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Toronto alderman Jack Layton, 1983 (Dennis Robinson/Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto alderman Jack Layton, 1983 (Dennis Robinson/Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

The trouble with the political lifer Add to ...

It's said that politics is an honourable profession and, indeed, it can be. For many contemporary politicians, it's also a lifelong one.

Today's political landscape is dominated by lifers who got into politics rather early in their lives - in university, as a first job or after a short time in another career - and are now embedded in electoral politics.

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Of course, there've always been such people in politics at every point in Canadian history, starting with Sir John A. Macdonald. It would take an academic treatise to figure out whether there are more today than in the past.

But there sure are a lot of lifers. Prime Minister Stephen Harper started his adult life as a ministerial aide, got elected to Parliament early as a Reform Party candidate, left the scene briefly, then returned. Jack Layton, who began as a Toronto alderman, has been a federal NDP MP and party leader for a long time. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe entered politics like other Bloc MPs, promising to be in Ottawa for only a while. That was 20 years ago.

The only party leader not a lifer these days is Liberal Michael Ignatieff, who had an impressive career as a writer, broadcaster and teacher before hearing the call of politics. It's perhaps a telling sign of the times that the fact that he didn't spend decades in politics reflects his apparent lack of political savvy.

On the Conservative front bench, lifers seem to hold many of the important portfolios - Jim Flaherty, Lawrence Cannon, John Baird, Tony Clement, Vic Toews, Rob Nicholson, Peter MacKay and Stockwell Day.

The lifer syndrome is apparent on the back benches of every party. Part of the reason is the sheer fascination that politics holds for some people. As the saying goes, there's no life like it for some: the interaction with people, the fun (and serious business) of debate, the range of issues, the belief in a motivating cause or a set of ideas, the rush of being around power, the lure of the limelight, the ability sometimes to help people. These apparently outweigh the hassles of an often ungrateful electorate, the widespread disrespect shown politicians, a media preoccupied with trivia and the frustration of having any influence in a system totally dominated by the prime minister.

It used to be that MPs were underpaid; so the argument was we needed to raise their pay to attract better people to public life. Now, if anything, the reverse dynamic applies: The salaries, pensions and perks are better than most MPs could find doing something else. This is the best job, financially speaking, they will ever have - and the longer they remain in the political game, the further they remove themselves from the work force, thereby making re-entry that much more difficult. And so they stay.

It also used to be, at least on the government side, that patronage eased the way out of politics for the lucky ones. Patronage enabled party leaders to recruit candidates of quality because they could offer them safe seats. Today, however, patronage is in bad odour, so leaders dare not free up seats - with the result that incumbents plump themselves down in safe seats forever. And then, to make matters worse, leaders often don't want to interfere in the local nomination. So instead of anointing a major community leader, lesser figures struggle for the nomination to the safe seat, with the winner sometimes being - you guessed it - a political aide. And so the lifer syndrome repeats itself.

The virtue of lifers is the gaining of wisdom and experience. They learn not only how government works but about the complexities of the country and, in a few cases, the challenges of the world. This international dimension is hugely important, since most Canadian politicians are incorrigibly parochial when elected.

Experience in government teaches, or ought to teach, the art of compromise and the possible; experience in opposition teaches, regrettably, the art of the implausible and the untested. Stephen Harper hasn't changed his essential leadership style since being elected, but he has modified a few of his untutored ideas about economics and foreign policy, presumably from learning about complexities.

The trouble with the political lifer is the shallowness of any other experience on which to draw. Lifers know the lessons of politics, including the debilitating ones of searching for advantage rather than truth, shading and spinning, being forced to toe the line, thereby swallowing independent thought to the point, as we saw during the census debate from the ministers in charge, of losing all sense of personal honour in the interests of the party - and, critically, of pleasing the boss and, therefore, clutching the job they hold as political lifers.

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