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Surrey Mayor Diane Watts: Leaping from frontlines of city building into backbench backwaters?

Surrey Mayor Diane Watts: Leaping from frontlines of city building into backbench backwaters?

But then you decided to run for the Tories. Big mistake.

I thought that Dianne Watts, the about to be ex-mayor of Surrey, was a smart person.

Her decision to seek a federal seat for the Tories in next year’s election puts paid to that idea.

That Watts is a very capable person is beyond question. She probably has as good a political resume as one could possibly find. At one time rated the number four mayor in the entire world, she has a reputation for sound government, which by all accounts, is much deserved.

I question her smartness, not her capability.

I have written about this before, but I’m afraid I can’t quit until we, the somnolent public, finally understand how undemocratically our government is run.

I must tell you that I was just as naive as Watts seems to be when I ran for the legislature in 1975. I had no real idea of what I was getting into, and honestly thought that if elected, I was going to Victoria to reason together with my fellow MLAs and come up with good government.

I was very fortunate in that I went immediately into cabinet and stayed there. I never had to suffer the agonies of a government backbencher. Being in cabinet, however, gave me a pretty good perch from which to observe that backbenchers had no real part in the governing process. They could, of course, speak out in caucus meetings, however were reluctant to do so because they very much wanted to be promoted out of the backbench and knew that pleasing the premier was the only way to get that job done. You don’t please premiers or prime ministers by questioning their policies.

Backbenchers had very little to do, and much of what they did do involved make-work projects given to them to keep “idle hands from doing the devil’s work.”

They, as I would have done, pretended to all who would listen that they were an integral part of the governing process, whereas of course, they were not. For example, they often didn’t see legislation until a few minutes before it was tabled in the house. Policy was made in cabinet behind closed doors. It is the same in the federal government.

Unfortunately for Watts, she’ll win

I have no doubt that Dianne Watts will be elected. That means that she will become, in all likelihood, a Tory backbencher.

She very well may have a signal from the prime minister that she will go directly into cabinet. The problem is, for that to happen the Tories must be elected and Stephen Harper must keep his word. Neither of these two things are slam dunks.

The polls do not indicate the Tories will form the next government, although, of course, an election is still a long way off and things may change.

On the second point, Harper is in no way bound to keep private promises of this sort and if re-elected he will have a whole new batch of new people to whom he owes political debts for that re-election. Dianne Watts will not be the only one who’s been promised a cabinet seat.

It is very difficult for the prime minister to bring a rookie into cabinet. It is even more difficult to bring a rookie into cabinet and give her a job that means anything.

The reality is, Watts is probably facing four years on the backbench.

Which means her constituents will gain nothing from her being in Parliament.

She will learn to bring cheques from the federal government to appropriate officials within her constituency, smile and make mindless comments to the press.

She will chase down pension cheques and will make useful speeches at July 1 celebrations.

She will also do everything she can to convince people that she’s a central part of the decision-making process in Ottawa, whereas in fact she will be nothing of the sort.

Canada’s waste problem

My point today is the waste of talent our system generates. Dianne Watts is but one example.

About four years ago a man of my acquaintance asked my advice whether or not he should seek a Tory nomination for Parliament. I knew this man well and had seen him up close. He had an almost spectacular record as a lawyer, an excellent record in government service and a lovely family. Though not Asian, he had solid Asian contacts. There was no question in my mind that here was a person who had a lot to contribute to Canada.

My answer to him: don’t do it. “You will be marginalized and you will have no say whatever in what goes on. You will become a chaser of pensions and a deliverer of cheques to mayors of small towns. Your talents will be absolutely wasted.”

“If, as I suspect, you are on the backbench, you will gain no experience in government whatsoever. Your experience will be in saying what you’re told to say in Parliament and voting as you’re told to vote in whatever committee you belong to. You will be forced to move your family to Ottawa or risk a family break up. My advice to you is to stick to practicing law.”

My advice was ignored. He is now an MP backbencher. Everything that I said would happen has happened. It is a tragedy to see a person with this much raw talent so badly wasted.

What about the people who decide not to run, despite having talents to give, because they have the smarts to know that what I have just said is absolutely correct? Several such people, quite frankly, have followed my advice and have been thankful for it.

This is tragic. We should have a system that particularly encourages younger people who have ideas and talent to run for Parliament where they might help shape the formation of government policy.

Kept in the dark

There is some consolation in being an opposition backbench MP. At least then you do learn something about the legislation being passed because you’re required to oppose it. There’s nothing wrong with that — it is the duty of the opposition to oppose. But that’s a pretty minimal accomplishment considering that you don’t really know much more about governing than you did when you got started.

This, I suppose, is the really sad part. Members of Parliament, however new they are to the game, should learn about the governance of the country and be in a position to take part in it when their time comes. The fact remains that they are so cut off from the cloistered process of decision making that this simply does not happen.

Dianne Watts, I regret to say, is foolish in the extreme if she thinks that she is going to contribute her considerable talents to the betterment of the country by running in the next federal election as a Tory or anything else.

Isn’t that really the saddest statement one can make?

Here, a person with the demonstrable and proven talent to serve that Dianne Watts has shown, is stymied by the very system she needs to penetrate in order to bring those accomplishments to government.

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