The Rules of the Game
“The House is a parody of democracy. All substantial decisions on bills and budgets are made elsewhere and party discipline drives all real debate behind closed doors.”
No, this quote is not referring to politics in Newfoundland and Labrador. But the rationale behind it does make it easier to understand how and why our Muskrat Falls fiasco evolved the way it did.
Graham Steele, the author of the above statement, was a member of the Nova Scotia legislature from 2001 to 2013. He wrote a book about his experience called “What I learned about politics”.
“The House is a parody of democracy.”
Steele opens the book with a description of the first time, as a newly elected Member of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly (MLA), he stood up in the House to give a speech. “No one in the room, absolutely no one, was listening.” Some were chatting with their neighbours, some were reading newspapers or a book, some were tapping on their computers or smart phones. “Our elected members mostly ignore each other in the House.” he concludes.
And why wouldn’t they? If the ruling party has a majority government, which is the dominant reality in our first-past-the-post system, they have no need to listen to the opposition. As for opposition parties, they know they have no power to influence government. The final vote on any legislation is a foregone conclusion under majority governments.
The reality is that the House is mere theatre. When our elected representatives do pay attention to what someone opposite is saying “it is usually to heckle, interrupt, even insult.” This is not just a Nova Scotia experience. We see the same level of disrespect and disinterest in political debate in our province. In all probability it’s not that different across the country.
“All substantial decisions on bills and budgets are made elsewhere.”
According to Steele, the real decision making in government happens, not in the House, but behind closed doors in the Premier’s office or elsewhere in the civil service. By the time a bill or a budget is tabled in the House, there is little chance of an amendment. In fact, most politicians have only a superficial understanding of pending legislation. Much of it is written up by in-house lawyers and economists in language that is legalistic, arcane and barely understandable. The result, according to Steele is that most politicians don’t even bother to read the bills. They simply do what they are told to do by party leadership.
“Party discipline drives all real debate behind closed doors.”
Steele makes the point that politicians do what they are told because politics is, above all, a team sport. Party unity must be maintained and any politician who differs from party policy risks being punished. The punishment can be harsh, as Mount Pearl-Southlands MHA Paul Lane found out when he was booted out of the Liberal party after declaring he could not support the unpopular 2016 budget.
Newly elected politicians are very quickly socialized into the culture of acquiescence to decisions on high. They learn that if they are to get ahead they must do what they are told, preferably with panache.
Politics, Steele believes, has degenerated into “a permanent marketing campaign” designed to push through decisions, policies and strategies that are made in back rooms elsewhere. “Everything – the invention of differences, the attention-grabbing rhetoric, the focus on scandal and personality, the refusal to deal with the real issues, the devaluing of legislative work in favour of constituency work, the election of candidates, everything is aimed at winning your vote.”
The end result for politicians is demeaning. “Being in politics makes you dumber and the longer you are in politics the dumber you get.” says Steele.
How do we correct all of the above?
Has democracy really become as dysfunctional as Graham Steele suggests? Certainly, the disrespect for politicians is at an all-time high in our province. Voter turnout is at an all-time low.
The real danger is that we will focus on blaming people rather than the process itself. As Steele points out, “It’s too easy to say we need better politicians. The fact is that our politicians are us. There isn’t a better, more perfect, angelic version of us.”
What we really need to do is change the way our political system works.
Steele, himself, would like to see more independently elected politicians, who, freed from the shackles of party discipline, would be able more easily to vote with their conscience or according to what their constituents want. He recognizes, however, that that is not practical. Independent candidates rarely get elected.
We agree. It’s one of the reasons why Democracy Alert is in favour of proportional representation (PR). While proportional representation will not solve all the problems that Steel alludes to, it will end the dominance of our two major parties and endless majority governments where differing perspectives have no effective influence. To that end, we have finally chosen a PR system that we think would best suit the needs of our province. But that’s a subject for another blog posting.
So how do we end this blog? We’ve chosen to quote “The Rules of the Game”, Steele’s tongue in cheek advice to new politicians aspiring to be successful.
“The rules of the game"
- Get yourself re-elected. Like the sex drive among primates, the drive to be re-elected drives everything a politician does.
- Spend as little time as possible at the legislature. There are no voters there, so any time spent there is wasted. Go where the voters are. Go home.
- Perception is reality. Since people vote based on what they believe to be true, it doesn’t matter what is actually true. This is at the root of all the dark political arts.
- Keep it simple. Policy debates are for losers. Focus on what is most likely to sink in with a distracted electorate: slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures, image. Find whatever works, then repeat it relentlessly.
- Put yourself in the spotlight. People are more likely to vote for someone they’ve met or feel they know or at least have heard of. If it’s not in the news, it didn’t happen.
- Politics is a team sport, part 1: Loyalty: You can’t accomplish anything as an individual. No matter what, stick with your team.
- Politics is a team sport part 2: Always be attacking. There are other teams that want to take away your job at the next election. You have to beat them, and if you can, destroy them.
- Don’t leave a paper trail. You don’t want to leave any evidence that runs against your own story. If you’re explaining, you’re losing.
- Fight hard to take credit. Fight harder to avoid blame.
- Deny that these are the rules of the game.”
Submitted by Marilyn Reid