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LOOK AT THIS PHOTO AND JUST TAKE IN its uniqueness. It’s from the Parliamentary holiday party in 1971 – a throwback to a previous era when respect in government was still seen as one of the prerequisites for effective public service. At the right is Tommy Douglas (NDP leader), dressed as King Arthur, but you can also spot Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, Stanley Knowles (NDP), and Audrey Schreyer as Queen Guinevere. It would be a gathering as difficult to pull off today as the original Christmas story.

The occasion had been the annual Christmas party for the New Democratic Party and it was common for  figures from other parties to share in the spirit. Yet for a whole new generation of Canadians the thought that such a thing once occurred in this country would likely never enter their minds.

The photo is, in its own way, a sign of so much that is wrong in politics today. This is the time of the permanent election campaign, where constantly bashing the other parties (especially their leaders) has become a sport and an occupation – and, sadly, a distraction.

How we respect one another in our differences as citizens now becomes more vital than at any other time in our history. The situation has reversed itself, where politics itself now looks to the citizenry for role models.

It used to be that the term “golden rule” carried sway in the political chambers of our nation. It found its origin in the numerous scriptures from different faiths, but it essentially urged people to treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated. It’s a simple rule, one which, in one form or another, we have sought to teach our children from the beginning. Now, no one expects politics to easily apply such a challenge, but it nevertheless should still stand as a goal for political behaviour.

We could utilize the golden rule in the ways we communicate and debate one another as citizens. In a world where political parties maneuver themselves into ideological corners from which they can’t escape, Canadians can discover avenues of engagement unrestrained by such archaic confines.

All this leads each of us to an important question: “How would we like others to behave towards us when engaged in political discussion?” We already know the answer: take me seriously, show respect for my opinion, listen sincerely as I attempt to explain my position, and be open to some aspects of what I’m saying that you might agree with, and perhaps we can start from there. This is how the politicians of the past did it, but it appears more and more likely that only citizens can accomplish it for the future.

In such a context, why would I brandish a party label and be crude with someone when I would dislike being treated that way myself? We wouldn’t want our opinions distorted or maligned, so why, then, would I do that to others?

There were times when official political rhetoric wasn’t as poisoned as now, where representatives found the common ground together and worked out their compromises from there. In a modern world of negative ads and spin-doctors it is admittedly a difficult thing to recreate. But as we increasingly accomplish that feat ourselves as citizens, we remind all those seeking political life that such things as the golden rule are more than abstract principles or some kind of symbolism for an ideal world, but a practical guide as to how we can get ourselves, and our democracy, out of this mess.

“I believe in the Golden Rule,” noted famed country singer, Loretta Lynn, “but more than that, I believe in practicing it.” In that distinction might very well lie the future of our political estate.