Sympathy for the Devil

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

Hey everybody. I’ve thought of a way politicians can spend more money. On themselves, no less. They could spend millions hiring new staff. Isn’t that swell?

No, really. I mean it. There is much that is wrong with our government, but it is not always what you think. For instance, a significant reason for Parliament’s generally shoddy performance is not that MPs are lazy but that they are overworked. And here’s another important point that frequently confuses citizens and candidates for office: It is not what politicians spend on themselves but what they spend on us that accounts for bloated, swelling public budgets. Voters clamour for wars on waste and expanded social spending. Politicians oblige.

Facing a chorus of boos, I console myself that surveys show journalists already rival politicians for unpopularity. One possible reason is that we are almost the only people in the country who take them as seriously as they take themselves. (Another is that we are lurid, ignorant and biased, but let us not get distracted here.) And while I am a right-wing zealot you may, within limits, include me in the indictment for being fixated on political affairs.

Certainly I consider good government very important. My defence is that I don’t think the state can make us healthy, wealthy and wise. Rather, my acute awareness of the horrors of bad government, and of the necessity of government to fend off the even worse horrors of anarchy, makes me interested in how our political institutions work, or don’t, and how they are meant to. And the essential purpose of Parliament is oversight of the executive branch, through the “power of the purse.”

As Senator Anne Cools has warned, we are losing even the vocabulary with which to discuss public affairs.

Responsible government doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean we send men and women to Ottawa or to Queen’s Park to raid the treasury on our behalf. It means we send them to rein in our rulers by pulling hard on the purse strings when necessary to prevent the government from doing bad things but also, more often in a civilized country like Canada, to prevent the government from doing things badly.

How? In principle it is simple: Deny the Crown its requests for revenue unless it heeds our grievances about what it is doing, how it is doing it and how little it is telling us about either. In practice, it is a great deal more complex for two main reasons.

First, government is by now so enormous that it is very hard to scrutinize either what it is doing or how it is paying for it. Did you ever try reading a federal budget? Did you even know there are Departmental Performance Reports? Quite possibly neither did your MP.

For, second, we the citizens aren’t paying proper attention. How many voters know, or care, what committees their MP sits on? What parliamentarian ever goes back to the riding and gets an earful about the “estimates”? And if scrutinizing estimates doesn’t get them reelected, why should they care?

In short, we don’t reward MPs for doing their actual job even if we remember what it is. And we don’t give them the ability to do it. They are run off their feet with Commons, caucus and constituency duties and are expected to cast informed votes on every topic from defence procurement to the causes of poverty to what Quebecers really want. And they get four, maybe five staff members in total, for their Ottawa and riding offices combined.

No wonder they’re so prone to bluster and manufactured outrage. To many it may also be temperamentally congenial. But in a pinch it sure covers a multitude of ignorance. Thus denying them staff is penny wise and pound foolish.

Poking around a bit, I’ve discovered that American Senators get between 24 and 60 office staff depending on the population of their state. U. S. Congressional committees also have large research and logistical staffs; one House of Representatives committee alone has more than 100 employees. It puts both institutional memory and relevant factual knowledge at the disposal of elected members.

Not that the U. S. government doesn’t make appalling mistakes. And American voters, too, often seem interested only in looting the treasury. My proposal is not a cure-all. But a journey of 1,000 miles begins with single step. And the paradox here is that if our politicians spent more on support staff, they might spend a lot less overall and would sure waste a lot less of what they do spend.

I say MPs should spend more on themselves.

Don’t all thank me at once.

John Robson is a writer and broadcaster based in Ottawa.