The students in my introductory politics classes had little respect for parliamentary institutions. (I'm no longer teaching but I bet things haven't changed.)

"Nothing gets done in Canada," they'd say. "We're not making progress. Politicians don't keep their promises. They're just in it for themselves."

They hated political acrimony. They were offended by the jostling of parties for office. "Why can't they all get along?" "That's a very good question," I would reply. "We're rational beings; when the facts are before us, why don't we agree more often?" But I could hear them thinking: "Because some people are stupid."

"We should have 'trained' people in charge," they'd say. By "trained people," they usually meant lawyers. Or economists. In vain I would point out that there are always some – often many – lawyers and economists in Parliament and in the departments and agencies of government.

"It's a good thing we have the Supreme Court," they'd say. "Judges know what they're doing."

And so I would set to work. I'd think the course a success if I could persuade the students to consider the following propositions. First: parliamentary government is not primarily about "getting things done." It is not about getting a record number of laws and policies on the books. It was designed originally – in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – to make it hard for political men to get things done. It is intended to protect us – the citizens – from ambitious politicians with ambitious programs. It's meant to subvert oligarchy.

Second: parliamentary government does not require politicians to keep their campaign promises. Quite the opposite is true. We expect them to advance their campaign schemes in Parliament. And so we should. But we also expect them to listen to the political opposition and to the continuing debate among the public at large, and on occasion, when convinced by reason and superior argument, or by poll results, to modify, delay or discard schemes. (It sometimes happens.) Circumstances change; the public's mood changes. Parliament is a deliberative body.

As for the idea that we should expect our political representatives to set aside their personal and party interests, think again. (I'd say.) It's oligarchs and tyrants who profess to have no personal ambitions but to speak for all citizens, for the country, the national character, the national will. The most surprising feature of liberal democracies, the enduring and precious feature, is that our would-be oligarchs leave office meekly when defeated, leaving the country and constitution intact. Why do they leave? They leave because they know that their party's legitimacy on return, and their own future ambitions, depend on vacating office when voted out.

[From The Idea File]

Posted by Janet Ajzenstat

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