Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2018/ Career Politicians

Career Politicians

I have not been blogging much about the municipal election for two reasons. Firstly, I am organizing a bunch of all-candidates meetings and helping out with, and for some reason this election I am anxious about not coming across as too partisan.

More relevantly, I am exhausted. The combination of teaching and working on Waterloo Region Votes is leaving me little time to do anything. But I do want to say a few words about career politicians. As far as I can tell, career politicians make their lives in politics their primary focus, and do not have outside occupations. People campaigning against incumbents love to rail against career politicians, claiming they are elitist and out of touch. The implication is that career politicians are detrimental to politics.

I understand where this criticism is coming from, but it is misguided. Some of the same people who rail against career politicians also express gratitude that Ken Seiling served the Region of Waterloo as regional chair for decades and decades. But Ken Seiling was a career politician -- he started out as a teacher, but spent most of his career in politics, much of it full-time. Many of us who follow regional politics at all will admit that Seiling has done a pretty good job, and his retirement this election has caused a crisis -- there are certain candidates for his replacement who would be inexperienced at best and disastrous at worst. Are the same people who praise Ken Seiling's work also insisting that he should have quit after eight years or twelve years in office?

I do not feel that imposing term limits on elected office helps anything at all. Part of the reason the Region of Waterloo has been successful is because its elected officials have engaged in long-term planning. They have been invested in this kind of long-term planning partially because they have been in office long enough to see this planning through. This is decidedly not the case when elected officials expect to get turfed out of office after four or eight years (see: our provincial or federal governments). Think what you want of the Wynne Liberals and the Ford PCs, but nobody can question that many of the long-term initiatives put in place by the Wynne government have been torn up by its successor. This is called policy lurch, and it prevents us from getting any kind of long-term vision implemented.

When people decry career politicians and advocate for term limits, I think they are really criticizing two other political realities that really are problematic. First: politicians really can get out of touch. They can easily exist in bubbles, pursuing their visions at the expense of the interests of their constituents. I think it is far too easy to swing the other way (hello Cambridge NIMBYism around injection sites and NIMBYism everywhere against any kind of densification) but in addition to pursuing their long-term visions and ideologies, politicians should also be aware of the challenges their constituents face. I think there are certain longstanding politicians who are active in their communities in many different ways, and go out of their way to mix with different interest groups and different social classes. I feel such politicians might stay in touch even if they stay in office a long time. On the other hand, there are freshly-elected politicians who completely ignore constituent concerns in favour of their own ideologies.

The second legitimate criticism is one of incumbency. In municipal politics incumbents have a huge advantage, to the extent where they almost never lose to challengers unless there is a big scandal (see: RIM park). In the 2014 election I can think of one challenger that beat an incumbent: Shannon Adshade, who won his ward over incumbent Gary Price by a whopping two votes. The mayor of Waterloo changes hands from time to time, but not frequently (and it is usually disruptive when it does).

If people are unhappy with an incumbent they should have the ability to kick that incumbent out. In provincial and federal politics this happens frequently because politicians are tied to parties. This is not the case in municipal politics, so at least around here it is very rare for incumbents to lose their seats. The block voting system used for regional council makes this much much worse. I agree that incumbent advantage is pretty terrible, but I disagree that getting rid of politicians via term limits is the right solution to this problem.

At the same time, I am fairly antidemocratic in feeling that a politician's chances of re-election should not depend solely on the whims of the electorate. The electorate is easily manipulated by stupid talking points. Furthermore, good politicians who deserve re-election sometimes have to make difficult decisions that make some of their constituents unhappy. Then those irritated constituents form special interest groups and make a lot of noise during the election. There is a tradeoff between listening to constituent voices and engaging in good long-term planning, and we do not have that balance right yet. But I do feel that getting rid of career politicians is the wrong target.

I do not feel that career politicians are inherently virtuous, however. Some people do lose touch with their constituents. Some people do become corrupt. Some people get so set in their ways that they become oblivious to beneficial change. Some people are in politics for the wrong reasons. Such people deserve to lose their re-election bids, whether they are career politicians or not.

I prefer councils to be populated by good people who understand the nature of service, and understand the nuances and tradeoffs necessary to make political progress. I want them to be diverse in thoyght and background, so they do not fall into groupthink. I want some people with "beginner's eyes" and some people with perspective and historical awareness. But I do not think that being a career politician in itself helps me determine who has these qualities and who does not.