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How to end dirty tricks, attack ads

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VANCOUVER -- "Who'd ever want to do that?" said my board chairman with a quizzical look on his face. He was referring to running for political office, something I was quietly contemplating as an interesting career next-step after 21 years of leadership roles in not-for-profit organizations. "Why would anyone want to put any effort into that game?"

I pondered his response and chose not to reply, but seven years later, I still think of his vehemence on the topic.

He was no stranger to hard work and corporate service, and by Canadian standards, he was and is a governance superstar, destined to serve on major boards well into his 70s, long after retirement at the conventional age as a senior officer of a major corporation.

For some reason, my brain next links this short verbal exchange before a board meeting to my political capitulation speech in 2008 to a room full of sad volunteers in Calgary's "Motel Village." By 9 p.m., it was clear I was going to lose by 1,000 votes in a field of approximately 12,000. I remember thinking to myself before making brief comments of consolation, "I guess I'm the kind of person who wants to do this..."

No one who hasn't run for political office can really understand the emotions linked to winning or losing. And I think the same holds true for the basic concept of choosing to run. It all starts with making that simple yet complex choice.

Today's plurality majority party in the Canadian Parliament is filled with MPs who chose politics early in life. Examining the political trajectories of Messrs. Harper, Baird, Moore and Kenney illustrates this point nicely. They are all individuals who chose early and planned or benefited from early entry to the political fray. The plus side of this earnest quest for political fire is early mastery of campaign strategy and tactics. The negative side is the paucity of non-political work experience in their resum©s.

However, I think they have all been quick to master corporate mimicry. Their continuous haircuts, predominantly blue suits, Brooks Brothers rep ties and white shirts all telegraph an assumed corporate persona. Yet none of them have been true corporate employees, say in the guise of a Nigel Wright.

The corporatist mimicry also carries over to speech patterns and word choice. There is not much fresh language. Theirs is a world of action plans, balanced budgets, fiscal probity and issue management. It is pointedly not a world of environmentalism, critical thinking, peer-reviewed science or admitted secularism in matters of faith. Their assumptions about implicit corporate endorsement of their world view in these matters are interesting.

My experience of working in the Calgary oilpatch allows me to argue by counter-example. I wish to report that there are pronounced environmentalists in the sector, critical thinking is a required skill for corporate advancement, many peer-reviewed papers emanate from (and many more are read by) environmental-planning and engineering-design groups, and many employees rebel against the imposition of unchallengeable precepts. If you want to advance, you have to reason your arguments and deliver them with skill. Yelling for effect does not work.

In truth, corporate environments are far more open to new ideas, ideologically varied and politically diverse than the Conservative caucus. But you have to have been there to notice this.

That is why all Canadian political parties will benefit from new blood, from non-career politicians and ideally from people who actually work in businesses, like the majority of Canadians.

Sure a smattering of politicians will always be lawyers, but it is important that many parliamentarians actually be recruited from organizations that create intellectual capital, manufacture new products and employ people.

Why will such people choose to run for office? Hopefully because public service that draws on life experience is intellectually and morally rewarding.

Perhaps, too, because it can be fun. One of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi's most endearing qualities is his public smile. He actually seems to enjoy his work in the public realm. He looks like he is having fun on the job. We need a lot more of this political joie de vivre.

My thesis is that the current atmosphere of dirty tricks, enemies lists, double dipping and attack ads would not last long in a caucus composed of mid-career entrepreneurs, NGO CEOs, environmental scientists and engineers. Let's find the courage to move in this direction.


Mike Robinson has lived half his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary, he worked for eight years in the oilpatch, 14 in academia and eight years as a cultural CEO.

-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2013 A9

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