The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Turning Left on Main Street

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THIS TITLE ISN’T ORIGINAL TO ME, BUT IT’S COMPELLING.  Things are shifting.  The media senses it. Political parties recognize it. But above all, we feel it. In the parlance of the old rag-tag political world, the last two decades of a detached corporatism, the strangling effects of the ongoing austerity agenda, and the ineffectiveness of the present political order, means the right-wing agenda is running out of gas, or more likely ethical legitimacy. Our collective problems aren’t going away. Take your pick – a deteriorating climate, escalating poverty, high unemployment, a diminished public space, mushrooming healthcare difficulties, especially in the mental health field – and it’s clear that for all the wealth, the access, the trade, the flooding of the world with cheap goods, we have lost our way.

And so average citizens have begun shifting from their own individual interests to a more galvanizing form of collective pursuits for the good of the broader community. It’s been a long time coming, but it is now here, subtle and still gathering, but its presence is unmistakable. The so-called political right can’t stand this kind of talk, yet it’s had more than enough time so set us on the overcome these hurdles. For all its talk about wealth, globalization, expanding markets, the Right hasn’t been able to deliver on the greatest challenges we face – plenty of money but no solutions.

Five years ago everyone was talking about Wall Street, or Bay Street, versus Main Street. And it’s been a battle. But as more and more average citizens get engaged, the conflict that had been largely group versus group, is summoning and increasing number of individuals, who sense that democracy has to fight for its own future.

The real fight now isn’t about Left versus Right, but communities versus senior levels of government that no longer hear them, and the debilitating partisanship that often substitutes itself for effective politics. At the street level people are coming out and making their presence felt. But we shouldn’t mistake this development as being a Left wing resurgence. The true story is now Canada’s story – what we had, what we want, and where we want to journey together. It is not the boardroom that matters so much, or the political party conference table, but the living room, the kitchen, even the bedroom. Extend this movement even further and you find citizens fighting back in schools, council chambers, neighbourhoods, universities, community colleges, and, yes, even Main Street.

Polling over the last two years reveals that over half of Canada feels enough isn’t being done about climate change, that poverty is too expansive, that the cost of university is too expensive, that the gap between rich and poor must be reversed, and that politics has become a mug’s game.

There you have it; Canadians are emerging from decades of individualism, growing restless, and are ready to pull together to alter their fate. Are there enough of them engaged? Can’t tell, but their number is growing by the month, just in time for a federal election. Naturally, the government is hoping for a vote split between the other parties, but the real story behind that approach is that the progressives are now outpacing the Right and only by dividing the opposition can that Right hope to win. But that’s politics, not democracy. If the government were truly interested in average citizens and communities, it would alter its policies to capture that mood, but instead it would rather use political weapons to divide instead of democratic ploughshares to plant.

South of the border this story is seen in the popularity of progressives like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, perhaps even Hillary Clinton. Up here in Canada it’s not so much about the federal, but the provincial scene, where progressives are rapidly taking over the provincial seats of power. Something is changing and we’re starting to catch the drift: austerity has led us into a cul de sac and we want back out onto Main Street.

Really, other than for political pundits, none of this is about Left against Right, but people against partisanship, citizens opposed free wheeling corporatism, and progressive communities fighting the political class. Citizens are trying to find their back to home to meaning, and opting for Main Street as their avenue of choice, and where their neighbours live. They aren’t looking so much to run away from right-wing dead ends, but towards their communities and one another. If they succeed, democracy for the modern era will be reborn.

Needing More Than Good Wages

Second-Act-Career-Workshop-Finding-the-Me-in-Meaningful-WorkFOR TWO DECADES THE SUBJECT OF JOBS, or the lack of them, has come to dominate more and more of the public and political space. The conversation runs the range from no jobs, minimum wage jobs, to intriguing new discussions on living wage opportunities. The gold standard that everyone would prefer is employment with good wages – a depleting reality at present.

There has been some movement on the issue, perhaps the most notable being Walmart’s raising wages for some of its lowest-paid employees in the U.S. It has been surmised that the retail giant made the move following the release of the book, The Good Jobs, by MIT professor Zeynep Ton 18 months ago. But rather than being encouraged by such initiatives taken by companies in recent months, Zeynep remains troubled.

She acknowledges that the changes in Walmart’s compensation of its employees reflect an improvement, one that has resulted in a lower turnover rate among its workers. The main premise of her book, however, is that raising wages doesn’t go far enough unless employees themselves become investors. Speaking to the Atlantic recently, she observed that,

“A good job is more than just higher wages. A good job is also a productive job … If their jobs are designed in a way that doesn’t allow them to contribute that much, even hard work isn’t going to help very much. If you ask an employee to have a say in the selection and quality of a product, that person can contribute so much more. If you design a job so that a person can contribute more, you’ll need highly motivated, capable employees, and you can pay them a lot more.”

It’s an investment by the employer, she reasons. Provide your workers with more responsibility and a healthier work environment is created and your employees take on more value. Zeynep defines herself as an optimist and confesses she is hoping for a better future for companies, their investors, and their employees. She has been approached by numerous companies, intrigued as they are by her propositions, but she has yet to see them take her ideas seriously enough to alter the corporate landscape.

On the other hand, she finds that startups and smaller businesses are implementing these concepts at a healthy rate. As with any other type of environment, changing the historic culture can be an ominous task, made all the more difficult by the refusal of companies to change what has proved successful in the past. Smaller companies, and those just beginning, don’t have to fight through all those weeds and can establish their working principles on a clean slate.

Zeynep believes that the key to transforming the work culture is the direct attention of the CEO’s. “There needs to be a committed leader at the top of the organization … willing to believe that this is a long-term strategy that isn’t just based on some kind of quick return.”

She then makes an intriguing observation: “One of the bigger obstacles is that a lot of companies are still making a lot of money through mediocrity. They offer bad service and bad jobs, yet they are still making money.” She believes that excellence is a lot harder to achieve in such a context.

The only way to change that, naturally enough, is to treat your employees as well-paid investors, who will then provide better service. Her background isn’t in labour studies but in supply-chain management, so she carries a lot of authority in her outlook and words. She came to understand that if businesses continue with the mentality that labour is just a cost that they should attempt to minimize, then they have already lost their ability to connect with their customers. “A vicious cycle,” she calls it.

With all the talk about worker compensation, along with the intriguing work being developed around the “living wage” concept, we are entering an era where a growing understanding of the costs of low wages is registering with the business community. As necessary as that is, if it isn’t matched with the belief that employees are also “investors” in the final product, then the business reformation will pass businesses by.

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill-provided but use what we have wastefully,” noted the philosopher Seneca. That is the true efficiency problem in the modern world of capitalism. To waste opportunity is a serious thing in the modern business world. To waste an employee is many times worse.

Public Good Without the Facts

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WHEN ALLAN GREGG DELIVERED THE Knowles-Woodsworth lecture at the University of Winnipeg 18 months ago, his speech created much introspection on where Canada is going. Yet the well-known pollster, television interviewer, and political pundit, began with who were are as a people before launching into his concerns of who we might become.

He spoke of how we were a nation of facts, data, progressive thought, and directed by research for public policy decisions. Such dependence on evidence-based data and relevant statistics had served us well for decades, helping Canada to stand somewhat apart from other countries through its unique balancing of social justice and economic health.

But no sooner had he said that than he got to nitty-gritty: “It seems as though our government’s use of evidence and facts as the bases of policy was declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency was on the rise.”

Using the termination of the Statistics Canada long-form census by the Harper government, he asked a practical question: “How could you determine how many units of affordable housing were needed unless the change in the number of people who qualified for affordable housing? How could you assess the appropriate costs of affordable housing unless you knew the change in the amount of disposable income available to eligible recipients?” These were vital questions every community across the country required answers for, but the feds had removed the main resource whereby we could acquire the information required to respond with effective public policy. The termination of the census, he reasoned, “amounted to an attempt to eliminate anyone who might use science, facts, and evidence to challenge government policies.”

Then Gregg took a deliberate turn into history, reflecting on how civilization would inevitably take steps backward the moment ruling elites suppressed knowledge from getting to citizens. “The subversive power of the flow of information and people has never been lost on political and religious tyrants. This is why they suppress speech, writing and associations and why democracies protect these channels in their bills of rights.”

The list of key public servants fired by the present government is now lengthy and acknowledged. The suppression of scientific voices, and the requirement of such voices to first have their facts and speeches vetted by the government public relations office has now become so glaring that even voices from around the globe have wondered why Canada, of all places, has chosen to emasculate its own conscience and intelligence in such a fashion. It takes all of 30 seconds on Google to verify that there is a huge body of evidence on this political suppression.

I especially appreciated Gregg’s observation on how this has affected our political life together, wondering whether government’s forcing a false division between reason and morality, “might be responsible for the shrill, callow and uninspirational public discourse that takes place today.” Just sixty seconds in Question Period would seem to answer that question with some sense of clarity.

Allan Gregg quoted Mahatma Gandhi strategically in the middle of his speech by reminding his audience that such false divisions were what often pulled houses of faith into decades of ineffectiveness: “A religion that takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no religion.” We understand his implication: any government that refuses enlightened research and information from its citizens in order to maintain power is no government.

Yes, government panhandlers will argue vociferously against this, and opposition parties will concur outright with Gregg. But these parties aren’t the ultimate arbitrator or judge on such matters. And as vital as the voices of science and information are, they are not what will fully convince us that something is amiss in Canada. For that, we only have to live a little while in our own minds to understand the implications of all this. We know politics is in decline. We are aware that citizens feel left out of their own collective fate. We live with the effects of climate change every season and marvel that no imagination or sense of urgency emanates from Ottawa. We feel angst because we are aware that poverty is growing and that small businesses keep getting passed over for the big firms with clout and influence.

We know all this already – more scientific voices or data will only confirm what we already sense. If Gandhi was correct when he said that,” we are the change we have been seeking,” then fewer things can drive change as effectively as a people who know in their heart of hearts that we have lost our way as a nation due, in part, to manipulation by government. We don’t require more data to know we must alter our path; we need citizens who will bring their own lights of conscience to overpower the shadows cast by partisan urges of the political order. To create change, it’s not more science that we need, but average citizens willing enough to put already established facts over the political establishment’s fictions.

 

 

 

Hibernating Bigotry

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WITH A FEDERAL ELECTION HEATING UP, the political establishment will come after citizens once more, asking them what they want and promising to give it to them if they would but vote. You’d think that after a time, especially following years of political dysfunction, that this being catered to every four years or so would begin to grate on us somewhat. And perhaps it has and that is part of the reason voter turnout continues to decline.

But politicians know something about us that they would never say and we would never admit: we aren’t just a people of myriad opinions, but of latent prejudices that we quietly live out each day but which we never let fully out into the open. Thus the political order, perhaps even especially in election time, plays to that part of us. ill Clinton, alluded to this tendency in his 1995 State of the Union address:

“If you go back to the beginning of this country, the great strength of America has always been our ability to associate with people who were different from ourselves and to work together to find common ground. And in this day, everybody has a responsibility to do more of that. We simply can’t wait for a tornado, a fire, or a flood to behave like Americans ought to behave in dealing with one another.”

And then Clinton opened up about the prejudice politicians often have for citizens, and it wasn’t pretty: “Most of us in politics haven’t helped very much. For years, we’ve mostly treated citizens like they were consumers or spectators, sort of political couch potatoes who were supposed to watch our political TV ads either promise them something for nothing or play on their fears and frustrations.”

And, so, there it was, how politicians see us. That sad part is that they might, in part at least, be correct. Clinton’s solution to this “silo” form of citizenship was a “New Covenant,” in which citizens get back to the prime task of getting to know one another and working together – something most Americans never got around to.

Recently, Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University, gave a major speech to educators, in which she called up the ghosts of what she called “hibernating bigotry.” She quoted from the book, Taking on Diversity: “We stay away from the interpersonal level where bigotry implicates us all, refusing to acknowledge it. We leave it to our children to carry our baggage on their backs.”

It is easy to spot outright bigotry, and it’s likely our kids see it quicker that we do, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. It’s not about race riots, public violence against women, or the comments by the haters on social media. Most of us rightly avoid such things, even taking stands against them. No, were talking about the “subtle” forms of bigotry. It’s about the distance we place between ourselves and those struggling in the mental health cycle. It’s our quiet avoidance of people from ethnic populations who might make us feel uncomfortable, as we do them. It’s about how we tolerate a growing poverty in our nation, attempting to ameliorate our conscience with the odd donation. It’s the anonymous despair we feel when we increasingly learn of hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women but somehow don’t get around to joining a movement to get the feds to finally deal with it.

But it goes even deeper, this legacy of taking democracy for granted without ever really entering it or truly fighting for it. It’s about how we pull back when we come to understand that the solution to poverty will involve the sacrifice of all citizens, sometimes with taxes, other times by joining together to end homelessness in our communities. And it’s when we become increasingly aware of the impact of climate change but can’t quite manage to alter our lifestyle to play our own part more significantly in healing the planet. I wrestle with all the issues within myself, so I’m presuming many of us face the same battle. Except, in my case at least, it’s not so much a conflict as it is a quiet prejudice of placing myself and my family over truly taking part in healing society and the environment at the same time.

Presidential candidate, John Dewey, put it this was in 1937: “Democracy has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every day and year, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.”

Are we ready for this? Am I? Because the political order is banking on the fact we aren’t and that we can be played according to our prejudices. Perhaps this is the worst aspect of politics, but it represents the shame of citizenship if we can’t transcend our own limitations and persuade politicians to make the tough choices. If we can, though, then this next election will not only bring about a new life of democracy, but a higher kind of politics in the process.

 

 

800 Years and We’re Still At It

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“2015 is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta, the single most important legal document in history.  The foundation for global constitutions, commerce and communities.  The anchor for the Rule of Law.”

… RT. Hon. Fiona Woolfe C.B.E.

WAIT, DON’T MOVE ON JUST YET, because what this means is that we are who we are because the Magna Carta is what it is. Yes, the language is a bit formal and, yes, eight centuries seem a long time ago. But the signing of this vital document at Runnymede in England served as a shot across the bow of all those seeking to hold onto power for its own sake. All those great movements and documents that came later – revolutions, constitutions, declarations of independence, the right to freely vote – eventually emerged because centuries earlier a number of barons opted to hold the king to account, introducing the idea that power itself is never a guaranteed thing.

We shouldn’t go overboard, assuming that the Magna Carta introduced democracy to the world. It wasn’t about the average person at all, but an effort by some 40 English barons to fight back against King John’s excessive taxation plan. It didn’t happen in a palace, a cathedral, or a court, but an obscure field near Windsor, away from the great institutions of the day. I’ve been to that spot and there’s still nothing grand about it.

Perhaps that’s partly because they understood it was unlikely to last, which, in that era, turned out to be true. A few months after signing the document, King John had it annulled by the Vatican, who then proceeded to excommunicate all the rebellious barons from the church. Later, when Henry III became king, he reissued the Magna Carta, but pared down the clauses from 69 to 27. Today, only three of the original clauses remain part of English law.

Yet what the Magna Carta means to the world today is far greater than even the full document itself could represent, for it has come to mean something far more than some rich folks attempting to make themselves richer by getting the king to back off. It pointed to the vulnerabilities and the transient nature of power itself. While some see it as a precursor to democracy, its real value lies in the establishment of due process. It says that no person can be stripped of their property or rights without going through an established legal process. This was revolutionary for its day. Law was to become the basis of societal function, not some whim of the king or the powerful elite.

Ironically, that ancient document designed to get more wealth has taken on an entirely new meaning. It gives everyone under the domain of law the right to live out their lives in the way they see fit. In a modern world where the financial barons and corporate giants seek every advantage from political elites they can acquire, it is vital that the arc of power moves towards all and not just some.

Yes, the Magna Carta in initial form could rightly be called a failure, but people at the time worried it was also true of the visionary documents of the American and French revolutions. But beneath the Magna Carta’s language were inspiring notions about sovereigns bowing to the will of their people and that law, not papal or kingly power, should be the ultimate arbitrator and protector of citizens. In other words, the hidden aspirations of the document outlived its time-sensitive importance. The document that failed to deliver its promise in its time nevertheless inspired 800 years of idealism.

In the end, the Magna Carta has come to represent the free expression and will of the people over those in power. That’s not what the original document, penned on sheepskin, was about at all. But the dreams of all of us can often outlast the machinations of a few of us, and the Magna Carta stands today as one of humanity’s great achievements.  Eight centuries later we are still struggling to ensure that wealth doesn’t merely accrue to the hands of a few.

As Thomas Tany was to write in 1650, “The Magna Carta is the being of our being.” Indeed. Almost eight centuries later, Anne Frank was to put her seal on that outlook:  “I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.”

Anne Frank did it under totalitarianism; surely we should be able to accomplish our collective ideals under freedom.

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