OPINION | Done with the political turkeys after the holidays

This column is an opinion from Jen Gerson, journalist and political commentator.  

There was a time many years ago when the man who would become my husband came up with a plan to make a little money. He and his roommate decided to raise turkeys — thinking they would be cheap and easy.

It did not go well. 

As it turns out, turkeys are dumb. And not just a little dumb, no. Turkeys are catastrophically dumb. As in keeping them alive is a monumental challenge, kind of dumb. Turkeys are an abomination of creation: they will make you doubt the plausibility of natural selection. Nothing so dumb should be permitted to survive, except to sustain something more useful. 

My husband recalls his peak moment as an amateur turkey farmer; he watched as one of his birds drowned itself in its own water dish. He swears that this is true. He watched the bird stretch down to take a drink, get stuck under the water, and die. 

All in all, my husband lost nine of his 20 turkeys. 

You should never feel guilty about an animal that is too dumb to pull its own head out of a shallow water dish. Poultry is God’s tofu. 

Understandably, this family anecdote came to mind when reading the news that Premier Jason Kenney has finally dropped the turkeys in his own staff and caucus who fled Alberta for warmer climes over the holidays. 

The ethical choice

Some people seem concerned that the media is right now in the midst of a witch hunt, tracking wayward politicians with gleeful abandon. 

Indeed, we must not treat all stories of MLAs and others leaving Alberta the same. There are some politicians who actually had legitimate reasons to be out of town. 

Visiting a dying relative, attending a memorial, conducting property maintenance, and a beach vacation — these are not on the same magnitude or scale. I realize we are all in a squirrelly, revolutionary mood, but some nuance is permitted. 

That said: “Don’t skip town when your government has asked everybody to sacrifice their Christmas holidays with their extended families,” isn’t merely a reasonable ask. It’s a painfully obvious ethical choice. 

The Kenney government tread lightly last year, what with its lack of rules and its faith in personal responsibility — fine enough for the rest of us, but apparently not his own caucus.  

That so many politicians failed is especially egregious when so many of the Albertans who actually pay their bills will only be dreaming of tropical holidays for years to come, thanks to the economic damage that COVID-19 is wreaking across the economy. 

Kenney’s initial excuse — that he failed to clearly instruct his people not to travel during the holidays — was an attempt to accept accountability without consequences. It also rings hollow. 

While we are here, did our premier also need to tell them not to drown in their own water dish?

No dodge on this one

We don’t ask a lot from our MLAs, to be honest. Just a basic level of intellectual function. 

If Kenney needed to instruct them on this matter, then we really are being led by turkeys. 

These people aren’t being demoted because they went on vacation to Hawaii. They should be fired because they’ve demonstrated that they’re idiots. And there’s no dodge on this one, I’m afraid. 

The admonition against travel, the one the government itself made to all Albertans, wasn’t arbitrary. It was a sensible precaution to put in place against the spread of COVID-19. And in this case, it’s not as if we were expecting politicians to be held to a higher standard. We were expecting them to be held to the same standard that they imposed on the rest of us. 

When you seek and accept a position of leadership, you have one crucial job in a crisis; to unify your people into a state of collective identity that precedes the necessity for collective sacrifice. 

“We’re all in this together” requires an expansive notion of the word “we.”

Otherwise, it’s just “do what we tell you, or we’ll shut your business, isolate you from your church, friends and family, and fine you into bankruptcy for non-compliance.”

Unless our leaders are willing to subject themselves to the same sacrifices, an order built on consensus rapidly devolves into something more tyrannical. 

To become a political representative, a political leader is to clothe yourself in the honour of becoming something greater than yourself alone — the embodiment of the will of the people who elected you. Your duty, then, is to demonstrate the virtues you demand of the people you lead.

And the actions of these MLAs and others, have dishonoured their duty, and the people.

In the civilized world, we are governed by democratic consensus, not an aristocratic decree. 

Nothing breaks social cohesion — the very contract between government and governed — than to a bunch of self-involved politicians acting as if the rules they impose only matter for the little people. 

They have not just created a philosophical problem, but also a very practical one. A loss of moral authority, which will further threaten social cohesion. This will make compliance more difficult — if not impossible. 

Like we don’t have enough social friction and divides over COVID-19 and our reaction to it. Like our society wasn’t already trying to deal with anger and fear and opposing truth, claims and confusion.

Anyone who was already skeptical of COVID-19 and leaning toward the manifold conspiracy theories proliferating online will use this scandal as further evidence that the virus is a scam. 

“If the politicians weren’t afraid to travel to Hawaii, how bad could it be?” 

And the COVID-19 cautious will see in it a flagrant example of hypocrisy that risks putting us all at further risk. 

This is exactly the kind of tone-deaf entitlement that brought the old Progressive Conservatives down in 2015; The pig-belly snort that could never be challenged over the sounds of fattened livestock at the trough. 

Some work is going to need to be done to rebuild trust, here. 

Not enough

In addition to Allard, Kenney has accepted the resignations of MLA Jeremy Nixon as Parliamentary Secretary for Civil Society, and MLA Jason Stephan from Treasury Board. MLAs Tanya Fir, Pat Rehn and Tany Yao lost their Legislature committee responsibilities. 

Note, none of these are resignations of their seats — just their responsibilities. 

I’m not sure this is going to be enough. 

To serve the people in public office is long, tedious, largely unglamorous work that subjects its labourers to painful public scrutiny. It’s a difficult job. 

That’s what it’s supposed to be. 

To lead people is an honour. Great honour requires great sacrifice. These are no longer frivolous times when that honour could be bought cheaply. Perhaps the tougher path is not what many of our MLAs bargained for. 

Some of our elected officials need to take a moment and really think about what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. There are other, easier jobs; ones that don’t require the level of personal sacrifice that they seem to be so unwilling to offer. 

I have some sympathy for them, but, honestly, not a lot. 

Spare no pity for turkeys. But turkeys can’t help but be dumb. 

In the case of humans, well, that’s what they’ve chosen to be. 

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