I'm often told that the Progressive Conservative Party of old was eclipsed by the Reform Party because Reform was "more conservative."
Of course, that's nonsense. Reform wasn't conservative, it was populist. If you don't believe me, I would invite you to read Reform founder Preston Manning's second memoir, Think Big: My Adventures in Life and Democracy, where he makes that point repeatedly. Indeed, Manning uses the book to directly say that he was a populist and the then newly minted Canadian Alliance leader, Stephen Harper, was a conservative, which was the root of the problems between the two men.
There are huge differences between Reform and Harper's Conservative Party of Canada. The Reform Party's platform called for very contentious issues to be decided by a national referendum. Reform was built on the idea that Members of Parliament are there to reflect the will of their constituents, rather than themselves or the party leadership. Can you imagine Stephen Harper saying anything like that?
Harper has taken Pierre Trudeau's dictum that MPs are "just nobodies" and turned it into a reality. I live in a Conservative riding, and I often have trouble remembering my MP's name, largely because it’s wholly unnecessary. This government is run more tightly from the Prime Minister's Office than any other in Canadian history, and that isn't the way Parliament was designed to operate.
I often can't remember my own MP's name, but the Harper PMO seems awfully determined that I know who Jenni Byrne is, if this past weekend's lengthy profile in the Globe and Mail is any indication.
Staff are staff. They should be facilitating government for those actually elected to govern. They should not be directing or ordering elected officials to do anything.
Much has been made here at the Rebel about the inexperience of many of Alberta premier Rachel Notley's incoming caucus, which is not an unreasonable point. But they were actually elected to something, which Byrne hasn't been. And while it's great fun to point out that the Notley Crew consists largely of baristas, Byrne dropped out of nursing school, and has no professional private sector experience to speak of.
The Harper government has properly crowed about ending the per-vote subsidy the parties were given in the dying days of the Chretien government to make up for the banning of corporate donations. But they ignore the fact that the parties and their campaigns continue to be heavily subsidized by the tax deductability of their donations. In one way or another, operatives like Byrne have been living off of the public dime their entire adult lives.
Let's say that you've finally made it to Cabinet. In all likelihood, that means that you've been winning elections since Jenni Byrne was in high school or longer. In some cases, you might be engaged in public service after a long and successful career in the private sector. You may have even been responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of people.
None of that matters. You're going to get loud, demanding and frequently abusive phone calls from people like Jenni Byrne, who have never had their own name on a ballot, met a payroll or done much of anything that isn't in the make believe world of politics. Yes, you will be humiliated by a nursing school dropout who is very probably several decades your junior.
How much longer do you suppose that anyone with brains, dignity or accomplishment is going to subject themselves to that? I have a very difficult time understanding why anyone tolerates it now. And that is ultimately going to corrosive to our democracy.
Before you, the good reader, pitches a fit, I should point out that this isn't really about Jenni Byrne or even the Conservative Party. All of the parties have someone remarkably like her because of the centralization of power in the leader's offices and the PMO.
If Members of Parliament are going to be answerable to much younger and unaccomplished staffers, pretty soon no one in their right mind is going to want to be a Member of Parliament. And instead of building careers where they learn what really drives the economy, they'll see being the young, unaccomplished staffer as the path to public service. Or they won't become involved in public service at all. At that point, we're doomed.
That's why I believe passing and then subsequently strengthening Michael Chong's Reform Act is of the utmost importance. Power must be devolved from the leader's offices and the elected representatives of the people need to be allowed to actually represent the people.
Look, parties and MPs will ultimately depose an unsatisfactory leader. If you doubt that, give Stockwell Day a call. He'll be thrilled to hear from you. But that's a very messy way of doing things.
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