If you asked elected officials for a list of reasons why they ran for public office, publicly begging a famous musician probably isn’t high on the list. And yet, there was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doing just that the other day, tweeting at Taylor Swift about her 2024 Eras tour and its lack of Canadian dates. “Don’t make it another cruel summer,” he (or, more accurately, his social media team) said.

This got Canada’s conservatives into a predictable lather, with the Toronto Sun mocking his efforts on its front page. They conveniently ignored the fact it was actually a Conservative Party of Canada MP, Alberta’s Matt Jeneroux, who did it first with his own pitifully desperate interventions on the matter. “I would like to file an official grievance within Parliament on behalf of all Swifties in Canada for her and her team to reconsider,” he said in a letter to Swift.

On its own, this is the sort of lighthearted stuff that tends to crop up at the end of a legislative session and it certainly doesn’t do any harm. In fairness, Liberal MP Ya’ara Saks even backed Jeneroux’s attempt to get Swift’s attention. But it still strikes me as an accurate barometer of the level of seriousness in Canadian politics right now, one that doesn’t inspire a lot of hope for dealing with problems more complex than Taylor Swift’s tour dates.

Witness the relentless campaign of oversimplification being waged on Twitter by CPC Leader Pierre Poilievre, who happily blames the prime minister for everything from traffic jams to housing prices. One of his more recent digital hobby horses is the idea of a “90-year mortgage”, something that definitely doesn’t exist in Canada but nonetheless hasn’t stopped Poilievre from pretending they do. And, of course, there’s always the carbon tax, which he’s more than happy to misrepresent and blame for everything from rising fuel prices (hello, OPEC cartel!) to food price inflation.

Jagmeet Singh hasn’t been much better on this front, given his proclivity for conflating federal and provincial jurisdiction and his habit of blaming everything wrong with this country on corporations. Even Trudeau has stooped to this level himself, whether it’s by leaning hard on his celebrity status (sometimes too hard) or oversimplifying complicated issues like COVID-19 or climate change.

Theirs is not, in other words, the same sort of serious-minded approach that people like Pierre Trudeau, René Lévesque, Joe Clark, and Ed Broadbent brought to their practice of federal politics. It’s not even on the level of Jack Layton, Stephen Harper, and Paul Martin. Contemporary politics are quickly degrading into a race to the intellectual bottom. As the Globe and Mail’s editorial board wrote last year, “Around the world in too many democratic countries, this one included, politics has lately been dominated by too many unserious politicians — of both the populist and traditional variety.”

Canadians, regardless of their partisan orientations or political beliefs, deserve better than this. We deserve to know what our leaders actually think about the key issues of the day, as well as how much they really understand. We deserve elected officials who treat serious issues seriously, and who have the training, education and aptitude required to make crucial decisions that affect millions of people and billions of dollars. And, maybe more than anything, we deserve politicians who don’t deliberately deceive and dissemble.

As such, I have a proposal: a new test for prospective politicians that gets publicly proctored by a neutral and non-partisan third-party group. We put all sorts of people through their paces when they want to become a professional, whether it’s being called to the bar or getting a Red Seal certification in a trade. Given the stakes, running for public office shouldn’t be any different.

This test wouldn’t be designed to frustrate or fail people. It should include some questions about basic high school-level social studies topics, like what each level of government does and how the courts and our elections are structured. There should be an economic literacy component to assess a candidate’s understanding of basic matters of commerce and finance and how they interact with government policy. And given the growing importance of climate change, a few basic questions about science would be useful.

Our elected officials seem determined to dumb down the political discourse as far as humanly possible. Why we need to elevate the conversation, and how a simple test could help us do that. #cdnpoli @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver

Their answers, which would be posted publicly, would help voters learn two important things. First, they’d find out whether the people they might want to vote for are actually qualified for the job, although voters would be free to vote for the unqualified if they so chose. And second, they’d find out what our prospective politicians actually know and understand, and be able to see if and they were playing dumb. Again, voters could (and should) determine the value of that information themselves, but at least they would have access to it.

Poilievre, of course, would almost certainly opt out of such an exercise and declare it the work of his so-called “gatekeepers.” Let him. If nothing else, it would serve as another reminder of his steadfast commitment to populist politics, and the way it substitutes sloganeering for substance. It would also expose the lie in his party’s long-standing attacks on the prime minister’s intellectual acumen. After all, if he can pass a test they won’t even bother to write, what does that say about them?

I get it — being smart and informed isn’t popular right now. Maybe it never really was. But if we continue to reward politicians who trade in half-truths and oversimplifications and who treat the public like consumers rather than citizens, we’re just going to keep getting more of the same. And that, more than anything else, is what could actually “break” our country.

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C'mon Max, you're old enough to remember Dief tweeting about the gyrating Tennessean! Or Trudeau père Tik Toking a clip from Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon release tour. Geez.

As for the suggestion :

"There should be an economic literacy component to assess a candidate’s understanding of basic matters of commerce and finance and how they interact with government policy."

Which flavour of economics should they subscribe to? The current neoliberal, infinite growth sacred, if suicidal, cow? Perhaps, alternatively, one that recognizes that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the biosphere?

And holding up Stephen Harper as an exemplar of serious politician? You've been watching too many of his campaign ads. Though, in fairness, Harper was (remains) serious about destroying the fabric of the country.

What Ken said. I get where Max is coming from but this isn't the example to use.

Harper's more focussed on right-wing government everywhere.
I'm old enough to understand that Harper already "destroyed the fabric" of the country.

Personally, I don't think the Liberals can be fixed. Because there just isn't *any* "fix" for neo-Liberalism, any more than for neo-Conservatism.

"substitutes sloganeering for substance" perfect description of the Poilievre play book.

If the people lead, sometimes the politicians follow....I'm particularly disappointed and a bit depressed by how silent we the public are about the increasing militarization of the world..........as the Ukrainian war drags on.

When we speak of basic political literacy, shouldn't there be a clause in there for knowing what our country is doing around the world.........as it follows western conservative policies of regime change and proxy war?
Most of us still don't understand what happened to that plane shot down in Iran.....because we've had to forget the assassination Trump engineered and the symbolic Iranian bombing of an American military base that preceded the obviously accidental shooting down of a civilian plane.

When we can continue to swallow the jingoism that masquerades as investigative reporting where America's enemies are concerned.......is it any wonder our politicians play superficial to keep out attention???

Our leaders deserve better citizens...as much as we deserve better politicians. Currently, telling the truth, never mind getting to the bottom of it.......is a task that rewards no one. Everywhere blinders of one sort or another are fixed firmly in place.

Tylor Swift is a safe place to land.......that's all.

I agree, Mary -- unfortunately, our politicians often are a reflection of us. More and more of us don't even bother to vote, which is not surprising considering that frequently our votes don't matter under this absurd FPTP electoral system. I think there'd be more political engagement under a PR system. A more involved and engaged citizenry would demand higher quality representation. There are still good, educated and informed politicians out there, but they have to struggle within a system in which political parties have all the power and individual representatives have little to no autonomy, and in which there is, as you say, no reward for being honest with the public. No wonder the sleazy types continue to be elected -- they know what it takes to get votes because that's all they care about.

At the very least PR is worth a try. It can scarcely be as bad as the existing chaos. PR might help us get sleazy dark money out of the picture and it also might introduce some genuine thought and policy into the discourse

Best of all it could break up the intransigent divisiveness taking hold in too many democracies.

Are you serious?

I have stopped talking about politics - except for with my son, who at least knows where I'm coming from and has been exposed to a lot of it over his lifetime. We don't always agree but we listen to each other and think about it. Political science was one of my majors in University but what is going on now bears no resemblance to what I learned. Even then, late 50's, early 60's I was an outcast in one seminar session for opposing indiscriminate foreign aid because of the damage it did to existing, internal foreign economies. Time has caught up with my argument - it only took about 40 years.

These are good ideas. I would add a personality/ psychopathy test to this. I think we deserve to know if candidates are psychopaths/sociopaths or not. I understand there's a test that shows where you are on a scale. Apparently most people score 0 or 1 and the maximum is 25 or 30 (aka "full Trump). Prospective politicians would have to take this test and if they didn't want their score revealed they could back out. Anytime you're wondering about "how could someone do that?" It's usually because they are actually unable to think like a normal person and have no conscience or empathy. Apparently these people make up one to three percent of the population. We all know one or two. One psychologist said, "Having no conscience or apathy can be useful traits in the business world and I think you'll find a lot of corner offices occupied by psychopaths."

On reflection I think the frivolity or fantasy of our politicians can be laid at the feet of creeping complexity. Few of us, experts in one field or another, - down to the working stiffs at the razor edge of corporate greed, can unravel all the issues we are suddenly having to master in order to survive this catastrophically unpredictable world. None of the received political or economic systems seem equipped to deal with reality, None of them seem able to even explain or define reality. Nevertheless the media, the public, the activist hordes are demanding definitive answers. Answers are in short supply and past history, past customs, past legal doctrines are perhaps more harmful than helpful.

Re-building civilizations when all our physical foundations seem to be in jeopardy is no job for the faint hearted, the ignorant, the fatalists.