by Brian Lee Crowley

It is amazing what a wonderful dose of the Christmas spirit does for the morale. Being generously fed on goose and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, Christmas pudding and treats galore, having opened many presents and shared many happy memories of other Christmases with friends and family has to put you in a generous mood.

And when this great hazy wave of love and goodwill for your fellows strikes during a welcome holiday lull in our federal election campaign, it seems an appropriate time to say a word of thanks for the politicians whom we spend the rest of the year criticizing so roundly.

Regular readers of this column know they can count on a reliable stream of skeptical analysis of the motivations, the strategies, the plans, the policies, the diversions, the foibles and the delusions of our elected officials. But make no mistake: For all their failings, they are owed a huge debt of gratitude by all of us.

Your healthy skepticism is certainly justified. As is so often the case, though, to see the true value of something, you need to think about how the world would be in its absence, not what you don’t like about it once you have it.

We are in this sense very fortunate to have been able to observe the unfolding of a brand new democracy in Iraq, and it holds some powerful lessons about the value people attach to democracy when they do not have it.

Most of us in the West have been deeply touched by the scenes of ordinary Iraqis braving terrorist threats in order to exercise their right to vote, to have their voice heard and counted in the choice of their rulers. I will never forget those photos of a veiled woman holding up her ink-stained finger in triumph as she emerged from the voting station in the interim legislative elections some months ago.

That image has now been superseded by many similar ones of people from all religions and regions within Iraq. The Shiites and the Kurds, representing 80 per cent of the population, have been enthusiastic participants in the vote for the interim legislature and the draft constitutions. Now, in the vote for a full parliament, even the Sunni community, long used to ruling although they represent a mere 20 per cent of the population, has come to accept no one will be able to rule alone and political power will flow henceforth chiefly from persuasion and not force.

Maybe this brave experiment will fail. Many of George Bush’s critics hope it will. Shame on them. Whether you agreed with the decision to go to war or not, that’s the past. The only question that matters now is whether we in the West can help Iraqis out of the darkness of the Saddam era and support them in the creation of institutions that will make democratic self-rule possible for all Iraqis. And like it or not, success in this enterprise will have a powerful influence on many other parts of the Middle East where despots and autocrats still rule with impunity. No one wants Iraq’s democracy to fail more than these people – an extra reason for us to want it to succeed.

But back to our own politicians. What Iraq teaches us is how much we would yearn for our politicians, with all their human failings, if we didn’t have them anymore.

Politics was once famously described as the study of who gets what, when, where and why. And it is certainly true that a lot of our money and other precious resources are taken by the political system and turned into things like courts and legislatures and social services and health care and schools. Along the way, a lot of people get to divert little parts of the vast flow to their own purposes. Some of those diversions are corrupt, as in the sponsorship scandal that has so blackened the reputation of the Liberal party. But many are just the price of doing business in a democratic society in which power is widely dispersed.

Voters have to be convinced to part with their money through taxes and user-fees. Workers have to be convinced to work in the schools, hospitals and government offices by offering them pay and conditions they find acceptable. Businesses have to be convinced to create wealth and jobs by offering them a tax burden and reasonable rules of behaviour that make investment likely to produce a competitive return.

Our politicians have to find ways to reconcile all of these diverse interests. Our politicians fare probably no worse than those in many other Western democracies, and probably better than many. That doesn’t mean you or I should stop trying to hold them to a higher standard. But it is no bad thing to reflect on what the alternatives are. Happy New Year!

Brian Lee Crowley is the president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.