Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Politics a grubby business

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I heard from Bob Rae the other day. Don't get me wrong, we're neither friends nor even acquaintances. Rather, I live in his constituency and the communication from him was a flyer in the mailbox.

It was a tawdry affair, in no way worthy of a guy of Rae's intelligence. The theme was Stephen Harper's plan to "cut your retirement benefits," and it was rife with the sort of misleading innuendo that contributes to the low opinion many people have of the political class.

For starters, it featured the photo of an older couple who would be at least in their 60s, perhaps even their 70s. As anyone who has been following the story knows, people in that age group wouldn't be at all affected by the change under consideration.

Then there's the admonition that you've "saved for retirement" and Harper is going to "spend your retirement savings." But that, too, is nonsense. The program for which the age of eligibility may be raised -- OAS -- is funded out of general revenues, not contributions. So nobody would lose a penny of their savings.

Demagoguery of this sort isn't restricted to Bob Rae and his Liberals. Everyone does it. However, as the Conservatives are scarce on the ground in downtown Toronto, not too many of their flyers show up in the mailbox.

Back to Mr. Rae. One wonders what the payoff can possibly be. Long before the next election, people are going to realize that current seniors, never mind the elderly couple in his flyer, aren't having any of their retirement benefits cut. When Bob was little, did he never hear the fable of the boy who cried wolf?

To be sure, it's the kind of thing that juices the base and sends the Harperphobes into joyful spasms. But the Liberals have been pursuing that strategy for quite a while now, with less than stellar results. From 36.73 per cent of the vote in 2004, their share has progressively shrivelled to 18.91 per cent in 2011. How much more self-gratification can they stand?

Alas, Mr. Rae isn't the only annoying politician these days. There's also the NDP's Pat Martin and his crusade over Viterra.

I've a personal interest in this one, Viterra stock being a component of my modest retirement savings portfolio. Tens of thousands of other Canadians are doubtless in the same position when you include indirect holdings through pension plans and mutual funds. And for all of us, one of the primary avenues for a positive return is through takeover bids on the company.

So when a prospective bidder materializes, what's Mr. Martin's instant reaction? He demands that the federal government intervene to block any foreign takeover. Given Viterra's size, ruling out foreign bidders makes it considerably less likely that the company can be sold for its full value.

Or put another way, Canadians who've entrusted a portion of their savings, either directly or indirectly, to Viterra would be denied the opportunity to realize the full benefit of their investment. If Mr. Rae is concerned about raids on retirement funds, perhaps he should redirect his fire.

Of course, demagoguery isn't new. Familiarity with the rhetoric of 19th-century political campaigns would suggest that today's exponents are relatively tame. That said, if we're not happy with the current situation, what's to be done about it?

Times being what they are, an instinctive reaction is to call for some new law or regulation. But we already have laws on defamation. And really, does our politically correct age need further curtailment on freedom of expression?

Maybe the most practical answer is to recalibrate our thinking about modern democratic politics. Instead of lamenting how the sorry state of public discourse leaches idealism from the system, we should recognize that democracy is inherently a grubby, sometimes shabby business.

Political leaders aren't philosopher kings to be gazed at in wonderment. They're flawed, conflicted individuals whom we hire to do a job. We should take a good deal of what they say and do with a grain of salt, call them out when they misbehave, and fire them if they step too far out of line.

Cynical? Within reasonable limits, perhaps cynicism is the hallmark of an adult mind.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for more than 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2012 A11

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