Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Five traits to look for in a politician

As our political parties continue to roll out candidates the public have an opportunity to make a preliminary assessment of these men and women. Each will have their own idiosyncrasies and, for those winning the confidence of a majority of voters in their constituency, bring to the House of Assembly unique and differing voices. These differences notwithstanding there are five common traits which, if possessed by each candidate, would make for better debate and better decisions.

Perhaps the single most important trait any member of parliament should have is the capacity to think critically. Whether that member serves in Cabinet, the backbench or the opposition bench she is obliged to critically examine every piece of legislation brought before her and should have the ability to articulate its essence.  Without a critical mass of critical thinkers the public interest cannot be adequately served.

Secondly, parliamentarians should be diligent in their representation of their constituents’ interests. Too often the complaint is made that either “my vote was taken for granted and no one came to see me” or that the MP disappeared after the election. The communication needs to be sustained throughout the period between elections. More importantly, though, the positions taken by MPs should be mindful of the views held by constituents. This does not mean the parliamentarian is a delegate sent from a constituency, he remains a representative; he is required to liaise with his constituency when considering potentially controversial policies. It may be that an MP will support a position contrary to that of his constituents; he needs to be prepared to fully explain how the national interest, as he sees it, is better served by his own position.

A third important trait desirable in a politician is that she be a team player. A parliamentary group is a collective and not a group of individuals; they have come together, presumably, because they share a common outlook. Differences over policy are meant to be debated in caucus and a common position arrived at. There is no issue for a politician if he or she is occasionally in a minority position; if, however, this is a regular occurrence it will certainly raise questions about that person continuing to serve in that party. 

Leadership skills are a fourth trait. As one of the 36 elected members of the legislature they are all de facto leaders; but in addition to this, any member can be called upon to serve in Cabinet, shadow  cabinet, chair a committee or represent Bermuda’s interests internationally.  In countries with much larger parliaments, representatives can effectively win office and then disappear, say little if anything and then pop up when elections are imminent.  Because of our size we have a limited pool to draw from and so as a consequence, there are demands on most MPs to serve in some other leadership role.

Finally, a publicly defensible code of ethics is a critical trait for all politicians. Serving in Parliament is meant to represent a sacred trust between the voter and the politician. We can all have a robust debate about what this means but there can be no doubt such a code would reject abusing political power for private gain. Anyone guilty of such abuse is simply not suitable for public office.

Voters will soon consider at least 72 men and women as their representative in our House of Assembly. It may prove helpful if these traits in candidates are assessed alongside their political party affiliation.

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