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Public service is a privilege

Last night, my wife and I attended a small gathering in the West Vancouver home of friends. These are opportunities for people to meet their federal Liberal candidate and kick the tires. I am often asked the same questions in these settings. Why would you run for office? Why subject yourself to the scrutiny, the income drop, the time away from family? Isn’t elected office a thankless job?

All of that is true to a degree.

I’ve never had much patience for those who get elected and complain about how hard the job is, the toll it takes, the strain on the family, how far Ottawa is from Vancouver. 

 I’ve always felt that public service is a privilege, not a burden. It is also a responsibility to not complain from the cheap seats and to participate.

Our country has been blessed with outstanding public servants – both elected and unelected – throughout our 142 year history. At the federal level, many thousands of our fellow Canadians serve by representing us abroad, by keeping us safe, and by delivering countless services, day in day out. These are dedicated, competent and honest people who devote themselves – at times at great personal cost and sacrifice – to improving our lives and building a better Canada

Responsible government in Canada is only as good and as effective as the people who serve and the respect they have for our democratic values and institutions. And those can only be as strong and vibrant as the standards and expectations we set for them.

There’s an implicit trust bond – a compact - between elected officials and the rest of us. When politicians promise one thing and do another that trust is compromised. This reality is no different than the one we live in our work and family lives, and in the course of our relationships.

Today, we are at a historically low ebb in how citizens perceive both the effectiveness and quality of our government. We’ve come to accept that broken promises, lies, character assassination, innuendo, is simply the way the people’s business is conducted. And we evidently have accepted the notion that – as Tom Flanagan, a senior member of Stephen Harper’s inner circle said – “It doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be plausible”.

The problem is that when the bar has been lowered to that level, trust is destroyed, and worse, confidence in our system itself disappears. The result is that citizens tune out. We disengage. We move on with our lives, because we just can’t be bothered. And when that happens, the very health of our democracy is imperiled. Last night, a very thoughtful and previously actively engaged gentleman said: “I wonder if it’s even worth voting anymore. Politicians say one thing to get elected and then do exactly the opposite when they are. I don’t trust anyone.”

In the last several elections, voter turnout has been the worst on record. Canadians have voted with their feet by staying home. That’s not something to be proud of. Because when we fail to exercise our solemn responsibility to vote, our country pays a heavy price.

We’ve descended to a new and very troubling era of cynicism and skepticism. For good reason. The conduct and behavior of our parliamentarians, and the tone and substance of public discourse, is at an all-time low. This debases us all when we resign ourselves to attacks on the integrity of honest and honorable people, public servants all. Doing so cheapens our system of government.  We’ve tolerated this for too long.

Public service – service to Canada – should attract the best and the brightest. Absolutely everywhere I go, people tell me that they crave new leadership to strengthen our institutions and deepen the ties that bring Canadians closer together, not seek ways to divide and conquer by pitting one region against the other.

Canadians have awakened to the corrosive nature of the hyper-partisan politics we’ve been subjected to from all parties in the past several years. We’ve also awakened to a sense of neglected ideals, values, and sense of fairness and responsibility.  We must restore civility in our conversation and respect for each other and our national institutions.

 

 

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