And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free

In Leger Marketing’s annual survey of the most-trusted occupations politicians lost even more ground in public confidence. Politicians were down two percentage points, dead last on the list yet again with the trust of only 14 per cent of Canadians surveyed by the Montreal-based polling firm in its annual “profession barometer.”

I was talking recently to an ex-MLA about this and we both were confused about this finding. Politicians, in theory, are drawn to the high calling of public service. The ones that take public service seriously spend an enormous amount of time and effort try to do a good job serving the public.

And yet, they are by far the least trusted folks in society these days.

I realize that some of this relates to the nature of the work. You become an easy target in politics because no matter what you do – somebody will be upset. Even if you do nothing, somebody will be upset (namely me). So, good politicians try and muddle through and hope at the end of the day, they will have the respect of their constituents – even though the surveys suggest otherwise.

Having said all that I do have a theory on this and it’s not the Sponsorship Scandal or Shawinigate or the ‘Airbus Affair’.

I think that the out of control spin coming out of government and politicians is feeding the cynicism and lack of trust.

Think about it. When was the last time a politician or government official in New Brunswick actually stated any fact that could even remotely look bad on the government?

I have said this before but I think it’s worth repeating. In 1998 and 1999, the opposition Progressive Conservatives in New Brunswick, as they should I guess, was highly critical of the government. Job creation is bad. Unemployment rate is bad. Education levels bad. Health outcomes bad. Out-migration bad. Debt situation is bad. Too reliant on Equalization, etc. On and on and on.

Then they get elected.

It’s 1999. The message coming out of them initially continues to be bad. We have big deficits. We have bad job creation. We have untolerable education outcomes. And on and on.

But they can still blame the other guys.

Same thing in 2000.

Then by 2001, they start feeling like they can’t blame the old guys anymore and the numbers start improving – almost miraculously.

By 2002, we are into full spin mode. Prosperity for all. Record job creation. Low unemployment. High levels of investment.

I swear, if you can find me a government press release or a speech by the Premier talking about population decline, lack of economic growth, serious challenges – please send it over because I haven’t seen it. Oh, you get the standard boilerplate about ‘facing our challenges’ and other stuff but that is just more of the spin.

This point hit me right in the face at the end of 2004. New Brunswick had the worst job creation record of any province and the press release from the Minister of TED was how ‘encouraged she was’ and how things were ‘moving in the right direction’ and how the Prosperity Plan was working.

Then one of those nasty journalists (there are a few in NB) asked her if having the second lowest employment rate in Canada was a problem. She replied that they don’t like to compare against other provinces.

Then, more recently when Captain Kirk – MacDonald Minister of Business New Brunswick was quoted about exports from New Brunswick talking about the ‘record rise’ and this ‘proves New Brunswickers can compete on the world stage’ and other such spin. He forgot to mention that New Brunswick’s export performance has dropped $800 million since 2001 when you factor out the Irving Refinery. Many of the province’s most important economic sectors are in trouble and we get spin.

So, after reflecting on all of this and on my conversation with the former MLA on issues of electability, I have come to the conclusion that most New Brunswickers don’t believe a word coming out of the mouth of a politician. And if what’s coming out is all spin, then who would blame them?

So, I propose a truth in politics platform with the following components – knowing full well that I would never be elected on it but here goes:

1. Do what you say you will do.
And if you can’t achieve your goals be honest with people and clear and direct. Don’t launch a ‘Prosperity Plan’ and then ditch it for ‘Five in Five’ because almost none of the objectives will be met. Just explain to people why the Prosperity Plan will not meet its targets around R&D, income, etc. and promise to work harder.

This particularly applies to opposition parties. Be very clear with what you intend to do and then stick to it – maybe take a page out of PM Harper on this one.

2. Really fire the spin doctors this time.
Lord was elected on the slogan ‘replace the spin doctors with real doctors’. That was actually a typo it should have read: ‘replace the spin doctors with real spin doctors’. If I was Premier I would not allow one more boilerplate, spunout press release come out of the government. I would state the facts and just the facts.

3. Let others praise you.
Isn’t it a little weird when politicians and government officials spend so much time blowing their own horns? Imagine a state of the province address that actually reflected the state of the province? If you are doing good things, let the journalists figure it out on their own. Stop the friggin’ bragging. Take a humble posture towards the public – by the way most New Brunswickers are a humble bunch so having a humble government would be more reflective of us.

4. Don’t crave the spotlight.
Politicians crave the public eye. They want to be the centre of attention. Why? Keep a low profile, work hard, do what you were elected to do. Maybe people will notice.

5. Admit when you are wrong.
Premier Lord’s ‘made in New Brunswick’ approach to economic development has failed. He cut small business taxes and we saw the second biggest decline in small businesses from 2000 to 2005. He insituated he could do better than ‘call centres’ then ended up with just new call centres. He said we would be in the top three in Canada for R&D per capita by the end of the Props. Plan and we are still dead last. NB Power – wow. Not to mention our population decline.

Just friggin’ admit it. Do a mea culpa and commit to spending the rest of your mandate going in a completely new direction. That whole Mike Harris/David McLaughlin thing may have worked for Ontario but this is New Brunswick.

Please tell me why politicians can’t change?

I think you’d gain 10 points just by admitting you were wrong – after the public got over the shock of it.

Can you imagine a world without spin? It is inconceivable but I think it just might work….