Through the political looking glass

Daily life at the Leg is far more cooperative than you may think

In Cornish legend, supernatural creatures live side by side with humans but are blind to them without some kind of magic aid. Becoming involved in politics is a bit like using pixie ointment on your eyes: what was unnoticed leaps into movement, and suddenly you see creatures hiding in plain sight.

Last September, I became a government intern with the Manitoba Legislative Internship Program.

At first, most of my energy went into keeping my cover. I was desperately afraid that the smart, friendly people around me would find out I was really a fraud – someone with irrelevant skills, little knowledge of the media and only the foggiest idea of how the provincial government actually worked.

I was certainly interested, but also much more comfortable buying local or debating the fate of the Middle East than public policy.

The internship is a non-partisan, part-academic, part-work experience program that assigns three interns with the government and three with the opposition.

We follow media issues, write speeches for MLAs, research policy options and compose resolutions or questions for Question Period – sometimes all in the same day. Interns have to be flexible, quick on their feet and have a healthy sense of the absurd.

According to legend, fairies stop humans from seeing them by creating a drab version of life that plays to what humans expect to see. This “reality” is called glamour, which ironically is usually much drearier than the fairies, who generally live the high life.

When I entered formal politics, I crossed a line many people avoid like the plague. It’s hard to defend the system when we hear the bickering that goes on in the Legislature, or when we read about the stadium deal/Bipole III/police helicopter for the umpteenth time.

When people become genuinely frustrated, it’s easy to believe that provincial politics are locked in debates that go nowhere.

Rubbing fairy ointment on your eyes penetrates this illusion, however.

Once I started getting assignments, details jumped out of the woodwork. People not only talk about an issue – sometimes they do something about it.

The academic portion of the internship involves seminars and day trips outside of Winnipeg to meet with people like a special investigator from the Children’s Advocate Office, or with councillors from Fisher River Cree Nation.

I enjoy looking into obscure topics, like which cancers female firefighters are more likely to get, or take notes during debates on proposed legislation. The daily reality of formal politics is multifaceted, in both government and opposition.

Party politics have their place, and both the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP sometimes sharply differentiate themselves for strategic purposes. But, the problem with mistaking the strategy for the real work is that dynamism becomes invisible behind the stalemate of partisan nitpicking.

I’ve seen opposing members negotiate, combine interests and joke good-naturedly without agenda.

Televised Question Period shows MLAs going after each other with pointed barbs. The cameras stop rolling when the MLAs wrap up the “theatre” portion of their job and ask after each other’s kids. Strategy is essential in the game of politics, but it can also become the glamour that masks the real people who make fascinating things happen.

In the past three months I’ve seen only a fraction of all the really juicy stuff that goes on in the Legislative Building.

When all you can see is strategy, it’s time to reapply that ointment.

You may have figured it out by now, but Kelsey Hutton is currently a Manitoba Legislative intern. She graduated from the University of Winnipeg in 2010 with a double major in creative writing and political studies.

Published in Volume 65, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 13, 2011)

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