US President Ronald Reagan gave voice and definition to one of the most troubling political trends of the late 20th century when he said, in his first inaugural address in 1981, “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

That day, The Gipper summed up a hatred of public servants that has, in the two decades since, defined the neo-conservative movement worldwide.

You can see it in Canada today. Take a giant front-page headline from the Toronto Sun on July 1: “$7M That’s the tab for this year for 84 MPs’ golden handshakes.” (The weird underlining is theirs; imagine it in red, black and blue type.) This is followed by a sub-headline that calls former cabinet ministers David Collenette and Sheila Copps the “tallest hogs at the trough.”

What, exactly, is the source of this outrage? Federal members of Parliament participate in a pension plan (the Sun refers to these as “gold-plated pensions” in its news pages). And some of the MPs who are fired by voters or decide to retire receive severance pay equal to one month for every year served, to a maximum of six months’ salary.

Pensions and severance packages! What gold-plated perqs will those politicians give themselves next?

What’s behind this vitriolic coverage is a cynical agenda that fosters contempt for politicians and undermines our democratic parliamentary system — the belief that government and politicians are by nature a problem. Perhaps the most persistent advocate of this agenda is John Williamson, executive director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF). Williamson’s organization authored the press release that became the Sun story and is also behind that moronic (and possibly illegal) “Taxpayer Protection” pledge that has politicians promising not to raise taxes or run a deficit unless they first hold a referendum.

We could argue over specifics — about whether an MP who earns $135,000 a year is entitled to a $70,500 severance payment upon being fired (compare that with, say, Hamilton Health Sciences Corporation, which gave one of its fired executives $818,000 this year); about whether MPs’ pension contributions should be matched dollar-for-dollar rather than 4:1, as it is now; about the entire point of a parliamentary system in which our representatives make informed decisions on our behalf rather than throwing every financial question to the whims of the majority. But then we’d be quibbling.

More distressing than any particular detail is that the Toronto Sun and the CTF build on a depressing and mostly inaccurate image of politicians. In order to whip up taxpayer (or citizen, as we’d prefer to have it) outrage, such playa-haters portray politicians and bureaucrats as greedy, corrupt and fundamentally untrustworthy. Hogs at the trough.

That this image of politicians as corrupt porkers has become a cultural theme even outside the conservative movement — think of Mayor Quimby on The Simpsons — is not just depressing, but destructive.

Our politicians perform one of the most important jobs in society. They find ways to provide for our neediest, they construct laws that protect us from coming to harm and define the limits of justice when we do, they govern and enforce contracts that make commerce manageable, they negotiate so that we may live free from war and decide when we cannot.

Politics may be the highest calling to which a member of society can aspire and deserves to be among our most respected professions. When attitudes like those of the CTF take hold in the general population it leads to a corrosive cynicism about the entire enterprise of government. Citizens become skeptical about every benefit and responsibility of citizenship. Every dollar spent on much-needed programs is viewed with suspicion. We begin to lose our focus on complex, important issues — why bother talking about goals or ideals if they’re all corrupt anyway? — in favour of the easier gratification of a politician’s life: her pension, or, if you’re American, his blow jobs.

This climate scares away many who would like to serve. If you’re already successful and respected and wealthy, why would you trade that in for a job in which your compensation package, marital life and spending habits will be put under the microscope, where you will be scorned no matter how you perform your job because, by taking it, you are considered, ipso facto, corrupt?

Yet people still do take the job. And to a startling degree, they perform it honourably, despite the temptations and obstacles put before them. When politicians abuse our trust, we should rake them over a bed of burning coals — as we do, and will continue to do. But when they just do their jobs, quietly serving the people of Canada, we should show them respect.

And we shouldn’t begrudge them their pensions. For the most part, they’ve earned them.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on July 8, 2004. 

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