Why is politics today such a turnoff?

Simon Jackson on how to get better political leaders.

After the last great political standoff in Ottawa — summer election or no — I conducted a straw poll among my friends to see who had an ounce of faith left in our current political leadership.

Most of the people I contacted are politically engaged in one form or another. But the resounding answer — no way — was not encouraging.

It's a disturbing state, this political malaise, and it seems to be spreading. But what might be scarier still is that there doesn't seem to be a new generation of political leader on the horizon. In fact, young people today, by and large, appear to have given up on the idea of public service.

I've argued in this space before that my generation, the so-called Generation Y, is one of the most engaged in years, having taken clear ownership of many of the issues — from the environment to foreign aid — that affect our world.

Still, it is abundantly clear that few see conventional politics as the answer to the problems they seek to address.

Of the many youth leaders and young entrepreneurs that I have dealt with over the past few years, I'm hard pressed to think of one who has a sincere desire to run for office.

The daily wrangle: federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in question period in June 2009. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Even those who are well versed on all things political and believe in the importance of public service, myself included, are hard pressed to envision ever putting their names forward.


So how is it that we've reached the point where conventional politics has lost so much respect in our society even for those who want to make change happen?

For starters, today's emerging leaders have a hard time committing themselves to one political party, seeing much to offer in many of them.

But there is also the fact that the hyper-partisan nature of Ottawa and, to a lesser extent, provincial legislatures and city halls across the country, has played a significant role in the great political turnoff.

Today's younger voters seem more free of the partisan baggage of the last generation — constitutional wars, regional alienation and the like — and more inclined to seek answers across party lines.

But today's parties seem to reward uni-partisan loyalty and political attack dogs and this is not only turning young people away from the voting booth, it's also turning them away from politics and public service in general.

You have to wonder what self-respecting adult would want to give up a career to engage in the act of collective immaturity known as question period, where the only result is a neutered debate void of any real content.

Such a non-debate may help the backroom organizers achieve their spin. But it does nothing for our political institutions and hardly inspires Canadians to rise to the occasion and do their part to help solve the big issues of the day.

Pay for value

Though clearly both politicians and the media have a role in reforming the partisan nature of government and the quality of the public discourse, I would argue that society as a whole has a larger part to play in renewing respect for our political process.

Despite my lack of faith in our current leaders, I believe the democratic deficit we face has less to do with the individuals we've elected and more to do with the fact that we have set them up for failure.

Why would anyone make the sacrifice that is public office when we refuse to pay our leaders what they would be worth in the private sector and we refuse to allow them the basic human dignity of making mistakes?

I understand that when it comes to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars, decisions become more scrutinized. But wouldn't you rather pay more for fewer leaders who truly reflect the nation's makeup and bring all of the requisite skills to the table to help our nation excel?

I, for one, would rather have my tax dollars go toward paying a salary that encourages the brightest minds to strive to become the minister of finance as much as striving to become the chief economist of TD Bank.

Gotcha mentality

More destructively, it's hard to fathom anyone but the most selfless or self-deluded taking a run for public office when basic privacy is lost and making a mistake — and admitting to it — is a career ender.

Our collective gotcha mentality, coupled with the intense partisanship it has helped sponsor, has set a trap for all politicians to fail.

I'm not arguing that decision makers shouldn't be held accountable. But even in my brief experience, I know that humans, including some of the most accomplished, are fallible.

Why should we hold politicians to a standard so far beyond what we would hold our neighbours or friends or family members to? Don't you think we owe our leaders some degree of slack or, at least, the chance to atone for their mistakes?

For those of us in Gen Y, this issue is magnified by the fact we are the generation of Facebook and YouTube.

We have seen our most intimate moments of success and failure accessible to the entire world to be examined and dissected.

And while the merits of the technology and the foresight of the user can often be called into question, it's still difficult to contemplate public service — and public scrutiny — when something you shared with friends online in your 20s could be taken out of context and dissected publicly five or even 20 years down the road.

For that matter, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting their private lives opened to the world for introspection and dissection, no matter how squeaky-clean they might be.

And until we address these issues — pay, privacy and hyper-partisanship — we are not going to get the leaders we deserve.