What Have You Done For Me Lately? by
Jeremy Akerman, Lancelot Press, Windsor, Nova Scotia, 1977, 84p.
Although not a recent work this little book
published by a member of the Nova Scotia Legislature deserves to be better
known, particularly among parliamentarians. Mr. Akerman claims he wanted to
write a brief handbook to explain politics and politicians to the average
person but in fact he has done much better. In a few pages he captures with
remarkable wit and clarity the joys and frustrations of ordinary
parliamentarians. He knows the exasperation of the provincial politician who is
stopped on the street in midsummer and asked by an angry constituent why he is
not in Ottawa. He can sympathize with the federal member who spends hours
driving or flying home only to find himself being condemned for actions of a
municipal council of which he is not even aware. But, there are also touching
moments in politics as when an old age pensioner, with tears in her eyes,
offers a crumpled dollar bill to thank her representative for having solved her
Mr. Akerman spends some time discussing his
parliamentary colleagues who he divides into several different categories
including the "Statesman", a type so rare he has no personal
experience with them. Other types are the Partisan" who is blind to the
virtues of anyone but himself and to arguments other than his own; the Orator
"who is able to entertain or devastate according to the occasion; the
"Nightwatchman", who can deliver a lengthy speech saying virtually
nothing, on any subject under the sun ' thus gaining valuable time for his
colleagues to gather their material and their wits.
Mr. Akerman has a warm spot for the person
holding the office of Speaker. He or she is supposed to be totally objective
and impartial but like all humans the Speaker is subject to human frailties.
The author illustrates the point by giving two examples of Speakers called upon
to cast the deciding vote because of a tie. One Speaker took the traditional
approach saying he would vote in favour of a controversial bill introduced by
Akerman because that would allow for consideration at a future time. Another
Speaker broke a tie in favour of the administration and added "I think the
government is doing a fine job!"
The most serious chapter in this book is the
one dealing with the question of whether a Member of Parliament should follow
the dictates of his conscience or the wishes of his constituents. Akerman
clearly favours more scope for the individual member to speak and vote as he
pleases rather than as he is expected to by his party or even by his
constituents. This is particularly true on moral or what he calls
"lifestyle" issues such as abortion.
Like many politicians Mr. Akerman does not
have a very high opinion of the press. He shows how mischievious their use of
headlines or their tendency to take things out of context can be. What are
"crowds" for their favourite is merely an "audience" for
the man they dislike. For one candidate there are masses of people" but
for the other only" a handful of party faithful". He gives a personal
example of this kind of journalism. After a meeting in Antigonish during the
1970 election campaign the story read "Mr. Akerman, whose expensive
imported English tweed suit contrasted sharply with the plain garb of his tiny
audience, said the NDP was the party of the little guy." The suit in
question, he says, was bought off the peg in a Sydney store for about $100.
In his concluding chapter Mr. Akerman
evaluates the advantages and disadvantages of being a politician. The work is
interesting and varied with an opportunity to travel around the province or the
country. On the other hand he laments a loss of privacy. The real disappointing
element, however, is when those you have helped turn against you. "Some of
the people on whose problems the member has spent the most time and effort may
be the very people who are working hardest against him in the next election.
This is democracy, but it still hurts." The reward in public life,
according to Mr. Akerman, comes from the satisfaction of knowing that one is
not sitting helpless on the sidelines but is in there trying to influence those
events. "Even greater reward than that is to be found in learning that
one's efforts on behalf of a person have been successful, especially when that
person acknowledges the help."