Saturday, February 4, 2012

Talking to Politicians: Brad Trost Edition

Something interesting happened to this past Monday when I flew back to Montreal. As I hopped on the flight to Toronto from Saskatoon, Brad Trost - Conservative Member of Parliament for Saskatoon-Humboldt - sat down beside me.

I shook his hand and we made small talk during taxi and take-off (mostly about engineering and industry - he spotted my iron ring), but we didn't chat for most of the flight - I put in my headphones and listened to music.

I've previously posted about how I don't agree with many most of Brad Trost's viewpoints. As the plane started its descent into Toronto I thought I'd let loose some opinions and concerns. How many times will this opportunity come up?

I asked Mr. Trost "since I'm sitting right here, can I share some concerns and opinions with you," and he chuckled and said yes, people do this all the time. I didn't hold back and told him I was concerned that the new crime bill the Conservatives are pushing through parliament would have negative effects on Canadians: I argued that nonviolent crimes (possession, white collar crime, etc) shouldn't warrant prison sentences (this article has strongly implanted that belief in me - I strongly urge everyone to read it), that consequences for addiction-related crimes should address the addiction, not the crime (National Geographic's Drugs Inc has influenced that opinion) and that drug possession and white collar crime shouldn't warrant a jail sentence - it would send a huge number of Canadian taxpayers to jail, not just "delinquents".

Mr. Trost had some interesting counterpoints. For instance, after I described cannabis as "arguably less dangerous than hard drugs" he said he'd heard from law enforcement that meth had been found in joints. I questioned his data (I have found no substantial evidence this is even remotely common) and added, "wouldn't government regulation and taxation eliminate that hazard completely?" That made him stop and think. I doubt I changed his mind, but I was happy to at least make him think. I also made him think when I asked whether addicts should be locked away in jail, or receive some kind of treatment.

(For the sake of all of my future job interviews, I'll state right here that I'm not a drug abuser, but I do strongly believe that prohibition has never worked with any substance, and that punishing "consumers" instead of suppliers is a waste of justice system resources)

We talked about a few other things. It was interesting to learn that he has never refused a face-to-face meeting with a constituent, and he prefers face-to-face meetings because letters and emails can be so ambiguous in tone or purpose (he added that most politicians feel the same way). He was frank that he doesn't always agree with what he's hearing ("I'm pretty ideological," he readily admitted to me. Context) but he still hears people out. This was fantastic to hear. In the future I will absolutely not be shy about meeting with my MP or MLA - an in-person meeting carries much more weight than a letter.

He spoke about young voters and so-called "youthful" causes (compassionate sentencing, or treatment vs jail time, for instance) with a strong hint of contempt and disregard, saying something about youth they don't show up and vote so what they want doesn't really matter. While this is somewhat true, I didn't appreciate the hint of contempt - I do consider myself youthful, after all. Honestly I didn't know why he was saying these things to me.

In my blog post about Brad Trost last October, I said, "it's frustrating when your MP doesn't represent you and is closed off to feedback." I no longer think this is accurate - Mr. Trost appears to be very open to feedback, but still closed off to evidence-based policies and "closed issues" in Canada, like abortion. I was optimistic when I saw the Star Phoenix headline, "Tory MP Trost questions 'ironclad' party discipline" and I am very happy that one of the Conservatives is pushing back against the line Harper has toed and pushing for independent thought in Parliament, but I am sad that Trost is opening this door for himself to voice his ideologies.

I felt great when I got off the plane - it's scary to confront someone (especially a politician!) with completely different opinions - but I am glad I did. It's actually quite easy to talk to politicians (they talk to people for a living!) and since I was well-prepared with facts and arguments it was a productive conversation. If you're ever concerned about a political issue, it's easier than you think to meet an elected official and chat with them. My advice: do your research, know your issues, separate your opinions from your facts, and be polite but firm in the conversation.