Politics is like many other skills, jobs and pastimes in that it requires work to succeed. Hard work, sometimes, for some folk, and easy for others, but always it requires attention, study, and focus. It isn’t something you can do when you’re not paying attention or even when you’re napping at the table (no matter what our own somnambulant councillor thinks… or more likely, doesn’t think at all).
It isn’t something you can do effectively if, like our Block, you try to do it casually, or part-time, or whenever you feel like doing it, without paying attention or without effort.
To become good at it requires consistent, deliberate effort. if, that is, you actually give a damn about your role. Yes, I know: there are those who don’t believe the essence of being a politician is to care for the people who elected you. They think it’s to care for yourself, to feather your own nest, to find funds and appointments for your buddies. But enough talk of The Block for a bit. (Don’t worry: I’ll return to them soon.)
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell postulated that it takes 10,000 hours of effort to excel at anything – music, business, software coding, sports, writing. That has been since debated and, by some, debunked. Some have even expanded his idea to 20,000 hours. But regardless of the numbers, everyone agrees that while some people have innate advantages and skills they aren’t enough: to master a profession they still need to work at it.
And the reverse is true: some people have no recognizable skills whatsoever (see, I told you I’d return to them). So no matter how many hours they put in, they never advance their skill set. Nor, it seems, do they care to. The Block epitomizes the rise of the anti-intellectual in local politics.
Work, to me, means active study and practice, not just showing up for meetings and photo ops. Generals spend years studying military history, reading the works of strategists like Sun Tzu, Napoleon, Julius Caesar and von Clausewitz. They spend years working their way up the ladder, learning at each step to manage more and more soldiers in bigger theatres, learning about weaponry, about supplies, about ballistics, about transportation and combat. They never stop learning.
Writers become bestselling authors not simply by writing, but by learning the rules, the styles, the nature of language and they get that from studying style books and reading other writers.
Mechanics and philosophers alike learn from textbooks. Doctors study medical journals long after they’ve received their degrees. Football players have playbooks they study. Graphic designers study the works that have gone before them. Philosophers read and reread the works of other philosophers.
And we expect it of them. We expect our doctors stay up to date with medicines, techniques and diseases. We expect our car mechanics to stay up to date with new engines and vehicles. We expect lawyers, architects, construction workers, farmers and bylaw officers to stay up to date with all the news, developments, changes and technologies in their professions. Not just expect: we depend on them doing their jobs well for us to live comfortably and safely.
So what do politicians do? What do they study to stay up to date, to be apprised of the trends, the news, the legislation and policies that affect them? The list is long, at least if they care enough about the people they serve to put the effort into reading, into attending conventions, workshops and seminars (which means actually attending the events, not just going to the city and bicycling around town or visiting friends or shopping). They have deep discussions with staff about policies and procedures, they watch webcasts and online videos, listen to podcasts. They work at being the best they can be.
Well, some do. Not those in The Block, of course. They have their simplistic ideology, and from the day they took office have refused to learn anything that might interfere with that ideology (or confound its attendant personal agendas and vendettas).
For The Block on our council, the reading list is short. Very short. In fact, it hasn’t a single book or magazine on it. The Block came to the table already knowing everything. Why bother learning more? Facts would only cloud their view of the world. Their earliest act was to cancel council’s subscriptions to Municipal World , the national publication about municipal affairs and governance. That set the tone for the term: The Block Don’t Read.
Politics is as old as humanity. It is inextricable from every other job, profession, recreation, religion and business because politics is the job of managing human interactions. From the earliest written records to today’s online newscast, politics has been present with us, and, of course, so have both politicians and those who (like myself) comment on politics. So it’s not like the literature, the lessons, the classes, the webinars and the workshops are sparse or hard to find. If anything, there’s almost too much to manage. So instead of grappling with it, The Block ignore it all.
The dedicated politician – someone who deeply cares about his or her role, who has a passion for the community, and works to make life better and easier for the electorate – takes on as much as he or she can handle, and progresses. The Block… meh. Why learn anything when you know it all, already? Besides, learning would lead to making informed decisions, and The Block don’t want to open that Pandora’s Box. It would lead to chaos. It’s easier to just let Brian and John tell them how to vote.
Some of our most treasured classical authors wrote about politics, Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Julius Caesar and more since.* From the Gilgamesh tale to Machiavelli’s Discourses to today’s media analyses of Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau, there’s no shortage of material to study and examine if you want to learn about politics. Just reading the minutes and media reports of our own historical councils would provide quite an insight into the role of politics in our own past. But The Block has a simple response: “Past councils bad. Us good.” The learning stops there.
Now I don’t expect people on local council to get a degree in poli-sci in order to sit at the table. Most people get into local politics for the simple reason they want to do something good, make a positive change for the community, and they learn as they go. if, that is, they want to.
It would be smart of them to read more, yes, but if Adam Smith and Machiavelli are too deep for them, how about the Provincial Policy Statements? The Municipal Act? Municipal World? The town’s Code of Conduct? How about their own agendas? None of which get read here, of course. Agendas might as well be Heidegger for all the reading they receive from The Block. Besides, laws are for others, not The Block.
And I get it: I’m a geeky guy for this stuff. Politics turns me on, so I like to read about it. Everything about it, and everywhere. I understand that not everyone in politics shares my passion, however, and many probably won’t read the classics. But there’s no excuse for avoiding your peers and contemporary writers who pen articles and books about Canadian municipal affairs, like Gord Hume and George Cuff.
It’s not just politics you can get from study: you can learn about governance, ethics, law, labour negotiations, economics, demographics, stormwater management, planning, traffic, morality, healthcare… it’s almost endless, assuming you make the effort (yes, I know, The Block care nothing about ethics, morality or governance, much less the rest…)
However, it is clear to council watchers that no one on The Block shares my passion for learning, reading, or trying to understand how things work. They’re the collective Donald Trump of municipal politics: they have their minds made up and don’t want to be confused by facts. Besides, they know everything already, so why read when it might only contradict their ideology?
Having done the job of councillor for 11 years, I appreciate how much work there is to being elected. You get agendas, staff reports, consultants’ reports, correspondence, magazines, books, emails, phone calls, requests for meetings – all of which are relevant to both the issues and the responsibilities of an elected official. And when you get a 100-200 page agenda to go through in the few days before the next meeting, it can be intimidating and stressful. It scares the bejeesus out of the hard-of-thinking. The Block do their best to avoid it all.
I’ve sat at the table with several councillors whose avoidance of reading and refusal to learn was blatant and cynical – but usually only one or two in a council at most. Seven out of nine was, before this term, unheard of. But so was a racist, misogynist, climate-change-denying buffoon in the White House. My, how times have changed.
It seems unwise to me to simply ignore everything, but I suppose that’s the way of local politics these days. We live in a world of alt-facts, policies determined by conspiracy theories, of uninformed opinions, of knee-jerk responses and the rise of the ignorati on social media, so why should we expect our council to set a different example? They go with the flow; like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, they abide. Abide in their lack of knowledge, but at least they aren’t nihilists (that’s an in joke for aficionados of the film).
I guess it’s unreasonable to expect The Block to at least pay attention to the basics that affect their decisions. Like the 100-page binder of corrections to the incorrect report on the shared services agreement that got presented to council in 2015. I expect them to read it to be able to grasp not only the depth of the conspiracy theory being foisted on them by the administration, but to actually get some facts, not just the “alternative facts” they feed on. Apparently that was an unreal expectation, because none of them even opened it.
I suppose it was unreasonable to expect them to actually talk to the staff at Collus-PowerStream and our water/wastewater utility (or their boards) in more than two-and-a-half years before making sweeping – and destructive – changes to operations, policies, utility rates, boards and staff, all of which are costing the taxpayers millions of unnecessary dollars (if you add in the huge costs for all the sole-sourced consultants and ambulance-chaser lawyers). It appears too much to expect The Block to actually do some of the work they were elected to do. After all, politics is hard. But they do excel in one thing: bloviating at the table.
It seems it was equally unreal of us to expect any of The Block to sit down with the hospital board, its staff or any of the town’s medical community to discuss the CGMH’s redevelopment plan and why it was important to the community, why it improve local healthcare. Instead, The Block simply accepted the administration’s negative perspective without hesitation or question. Apparently questioning is not part of The Block’s mandate. At least they have Brian and John to tell them what to think.
I know, it sometimes you’d think Fred Flintstone and his buddies from the quarry are in charge in our local government, but that does a disservice to the cartoon character. Fred was, for all his faults, a doer. Doing – when it involves doing for others – is not a Block activity. True, they do as much as they can for themselves, their friends, the interim CAO, the sole-sourced lawyers and consultants, and the remaining dozen or so supporters they have left. They’ve given themselves a pay raise three times – coincidentally the same number of times they’ve raised your taxes. So they “do” things at the table, just not things that require reading, analysis or even much thought. And certainly not things that require thinking of their impact on the community or for the benefit of the greater good. Just sticking their hands up in sync with Brian’s is sufficient. At least they are consistent.
Rather ironically, The Block are in the middle of choosing a permanent CAO for the town. They botched the process so badly first time around that they had to scrap it and start all over, taking months more to accomplish what previous councils did in weeks. A group who are proudly ignorant of all the issues and subjects in municipal politics expect to hire a CAO who we all expect will be such an expert in these things. How can they determine who might best fit that role, if they themselves refuse to learn those subjects? I guess they will just turn to Brian and John to make their selection, rather than worry about the consequences of a bad choice.
I suppose you think I’m an intellectual snob, pushing all this reading and studying and learning and thinking. Maybe, but I’m just old-fashioned. I was raised to believe that people have a responsibility to their job, and their employer – not just the other way around. I was raised to believe that if you take on a job, you do it to the best of your ability. I was raised to believe that making an informed decision mattered. I was raised to believe that when you take on a position of responsibility and authority, you live up to ethical, moral standards.
Apparently, I was wrong. Apparently thinking and working and reading, ethics and morality, are all over-rated, at least at our council table.
Also apparently over-rated are such archaisms as responsibility, contribution to the greater good, dedication, reliability and staying awake during council meetings. The New Politics practiced by The Block don’t seem to require any of these attributes or actions. Apparently all you need to do is to warm your seat, raise your hand when told, and collect the paycheque. And how they love their paycheques!
I’m old fashioned enough to find this troubling. From my anachronistic perspective, politics is work, and the people we elect should treat it as a job for which they have a responsibility, not as a platform to grab more money while hurting the rest of the community. But as I said, I’m old-fashioned and clearly out of touch with what politics have become.
* While technologies have changed, people really are the same. That’s an important lesson you learn from reading the classics. People still value the same things, want the same things, act and talk the same way as they did hundreds, even thousands of years ago. You cannot, of course, apply specific lesson from the past – you can’t simply insert, say, a Roman political solution into a modern political problem and expect things to work; even Machiavelli knew that – but humans still want security, respect, love, food, sex, comfort, happiness, relaxation and similar things as much yesteryear as they do now. And a good politician learns to recognize and respond to those needs and desires by studying the past as well as the present.