago with a pretty senior Liberal MP, who'd worked closely with Stronach, and summed her up this way: "She's dutiful. You don't expect it, but she has a strong streak of duty, especially when it comes to public service."
So, after this long preamble, let me set out to do what I promised to do in the headline to this blog post. With much respect to Paul Wells, who's a friend, a fellow traveller for many years, and someone whose writing and analysis I much admire, I'm going to part ways with his blogged reply to Stronach's proposal. And I'm going to do this mainly because I take both of these people seriously, and I think that ideas in Canadian politics, like the people in it, deserve a wee bit more than dismissive mockery. (Not that I'd characterize Wells' proposal that way, but more some of the comments I've seen on Twitter.)
So let's reply to some of Wells' arguments or musings:
1. Unlike Wells, I don't think it's silly to say Canada's political system is unsuited to the 21st century and I don't believe every op-ed needs to use up its alloted word count to detail the dysfunction. Nor do I share his conviction that Stronach has presented us with a radical operation for political ills. She's saying that overexposure to the machine is making for toxic politics. I seem to recall a guy named Stephen Harper thinking the same thing in the late 1990s and getting the heck out of Dodge; ditto for Jean Chretien in the 1980s. If I really think back hard enough, I recall sitting in a restaurant with that Harper guy, where he told me to get out of Ottawa too (advice I followed, btw, but I too came back.)
2. Nor do I find it ridiculous to seek "postpartisan" solutions. What Stronach is trying to say, I think, and it's not an original point, is that partisanship goes hand in hand with toxic overexposure to politics -- and the idea that you're right and everyone else is wrong. This is a silly way of looking at things, replicated in no other workplace except maybe professional sports.
3. Stronach asserts that our current system puts too much focus on getting re-elected. No argument there. Look at what Prime Minister Stephen Harper told CTV's Lisa LaFlamme in his year-end interview, when she had the crazy idea that he might relax with a minority.
Or have a look at what the Prime Minister was chatting about to journalists at 24 Sussex, as described by my colleague Tonda MacCharles -- who usefully reminds us that Harper is very much like Jean Chretien in this respect.
Indeed, chatting with a small knot of reporters, Harper the Conservative prime minister sounded a lot like Jean Chretien, the Liberal predecessor he often models, when he said the most fun he’d had this year was winning a majority in May’s election.
Chretien famously told a group of Chinese schoolchildren in 2001 the thing he loved most about his job was winning elections.
And let's also remember this whole business of "voter-identification" calls in Irwin Cotler's riding, a full FOUR years before the next election.
Is there a preoccupation with winning and holding power in Canadian politics? Yes, I'd say there is. I'd also argue that some of Chretien's best work as Prime Minister came in his final years, when he knew he wasn't running again, but that's just my opinion. More on that in a bit.
4. Wells argues that if the Liberals implemented this reform, there would be nothing left of the current caucus. And so they won't do it. In other words, he's proving Stronach's point -- politicians aren't going to do anything that limits their careers. Which is why it would be a good idea to take careerism out of politics. I think we're going around in a circle here. Stronach is not the first to suggest that careerist politics gets in the way of good public policy -- have a look at that Samara report mentioned above. Unlike Samara's ex-politicians, however, she's suggesting a possible remedy for it, instead of just complaining that's the way it is.
5. Finally, my eyebrows raised at Wells' characterization of the rookie Parliament of 1993, which he juxtaposed with the near-failure of federalism in the Quebec referendum of 1995. We recollect things differently, I'm afraid. What I saw in that early Parliament was a Liberal government borrowing heavily the good ideas from its Reform opposition -- getting rid of the deficit, for instance, while the Bloc Quebecois was doing a very good job as the Official Opposition and no one was caterwauling about treason and other silliness.
Come to think of it, the near-loss of the federalist side came in part from some complacency from careerist old hands around Chretien. (I think I read a Paul Wells' piece in Saturday Night around that time, about why the Chretien Liberals were treating the referendum as no big deal.)
Meanwhile, one of the many rookies in that Parliament, a guy named Harper, was working on a Quebec "contingency act" that would be borrowed by the Liberals to become the Clarity Act. Sometimes the rookies have more sense than the old hands, in other words. And sometimes, as Harper himself used to argue, the best thing for political people to do is to know when to get out of Ottawa. If only temporarily.
Okay. So let's get back to the thesis. Belinda Stronach has thrown an idea into the mix -- two-term limits for MPs. I'm not sure it could be practically done either, but I'm also not sure that Michael Chong's proposals will ever be adopted, or that we'll ever have civility in the current Parliament. I also don't think Harper will ever be able to reform the Senate unilaterally. I don't mock him for trying to fix the thing though. Mockery, and its close cousin, cynicism, are symptoms of a sick system. More ideas like Stronach's, please.