A “must read” story for all Canadians is Jane Taber’s recent Globe and Mail piece on making legislatures more family friendly. Like all really good journalism, it is most compelling for the follow up questions that it provokes and pushes forward as much as for the existing circumstance it describes. Taber begins with the example of a 28-year-old government MLA in Alberta who, about to have her first child, discovered that an elected representative has none of the maternity rights and accommodations that are standard fare for everyone else. Cited as typifying the dilemma faced by female legislators across the country, it spotlights the need for reform of working conditions crafted by male parliamentarians, for male parliamentarians, over decades. Solutions as diverse as abolishing evening votes and Friday sittings to let MPs and MLAs get home to their families are being explored. In Ottawa, the Trudeau government plans to have changes in place this spring. The problem is real, and the commitment to resolve it is commendable. Watching from the gallery of the House of Commons last week as Parliament began its work in earnest for the first time since the October election, the tableau of gender and age shift seemed to me remarkable and, much more importantly irrevocable. When I began covering the Hill in the mid-’80s, my great regret was having failed to invest in the companies that manufactured the baggy blue suits, stuffed white shirts and ugly striped ties worn by everyone everywhere. We’re not going back there. Ever. What does need to be revisited is the narrative that grew from that era, and which has achieved the status of received wisdom. It’s a story line that the Ottawa media and its analogues in provincial press galleries have cultivated and feasted upon for too long. It’s the trope of politicians as untrustworthy trough gobblers nose deep and waggling their ears purely for self-satisfaction at public expense. Washington Post columnist David Brooks has written about the phenomenon whereby those who are closest to the work of public office holders see first-hand that such depiction of political life is not merely untrue. It is a travesty. Indeed, the ugly distortion only becomes believable, Brooks argues, at a distance from the political centre. In her focus on the difficulties faced by female politicians, Taber illuminates that very point. The question she leaves to be pursued is why and how it can be extended to an understanding of political life as lived by parliamentarians in general. There is, for instance, a heart-rending quote in Taber’s story from former Conservative cabinet minister Lisa Raitt about juggling childcare, yes, but more broadly about the impossibility of a personal life. “Looking back on it, had I known, I don’t know whether or not I would have made the leap,” Raitt says. “Once you’re in it, you’ve got to deal with whatever the situation is. I don’t regret it…although I have no friends. My friends are my children and my staff.” My friends are my children and my staff. Is that not an indictment of the dehumanizing demands of contemporary political life? It certainly debunks the national—unfortunately media-fed—myth of Parliament as a Babylon of debauched bon-bon eaters. Those who know, know full well that the vast majority of women and men who attend to the legislative process in legislature chambers across Canada do more than just work hard. Their lives are, often literally, consumed by the process and by the incessant demands. It can be a grueling and, contrary to the ever-popular meme, frequently thankless task. By all means, as Jane Taber’s must-read article emphasizes, we need to bring practices into line with reality for women, mothers and families. No argument there. Even more deeply, we as Canadians must question our beliefs about all who represent us. We must read out those that are not now, and really never were, true.
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