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The Dark Side:

The Personal Price

of a Political Life

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By Steve Paikin

Viking Canada, 304 pages, $36

Steve Paikin wrote the The Dark Side: The Personal Price of a Political Life so that "by telling tales from the dark side of politics, I hope to give the reader in general, and prospective candidates in particular, a greater insight into how this game works." Paikin's examples range from those who suffered unimaginable personal tragedy, such as former Liberal MP and cabinet minister John Munro, to those who suffered the losses of public life and then rose to fight another day, such as former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow.

Paikin says one of his chief goals "has been to remind people that the work politicians do is important, even if most of what the public hears about politics from the media and the politicians themselves ridicules the profession. I fervently believe we need to plant the lure back into public life."

Why run for political office?

Amen to that, I say. The word politician has come to suggest something between an axe murderer and a used-car salesman. So why would anyone but a scoundrel or loser want to run for public office?

Nineteen out of 20 able citizens I've talked to about running for public office over the past decade or so say no. The loss of income, job, professional standing; the loss of privacy, family and personal life; the toll of travel, meetings, serving constituents, keeping two homes and, finally, the abuse from the public, media and, yes, other politicians is discouraging our best and most able citizens from running.

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Having said that, however, I was reminded in reading Paikin's book that in spite of the heartache and viciousness of the political gladiatorial pit, many committed people have chosen public life. His cast includes an array of Canadian politicians from all political stripes who have stepped into the harsh public spotlight, such as Joe Clark and Nancy McBain in Alberta. My experience as a city councillor, mayor, leader of the opposition and premier of British Columbia through nine election wins in 24 years is that the majority of politicians simply want to make a difference, improving their city, province and country. Whatever that may be -- quality public education, universal health care, smaller government and lower taxes, social justice for aboriginals, the poor, disabled workers, improving the business climate and entrepreneurial opportunities; protecting nature, clean air and water -- most citizens become that thing we call a politician to promote values and ideas they believe are important.

Paikin, the co-host of Studio 2 on TV Ontario, offers many moving, frank interviews with former prime ministers (Joe Clark), premiers (Bob Rae, Frank McKenna, Clyde Wells, William Vander Zalm, David Peterson, Allan Blakeney, John Savage, Roy Romanow), opposition leaders (Lyn McLeod, Nancy McBeth, Lynda Haverstook) and MPPs (Tim Murphy) and MPs (Paul Dick).

What I found fascinating about what Paikin calls the "good, bad and ugly" of political life was the courage, resilience and stiff upper lip of so many of those profiled. Some of the stories are tragic, such as the hell John Munro went through for years. At the end of an effective 22-year career in politics (1962 to 1984), he had to face dubious criminal charges and the loss of his reputation. An RCMP investigation in 1989 accused him of corruption during his time as minister. He was acquitted in 1991, but never recovered (he died this past August).

Or take the trashing given to the founder of CAVEAT (Canadians against Violence Everywhere and Advocating its Termination), Priscilla de Villiers (mother of Nina de Villiers, murdered in 1991 by Jonathan Yeo, a sex offender out on bail) by her opponents and the media during an Ontario by-election in 2000. De Villiers was accused by one opponent of exploiting her daughter's death for political gain. "When de Villiers read those words in a headline in her local newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator, she broke down."

Politicians: the critique

Paikin urges politicians, media and the public "to put the lure back into public life." First, though, he's critical of politicians who "think nothing of venturing out on search-and-destroy missions against their opponents. Paikin points out the dreadful behaviour of some MPPs in the Ontario Legislature in the past few years. "Things have deteriorated so much, the speaker of the Ontario legislature, Gary Carr, has set a Commonwealth record by ejecting more than three dozen legislators from the chamber." And then they are surprised when the public concludes they're a bunch of bad apples.

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When all sides toss mud and the media lovingly report every dirty detail -- how can we be surprised when the public stops voting, or loses faith in the political process?"

The media: dumbing down

The media gets its just lumps from Paikin. One lovely story is that of Toronto Sun reporter Heather Bird. Tim Murphy, who was giving a too-long answer to her question, gave her the 10-second clip she wanted after she interrupted to ask him "Would you say it's too little, and too late?" and then stuck the microphone in his face. He responded: "It's an outrage . . . it's too little, too late." The reporter walked away. Murphy said, "I get this game."

Paikin writes: "After twenty years of immersing himself in politics and policy, he finally understood the art of giving a good ten-second clip." Murphy says, "Deep down it's shallow."

The dumbing down of public discourse for headlines, clips and market share reminds me of the late 1980s, when I was leader of the opposition in British Columbia. I'd spent three years readying the New Democrats to be a governing rather than opposition party. I'd been out fighting for candidates, winning seven out of seven by-elections, some in Social Credit strongholds.

After the last big election victory, I was sitting with a Vancouver Province columnist having a coffee. He said to me, "You're boring, Harcourt." I responded in disgust, "if you want entertainment, go rent a video."

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The public: Politicians are liars, crooks, cheats

The public, too, gets its licks from Paikin; they howl about pay increases to politicians, travel costs for spouses who'd never see their politician husband or wife otherwise. Or they want instant solutions -- yesterday -- to complex issues. The what-have-you-done-for-me-lately syndrome can get wearying.

I wrote about the public and media's treatment of my 1991-1996 government's legislative/policy initiatives in my book, A Measure of Defiance. In a chapter on the media (The Scrum of the Earth), I described this phenomenon by quoting from the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian, where members of the Peoples' Front of Judea gathered to criticize the Roman government. John Cleese's character is trying to rouse resentment against the Romans: "They bled us white, the bastards! What have they ever done for us in return," he shouts.

"The aqueduct?," a tentative voice suggests.

Others chime in with: "And sanitation? Roads? Medicine? Education?

"Wine? The public baths? And it's safe to walk the streets at night."

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"All right," Cleese sighs with angry resignation. "Apart from the sanitation, education, medicine, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Paikin has produced a well-written book with a noble purpose: to restore lustre to political office. By and large, he succeeds. My few minor criticisms include his attack on rich pension schemes for politicians. These schemes are now gone in British Columbia, Alberta and most other provinces, so his point is out of date.

May all politicians, media, citizens get on with the essential task of making public office attractive again, even given the dark side politicians must face. Steve Paikin's book is a good start in that direction.

Mike Harcourt is a former premier of British Columbia.

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