This is the Life: This is not the golden age for Canadian politics

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Let’s just say that these aren’t great days for politicians. Unless you recall that, good, bad or indifferent, they still get their paycheques until they are turned out.

Two weeks ago, we were given a special treat, a spectacularly inane and disrespectful performance in the House of Commons, a place where question period encourages inanity and disrespect. On a Friday, which is a good time to get stupid in the political world, because weekends are news killers, the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary stood to respond to a question from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair. Paul Calandra apparently has Harper’s confidence, given his position, and he proved with his attitude and words that he has paid close attention to his boss.

Mulcair rose to ask the prime minister, who — imagine this — was not in the House on a Friday, about Canada’s mission in Iraq. Sounding more like a stroke victim than a member of Parliament, Calandra ignored the question and went on a pro-Israel tirade. No surprise there because Conservatives are not allowed to question, even mildly, anything about Israel’s role in the nightmare known as the Middle East. Mulcair made fun of Calandra, then repeated his question. Calandra continued with what sounded like a pre-rehearsed comment. Last week, he cried while apologizing in the House of Commons, acting for all the world like this was a one-off performance. It wasn’t. He has a history for this kind of nonsense.

It’s pointless to even bring up Harper’s decision to ignore a global climate change conference, or that he appeared in the United Nations, apparently in the belief that Canada actually has influence on the international stage. Nothing new there.

But the political news got sadder on Monday when pundit Rafe Mair wrote a lengthy column in the Tyee, an online newspaper that isn’t particularly friendly to Mair’s one-time provincial party, the Liberals.

Mair took Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts to task for her announcement that she intends to seek a federal seat for Conservatives in next year’s federal election. Watts was a highly respected mayor and Mair said she is headed for a meaningless role in a Harper government — if there even is a Harper government again — that gives a voice to only a select few, and that elite group doesn’t include backbenchers or minor cabinet ministers.

He describes his own experience in a government in which he was always a cabinet minister: “Backbenchers had very little to do, and much of what they did do involved make-work projects given to them to keep ‘idle hands from doing the devil’s work.’ ” Mostly, he said, backbench MPs help trace missing pension cheques for constituents and deliver grant cheques on behalf of their government. They have no say in policy, but must proclaim support for everything their government does. Parliament and Legislature are places where good people go to waste their talents, he is essentially saying.

It’s a shame that anyone should feel this way, least of all someone who has personal experience on the governing side. But I often wonder what the real feelings of decent people like David Wilks and his predecessor Jim Abbott have had in their role as an MP. My guess is that they are able to convince themselves that they do play an important part and that their voice is heard as they represent their constituents in Ottawa. Or perhaps they are just content to do what little they are allowed, happy just to be part of what really is a pretty elite group of fewer than 200 (typically) who are elected to run the country.

In Wilks’ case, as mayor of Sparwood, he was a well-respected big fish in a small pond, but in Ottawa he is just another backbencher who represents a riding that would apparently elect a complete unknown to the job as long as the word Conservative was beside his name on the ballot.

In my youth, I aspired to be one of these folks. I sat at tables with them at conferences, attended campaign strategy meetings, read my daily copies of Hansard (at least the question period section) that arrived in my mail every week, and organized friends to help me campaign for those I supported in provincial, federal and civic elections. It was fun to feel part of a team and greater fun to feel part of a winning one. Watching a friend become an MP or MLA or alderman did have its appeal, and I came to heartily respect the efforts they made before and after elections.

But it didn’t take too many years to learn that I really wanted no part of party politics, and even less of the blood sport that elections can become. Why, I began to wonder, are the efforts of all these good people so fruitless? Why do so many decisions seem to be made that aren’t in the interests of what we used to call, perhaps naively, “the greater good”? I wish I had some answers about why supposedly free and democratic systems have been so badly manipulated and abused.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.