Three events last month underline the shifting perception of the value of public life. First Edmonton Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber said he was could no longer take orders from Harper aides who he described as mostly being less than half his age; and said the Conservative party had lost its way after seven years in power. “I barely recognize ourselves, and worse I fear that we have morphed into what we once mocked,” he wrote on his blog. Rathberger’s issue is that ordinary MPs are nothing more than trained seals who vote on command and who read talking points off cards supplied by the unelected PMO staffers. Watch the HBO sitcom Veep to get an idea of how these aides infect the political system.
If MPs are the ‘nobodies’ Pierre Trudeau called them, (at a time when, compared to today, they were relatively still somebody’s) so too are cabinet ministers. Cabinet Ministers were once powerful regional power brokers, who marshalled donations and political organization to the national party cause. Now that campaigns are completely centralized from the top, the local input is less critical. In any cabinet, with the exception of the top 4 or 5 senior ministers, most members of the cabinet are PR mouthpieces for policies that are developed in the PMO. They play only a negligible role in policy formation. Their senior bureaucrats report to the Privy Council which is controlled by the PMO, not the minister. Which brings us to former Ontario education minister Laurel Broten, who not only is walking away from the Ontario Liberal Cabinet and political life, but is leaving the province altogether to live in Nova Scotia. Imagine being ‘demoted’ from education minister to the relatively meaningless portfolio of Minister of Intergovernmental affairs, for the crime of carrying out the former Premier’s policy of trying to get tough with teacher unions. As a trained lawyer imagine the indignity of carrying out a policy that she would have had little to do with, watching the government reverse itself under a new premier, and then having it implied that somehow you had fumbled the ball.
All this for $157,000 a year. It’s not clear what Margaret Best did to warrant her demotion from Cabinet when Premier Wynne took over, but whatever the circumstances, she hasn’t been seen at Queen’s Park since; and last month announced that she was quitting politics effective immediately. And finally there is Bob Rae, who is leaving politics after decades on the stage as a moderate in a world populated by extremists. It’s ironic that the only NDP premier in Ontario’s history was also the only one who tackled public sector wage costs in a meaningful way. The fact that he is loathed by so many of his former NDP colleagues speaks volumes to his true worth. Rae made tough decisions as Ontario premier that few in his position would have the courage to do today. He helped stabilize the federal Liberal party that had twice rejected him as permanent leader, providing breathing room for the emergence of Justin Trudeau. Bob Rae epitomized the old style of parliamentary debate where members debated with wit, good humour, and spontaneity— something sadly lacking as you watch MPs today struggling with their canned speeches, which they barely can get off the page. The lesson from (all) at least three of these departing politicians is that politics is becoming a business that is driving good people away, and we are all the worse for it.