The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Election 2015: It’s About the Fate of Democracy, Not Politics


“POLITICS HAVE NO RELATION TO MORALS,” said Niccolo Machiavelli back in the 16th century and there are many of us who surely disagree. And yet the idea the politics itself has become a real-life version of House of Cards is growing in strength the more the mudslinging and misrepresentations continue.

Those undergoing Canada’s federal election season likely struggle hard to maintain their belief in a politics that matters, but it isn’t easy. In fact, across the entire Western world democracy itself is losing its moorings; we know it and we are troubled by it. So, yes, it is likely the easiest to blame our present political difficulties on politicians themselves. And it is largely true that if they wish us to believe in good politics once again they are hardly providing us reasons and examples for moving in that direction.

Look at most developed nations and it obvious that a sense of angst runs through their populations – a key expression of democracy’s troubled state. Yet at the same time most of those people say that are primarily happy with their private lives; it’s just the collective condition of their city, province, country, or territory that they are down on.

But here’s something for us to consider: what if our present difficulties have more to do with democracy itself than merely the professional politics itself? Government was once viewed as vital to our prosperity and future; now it borders on the villainous. Democracy was founded on the belief that if you didn’t like any particular government that all you had to do was enter a ballot box and toss them out. Yet increasing numbers of citizens today avoid the vote, saying that nothing will change regardless of who is elected. Reform at any time can prove difficult, but when the elected watchers of the State seem out of touch with the times themselves, believing that we can alter our course isn’t common.

In a modern world built on the principles of collaboration and innovation, how is it that we have ended up with a federal Parliament as bitter and partisan as any time on record? At a time when citizens themselves and their input are seen as crucial for the future, why is it, then, that those same citizens refuse to come out in significant enough numbers to turn their respective nations in the proper direction? These two questions are even more confounding when we realize that the majority of the people in politics, and those in the citizenry, are basically solid, intelligent, and compassionate human beings who just happen to be avoiding the tasks necessary to realign the public and the private good.

Our problems might not be merely the people, but the systems themselves. Politics has become all about stifling partisanship, while citizens often prefer to blame politics rather than using the democratic franchise to reform it. Maybe we have changed more than we care to admit. Perhaps, as citizens, we are so distracted and preoccupied that we no longer desire to be troubled with the larger, more collective, picture. The political system knows this and senses it can get away with bad behavior because we don’t care enough to demand change from it. They would prefer to buy us individually with their money than inspires us collectively with their vision.

As many have noted in recent months, we presently have a federal government that is one of the most secretive and authoritative in Canadian history and yet citizens voted them in. How is that possible in an age when inclusiveness, transparency, and empowered citizenship are supposed to be the way of the future?

If democracy itself depended on the energized relationship between elected and elector for its success and both sides no longer care for that relationship, is democracy itself not really the issue? We have no alternatives, of course, and it’s likely the Churchill’s view that democracy is still the best of all political solutions rings true for the majority of us. But what happens when a divorce seems more imminent than reconciliation? If that indeed be the case, then democracy itself, and its future, is the thing we should ultimately be worried about in this election. Our only way to bring our nation back to a place of health is to vote to stay in a collaborative relationship. Will we show up in critical enough numbers to recapture a national consensus? Will our politicians run against a system that seeks to divide and conquer? Again, it will all come down to a pencil on a piece of paper. Either way, this election is about the fate of democracy, not mere politics.

Election 2015: Have We Passed Our Peak?”


THE SUBJECT ABOUT WHETHER AMERICA has peaked as a nation consumes much of the airtime south of the border in the run-up to their election. Repeatedly in Canada’s long election campaign the subject is being heard from various voices as well.

We’ve already referred to former Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark’s current book outlining how we’ve lost our national and global prestige, but there is a chorus of others from across the political spectrum pointing out our tragic slippage, including a book released just yesterday by former Ontario premier and MP Bob Rae, titled What Happened to Politics?

One would expect former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis to be concerned about our national direction over the past two decades, but lately it’s become clear that he’s upset, not merely worried. Lewis has his reasons and they’re compelling.

He took the gloves off recently and it would be intriguing to witness this 77-year old champion of public life take on our present political class while in combative mode. Lewis focused on five key areas to make his point and they formed a powerful narrative concerning how we have fallen in collective and international stature.

He opened up by reminding his audience that Canada’s image on the global stage is in free fall, then moved effectively to how the Harper government has denigrated Parliamentary traditions in a fashion that is has caused serious damage to the public spirit. He recalled his years as an opposition leader in Bill Davis’s Ontario Conservative government, when respect emerged from the top-down and how Davis built on that trust by providing solid government.

It was then that Lewis jolted the audience by reminding them that this country’s behavior towards its aboriginal communities has been merely benign and paternal, but outright racist. Climate change was his next subject, one he wasn’t required to dwell on because our loss of effectiveness both domestically and globally on the file as been a matter of record.

Finally, Lewis talked about how civil society itself has been humiliated by a government that neither seeks public partnership nor transparency our accountability in its dealings with the electorate.

There will be those who will say, “What do you expect? It’s Stephen Lewis, a socialist, and an NDP to boot.” Well, it’s not just Lewis. Add to the list the likes of Conservatives like Joe Clark and other former ministers from the Mulroney government, former Liberal PM Paul Martin, NDP lion Ed Broadbent, and scores of public service leaders who are emerging independently in an effort to remind Canadians that not much time remains before Canada itself becomes irreparable.

When Lewis says his emotions run “from rage to rage,” he’s hardly alone. Upon adding that all this, “does us damage. It does us shame,” there was a loud chorus of assent and concern from all parties and civil society.

Lewis wrapped up his speech with a compelling urge that an increasing number of Canadians are attempting to voice:

“Somewhere in my soul, I cherish the possibility of a return to a vibrant democracy, where equality is the watchword, where people of different ideological conviction have respect for each other, where policy is debated rather than demeaned, where the great issues of the day are given thoughtful consideration, where Canada’s place on the world stage is seen as principled and laudatory, where human rights for all is the emblem of a decent civilized society.”

These are powerful words, made more pungent by the growing state of unrest within the Canadian citizenry and a concurrent desire to “return to a vibrant democracy,” as Stephen Lewis phrased it. But before we return to such a place of meaning we must first detour by the ballot box in October and claim through our rightful ideals the kind of politics we want.


Election 2015: How Elections Break Our Brains

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GOING INTO AN ELECTION, WE ALL KNOW what to expect from some of those running for office. And we end up getting it in spades – rancor, false claims, stereotyping, hyper-partisanship, and name-calling. But it’s not all about the candidates themselves, and not all following such practices.. But this week we saw evidence of what happens when good people go over the top with their political leanings and it was ugly, real ugly.

Social media went crazy when, at a Stephen Harper election rally in Etobicoke, Ontario, Conservative supporters verbally jostled with reporters, especially when questions centered on the Mike Duffy trial presently consuming Ottawa. We’re used to temperatures rising at partisan events, but the sight of one Harper supporter going after reporters while using language better reserved for locker rooms or late-night shows came across as jarring. People were talking all about it in coffee shops the next morning and the views were universally unfavourable. We hope for better amongst the citizenry, especially when professional politics itself is moving increasingly into the theatre of the dark arts. It was like watching parents squabble at their kid’s hockey game, swearing at the referee, or hurling verbal abuse at one of the kids from the opposing team. We all shake our heads, embarrassed.

Author Brian Resnick took on a study of how politics gets inside the brains of average people, in hopes of discovering some way to break free of the anger and the expletives. What he discovered wasn’t to his liking:

“A month of speaking to scientists about the political brain produced no shortage of depressing conclusions. Their research reveals our brains to be frustratingly inept at rational, objective political discourse. And those revelations come at a time when elected officials have strong incentives to stay the partisan course, and when the people who elect those officials are increasingly getting their political news through sources pre-tailored to reinforce their opinions.”

Resnick noted that even when people of differing opinions worked with the same set of facts and understood them perfectly, because of their own personal values differences would remain. Yet he feels that it’s not opinions that are the problem: “The trouble is when we’re so blinded by our partisanship that it overrides reason – and research suggests that is happening all the time.” Indeed it is, perhaps especially in a federal election, and especially in the modern era.

Canadians are a naturally partisan people, always have been. They have opinions on everything, as they should and as is only natural. But what is changing is the level to which we now go to demonize those of other persuasions. As the outburst from Etobicoke revealed, it becomes dehumanizing when opinion descends into slander, as when the individual doing the ranting accused reporters of cheating on their taxes and calling them “lying pieces of s#*t.” It was a lot like watching Question Period without the expletives.

It’s hard to imagine how politics can improve if citizens themselves follow their political leaders into the hyper-partisan swamps. Canadians will naturally disagree, but we have rarely been known to flirt with bigotry in such an open manner. We understand that many in the Conservative party are disillusioned and frustrated by the Duffy situation and the narrow control of the PM’s office. We also know that hyper-partisans exist in every party. But when citizens lose control, democracy loses its sanity.

History’s darkest moments occurred when one group of people was dehumanized by another. The examples are many and the outcomes sinister. The need to dehumanize “the other” doesn’t just materialize, but develops over time, when leaders no longer seek enlightenment and fairness, but power and exclusivity, and frustrated citizens shut their minds in order to open their prejudices.

Politics in Canada has become feverishly polarized and partisan because our leaders just haven’t been able to find a way to find common ground even when in disagreement. If citizens follow that lead, then it all becomes about the blind leading the blind, the prejudiced leading the prejudiced, and the angry leading the angry. Average Canadians, even those supporting certain political parties, have to do better than this. Overall, citizens in Canada are still a respectful lot, but the stakes are now changing.  If elections are meant to bring out the best ideas and the brightest lights, then Election 2015 is presently heading in the wrong direction unless respectful leadership is practiced by citizens and politicians together.







“Election 2015: The World is Watching”


“WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT,” Jesus asked his generation, “if you gained the whole world but lost your soul in the process?” It was a timely reminder, but there are increasing numbers of Canadians who wonder if their country might be in the process of losing both.

There’s no better time than an election to focus on what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost. While it seems like everyone is focused on jobs, the middle class, debt, and taxes at present, we need to remember that a world is watching and that the stakes are higher that just the domestic arena.

Former Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark has provided a timely reminder of just what our nation has lost in the past few years. His new book, How We Lead, comes with a certain sense of urgency. “There is a clear disjuncture between Canadians and this government on foreign policy,” he writes, reminding his readers that Stephen Harper “aggressively narrowed” our foreign policy to two issues: trade and military action. He goes to considerable pain to remind us that our history of adroit diplomacy, peacekeeping, and the hearty support of international institutions has been largely swept away in favor of narrow-mindedness, rigorous ideology, belligerence.

“Canada possesses a palpable identity … Our characteristics as a country – diverse, respectful, constructive, modern – are significant assets abroad,” Clark notes. But those days are ending as the Harper government uses diplomacy, development, and defense as wedge issues that serve to divide constituencies at home and abroad.

Clark’s observations found support on the weekend from an article in the New York Times titled, “The Closing of the Canadian Mind” – an article we’ll return to in a later post. Written by Stephen Marche, a novelist and writer for Esquire Magazine, who happens to live in Toronto, the article opens up with a frank declaration:

“The nine and half years of Mr. Harper’s tenure have seen the slow-motion erosion of that reputation for open, responsible government, cloaking himself and his Conservative Party in an entitled secrecy, and the country in ignorance.”

Ouch, and yet it’s true. We might choose to ignore it, but leaders and parliaments around the world know that Canada has changed, and narrowed in its interests. Contacts that this author has nurtured over the years in the international cooperation and development field confirm this repeatedly, with leaders both in the diplomatic and development communities expressing their desire for the day when Canada returns in respect to the family of nations.

Yet that might not prove as easy as we think. Joseph Hall noted that, “A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack is.” Our nation’s present reputation as a more mean-spirited and narrow version of its former self has already had debilitating consequences, as when we were turned down for a spot on the UN Security Council, or the global shaming we repeatedly face for how we avoid effective action on climate change. Whether one agrees with such actions or not, the effect on the global community has, and continues to be, chilling. Harper’s recent decision to close down the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), through which most of our international aid and development dollars were channeled, has only made things worse.

Now that the government’s commitment to military exploits is in decline, it was perhaps inevitable that the Harper government would be called out repeatedly for how it treats its returning veterans. With military actions now sidelined, all that is left for this present government is its voice in the economic arena, and even there it is losing its reputation for prosperity mixed with social responsibility.

It is likely that most citizens around the world are hardly aware of this country’s decline in stature. Yet for those individuals and organizations Canada must partner with in numerous fields around the world, the wish for this nation to return to its previous exploits in diplomacy, foreign service, international development, and, yes, an economic policy that takes into account our global responsibilities, is more poignant than ever. They are waiting for us to show up again on the world stage, but first we Canadians will have to show up in the ballot box.

10 Essential Traits For The Next Prime Minister (Part Two)


WELL, THERE YOU GO. It’s probably a cautionary risk to offer advice to anyone seeking the highest elected office in the land. An old political operative contacted me by email this morning regarding yesterday’s post, 10 Essential Traits Our Next Prime Minister Will Need. “Politics is fundamentally tough, Glen,” she noted. “It’s hardball at a high level and these soft characteristics you write about surely sound great to average people, but no prime minister can afford to govern like that.”

So there I was, busted – a hopeless public service romantic in a world of real-world politics. Yet I suspect there’s something in her observation that most of us would have to acknowledge. As it presently stands, federal politics is a war zone and only hardened soldiers can survive.

Still, there was that phrase, “sound great to average people,” that hinted how far the political order has distanced itself from those who validate it in the first place  – citizens. To a large sector of the Canadian public the fact that democracy is equivalent to war is significantly uncomfortable and unnatural. For a historically compassionate and entrepreneurial people, only a caring and innovative government is suitable. At present there is a great mismatch between the citizen and political orders in this country.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.” That is true, and if our political world is one of debilitating partisanship and ineffective policies, then that says something about our political parties themselves, and chiefly the prime minister who sets the tone.

So let’s put out six more of these so-called “soft” traits that the next prime minister will need if politics itself is to be pulled back from the brink of “mutually assured destruction.”

  1. Follow the Golden Rule (“treat others as you would be treated yourself”). The old German statesman, Johan Goethe, put it well: “The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.” If Canadians are becoming increasingly angry and frustrated, it’s because they are picking it up from their political leaders. An effective PM has to change that equation, and fast, before all political hope for recovery is lost. At the heart of it, any PM desires respect, compassion, effective work, a collaborative environment, and family opportunity. Why, then, deny other Canadians those most basic of values in your quest for power. Earn that power, don’t grasp it through non-stop combat.
  1. Courage. Far harder that fighting a war is keeping the peace, and for that we require a PM who knows how to mend fences not plant landmines. It’s time for an armistice, for the sake of the country and our own hope for the future. To raise a political battle cry at present isn’t courageous; it’s normal. The true pathfinder will work through the differences and build a way ahead on the basis of our commonalities, even with those from other political parties. Enough with the bluster already; it’s time for brokering a more contented nation. Stop setting the tone for conflict and start showing the trend towards peace and shared prosperity. If you’re going to fight for anything, fight for peacefulness in the land. You may not want to provide it, but we have every right to expect it.
  1. Humility. No, sorry, this isn’t about you, even if you are the most famous political figure in the land. It’s about how you share power, show preference for citizens, and understand that the honour that has been conferred upon you to lead is one of hopeful trust and therefore fragile – break that trust and you’ve broken the Canadian spirit. We are a terrific nation, but we are massively diversified and spread out. We have a well-earned reputation for compromise, peacekeeping, collaboration, and, yes, managed tension. Don’t break that link with history through your arrogance. Be humbled by our past narrative, what we have built together, and then humbled even more by the quality of our citizens.
  1. Be Enthusiastic. I know, this should be a given, but all too often the sense of energy is about how great the political party is and not about the transcendent potential of the Canadian people. Elections are supposed to be about you being the best candidate because you believe in them, not because they adhere to you. There will be lots of Canadians who didn’t vote for you. Your job isn’t to ignore them but empower their capacity. If politics is about winners and losers, then democracy is supposed to be about everyone as winners, at least potentially.
  1. Be compassionate. Abigail Van Buren said, “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.” Be just that kind of person and stop merely preferring your own party people. Better to be known as the leader who included individuals and groups on the margins than the one who merely rewarded the elite. History will know the difference and so should you.
  1. Learn from others. There are reasons why average citizens hold in deep regard leaders like Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Malala, Nelson Mandela, and Vaclav Havel.  They believed in the ethical order of political and social life and their narratives went on to prove it.  Learn from the writings of such people and you’ll not only bring a renaissance to Canada, but you’ll transform yourself.



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