And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free

In Leger Marketing’s annual survey of the most-trusted occupations politicians lost even more ground in public confidence. Politicians were down two percentage points, dead last on the list yet again with the trust of only 14 per cent of Canadians surveyed by the Montreal-based polling firm in its annual “profession barometer.”

I was talking recently to an ex-MLA about this and we both were confused about this finding. Politicians, in theory, are drawn to the high calling of public service. The ones that take public service seriously spend an enormous amount of time and effort try to do a good job serving the public.

And yet, they are by far the least trusted folks in society these days.

I realize that some of this relates to the nature of the work. You become an easy target in politics because no matter what you do – somebody will be upset. Even if you do nothing, somebody will be upset (namely me). So, good politicians try and muddle through and hope at the end of the day, they will have the respect of their constituents – even though the surveys suggest otherwise.

Having said all that I do have a theory on this and it’s not the Sponsorship Scandal or Shawinigate or the ‘Airbus Affair’.

I think that the out of control spin coming out of government and politicians is feeding the cynicism and lack of trust.

Think about it. When was the last time a politician or government official in New Brunswick actually stated any fact that could even remotely look bad on the government?

I have said this before but I think it’s worth repeating. In 1998 and 1999, the opposition Progressive Conservatives in New Brunswick, as they should I guess, was highly critical of the government. Job creation is bad. Unemployment rate is bad. Education levels bad. Health outcomes bad. Out-migration bad. Debt situation is bad. Too reliant on Equalization, etc. On and on and on.

Then they get elected.

It’s 1999. The message coming out of them initially continues to be bad. We have big deficits. We have bad job creation. We have untolerable education outcomes. And on and on.

But they can still blame the other guys.

Same thing in 2000.

Then by 2001, they start feeling like they can’t blame the old guys anymore and the numbers start improving – almost miraculously.

By 2002, we are into full spin mode. Prosperity for all. Record job creation. Low unemployment. High levels of investment.

I swear, if you can find me a government press release or a speech by the Premier talking about population decline, lack of economic growth, serious challenges – please send it over because I haven’t seen it. Oh, you get the standard boilerplate about ‘facing our challenges’ and other stuff but that is just more of the spin.

This point hit me right in the face at the end of 2004. New Brunswick had the worst job creation record of any province and the press release from the Minister of TED was how ‘encouraged she was’ and how things were ‘moving in the right direction’ and how the Prosperity Plan was working.

Then one of those nasty journalists (there are a few in NB) asked her if having the second lowest employment rate in Canada was a problem. She replied that they don’t like to compare against other provinces.

Then, more recently when Captain Kirk – MacDonald Minister of Business New Brunswick was quoted about exports from New Brunswick talking about the ‘record rise’ and this ‘proves New Brunswickers can compete on the world stage’ and other such spin. He forgot to mention that New Brunswick’s export performance has dropped $800 million since 2001 when you factor out the Irving Refinery. Many of the province’s most important economic sectors are in trouble and we get spin.

So, after reflecting on all of this and on my conversation with the former MLA on issues of electability, I have come to the conclusion that most New Brunswickers don’t believe a word coming out of the mouth of a politician. And if what’s coming out is all spin, then who would blame them?

So, I propose a truth in politics platform with the following components – knowing full well that I would never be elected on it but here goes:

1. Do what you say you will do.
And if you can’t achieve your goals be honest with people and clear and direct. Don’t launch a ‘Prosperity Plan’ and then ditch it for ‘Five in Five’ because almost none of the objectives will be met. Just explain to people why the Prosperity Plan will not meet its targets around R&D, income, etc. and promise to work harder.

This particularly applies to opposition parties. Be very clear with what you intend to do and then stick to it – maybe take a page out of PM Harper on this one.

2. Really fire the spin doctors this time.
Lord was elected on the slogan ‘replace the spin doctors with real doctors’. That was actually a typo it should have read: ‘replace the spin doctors with real spin doctors’. If I was Premier I would not allow one more boilerplate, spunout press release come out of the government. I would state the facts and just the facts.

3. Let others praise you.
Isn’t it a little weird when politicians and government officials spend so much time blowing their own horns? Imagine a state of the province address that actually reflected the state of the province? If you are doing good things, let the journalists figure it out on their own. Stop the friggin’ bragging. Take a humble posture towards the public – by the way most New Brunswickers are a humble bunch so having a humble government would be more reflective of us.

4. Don’t crave the spotlight.
Politicians crave the public eye. They want to be the centre of attention. Why? Keep a low profile, work hard, do what you were elected to do. Maybe people will notice.

5. Admit when you are wrong.
Premier Lord’s ‘made in New Brunswick’ approach to economic development has failed. He cut small business taxes and we saw the second biggest decline in small businesses from 2000 to 2005. He insituated he could do better than ‘call centres’ then ended up with just new call centres. He said we would be in the top three in Canada for R&D per capita by the end of the Props. Plan and we are still dead last. NB Power – wow. Not to mention our population decline.

Just friggin’ admit it. Do a mea culpa and commit to spending the rest of your mandate going in a completely new direction. That whole Mike Harris/David McLaughlin thing may have worked for Ontario but this is New Brunswick.

Please tell me why politicians can’t change?

I think you’d gain 10 points just by admitting you were wrong – after the public got over the shock of it.

Can you imagine a world without spin? It is inconceivable but I think it just might work….

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0 Responses to And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free

  1. Anonymous says:

    Good points. However, they also lowered the corporate rate, guess what, same scenario.

    I have to say though that it is just my opinion, but the idea that ‘politicians do it to serve’ is clearly silly. Lawyers? Serve? I’d change that to SOME politicians do it to serve, yet they are usually the ones with little power. We even see many people saying politicians NEED to be paid as much as the private sector in order to get the ‘qualified people’. Clearly such people are not in it to ‘serve’.

    Just look at what ex-politicians do right after they are turfed out or quit. Ever hear of one declaring bankruptcy? Even Frank got a cheque by the Caryle Group!

    The people who REALLY want to serve are social workers, teachers, volunteers, nurses, maybe doctors but that one is getting slimmer, or ministers. Want to help your community? You think the small businessman who still makes 50 grand really needs YOU as a spokesman? Don’t think they can find somebody else who will do exactly what you will?

    If you want to help your community, pick up some litter, join a volunteer group, visit the elderly, patronize and advertise a small business who does right. Go read the bills at the legislature and find me more than half a dozen that actually do ANYTHING for ‘communities’. Until the poor actually started making noise the province had no trouble not giving tenants any rights. They certainly didn’t go LOOKING for problems.

    Our local MLA was good for one thing-you went to him when you needed a reference for a job. Even then you knew everybody else was.

    So you’re points would definitely go a long way to increasing trust in politicians, because from what I’ve seen, people are quite right to have a low opinion of them.

  2. scott says:

    There is a reason why politicians are not trusted at both the federal and provincial levels. IMHO, there are 3 critical factors which contribute to this ethos where it becomes not only damaging to the credibility of the occupation, but counter productive to the craft of public servants:

    Opposition Members

    1)Their is a double standard in legislatures as well as in the House of Commons. As a former opposition employee, I regularly noticed how MPs took great delight in exploiting Question Period, and how the media was obsessed and fascinated with it. Their main objective wasn’t to be critically objective, but to embarrass the sitting government at any cost. Many opposition critics(both federally and provincially) know if they come up with an issue and a few good lines, that they would look like a conquering hero on the evening news while the minister that they chose to attack would come across as evasive, incompetent and distrustful. Take, for example, the New Brunswick Liberals attempt to smear the Lord government on auto insurance recently. After making many allegations regarding the file, Shawn Graham had no other option but to retract wrong information on auto insurance rates in NB. He said rates have doubled. It turns out that he was wrong and that he was just trying to score cheap political points with the press and the electorate. This type of old school politics goes a longway in damaging the credibility of individuals who may be working hard on a particular issue. In the end, it leaves a doubt in the minds of the electorate to who is really telling the truth? Nine times out of ten, the sitting government’s credibilty and competence are damaged.

    The regionalism of message and media coverage

    2) Every leader has to make compromises along the way. But because of the up-to-the-second electronic media, the internet and blogs, it is no longer possible for politicians to pretend to be adopting one policy in one region while embracing a different policy in another. It is no longer possible to say one thing in the Miramichi, for example, but something slightly different in Moncton. You could argue that it does limit the amount of deception by politicians, but it is very difficult for a leader to sell what he or she believes is the proper course of action that is most acceptable for that particular region. (i.e. Some of the policy anouncements could be very beneficial for urban regions, such as Moncton and Saint John, but counterproductive for rural towns such as Shediac or Sussex) Therefore, what may have been historically acceptable as a practice in the past, is viewed by many as a broken promise and a compromise of ones principles. A good example of this is the two recent appointments (Emerson and Fortier) by Stephen Harper. Though parliament just opened up today, there are many who question Harper’s stance on ethics before he even had a chance to roll out the bill in the chamber. There is no question that people are sometimes not realistic in their demands of politicians. Thus, many become untrusting and incompetent in the eyes of the unbriefed electorate.

    People don’t reward truthful politicians

    3) Not that this is a excuse for being deceptive, but the public, from my experience in Ottawa, don’t want their politicians to tell them what they’re really going to do. If politicians told the voters what they intended to do, they would never be elected…ever! Though it sounds very abrubt and cynical, it is as close to the truth as you are going to get. No government ever tells you what angle or approach they will take on overspending, because the truth will cost them votes.

    For instance, if Bernard Lord had of run in the last election on government cutbacks to hospitals and healthcare services, New Brunswickers would have Shawn Graham as their premier. With the deficit sitting in Fredericton, most New Brunswickers knew that there would be cutbacks coming down the pipe. They knew whoever was elected would have no choice but to cutback. But they don’t want politicians telling them there will be cuts, making them face the issues, and forcing them to take reponsibility for what will happen. They would rather be deceived and then, when they get elected and have to implement the cutbacks a few months later, the public can start pointing their fingers where they become outraged at a decision they were not ready to accept anyway. There are so many New Brunswickers who know what needs to be done to turn this province around, unfortunately they are not ready to be told at election time.

    let’s be honest, the public don’t want, will not accept and will not support honest, straightforward and truthful public servants and politicians. Period.

    So I guess you get what you ask for–Ironic as it may seem.

  3. David Campbell says:

    Well, Scott, I appreciate your insider view and I agree with most of your points. Note that I said my platform would never get anybody elected. I will disagree with your subtle point about ‘deficits’. I would run up a small deficit in the short run if it meant dealing with our long term economic problems. New Brunswick actually has a fairly good debt to GDP ratio if you compare to other Canadian provinces. But it ain’t gonna matter much if the economy collapses. I guess you have a bit of a ‘liberal’ streak as most ‘conservative’ economists (at least the U.S. based crowd) believes that short term deficits are necessary to support long term economic growth. Companies in a downturn will use their credit facilities (i.e. run a deficit) to address underlying structural problems. Households will also use similar tools to address short term economic problems. This new found obsession with not ‘runing deficits’ is a hangover from the wild times in the 80s – a period in which governments didn’t want to make structural adjustments for fear of voter backlash.

    In short, if a government in New Brunswick told the people that we may have to run small deficits (2% – 5% of budget or so) in order to make key investments in economic development, I would welcome that as opposed to the current approach of slashing economic development and just about every other growth-oriented expenditure just to say you are ‘investing in health care’. This is not a political statement. This is a reality. You should tell the boys/girls up in Fredericton to start taking our economy seriously. We are on a dangerous track of increased government spending funded in large part by Equalization and other short term federal government support programs and at the same time on a declining population. This is a track that will lead the province into serious trouble – in the near future 10-15 years.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Did you ever think that people simply have a low opinion of liars? How many people even watch question period? How many canadians even follow politics in the news?

    Because of the internet people can now catch on their lies quicker, and that’s a BAD thing? In the past it was ‘acceptable behaviour’, but now they are caught with their cookies in the cookie jar. So the reality is not that we ‘expect too much’ from politicians, the reality is that they never deliver even at the most basic levels.

    Opposition parties of course ‘oppose’ the government, that’s their function. Yes, they play to the camera’s etc., but the reality is that unless you’ve got a minority government (and even then) the opposition is essentially useless anyway.

    That people don’t want honest politicians is patently absurd. You are mistaking strategy. If Lord had said ‘the truth’ then you are saying that Graham would be elected because he lied. That’s far from the case, the reality is why vote for somebody who SAYS they are going to fail, rather than somebody who at least says they will try.

    It not only sounds cynical, but pretty ludicrous. So let’s go somewhere where politicians DO have a high rating like Switzerland. Here the politicians have far less power because the people actually have a say in how things are run, which means they can’t just offer the world and hope for the best.

    Politicians are held in low regard for the simple reason that they LIE. Do you like liars? If you bought something and found out the info you got from the salesperson was wrong, wouldn’t you be unhappy?

    This blog of course is a constant reminder of the complete ineffectiveness of NB’s government, hell, they don’t even TRY. They pump themselves up at press conferences, use taxpayers money to pay the ransom to the forestry industry for the luxury of losing more jobs, more wood, so that these corporations won’t leave.

    Again, just go READ the bills passed by both provincial AND federal houses, and municipal ones as well. Hardly ANY have ANYTHING to do with the largest problems facing canadians.

    So to try and pass the buck onto voters and say ‘you get what you pay for’ is just horribly unfair, akin to saying Russians deserved Stalin because they dared to revolt against the czar.

    Nobody FORCES politicians to lie or primp to media, those are decisions they make themselves. It’s interesting to note that the biggest liars among them usually rise fastest and highest within the party-no surprise. The honest ones sit on backbenches and are ignored-and that’s the fault of the politicians who make those CHOICES. They have nobody to blame but themselves.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Canada is the ONLY country that doesn’t run a ‘deficit’, and even that is primarily because of the use of crown corporations and creative accounting. Practically EVERY state in the US runs a deficit regularly, and of course the US is KING of deficit spending.

    Just because a government has money doens’t mean anybody else does. Take a look around Canada, and ask if even our ‘full economy’ is actually GOOD for people. The numbers in poverty are increasing, people are working longer hours for less money than any other G-20 country. Personal savings are nil, very few have money for retirement. Like ANY third world country there are classes of people that have plenty, but the majority do not. And this is in a country with vast natural resources, significant training facilities, and a relatively small population. Yet we still see that the vast amount of the population is unnecessary.

    Everybody KNOWS this, when they have time to think about it. Maybe not the long term but people KNOW how hard it is get time to spend with the kids, what they don’t know is things like that most european countries have 35 hour work weeks, guaranteed paid month long holidays, and mandatory maternity protections.

    They know their money doesn’t go as far as it used to, they also know they are paying huge amounts of their income for basics like food, what they don’t know is things like that a recent study showed that canadians overpay by 40% for their food because of the food oligopoly that has two companies owning the vast majority of retailers, distributors, processors,etc.

    They know their air and water is polluted, what they don’t know is things like that corportations and rich canadians have over 120 billion dollars in tax free funds sitting in the caribbean avoiding taxes.

    They know the reality, they just don’t know the alternatives-which is why Irving owns all the presses. But when you know big things are wrong, then OBVIOUSLY you know who to blame-the people who have an inordinate amount of control over our lives. Canada has the least representative government of ANY democracy. Essentially the PMO’s office and cabinet, as the Premier’s office, and cabinet, and your local council, which all together make up fewer than a hundred people, control EVERYTHING that goes on in our lives.

    So quite obviously people are going to have a low opinion of them when their ‘lives’ are getting less secure, and more attached to their lousy jobs.

  6. scott says:

    Opposition parties of course ‘oppose’ the government, that’s their function.

    Yes, but what I am saying is they aren’t opposing responsibly and constructively. That is their function.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I would sort of agree but for different reasons. The opposition should represent those who have no representation.

    In New Brunswick it is essentially one party with different styles.

    Let’s start with auto insurance. Lord’s own committee recommends public insurance. Lord says ‘we’ll study it and toughen up on insurance’. Look at the liberal website, like the tories, no mention of ‘public insurance’ except that ‘their committee’s study’ will include that option (of course the tories not only considered it, but their committee recommended it).

    On nuclear power the tories tried to privatize but it didn’t take. We’ve now got two parties who are gung ho for nuclear, New Brunswickers have no other options.

    Forestry, same thing, both parties say forest corporations need wood supply guarantees, even though everybody BUT the corporations say this is the worst idea.

    Economic development. Tories spent none of the NB pension fund in NB, liberals introduce legislation that by ten years at least 1 % will be invested in NB. No other economic development news from the liberals.

    We could go on and on, suffice it to say, ‘opposition’ party is used very lightly in this province. I’ve even mentioned at Charles Leblanc’s site that although he is gung ho on getting rid of Lord, the liberals have said nothing about VLT’s or doing any studies or making changes on pharmaceutical distribution in the province.

    THAT’S what I would call ‘constructive’, at least to New Brunswickers. But don’t wait for it. It’ll happen about the time we see the NDP in power!