HOW TO TRAIN YOUR POLITICO
In the next few minutes I’d like to speak to you about three challenges for the Conservative Movement in the areas of ideas, training, and ethics.
Thank you, Moses, and let me begin with a fact and a question that will explain why I am here what I have been doing since I escaped from the Parliament of Canada.
The Fact: To become a barista at Starbucks you need at least 30 hours of training. But you can become a lawmaker in the Parliament of Canada or your provincial legislature without one hour of training. Is this wise?
The Question: Suppose you are sitting in your seat on an airplane before takeoff and the pilots came in talking among themselves. And you overhear one of them say, “Gee, I’ve never been in one of these things before.” Would you remain in your seat?
And yet many of our elected officials – at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels – have never set foot in anything resembling a legislative assembly until the day they win an election and are handed the power and responsibility to pilot the ship of state.
The Need for Training
Many Canadians – perhaps you are among them – are deeply disappointed and disillusioned by the performance of our politicians. But rather than simply complaining, or turning our backs on democratic politics altogether, there are things that can be done to raise the level of their performance. One of those is to invest in the preparation and training of these people – most of whom are well meaning and want to render good public service – training to strengthen their knowledge, skills, ethics, and leadership capacities.
The Manning Centre for Building Democracy has been set up to address this challenge. So let’s look particularly at what can be done to raise the performance levels of:
- Political staff;
- Candidates for public office;
- Political volunteers at the grassroots level.
Political Staff Training
In 2006, in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, our federal government passed the Federal Accountability Act. It precludes political staffers as well as elected officials from doing business with the federal government for five years after they leave its employ.
One of its unintended consequences is that many senior people will not now take political staff positions, so that these positions are filled with young people – young people who are ambitious and intelligent, but have little or no practical training, very limited experience, and few senior mentors around to show them the ropes.
To address this problem, our Centre for Building Democracy started putting on “certificate courses” in political management in Ottawa for federal political staffers to prove there was a market. We then put Carleton University in touch with Calgary philanthropist Clay Riddell and the result was Canada’s first and only cross-partisan graduate program in political management. This fall it will graduate its first twenty five students and Carleton has a flood of good applications for next year’s program.
But there is a need to extend this type of training to political staffers in every provincial and territorial capital, as well as to the municipal level (one of our next projects) if we want to strengthen the knowledge, skills, ethics, and service capacities of those who advise and serve our elected officials.
Candidates for Public Office
And then there are candidates for public office themselves – people with personal political ambitions and, in most cases, a genuine desire to serve the country in some public way. They too need training and preparation, but the time to get it to them is long before they are close to actually getting elected. By that time they are convinced they know it all and they don’t have any time for training.
Think of the House of Commons or your provincial legislature as a political “watering hole” to which those thirsting after public office are inexorably drawn. There are only a few well-trodden paths that lead to the watering hole.
There is the political staffer path – the path taken by people (like Stephen Harper) who become party employees or legislative or executive assistants to a Member of Parliament and then go after the job themselves.
There is the constituency association path – the path taken by people who become the youth coordinator, then the vice president, then the president of their riding association and then eventually seek office themselves.
And there are other less trodden paths – the interest group route which Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Green MP Elizabeth May have taken to get to their parliamentary seats; the civil service route which Mackenzie King and Mike Pearson took to get to the Prime Minister’s office; or the professional route (usually the law profession) which Louis St. Laurent, John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau, and Brian Mulroney took to get to the top of the greasy pole.
The time and space in which these thirsty politicos are most open to training and instruction for public office is not when they are within one hundred yards of the watering hole but far upstream, back when they first set foot on these paths and when evidence of training and preparation would look good on their resumes and help them to advance.
And so, for people who seriously believe that they would like one day to sit in an elected assembly, we are working to establish a Model Parliament for Canada, a sixty-seat replica of the House of Commons with all the accoutrements – an assembly, media gallery, caucus and committee rooms, etc. It will serve both as an educational facility and as a laboratory for experimenting with those parliamentary reforms which the real Parliament and legislatures will never undertake until someone else proves their workability and worth.
Every major law school in our country has a “moot court” – a model court where would-be lawyers must spend time before they are ever allowed to set foot in a real court room. Isn’t it time to establish a permanent and properly equipped “moot legislature” where candidates for elected office can spend time in training before they ever set foot in a real legislative assembly?
Constituency Level Training
And then there are the all-important political volunteers at the grassroots level. There are around 1100 federal, provincial, and territorial electoral districts or constituencies in Canada. In each of these, for each major party, there are ten to fifteen volunteers who do 80% of the grass roots political work – selling memberships, raising money, holding nominating meetings to select candidates, communicating with voters, running the local aspects of election campaigns, and getting out the vote on election day.
On the conservative side alone, this is a group of ten to fifteen thousand volunteers without whose services our democratic system and party activity at the local level would completely break down. And yet there is very little training or support for these people by their parties or by anyone else, despite the fact that they have a great deal to do with whose names get on the ballot at election time and thus profoundly influence the composition of our elected assemblies.
I have gone into hockey rinks to address gatherings of constituency volunteers and on the way in on the bulletin board I sometime see an advertisement for a rink managers. When I inquire, I find out that the rink committee has a job description for the rink manager, and a profile of the qualifications to be a rink manager, and that they have cast their net far and wide to find a person with those qualifications to fill that job.
But when I ask, where is your job description for your Member of Parliament, or where is your profile of the person best suited to fill that job, I most often draw a blank. And I end up saying, “Please don’t tell me that you good people have put more thought and planning into hiring your rink manager than you have into selecting the person that is going to represent you in the Parliament of your country.” And yet that is more than often the case.
So what are we doing about that? Well, in Calgary we are in the process of establishing our School of Practical Politics – with a high-tech lecture theatre and the capacity for televising, video-conferencing, and on-line distance learning – to strengthen the knowledge, skills, ethics, and service capacities of our constituency volunteers at the grassroots level.
This is the culmination of a long-standing dream of mine and the opening of this School – the first of its kind in Canada – is slated for this fall.
Raising the Money
How much will it cost to develop all the democratic political infrastructure required to raise the knowledge and skill levels of our political practitioners? A few years ago I was asked this question by a businessman in Vancouver who has been involved in some large corporate takeovers.
I pulled a figure out of the blue and said, “Maybe $200 million invested over ten years.”
And he said, “That’s a lot of money.”
To which I replied: “George. Suppose I had come in here and told you that my friends and I want to take over a company. This company has $260 billion in annual revenues, offices in 180 countries, and subsidiaries in everything from atomic energy to radio and television. It has 350,000 employees and a senior management who probably won’t like us so it will be a hostile takeover. Tell me, George, how much money would you want us to have in our war chest before you would join us in taking a shot at an elephant like that?”
And George says: “A lot more than $200 million.”
To which I reply: “George, the enterprise I just described to you is the Government of Canada. And I didn’t even try to add in the figures for the Government of Quebec, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Alberta, etc. When you ask political people, of whatever political stripe, to take over one of these entities and on top of that change their direction in some way, this is the magnitude of what you are asking them to do.”
Which is why I don’t have any hesitation in asking for big dollars for investment in democratic infrastructure – if we are serious about wanting to strengthen the knowledge, skills, ethics, and leadership capacities of the people who populate our democratic institutions.
Is this an impossible dream – to raise the calibre and competence of Canadian politics to a level where it will truly command the respect and personal involvement of Canadians?
I don’t think so,and here’s why. Twenty five years ago (1987), five people, all discontented with the state of Canadian federal politics, met in Calgary and resolved to do several things: One of those was to make fiscal responsibility and budget balancing a priority for every senior government in this country at a time when that was not the case. Another was to shift the political centre of gravity of the country from the old Laurentian region (Quebec and Ontario) to a new alignment in which the West would have more clout.
Then we went out and tried to change the political landscape and national agenda and political landscape in these directions.
Some of us worked through think tanks like the Fraser Institute and the Canada West Foundation, or interest groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, or media like the Alberta Report and National Post.
Some of us formed a new political party, in fact, three new parties in succession – the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance, and finally the new Conservative Party of Canada.
Of course we made all sorts of mistakes and got enmeshed in dozens of other issues and problems along the way. And of course we didn’t begin to achieve everything we started out to do.
But despite all that, lo and behold, today there isn’t a senior government in Canada that doesn’t at least profess to be committed to budget balancing. And on May 2, 2011, with 145 of the 166 seats won by the Harper majority government being west of the Ottawa River, the political centre of gravity in Canada shifted from the old Laurentian region to a new alignment between Ontario and the West.
Whether or not you agree with the political values or agenda I subscribe to isn’t the point. The point is that it is still possible to take the tools that democratic freedoms give to us all – freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the freedom to try to persuade our fellow citizens to support this instead of that – and change the composition and direction of elected governments. But for that to happen, and to happen for the good of the country, requires investments of time and money in strengthening the knowledge, skills, ethics, and leadership capacities of participants in our democratic processes.
This is the Big Idea that I am passionate about, and I hope I can persuade some of you to be so too.