The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Election 2015 and the One-Percent

Cat with lion shadow

IT WAS ONLY A WEEK AGO THAT PUNDITS were arguing if “change” was really a factor in the campaign. Things weren’t shaking up much and parties appeared to be in a kind of holding pattern. Not anymore. Movement is showing up in the polling numbers and a sense of new life is emerging in this long campaign season. Voter sentiment is getting aroused and now media coverage is talking about change in its stories.

Will it be enough to set us in a new direction as a country? If you asked someone like American activist Ralph Nader you might be encouraged by his answer. Honoured by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century, Nader thinks that citizens really have to think this moment through.

“It all comes down to this question: Are enough people going to take the reins of a democratic society, move it right into the electoral arena, and then reflect sensible majority public opinion, which already exists, despite party propaganda.”

Nader figures that if just 1% of citizens who weren’t mere political robots but people interested in finding common ground would join forces and tell candidates and leaders what kind of country they wanted that the political momentum would swing in favour of a consensus. That seems impossible, yet he conducted a large study in 2012 that provided that 1% figure – “even less than 1% could do it,” he maintains.

He reasons that candidates themselves don’t know how to handle such a development. “They are very used to controlling the process, trivializing it, turning people off. They don’t care if they turn people off if it’s in the form of cynicism, because cynicism means withdrawal. In that sense, we then leave the control to the political power players and nothing changes.”

Nader believes that two key activities are required by those seeking to find commonalities across party lines: 1) if 1% of the people become very engaged in civic life; and 2) if this same group gathered together and publicly reflected on the areas of what he calls “public sentiment.”

To support that premise, he points out that at least 24 issues are supported by “heavy majorities” of people from the Left and the Right. They include challenges such as electoral reform, climate change, a higher minimum wage, even action on poverty that are supported by some 70-80% of citizens, not politicians. Why, then, can’t we put a civil coalition of something like that together that would effectively challenge the political class, moving it closer to compromise? It’s actually an action plan that could have some serious effect, but the reality is that citizens don’t know how to go about it.

Nader throws cold water on the sentiment that politics is no longer where the real action is. “But that is where the action’s at. Why are the lobbyists all over Congress if they believe politics is ineffective?” He’s right. If a lawful country can have its history altered by powerful interests that fight to alter legislation in their favour, then it makes sense that such forces would get as close to the place of lawmaking as possible.

And there’s the rub. Citizens don’t make laws; their elected representatives do. But if citizens and voters don’t remain in contact with the political process, it is inevitable that other powerful interests will fill in the vacuum left by their absence. If Nader is even close to right about the 1% number, we are far closer to renewing democracy than we realize and we could cast a long shadow.  But it will take citizens who search for a place of compromise as opposed to a partisanship of contention. It’s there, right in front of us. Only 350,000 collaborative citizens (1% of our population, or the size of London, Ontario) could get it done.

Election 2015: Please, Don’t Think

Illuminated light bulb in a row of dim ones concept for creativity, innovation and solution

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATES have become, once again, conspicuous in their absence at election debates. If any one word was used to describe democracy it is supposed to be “participation,” but this trend of avoiding the voters while at the same time asking to be their representative is a bit confounding. It would be similar to a teacher failing to show up for a parent interview, or a doctor avoiding a consultation. The government has already provided the script to all its candidates in case their absence is missing: “I am out canvassing and meeting constituents in their homes.” But there is no evidence whatsoever to prove that these absentees have visited any more homes than those of other parties who consistently show up at debates. Call it “absentee democracy.”

Pundits believe such a practice is designed to keep individual candidates from “going rogue” and deviating from the government line or the PMO talking points in any manner that could embarrass the leader or the government itself. It’s just another example of a dedicated candidate being forced into the safety of solitude as opposed to the accountable world of defending legacies and sharpening ideas.

Ultimately it is the belief that citizens don’t care enough about their democracy to really hold governments accountable for such travesties that permits the practice to continue. As such, it isn’t only about liability control but the underestimating of citizens that is really the issue.

For some in politics, the citizen stands as the one impediment to their grand designs. Instead of empowering or enlightening the average voter, the wish is there to keep them vague, in the dark, docile, and perhaps so totally uninterested as to not vote. It’s about as pessimistic a concept of democracy as exists and yet it appears to have been effective – at least until now.

Elections can be all about the dispersal of selective bits of information designed to have you believe in change while at the same time being too disjointed to actually deliver on it. Ideally, an election should be about deeper consideration of the public estate as opposed to the hyper-simplification of it, but that’s not what modern electoral contests are about. The result of all this is the emphasis on the management techniques of democracy as opposed to its real values. And then begins the long process where we begin to devalue ourselves.

We see the results of this everywhere: efficiency becomes inefficient, austerity becomes something cheap, what things are done become more important that why we do them. But it gets even worse. Prosperity is transcended by a growing poverty, costs becomes more important than values, press releases replace policy renewal, advertising trumps accountability, and, in the end, a kind of grueling partisanship takes the place of collective purpose.

A citizen who begins to think contradictory thoughts during an election, who decides to step off the political treadmill of mere opinions and take a more objective look around her, can quickly spot the emptiness of it all. It is then that she becomes an impediment to the political process because she refuses to accept the shallowness of it. She begins to understand that the great progress of the last few centuries weren’t the byproduct of rational thought or management systems, but of daring enterprises, visionary leadership, and the belief that the Canadian people are at their best when challenged to develop a better, more inclusive future.

Canada is in a state of uncertainty at the moment precisely because we accepted incremental structure over transformational action when it was required. For a government bent on sheer domination of the political landscape, the awakened citizen intent on action is of far more a threat than any opposition party, especially when others citizens join in the cause. The concern of our present state is produced just as much by an absence of values as it is candidates refusing to attend debates. Either way it is the belief that citizens are at their best when they’re mildly compliant and not agitated. Nothing could be worse for democracy, ourselves, or our nation.

In a world drowning in political words that no longer carry meaning, the only hope is the empowered citizen, engaged and determined to place values back into the centre of the national conversation. It might be the last thing the government wants, but it’s the first thing the country needs.

Election 2015: Politicians Should Understand Precarious Work

92570157IT’S A TOPIC THAT SEEMS to be all around us. Economists, social activists, researchers, corporate execs, educators, media commentators, labour researchers – all of these have spent the last few years focusing on “precarious work” as an omnipresent reality in each of our communities. That’s also true for my own city, London. Tomorrow morning, at King’s University College, there is a conference on this very issue featuring two noted Canadian economists. You can find out more about it here. The more people attending events such as these, the quicker we’ll start asking ourselves if temporary or precarious work is the kind of future we want in Canada.

The future of work itself is increasingly occupying Canadian conversations, but not in the political realm, even with the election now well underway. The key platforms of the parties talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, but that has always been the case, and following each recession in the last 30 years, the job numbers continue to decline. There is a disconnect between proposed policies and present realities and we’re no closer to solutions that we were three or four elections ago.

Author H. P. Lovecraft noted that, “from even the greatest of problems, irony is seldom absent.” He might as easily have been referring to political life, since few jobs carry such uncertainty as being a politician. You can be greatly appreciated but lose because of a split vote. People might like you but not your leader. Or you might not have performed to voter’s expectations. When times are difficult or confining, as they are now, no politician is beyond the desire of the average voter for change.

When times are good, policy can be predominant. Yet if change is in the air, politics becomes about passions, anger, euphoria, disillusionment, even despair. In such a context, the politician can feel like the most vulnerable employee on the planet.

Why, as a consequence, can’t communities get more serious attention from political folks on such an issue, especially considering they have “lived experience” on the matter? Was Abraham Lincoln right, then, when he told a friend, “A statesman is he who thinks in the future generations, and a politician is he who thinks in the upcoming election?” Or how about Paulo Coelho’s take on it?

“Culture makes people understand each other better.  And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers.  But first they have to understand that their neighbour is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions.”

The issue here isn’t about people having any kind of job, but of citizens inhabiting healthy jobs that permit them to contribute to their respective communities. It hard to build a culture of prosperity and inclusion when your life is taken up with worrying if you’ll still have your job next week, next month, next year. Politicians should understand that as well as anyone, but why can’t they make precarious work part of this election campaign in ways that are relevant and not merely aspirational?

Too many people are living out William Shakespeare’s observation in The Merchant of Venice: “You take my life when you take the means whereby I live.” Following this election, a greater or lesser number of MPs are going to live through that experience, perhaps wishing, once feeling the crunching nature of loss, that they had shown more attention to the precarious work file while they were still in the position to make change.

Election 2015: What in the World?


IT WAS SUPPOSED TO REMAIN CONFIDENTIAL, and was even marked “secret” on its cover page, but the contents were obtained by the Globe and Mail. It wasn’t pretty. Neither was it inconsequential.

In a presentation prepared by senior Foreign Affairs officials for a high level meeting two weeks ago, the analysis could be wrapped up in one sentence: “Despite Canada’s reputation as an active player on the world stage, by many measures, its relative influence has declined or is under threat.” It wasn’t a conclusion the government would have liked to hear, and so it sought to keep it quiet.

And yet we know it; Canadians have felt the slippage over recent years, but because these issues are at a global level they have felt there is little that they, as citizens, can do. And it appears they may have been right – until now, that is, when their vote could make the difference to whether Canada reclaims its traditional place in the world or continues in its decline.

It’s likely that those senior officials who have held the vital responsibility for diplomacy and international development have been the most aggrieved in recent years, as they have witnessed Canada’s influence erode and struggled to get the Harper government to fulfill and build on its responsibilities. The Globe and Mail states that Foreign Affairs officials put it all plainly:

  • There has been a “loss of our traditional place at some multilateral tables
  • Canada is not a “partner of first choice” for foreign countries
  • We have a “declining market share in emerging markets” with fast-developing nations
  • Canada’s “official development assistance is declining,” as other countries like China enhanced their interests through foreign aid

This has been an electoral campaign full of issues that are vital to the Canadian identity. And although such contests tend to repeatedly focus on domestic issues, sometimes the world breaks in through realities that can actually affect how we live here, within our own borders. In the last few weeks we have faced an ongoing refugee crisis, tremors in the world economy, a sluggish major trade deal with Europe, a minor role in military action, and the urgent reality of climate change. In all of these things it is only by partnering with other nations that we can hope to overcome such challenges. And yet we are failing on this key point, opting to chart our own course and veer away from our tradition as a solid trade/development/diplomatic partner.

Last night a debate between the party leaders focused on international affairs, but the reality is that global challenges are part and parcel of every day of this long campaign. It is impossible for domestic politics to rule supreme during an electoral contest when the world is facing challenges on so many fronts. In such a setting, a secret report from highly qualified people telling of our global failings in this crucial hour is hardly comforting.

Canada has historically been a true international country and it’s time we starting act like it. As we lose track of time and our place in history, other nations in the world are emerging.  Perhaps the upcoming election will provide the impetus for us to recapture our status and effectiveness in the global arena once more. As Albert Schweitzer put it: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” It’s time that we, as citizens, helped Canada get back to a place of international influence.

Election 2015: Underselling the Need for Change

articles_8CB8CE03-2CB3-42C0-B97C-93B8BB704D8EJohn Ibbitson is a writer for the Globe and Mail and in 2005 he sent a valentine to Canada. He placed it in and red-and-white envelope on which he wrote The Polite Revolution: Perfecting the Canadian Dream. He sealed it with the Maple Leaf. It was basically an entreaty to look past the meagreness of politics and to think big. He also asked Canadians to think of themselves as a great people.

Obvious in Ibbitson’s message was the evidence that dysfunctional politics shouldn’t hold citizens back from what they were capable of. And yet, sadly, it does, over and over again. One of the interesting developments of this federal election is the growing fear of decline that’s more prevalent than we realized. It’s not merely about our current economic struggles but transcends into areas where Canadians used to feel a deeper sense of national pride. Somehow we feel we are underachieving when it comes to our political system and that leads us to believing we are underrepresented.

Endemic in all this has been the growing desire for something different in this election, some kind of change befitting our capabilities. Canadians have always felt that they had something important to add to the world, even if that wasn’t exactly true at times. If we occasionally went overboard with our belief of an important destiny, we always did so with a kind of humility that endeared us to others.

It’s tough to find that kind of confidence now. Instead we sense that our value to the world is at a low ebb, at the same time that we are forced to concur that our economic woes and other domestic responsibilities just don’t seem to be aligning in ways that assist us in overcoming our challenges.

Canadians have always been at their best when maintaining the belief that they can create the change they require when obstacles stand in our way – our history is full of such examples. Why is it, then, that we hear so little of this in the run-up to the federal election in October? How will politics fashion us so that we can play our important part in this relatively new century? Or would the better question be how can we as citizens fashion our politics so as to us assist us in reaching our potential?

Political campaigns likely use the word “change” more than any other because politicians and their handlers have to somehow instill in the electorate that they “get it” when it comes to a citizen’s desire for something better. And yet for all our wealth, we are being informed that we can’t afford our shared prosperity. For all our compassion, we are reminded that we can’t pay for solid welfare, a robust healthcare system, or regional equalization. With all our ingenuity and industriousness, we are reminded that we will never have the secure employment we had in previous decades. And with all the love we have for our grand open spaces, the rivers, mountains, and every sacred natural resource, we are again reminded that we can’t afford to protect such treasures through an effective plan for sustainability.

Despite our wealth, we are poor in spirit. With all of our compassion, we nevertheless don’t feel the love. With all our skills, we are feeling underused. And with some of the greatest natural riches on earth, we are left to feel as though we are poor stewards. This is the politics of underachievement and low expectations, even of ourselves.

We require change, but it keeps getting undersold to us in this campaign. We require policies and challenges worthy of who we are in our best moments, not merely in our safest ones. We want change – the political kind – that reminds us that Einstein’s adage still holds true:

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

It’s time for a campaign that doesn’t merely tempt us with small adjustments but changes us by challenging us.  This shouldn’t be a campaign of mere rhetoric but of revolutionary change. Somehow our politics isn’t giving it to us and we are failing to demand it. We still have three weeks left to turn that around.

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