Art by Noel Ransome

We Asked Ex-Politicians What It’s Really Like to Be a Politician

For starters, none of them think they are liars.

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Jul 20 2017, 6:46pm

Art by Noel Ransome

It really goes without saying that politicians get a bad rep in society. Centuries of sensationalist headlines have told us that they're either pathological liars, sexual deviants, thieves, or a combination of all three.

But it's not like the negative perception isn't warranted—do I need to bother mentioning the current White House or Rob Ford or Alison Redford or Bill Clinton being blown by his intern? Hell, my hometown even has its fair share of scandals with London, Ontario's most recent mayor getting caught fucking the deputy mayor.

But despite their reputation and wrongdoings, it's easy to forget that politicians are people too, and that for the most part, they're just trying to do a good job and better society (as they see it). Sure, they have the ability to completely alter the reality of communities, cities, and countries, but they still put pants on one leg at a time. That's why talking with ex-politicians makes for a sobering look at the profession—freed from the shackles of party whips and talking points, can they show us the human side to their profession?

I spoke to a number of Canadian politicians to find out.

Sheila Copps, Liberal Party

Former Deputy Prime Minister, Member of Parliament (Hamilton East), Minister of the Environment, and Minister of Canadian Heritage.

VICE: Do you feel like you had to lie a lot as a politician?
Sheila Copps: No. Not at all. There are times when you don't necessarily give out all of the information but I definitely do not lie. Because any lie eventually gets found out. If you're a liar, you're not going to do very well.

The bottom line is, like in any other profession there's always some people who are professional liars, but there are also a lot of honest people in that field. I don't think they have any more liars per-capita basis than any other field. And I think in fact, especially in the modern world, the liars get found out even quicker.

What's the worst thing someone has ever said to you while campaigning?
I think the worst thing was, there was a magazine article by Hustler which basically ran a contest asking people to identify which cunt was mine. It was called the hunt for the cunt, can you identify the cunt. That's probably the worst thing that happened.

I ended up suing them for libel and slander and it was successful.

Do you think politicians are narcissists?
I think you have to have a fairly healthy ego to be a politician. And obviously the upside of a healthy ego is that it can be casual, but there is also a degree of narcissism in all politicians. Not to the extent of Donald Trump, that's narcissism run amok.

You really have to have a very strong self-identity and a thick skin to survive in politics, or you'd just get wash up within the first week.

What do you think is the biggest misconception of politicians?
That they're dishonest. People think that politicians are different from other people … you do have good people, some people are very self-absorbed and not so good. And I think politicians are no different than the rest, some honest, some dishonest. But I think there's certainly a generalization that all politicians are crooks. And you can't shake it. It's been going on since time immemorial, it's the butt of a lot of jokes. It is what it is. I know some politicians who lie, but not all of them.

Is money way better outside of politics?
Oh definitely. Definitely. It's ironic, I mean a lot of these political problems that people get into, not just in Canada but around the world, often times will be not necessarily with politicians themselves but supporters trying to make money off politicians, because there is a lot of money to be made. There are people who tend to associate themselves with candidates and ministers to enhance their own financial benefit. It's not always the politicians that have their fingers in the pot.

Roberto Leone, Progressive Conservative party

Former MP for Progressive Conservatives, and member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Served from 2011 - 2014.
Currently professor of political science at Western University.

VICE: Do you feel like you had to lie a lot as a politician?
Roberto Leone:
I don't think I ever had to lie. I take a lot of politics as how you perceive things in the moment. The fact that you have somebody who's saying something you disagree with, you're contesting an idea. So you disagree with an idea and vigorously oppose it, some might construe that as one person being right and one person being wrong but I just think that's two people trying to debate an issue.

And I think that's a healthy thing in a democracy.

What was the worse thing someone ever said to you while campaigning?
I couldn't honestly think of something. I mean I've had doors slammed in my face, I've been told to get off people's property. But I think by and large in almost every instance when I was going door knocking, people were polite. They gave you a few seconds of their time and generally speaking a lot of people were polite.

That doesn't mean that there weren't instances where people, for whatever reason, tried to get under your skin, or try to distract you from the task. A lot of the times you go to a door where someone will talk to you, and you knew they weren't going to vote for you, and they'll ask you a hundred questions to prevent you from going to doors.

Another thing was people ripping my lawn signs. I've had hundreds of lawn signs destroyed and lost.

How do you get past those confrontations?
You have to realize that there are a number of different viewpoints in society, some of which are going to align with you and some aren't. And that's part of the game. I think it's a lot easier for a politician to handle that kind of attack.

I think what a lot of people don't realize is every night when politicians go home, they have families. And families often take that kind of confrontation much differently and personally.

Biggest misconception about politicians?
I guess the biggest one that frustrated me the most was that people believe that you're only at work when you're sitting in the legislature. And that when you're on a recess, that they're on a holiday.

When you come home on the weekends and during your "holidays" that's when all of the real action happens. Where you meet all of the constituents, listen to their concerns, and work on their problems.

I would say one of the biggest misconceptions is that they're never on holidays. That they are always working, checking emails, that they can't be too distant from what's going on and that applies if they happen to be on a weekend getaway with their spouse. They're still checking their phones for messages and trying to stay up-to-date on what's happening back home.

So I think the misconception is that politicians have lots of holidays, so they don't do lots of work and they get paid handsomely for it. And this is just not true.

Is money better outside of politics?
Yes for some, but not for all. For me personally, I'm doing better in the private sector than I was in politics but that's not universally true for everyone. I think that when it comes to compensation, most people will say that being paid a six-figure salary in politics is a decent wage. And there's a number of people who get involved in politics who, upon getting elected, get a pay bump, more than what they were making in the past.

Alex Atamanenko, NDP

Former MP for NDP, and member of the House of Commons.
Retired.

VICE: Do you feel like you had to lie a lot as a politician?
Alex Atamanenko: No.

Maybe elaborate on that?
Well I did what I thought was right and tried to maintain integrity and honesty, so I didn't have a problem with that.

Did you ever feel like you were pressured to fabricate the truth or stretch it out?
I didn't feel that.

What was the worse thing someone has ever said to you?
Most of all of my campaigns were pretty civil. I guess maybe, I don't know, last candidate may have said that he didn't think I was doing my job or representing the people or something like that.

But I was never partial to any real nastiness.

No one ever said anything mean to you? Possibly yelled at you?
Nothing that really stands out to be honest with you.

Do you think politicians are narcissists?
Maybe some. Like anybody else in any other place in society. I think the people that I've worked with are in it for the right reason. Regardless of their political beliefs, they want to do something better for the country.

Biggest misconception about politicians?
I think that the biggest misconception is that they don't do anything. People don't really understand that most people are in there trying to do their job, working for their constituents, and working hard.

Politicians, the one's I know, work hard. And many of them have to travel, you know they represent remote ridings so they're always on the road. They sacrifice a lot of time with their family to do their job.

Do you think the money is way better outside of politics?
Yeah. I think someone who's doing the job of an MP, doing the same job, would be paid a lot more being in the private sector.

Francis Leblanc, Liberal Party

MP for Cape Breton Highlands (Nova Scotia)
Currently Executive director of the Canadian Association of former parliamentarians

VICE: Do politicians lie a lot?
Francis Leblanc: No. No, it's not easy to lie in politics, contrary to popular perception. Because everybody is checking what you say and you have to be careful in your communication and sometimes what you're talking about may not be the whole truth.

You communicate carefully, but I never felt it was productive to lie because I knew that whatever I said would be found out.

The nature of the issues we talk about, you have to be careful about how you speak about them. That's why I'm talking about issues that I was involved with as a politician. I never found it productive, I was always careful not to outrightly lie. I never felt like I lied a lot.

What's the worst thing someone has ever said to you while campaigning?
It's a funny question because people say all kinds of things to me. About positions on issues and some of them were hostile but that never really bothered me too much because that just goes with the territory. The most difficult thing that I ever had to contend with was when I first started in my career I was campaigning and you know how you're expected in this business to meet someone and then remember their names? So somebody came up to me after I'd met the person maybe once or twice and confronted me in a crowd and challenged me to remember her name, saying that she had met me twice.

Of course, I couldn't remember her name so I was very embarrassed.

But people say a lot of hostile things during my career and I had to go through them but there were never issues that bothered me too much.

Best way to deal with those hostile comments?
You have to be honest you know? Of course I don't remember your name, I'm sorry. You have to own up very quickly. If you try to dodge it, you just seep deeper in your predicament.

Are politicians narcissists?
That's an interesting question. I checked the definition about what a narcissist is and I never heard people use that word to describe politicians until the Donald Trump came on the scene.

Politicians have to have a healthy self-confidence. To be successful in this business you can't be a shrinking violet, you have to have self-confidence and sometimes it comes off as being egocentric or self important.

I've never heard of anybody being considered narcissistic in the ordinary sense of that term and apply that to politicians. That kind of behaviour just turns people off. So people wouldn't get very far being like that. I think that's why people are so puzzled at Donald Trump's success.

What's the biggest misconception about politicians?
That they're in it for themselves. It has never been my experience that that's motivated people in politics.

They want to be successful, in other words they want to be re-elected, but they always want to be re-elected by doing what they believe is in the interest for their constituents. I always find that question to be an enduring misconception. But it's very wrong, I have very little experience with politicians being like that.

Is money way better outside of politics?
Well yes, I think it is. I certainly haven't gotten rich from politics.

Do you miss being in the game at all?
Well, no. No I don't. I had a good run, I would've stayed longer if I would've been re-elected. But I did try last year to get back in the game but it didn't work out.

But I'm not one to moan about it. I learned a lot, it was good experience and I enjoyed the profession, it was an ambition that I nurtured when I was in my teen years and so I was happy to have been able to be elected and then re-elected as a member of parliament. But I don't pine for those days.

Any thoughts on the current state of politics? Anything you'd change?
I suppose if I had anything to say, and maybe it's because I'm older now and my politics is behind me, I'd like to see a little bit more civility in the political discourse that I see at the present time. I'd like to see people talk a little more politely about their adversaries and couch their disagreements in more respectable terms than they sometimes do.

But I think the nature of the game is, you tend to have to go for the jugular. And I think if there's anything about politics that I find distasteful, it's that.

Martha Hall Findlay, Liberal Party

Former Member of Parliament for Liberal party, and member of House of Commons.
Currently, lawyer

VICE: Do you feel like you had to lie a lot?
Martha Hall Findlay: I looked at that question and I thought, that's an interesting place to start. It speaks volumes about what people think about politicians. No. But I certainly felt pressured to lie a lot. And there's a really big difference.

For me, honesty is a really big deal. Lying is not an option. There's no question that being honest is often not useful politically and that's why I say you often feel pressured to do that. You learn more how and when to be quiet, and for somebody like me that's tough.

There's no question that it happens a lot and there's no question that there's a lot of pressure. There's a lot of people, a lot of voters want to hear certain things and unless you're willing to earn the scars and take the hit, it's tempting. But I didn't feel personally that I had to.

What was the worst thing someone has said to you campaigning?
I thought about this, and I remember a time when I was near the end of a long stint of going door-to-door and a women answered, and she looked at me and I think she said, "oooh my, you are much prettier in your photo." And then, she wasn't meaning to rub it in (but that's kind of what she did) she held up one of my pamphlets and said, "see!"

It was one of those moments where you just kind of go "oh wow, I don't really think I needed that." But heck, she was being honest right?

Do you think politicians are narcissists?
Some yes. No question. But I don't think all are. To be in politics you have to have a certain amount of self-confidence. And that can be misinterpreted, especially if it's unwarranted. There are a lot of people who have a lot of self-confidence and you kind of want to say, maybe you should look in the mirror.

For some people they see that, they see people with self-confidence and interpret that as being some form of narcissism.

I think some of the same personality traits are found in people who perform, like actors, musicians, or public speakers. They may or may not be narcissistic but they certainly have to have a certain amount of self-confidence.

Biggest misconception about politicians
I think the biggest misconception is that they are all the same. I hear that so often. I'm a lawyer so I get all of the lawyer jokes too. I've known lots of politicians, I've become good friends with a lot of them. And a lot of politicians across all party lines.

So you when you hear all politicians are corrupt, dishonest, or will just say what they think you want to hear. There's no question that there's some, but there are so many out there that are not.

Do you think money is way better outside of politics?
(Laughs) it really depends on your options. I mean listen, for some people politics is a great job and a great source of income. And back to your first question, many politicians lie because they want to keep their jobs, they want to keep voters happy.

For me, I'm a lawyer and business women, for people like that, money is waaay better than politics.

But if everyone only did things for the money then our society would be far worse because of it.

Peter Shurman, Progressive Conservative Party

Member of the provincial parliament from 2007 to 2013. Represented the riding of Thornhill.
Currently social commentator and author.

VICE: Do you feel like you had to lie a lot as a politician?
Peter Shurman: No I don't think I had to lie at all. I think what I was called upon to do, in a communications end, was to direct the media in a direction that was immutable to positions of my party, which is not lying, it's saying 'highlight this vs. that."

But as a politician, do I have to look in a person's eyes and tell them it's not true? I have never did that.

Why do you think people have that conception that politicians are always lying?
Because when political parties run for election, very particularly when they run for election, there are a bunch of promises made. And I would have to say, about not only my party but any political party, that I don't think that these promises are ever made falsely.

In other words, I think generally speaking, if you looked at Canada, the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP, you've got parties that have a farmed wish to deliver what they're saying they're going to deliver. And then what happens is they get into power, and when they get into power they discover there's a thing called the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy is what really runs government. And it moves slowly, and it doesn't have people who are always immutable to the point of view that's going to be there for this four years or that four years while they're going to spend probably a lifetime there.

So they work on their agenda, and the government comes in and works on his agenda. What happens is, you never complete what you want to do. So it looks like you told lies, "we're going to do this, we're going to do that." It's not as easy as we get into power, we push some buttons and it all happens. And that goes for every single political party in every single place.

What was the worst thing someone has ever said to you while campaigning?
I had a person tell me at the door, that I was a bad radio communicator, that I was a bad politician, that I was a bad human being, and that I was a bad Jew.

And it was a person who didn't know me at all, and they decided that they hated me. And while they did it, they kept pointing their finger in my face. And I looked around because you have to be conscious of what's going on around you as a politician, because everything is recorded.

But I'm not a politician anymore, so I'll tell you what I said.

I said, "if you point that finger to me one more time, I'm going to break it in half. Because what you're doing is assault."

And he shut up pretty quick.

Did you find yourself having to restrain yourself a lot in those moments?
Of course. One of the things you have to realize if you hold elected office is you're elected by a majority of people, but not all people. And when you are elected, you're elected to serve all people. And they're paying you, through taxes. So they expect, at LEAST, even if you have to say no to a request, to be shown that you care, that you give them your dignity.

And so good politicians, and most of them that I've known from all parties, do that.

What's the biggest misconception about politicians?
That we can do more on an individual basis than what people want us to do. People are very insistent on things. If I'm bringing this down to grassroots, I was an MPP. An MPP has certain powers within his constituency.

For example, if someone really needed urgent health care attention and they were not comfortable to getting on the phone and reach upward in the local hospital or health care community, I could get on the phone, intervene, probably get the CEO of the local hospital online within 60 seconds because they're responsive to politicians. I can say "look I have a constituent who's in real trouble. Can you help out?"

Chances are, I'll get that person in the hospital that afternoon and they'll get the care that they need. But there are other people who come in and say, you need to sign a law right now that allocates another million dollars to (fill in the blanks, doesn't matter what it is), and I haven't got power to do that.

And no single politician ever should have the power. The reason why we have representation by area and by population is so that those kinds of wishes can be reviewed and heard and ultimately voted on by people who are detached from the situation sufficiently to make a rational decision as opposed to prone to just spending money wherever they can throw it so it sticks to the wall and they get elected.

So I think the misconception and the thing that makes you sad when you're elected is that you can't give everybody everything they want.

Is money better outside of politics?
Incredibly so! I could say that $120 thousand dollars a year, which was roughly what I earned, is not a bad salary. But if you're going to live in a metropolitan area anywhere in Canada, and that's what you make to support a family. You've got some problems.

I made more than that before I went into politics and frankly I don't work full time and I make more than that now. So there's a bit of, not on my part particularly, on the part of most politicians there's some altruism involved.

On the other hand, there are people who are elected by a community, might be from a very rural community where they had a lesser job, doesn't make them a less person, but they were being paid $80 thousand to $120 is a fantastic thing.

Do you ever miss politics?
The short answer is no. But I do miss parts of it. I'm a person who likes to speak, you could probably tell that. And I really, really enjoyed the debate. There are a lot of people who go to the legislature or the house of commons or wherever they happen to be who, for some reason, want to be elected to politics but they're reticent to stand up and speak.

I couldn't wait. If you told me that I had an hour allocation to speak on a budget, I would fill it and I loved it.

Was there ever a moment where it was worth it?
Through my relentless bugging I was there during Dalton McGuinty, I got him to recall the legislature in the middle of January when it had no business being in session and he did so in order to resolve a strike at York university that, had it not been resolved in that week, would've taken the year of 50 thousand students.

So did I help people? Absolutely.

But I also have a moment in politics, and it has to do with how I left where I don't regret not being there one little bit. People who were in other areas of my own party, created a situation that was untenable for me in terms of putting question to my integrity which is the only thing that I have. I had it when I went there and I have it still.

They tried to question it because they didn't like certain things that I was doing and I will never, ever forgive them.

Any advice to young aspiring politicians?
Yeah, stick to your guns and if you feel driven towards it, there's always a need for people who want change. My generation, which is the Boomer generation, has had its chance, we're now the guys who are on the way out. And we will be for the next 30 years but there's a transition.

And that transition is basically to—and I know you don't like the word—but the Millennial generation, I'll just call it the new generation, these people are taking their places. Being elected, they have something new to say and a lot of them I have to say think we didn't do such a great job. Every generation thinks that about its predecessor, so by all means think it and then by all means think it and then take your shot, you've got 50 years ahead of you, think it!

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