A matter of professionalism

Monday, January 16, 2006


Written by Tristan Dineen

The election campaign of 2005/2006 is in full swing. I have been watching CBC News as it covers the campaign and its focus on the concept of trust. Who do the voters trust? Who do the voters not trust and for what reasons? The inevitable statistics emerge as experts are consulted and it is revealed just how little Canadians trust their politicians. An overwhelming majority believe that politicians lie to get elected and are generally corrupt and untrustworthy, an unflattering picture of the electorate as well as the politicians themselves. What this reveals is an unsettling portrait of a society and its chosen style of leadership. When CBC Sunday Night runs a program that amounts to political “speed-dating” with four random individuals grilling four candidates one on one in just as many minutes we know there is a serious problem with how we as a country view politics.

Leaders, even non-democratic leaders, are ultimately reflections of the society they emerge from and how they think and behave can generally be put into that context. The kind of society and culture that a person is immersed in from childhood with play a major role in how that person develops as an individual, what values they will have and what sort of political system they will support. The kind of political environment that exists in Canada today in which scandal and cynicism seems to tarnish virtually every political move that is made therefore must be the result of the Canadian way of life and how our country is progressing. If this is the case, and I for one believe there can be no other explanation, we have to stop continuously condemning the politicians universally as crooks and begin to ask hard questions about our society and the values that our society holds especially to politics and leadership.

Canada is a consumer society and that is beyond doubt an established fact. The entire post-war period from the 1950s on has been marked by a major rise in free-market economics and the ideologies that come with such a system. Income and living standards have generally been on the increase with few exceptions since the Second World War and this was matched by an incredible increase in the rise of consumer choice and buying power. Goods once unattainable for the average person became common. This environment of economic progress grew into the sort of scenario we have today where business has unparalleled power and our lives are geared around consumption like never before.

Where this fits into the political culture in Canada and in many other prosperous states around the world is made clear in the mannerisms of our politicians. Election campaigns are really little more than advertising campaigns that might be put on by any large corporate entity to promote its products. Politicians will present what they have for sale in the form of an election platform that is revealed in bits and pieces over the course of the campaign in order to fuel the appetites of the consumer(prospective voter). It is easy to envision a potential voter “shopping” through the campaigns of the various political parties looking for the best bargain. If elections can be compared to a shopping mall and voters to shoppers, than the candidates are the salespeople trying to usher them into their stores.

I believe the transitory nature of electoral politics reinforces this consumer approach to elections and political policy. In our system and in most political systems around the world a politician may only be in office for a very short time, less than four years, before they have to defend their title against another group of challengers. This encourages the kind of salesman attitude that I described as each politician struggles to keep their political career going by making the best promises and offering incentives for people to keep him or her on as a politician. The elected politician has many people and many groups to appease and they will do whatever they can to appease them because they know that their political future is at stake. Unfortunately the truth is often harsh and harsh truths are rarely popular with voters. In a system where so much rests in public opinion we should expect a certain amount of voter manipulation and false promises. It should not be surprising therefore that politicians are often regarded as untrustworthy, though in reality it is the public that should bear an equal share of the blame.

Another probable reason for declining voter turnout would be a feeling by a significant number of the electorate that they simply do not have a stake in Canadian politics and therefore cannot be bothered with its complexities. In the past and for much of human history a person’s life was often drastically altered when governments rose and fell. This generally is not the case now and many people would barely notice when governments come and go if it weren’t for the media attention. Unless their livelihoods and economic wellbeing are themselves threatened many people will simply ignore politics and focus on other matters they see as more pressing to their lives. Many people feel they can safely stand aloof from politics while slinging mud at every politician that comes their way. If they don’t want to vote they can simply ignore elections and if they do want to vote they can peruse the electoral merchandise at their leisure.

The overall problem that I see in the political landscape is a lack of professionalism. The very nature of liberal-democracy makes political leadership a temporary and transitory thing. Even if you win every election there is usually a limit on the number of terms that you can serve. Your job also depends on your popularity and popularity is never a consistent thing; an economic downturn could mean the end of your career as the electorate puts the blame on you. These factors combine to produce a situation in which all elected political leaders are essentially amateur in the sense that they have regular jobs but choose to interrupt their careers in order to enter politics. Professionals of all kinds have some things in common: they train for their career, often spending years in school, and once they have their career they pretty much dedicate their lives to its pursuit. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a school for politicians. Indeed when someone gets a job because of their popularity and not their skill, no extra training or education is really required beyond lessons in public speaking and presentation. The fact that an elected politician’s survival really depends on popularity(with both the electorate and with the party leaders who nominate them)represents a severe lack of professional integrity and it may explain why the quality of leadership displayed currently in Canada is so poor. If you are only in it to win seats, your politics cannot have too much depth.

Is it not logical that we should select our leaders based on popularity or by party nomination when they offer little guarantee that the individual leader has both effectiveness and integrity? There can be no trust when the quality of our leaders is so poor. Professionalism is not something that we can take for granted. A job of such magnitude as politics demands proper training and proper education with a specific goal to instruct an individual on how to be a political leader. Only then can we count on the professional integrity of our politicians.

Trust is essential to any effective political system and it is absolutely essential that our faith in politics and political leadership be restored. We can only regain that trust when the political elite inspires trust in both actions and in words. Professionals understand what is within their means and what is not, they do not promise, they act and do what must be done, mindful of their responsibilities. Just as an aspiring doctor or a teacher requires professional training and education, so must an aspiring politician or administrator. We must ensure that our leadership is adequately trained and prepared for what is surely the most challenging of jobs.

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