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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Member of Parliament - there's no job like it Add to ...

For many of our parliamentarians, regardless of party, there's apparently no life like it.

MPs complain about travel and dislocation, grumble about salaries, and express unhappiness about trash-talking, negative ads, grotesque showmanship and superficial media coverage. But when the time comes to decide whether to quit or stay for another round, staying seems the most attractive option.

Only 17 MPs (eight Conservatives, four Liberals, two New Democrats and three Bloquistes) - about 5 per cent of the total - have decided not to seek re-election. Two are leaving for health reasons.

What we've developed in Canada, regrettably, is a political caste. The system is dominated by people who've been in the political game for a long time and don't want to leave. Many are what we might call political lifers, or something close to it. They got into the game early, and have stayed in it ever since. They know nothing, or very little, about life outside politics.

It used to be said by those lamenting the quality of MPs that they should be paid better. Higher pay, it was argued, would lure more people of quality, or at least not deter quality people from thinking about politics. So salaries increased to the point where, without being scientific about it, they're the best remuneration many MPs have ever made, or will ever make, in their lives.

Indeed, looking around the House of Commons, it's hard to imagine what a lot of MPs would do were they not MPs. For many, being an MP is the best job they ever had - which, to some extent, accounts for why so few willingly leave politics.

Put things upside down. For people of accomplishment and substance, being an MP would be a step down, not just financially but in terms of intellectual excitement, occupational accomplishment, and responsibility. How many people of quality and substance would give up their jobs to sit in a chamber dominated by either shouting or empty seats, then be forced to follow a party's line on every issue no matter how crazy that line.

It would be tempting for a Conservative to think he or she could make it to cabinet with the official car, the swarm of staff, the impressive title. But in a government where one man makes almost all the decisions, where ministers have to submit all their utterances for vetting by under-aged staffers in the Prime Minister's Office, who of substance and accomplishment outside politics would be interested? Who really wants to sit on the opposition benches? A few people, but not many.

You would be right to say that this is too cynical, because there are MPs with a sense of the public interest and who do good work for their constituents. These kinds of MPs exist in all political parties. And this sense of service contributes to keeping people in the political game for so long.

There's a buzz about politics, too. For those who enjoy this buzz, politics can't be topped by anything else. Indeed, it's often amusing to talk to former politicians now doing something else about how frequently, and often longingly, they speak about their years in politics.

We are in a stage of static politics in Canada, with minorities following minorities. And we're unlikely to break that pattern. In such a period, the number of reasonably safe seats rises, with incumbents being rather easily re-elected. With a safe seat and a good salary, why leave?

Time was when a prime minister could move people along with a patronage job, thereby opening a riding for a newcomer. Since patronage has fallen out of favour, a major inducement to leave has vanished. So we have, for a variety of reasons, a lot of lifers and careerists making up a political caste.

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