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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday, 4 April 2014

A Problem with Political Culture

This whole article is worth a read for the insight it gives into the political sausage-making process that we're constantly told not to be interested in.  The fact is, bullying has always been a big part of this process; we see it every day in Question Period or on campaign trails, but it persists within Parties and Members offices as well in both active and passive-aggressive ways.

In theory, any Member of a Legislative Assembly (MLA) including Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs) is elected by constituents to represent their interests in Parliament.  The role of Parliament is to hold government to account on behalf of constituents.  So, MPs and MPPs are supposed to ask questions and raise issues related to the interests of the people of the community they represent - which kinda implies they have to be from there.

This is a bit trickier when you get into larger urban centres like Toronto, where the ridings are smaller and the issues aren't as limited by borders.  Whereas the residents of a riding like the one I'm from (currently called Stormont, Dundas and South Glengarry) will be pretty demanding that their representative be a permanent resident, there's generally more flexibility in places like Toronto.  So long as a candidate can demonstrate a commitment to/knowledge of a given riding and its issues, the people tend to be content to let them stand.

Ours being a representative democracy and all, we don't just elect individuals to carry forward our message - we're electing their judgement as well.  This is no different from most professions - we expect our lawyers, accountants, teachers and doctors to all have experiential knowledge and insight into their craft that we don't have to learn.  Of course, there's no formal training required to be a politician, so it really boils down to track-records, intuition and how well a given candidate can sell themselves.

There's something prestigious about being an elected official - it provides validation, a budget, access to the levers of power and no small degree of local influence.  As politicians vote on matters of significance beyond just their ridings, the act of holding political office also leads our elected officials to be exposed to a bigger world of stakeholders, influence-peddlers and of course, partisans.

The best politicians take all this in stride but never lose sight of what they're in office for - to represent their people.  There are some, obviously, who go into politics for the title more than the function, just are there are good people who lose their way as the carrots and sticks of partisan brinkmanship and access to influence weigh upon them.

Anyone who works in politics can rhyme off names of micro-managing, bullying politicians who treat their ridings like personal fiefdoms and their staff like indentured servants.  In fact, these aggressive types are often targeted for greater positions of influence, like Cabinet posts, because it's assumed they can apply this bullying attitude to force action within one Ministry or another.  The actual human impact of their demeanour gets ignored as often as possible because, you know, it's timely results that matter, not human resources.

This is before you get to Political Parties.  While our Parliamentary system can function without Political Parties, partisanship has been ingrained into our system.  Originally conceived of as groups of like-minded individuals banding together to collectively promote issues of shared importance, the introduction of Parliamentarians to Cabinet fundamentally changed this process.  Now, the priority of Political Parties isn't to unite a caucus of elected officials to promote certain issues so much as it is to get enough seats in the House to form government.

Power is the objective, because with power you don't need to advocate for causes, you can act on them.
The trick is, you need enough elected partisan bums in seats to form government and carry votes and to get them, you need to have broader coalitions of support.  This is why it's become so easy for Political Parties to sway back and forth on the political pendulum, adjusting their positions and policies to meet what they think are the demands of enough voters to give them a majority.

Within Parties and occasionally, between Parties, there are still smaller caucuses that do what Parties were originally intended to do - raise and debate niche issues like rural, women, Northern, New Canadian, poverty and so on.

For unelected partisan operatives, however, the only thing that matters is getting and retaining seats; you can't form government without them.  At their most cynical, these political planners don't care about who represents where, what issues actually matter to the people or whether overall policy focus is balanced.  They will aim for the win at all costs.

Issues like whether a hospital should be built are determined not on local need, but partisan advantage.
Nominations are determined less on what the local folk want, but which representative will work to the Party's advantage on a broader scale (fundraising, effective talking head on the news or in the House, etc.).  Good people that don't suit the Party's interest will be discarded while ineffective Parliamentarians or terrible bosses will be supported if it's believe they will win seats or sell Memberships.

There are good people at both the elected official and partisan staff level, but there are also a lot of conniving manipulators who could give a rat's ass about the well-being of the commons beyond the narrow pieces they feel serves their interests.  

These folk are predominantly alphas; aggressive, calculating, dismissive and quite frankly, bullies in either a direct or passive aggressive way.  They don't listen, they message.  They don't consider opinions, they shoot them down.  They also don't empower - they demand and threaten if they don't get what they want, no matter how poorly conceived their vision is or how inarticulately they've conveyed it.

Such militant partisans are the ones who have shaped the overall culture of our politics at present, which is why there is a such a disconnect now between Parties, elected officials and constituents, and staff.

This last one is a point I keep hammering home and have been slapped down more than once for doing so, which is unfortunate because I keep being proved right on this front.

There's this strange, unfortunate thing where an MP or MPPs' staff are paid for out of the taxpayer's pocket but theoretically answerable to a Political Party.  When a local issue comes into conflict with the Grand Plan of the Party, who are staff supposed to be answerable to?  Politicians can write letters of recommendation, but particularly when their home ridings are far away, it's the Party who has the most influence over a young staffer's future career options.  Good standing with a Party can open doors just as quickly as bad blood can close them, even if over issues that matter to the actual boss' constituents.

What emerges is the exact same problem that has been identified within our government bureaucracies; we end up with a message-heavy, top-down culture from Party to Member to Staff that reduces individual agency and ability to actively participate the further down you get.

As entitlement and a sense of corporate ownership settles in with the partisans at the top (and gets passed on to successive partisan staff who may have less connectivity and experience than their predecessors), collaboration and communication with (as opposed to messaging to) the front line occurs.  Power and position become the defining factors of influence rather than actual skill or competency.

This is why we get to a place where new, untrained and inexperienced front-line staff are considered "dumb" and "useless" by political operatives who've worked their way up the chain largely because of their willingness to do what it takes to grow their personal brand within partisan infrastructure.  These people assume they need to take more control and be even tougher on the people at the bottom, while simultaneously having zero time to engage with them - they're too busy and too important for that sort of thing.

What happens when you have a system that, from the top down consists of people who feel entitled and expect to be obeyed rather than collaborated with?  You end up with a dysfunctional culture where ideas that aren't relevant to the grassroots or realistic in their ability to be implemented are punted down the ladder, good ideas and real-world situational awareness from the ground up is ignored and people all the way down the food chain feel disenfranchised, unappreciated and disinterested in doing anything more than the absolute basics.

This is why political parties continuously fall around the ten-year mark; it's at this stage that the top-down culture has become so entrenched and that it simply ceases to function.

It's beyond tragic that, in a day and age where successful organizational models ranging from firms like Amazon to Environics are available, our Political Parties (and far too many Members, Candidates and riding associations) still think that a feudal, authoritarian model is the best way to get results.  It clearly isn't, nor is it sustainable.

I have pitched the idea of staff empowerment and training, MP organizational and appropriate HR training and even the idea of legislation to better clarify the organizational accountability between staff, Members, the Party and the Legislature to political operatives more than once.  

It's a damned shame they're too busy and too important to listen.  

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