Why do politicians get such a bad rap?

Trevor Taylor
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I have been contemplating writing this column for some time now. During the lead up to the recent municipal elections, there were a number of columns about voter apathy, a number of stories on youth engagement in the political process and now, in the aftermath of the elections, commentaries on how and why the results are what they are.

As we were crossing Davis Strait this past July on the Students on Ice expedition, there was a day when students identified eight or 10 issues they would like to lead the discussion on. Over the course of a couple of days, students led workshops on global warming, sustainable development, active, healthy living and community activism to name a few. Two students from Norway, however, decided to lead discussions on political involvement and activism.

Probably as no surprise, I decided to attend their workshops. It was quite interesting to watch as the Norwegian students advocated quite strongly for youth to get involved, to become members of parties, to engage directly in the political process. They were adamant, and in total agreement, even though they were supporters of two opposing political parties, that the surest, most direct way to influence government agendas was directly through the political process.

Well, that seemed quite logical to me. The odd thing though was that every North American student in attendance was leery, skeptical and even cynical.

They persisted nevertheless, insisting that youth should attend political meetings, read party platforms, compare positions and get informed. Imagine! I was shocked. And not once did they mention Twitter or for that matter any other social media forum.

So, I had to check out the stats on Norway. I didn’t check out the level of connectivity of Norway, but I think it is safe to assume it is as good as you are going to get anywhere in the world. But I did check electoral participation rates in Norway. It is consistently above 80 per cent, compared to a paltry 60 per cent participation in Canada and in the 50 per cent range in the U.S.  

So why the difference?

Well, I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with the attitudes of Norwegians generally towards politicians and something to do with our attitude towards politicians. Sure, you might say, Norway has one of the highest standards of living in the world, fabulous social programs, education and health care. Well, as much as we like to complain, we aren’t exactly sub-Saharan Africa on those fronts are we?

While I was in politics, on occasions that are too numerous to count, friends would comment, “Trevor, you must be crazy to be at that.” My answer many times was, “Well, you don’t have to be crazy, but it helps.” I am talking about good friends, the kind you grew up with, went to school with, did stupid things with as a teenager and the older kind, that changed your diaper, babysat you, the ones that really know you, know where you came from, know more about you than you care to remember.

I find myself on too many occasions marvelling about how many commentators, media hosts and the public stereotypically characterize politicians as a group on the take, looking to line their own pockets, a group who couldn’t do much else, so they end up in politics.

While attending the PC convention last week, I ran in to former premier Roger Grimes. (No, he wasn’t at the convention!) I got to thinking, what did Roger Grimes walk away with other than a pension that he spent a lifetime of public service earning?

And I got to thinking about all the other politicians of all political stripes that I had the fortune to work with and against. The vast majority of them were decent, hard-working individuals. Most of them had been successful in some other field, had spent time working in their communities, had earned the respect of their peers and in most cases had been persuaded by others to put their name out there for public office.

And the majority left with no more than they went in with, minus some of their good reputation having been a politician and having to make some of the tough decisions that we ask of them.

None of them went in to politics because there was nothing else they could do; on the contrary, they got elected because people recognize them as people who get things done. And yes, some screw up, some inadvertently, some deliberately, and some go to jail because of it. Much like in the rest of society.

Voter apathy has more to do with the uninformed or ill-informed attitudes of the electorate than it has to do with politicians.

Next time you wonder why more people don’t go into politics, ask yourself, “Are they crazy?” Those that do aren’t, but some days it helps!

Trevor Taylor is a former cabinet minister under the Danny Williams administration. Email: trevortaylor@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: North American

Geographic location: Norway, Canada, U.S. Sub-Saharan Africa

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Recent comments

  • Cashin Delaney
    October 01, 2013 - 18:14

    It is a shame, and a grave sin that the unfriendly media and the negative public still, after all these years since Ed Byrne, et alii, stereotype politicians as a bunch of useless freeloaders. Many ex-politicos go on to very useful roles in society after retirement, such as performing in the "Captain Feathersword" role for students on ice, or the defacto PR man disguised as a arms length columnist. Norway. Norway is an example of what Newfoundland can never achieve within Canada: transparent public debate, strong independant regulatory bodies, stringent environmental laws, real emergency response capacity, a more distributive state, extensive public support systems and careful fiscal protection with reinvestment for long-term sustainability. There is more at play here than blaming the youth for their apathy and use of social media. Taylor may have more than 140 characters here, published by mainstream media, but, in my contrary opinion, they are still the words of a partisan twit, "Voter apathy has more to do with the uninformed or ill-informed attitudes of the electorate than it has to do with politicians." The systematic bureacracy that our politicians hide our information behide must be an effect of voter apathy, not a cause of it, not due to 7 years of planned, deliberately induced mistrust.

  • Hans
    October 01, 2013 - 14:18

    Mr Taylor please do yourself and everyone else a favor and stop writing your drivel in this newspaper. No one believes a word you say, i highly doubt you believe anything you say yourself.

  • Doug Smith
    October 01, 2013 - 10:30

    Mr. Taylor, I find your article very disingenuous . I’ll just mention two points. First, you complain that the electoral participation rate in Canada is a paltry 60 per cent and claim you don’t know why it is so low. That is really strange since you marvelled about how many people, “… stereotypically characterize politicians as a group on the take, looking to line their own pockets…” Now if you would just cast your mind to the corruption trials in Quebec involving politicians, now focus on Ottawa and the corruption investigations going so far, even into the Prime Minister’s office. Remember the MHA spending scandal here in this province. 108 of 115 politicians investigated were involved . The second point, your pretence that the majority of politicians left with no more than they went in with is just not true. Take your example of Mr. Grimes. His salary as a MHA, cabinet minister and premier was more than he made as a school teacher. His pension is more that most workers in NL will receive. In 2005, 97% of individuals in NL earned less than MHAs. The politicians take care of themselves and to pretend they don’t means you are not willing to deal with reality. Doug Smith, Grand Falls-Windsor

  • Mikey
    October 01, 2013 - 05:47

    Nicely rounded column Trevor. But how many pensions for Grimes?

  • Ken Collis
    October 01, 2013 - 05:08

    Voter apathy has more to do with the uninformed or ill-informed attitudes of the electorate than it has to do with politicians. Here go the PC party telling us that we don't know what's happening again. Every PC article lately has been telling us how stunned we are. The fact that they won't listen to any arguement that goes against what they want means absolutely nothing. I say once more in this comments section, LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE FOR GOD'S SAKE. It has to be give and take. And get rid of bill 29 and keep us informed. I would much rather know how my money is being spent than know about mouse droppings found in the local diner.