The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Liberalism

Time to End the Tinkering

With the new Parliament getting under way, it appears that, thus far, things don’t seem like business as usual in Ottawa.  Numerous commentators have wondered whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ambitious agenda about renewal in many dimensions can last.  We don’t know at present, but watching the House proceedings yesterday reminded me of a post I wrote last year, pressing that it was time to get serious about change.  It won’t happen unless citizens keep pressing for the very pragmatic ideals they voted for in this past election.  Below is the post from almost a year ago.

THE FEDERAL LIBERALS CAUCUSED IN LONDON this week and it was good to see some old friends. Justin Trudeau was struggling through a bout of food poisoning and his caucus was focusing on the one issue they believe will prove critical to the coming election: the economy.

I get it. Each party is talking about our struggling economy, hoping to leverage some advantage from it, one way or the other. But I wanted to ask my Liberal friends one question: will you stop tinkering this time? All parties have been doing so, but this occasion in London could represent a turning point within the party.

We all understand that each time we bounce back from some kind of recession, severe or light, that we never land back where we were. The unemployment rate continues to climb, as do the obstacles confronting the poor. On other occasions, all parties have focused on economic solutions but they never quite pulled it off. Yes, deficits were slayed, or, yes, trade was enhanced, but the growing disillusionment and worry among Canadians is inevitably creeping up to the levels found in the United States. People don’t really trust government to get things right anymore because, well, our problems have grown regardless of who was in power.

The real problem confronting the political order these days is not financial capital but social capital. Somewhere along the line, the political order lost touch with the mood of the people and now everything is about pursuing the vote of a relatively few number of people in order to gain power. We, as Canadians, understand that. But will you go back to the origins of our difficulties and repair them from their very source? There was a time when the corporate good transcended the public good and ever since then we have watched as wealth has been accumulated in record measures at the same time as less and less of it went to average Canadians.

In a very real and increasingly tragic way, Canadians have felt the withdrawal of institutional supports, both private and public. This has created a crisis in confidence that can’t be simply solved by an election. Forget talking about the lower, middle, or upper class; this is about the “anxious” class, and how the worry they feel about the future of their kids and a more dangerous world is far more serious than any political party’s electioneering. These people are struggling to preserve their standing, their sense of worth in an increasingly alienated culture. And now they have slowly begun pursuing individual survival over social solidarity. Signs of this are everywhere, but it’s important to acknowledge that the political and financial classes oversaw this development, and to merely give us the same-old, same-old, will only erode that reality further.

There used to be a time when individual identity and social identity crisscrossed repeatedly in Canada. In rural communities and big cities there was always the sense that this country was “under construction” and going somewhere. Now we have no idea where the politicos are taking us, and our confidence in the future and ourselves is eroding.

Liberals have always prided themselves as the party of balance. Okay, but our sense of equilibrium has been shot for some time now. All parties played a role in that disruption and we won’t get things right unless we go back to the origins of our difficulties. Why has the political class forced us to choose between trade and jobs, between comfortable houses and homelessness, between remaining in the middle-class or poverty, between meager governments or no governments at all? These are sincere questions that should be asked of all parties.

Even at the best of times in recent decades we have felt the tearing at the fabric of the Canadian identity. We have failed our aboriginal people seriously enough that we can’t even muster the strength or sense of social justice to launch a commission to locate the roughly 1,000 missing or murdered aboriginal women in this country. What is that about? Is this the vitality of our social consciousness these days? Must we watch as parties bludgeon themselves to a depraved degree and walk away with any sense of hope diminished?

You believe in balance, right? But can we all bring ourselves to acknowledge that we lost that tenuous tension that was Confederation years ago? The number of poor is growing. Good jobs are becoming scarce. Veterans are being denied. Seniors are fretting. And students can’t even afford to learn anymore. This is not the Canada we envision in our finest moments. So, enough with balance already; let’s get on with finding answers to these, our deepest problems.

In the U.S., Obama has opted to use the last two years of his tenure to attempt to bring about social and economic change. Yet there was a time when people thought he would start with such things, not end with them in a lame duck scenario. Enough with institutional cynicism; get on with the task of remaking the country on the basis of our progressive ideals and not some corporate ideology.

This is about the battle for the heart and soul, not of the Liberal Party, but of the country. The sweet spot isn’t the middle-class, but the aspirations of a good people. The time for tinkering is over; the time for renaissance has come.

 

 

 

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

justin-trudeau___Content

AS JUSTIN TRUDEAU MOVES THROUGH A SERIES OF SUMMITS that will surely have an effect on global direction, I thought of John Kennedy describing the turbulent first few months of his presidency:

“I knew that this country faced serious challenges, but I could not realize – nor could any man realize who does not bear the burdens of this office – how heavy and constant would be those burdens” 

Both men were the second youngest to be elected to the highest office of their respective countries – Kennedy was 42, Trudeau one year older. International crises defined their first year, and, like Kennedy, Trudeau has fielded no shortage of opinions concerning how he should respond to the Paris attacks. Some think he should ramp up Canada’s mission, while others believe he should stick with his original promise to bring the planes back home.

Putting aside our personal opinions for a moment, one can’t help but feel some sympathy for the situation the newly elected Prime Minister finds himself in. The pressures on Trudeau to ramp up the military option are fierce, and yet he rightfully points out that he was elected on a mandate to place resources on other vital aspects of Canadian influence, like diplomacy, international development, and peaceful conflict resolution.

Trudeau knows well enough that the West has been bombing regions of the Middle East for three decades and that there is little to show for it. Yet neither can he wash his hands of the affair. He’s in a bind, and at the end of all the opinions, pro and con, it is he who must decide.

The new PM doesn’t think along the traditional lines of conflict management. As Obama reminded the world yesterday, the real issues lie in the miserable conditions that caused so many refugees to flee their homelands. In a few more years, the Arab world will replace Africa as the world’s poorest region. Left in that condition, we can only expect more turbulence. Any military response must be coupled with far more effective efforts in diplomacy, education, women’s empowerment, and micro enterprise – initiatives that underwent significant cuts by the previous government.

And then there is the reality that few wish to talk about: ISIS, as a broker of world calamity, is highly overrated. This feels counterintuitive, but it merits further discussion. Paul Krugman, of the New York Times, among others, reminds us that the main weapon brandished by ISIS is fear itself:

“The biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire. And it’s crucial to realize that there are multiple ways the response can go wrong.”

He reminds us that one fallacy would be straight out appeasement – acting as though nothing serious has happened. Another would be stripping most of the liberties and rights of Western citizens in an effort to promise a security that can’t be guaranteed. There are some things that can’t simply be bartered away, like personal liberty and the case for a universal sense of human worth and dignity. As Krugman concludes: “The goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of.” Paris makes it feel like they are capable of so much more, but in reality it is the fear their actions breed within us that carries the greatest danger.

Trudeau is of the belief that cooperation among nations must be more permanent than just responding to occasional emergencies. The roots of terrorism lie in poverty, ignorance, and closed societies, and in this surely the nations of the world, and the private sector along with them, can provide resources other than mere weaponry and military intervention.  Each nation can play its own unique role, Canada among them.

Harsh reality broke in on Justin Trudeau’s entrance onto the world stage and will surely test the fortitude of his convictions and his belief that the Canadian people voted for something other than ongoing warfare. Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry IV’s leadership as, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” is hauntingly real at this moment. The rhetoric of only a week ago, maintaining that, “Canada is back” is no longer sufficient for this vital moment in time. What is required now is a Canada that is different – in how it approaches the status quo, in its belief in the power of a woman’s role in the world, and the vitality of education, health, and a sustainable natural order. A PM that believes in the power, compassion, and fortitude of his own people might very well prove more effective than any jet armed to the teeth.

Looks Like History Didn’t End After All

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ALMOST TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO IT BECAME a literary sensation. I devoured the book in three days on the coast of Nova Scotia. The premise of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was provocative, if not audacious. He reasoned that it was clear that capitalist democracy has basically beaten back every other form of government and stood pre-eminent over history itself. He viewed history as a winding experimentation of various forms of governance that eventually fended off unworthy contenders to claim democracy itself as the ultimate victor. In that sense, history needed to look no further; it had reached the most free, refined, and prosperous political management system that would likely never be transcended.

Admittedly, it was a heady time. Communism had fallen. American imperialistic democracy appeared unassailable. And capitalism? Globalization was supposedly spreading its prosperity around the world. All looked good; why look for anything better?

Looking back at it now, it all seems so naïve. The attacks of 9/11 brought all that to a screaming halt. Though armed conflicts between official state actors has been in decline for decades, the rise of terrorism and the lack of accountability of non-state actors has made the world seem more dangerous. The Great Recession put the lie to the simplistic belief that capitalism would lead us to some kind of Nirvana. And the impending catastrophic reach of climate change, driven largely by the insane penchant for modernization without the proper understanding of the consequences, might very well bring us to the edge of catastrophe. So, no, history didn’t end up in the ideal, but in a toxic soup of challenges that civilization hardly seems prepared for.

In a real sense history hasn’t changed much at all, but our perception of it clearly has. It’s never been easy and progress has always been excruciating. Democracy is now being challenged by numerous hybrid-like systems of government, such as China’s. Our comfortable Western view of humanity is under assault and our political structures are sagging under the strain. The great consensus between democracy and capitalism is no longer a sure thing.

In a very real way the concepts of both the democratic and capitalist experiments have to be reinvented if they are to endure. A financial system that can make individuals billionaires overnight while leaving billions in grinding poverty over decades can hardly claim legitimacy. And a political system that can’t overcome the huge gap between itself and the citizenry makes it less likely to be trusted. Both systems were meant to provide prosperity and equity for the masses, neither of which has materialized as hoped.

If everyone truly possesses potential and equal dignity, then what are we doing allowing systems that bring us neither? History should have taught us that you can’t sustain a system that gives you everything but kills the planet, but we haven’t learned that reality yet. Refined history informed us that men and women are truly equal, but we still behave as though we didn’t get the memo. It reminded us that any nation carrying too great a gap between rich and poor eventually squanders its prosperity, but we were too busy with our credit cards.

While believing the self-interest is the way ahead, we forgot that without the collective interest nothing is truly achieved.

History isn’t about economics or governance, but ultimately concerns the pursuit of a respectful humanity. Fukuyama told us that the fulfillment of money and politics would make us happy, effectively ending history’s pursuit, but what we have learned is that they have impoverished and isolated us because we forgot that history itself cannot progress without empowered humans themselves. Time to get back to shaping history for all rather than leveraging it for the few.

Election 2015: The Son Outshines the Father

 

My new Huffington Post piece on how Justin Trudeau’s victory was greater than his fathers – http://goo.gl/qYtK2R

 

‘PEOPLE EXPECT WHAT THEY EXPECT,” says Vaibhav Mehta, “But they never realize the possibility ofimages surprise beyond expectations.” It is a sentiment that, just as good as any, describes what happened on Election Night 2015. Justin Trudeau accomplished what many thought impossible, or at the very least improbable.

Regardless of what one may have thought of the remarkable results, it reminded everyone that the Canadian people, subtle and polite as they are, hold within them the seeds of quiet revolution, occasionally teaching us that even in the familiar there can be surprise and wonder.

Almost every prediction was wrong.

Virtually no one expected the early signs of Red Tide on the East coast to transform into a tsunami by the time the evening was over. Watching Stephen Harper at the end of it all was something like reading Donna Tartt’s observation in her The Secret History: “How quickly he fell; how soon it was over.” A watered-down version of that fate described the outcome for Thomas Mulcair. Things didn’t go as expected.

I sat in the House of Commons with the party leaders for a number of years and came to know their traits. When Justin Trudeau was elected in 2008 it was clear to everyone that he could never be destined for the backbenches. Out of the ashes of that difficult campaign for the Liberals rose a kind of phoenix that would lead to their redemption.

They sat Justin Trudeau directly behind me in the House and for almost three years I got a ringside view of his development. His rhetoric, at times bawdy, nevertheless carried intensity in the Parliamentary chamber. I was asked more frequently than I could count whether he was the real deal or just his father’s son. My answer was always the same: both.

The Conservatives knew from his very first day that they would, at some point, face him in a greater capacity than what he held at present. They couched their nervousness of him in words of belittlement, and then, in one of the sad ironies of politics, would bring a constituent over to him and ask for his autograph. Those of us around him just shook our heads — in mild disgust for how he was treated, and of quiet respect for his signing every autograph.

People never thought he’d win his Papineau riding during his first campaign against a popular Bloc member — yet he did. When he took up the challenge for charity by stepping into the ring with celebrated fighter and senator Patrick Brezeau, Conservatives said he be KO’d in the first round and couldn’t win — yet he did. By the time Justin won the Liberal leadership it was clear the seeds of determination and leadership resided in him.

And now we know the rest of the story.

When one Conservative operative said at the campaign’s outset that he hoped Trudeau would wear his pants to the first debate, he represented the hollow tones of the government’s bravado and irreverence. The Liberal leader not only arrived well-attired, but with a sense of respect for the Canadian people and their distinctiveness that the government had never understood in their entire nine years of office.

By the time the leaders moved into the Munk debate on Canada’s role in the world, Trudeau was already putting to bed the notion that he just wasn’t ready for the job. It now appears that Trudeau and his young team were far more composed than Harper and his experienced professionals. In a great irony, he was rising and the others weren’t.

It does us well to remember — those of us who can — what advantages Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, had going into his first election for prime minister. In 1968 the country was still lost in the glow and pride of the Centennial year that had just ended. Trudeau was replacing Lester Pearson, who was retiring after significant accomplishments as PM. Pierre’s win was hardly surprising, and the forces arrayed around him had already been in the previous government.

The son had precious little of these advantages. He was leading a party many had said was just one election away from extinction. They had been decimated in previous campaigns and left broke as a result. When Stephen Harper called for the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history, pundits spoke of how the Prime Minister would have an extra few rounds to pummel the youngster in the business of politics.

We now know how foolish that was, just as we understand that, perhaps without realizing it at first, the Canadian people were longing for a change that they couldn’t quite describe but which resonated in their collective spirit once Justin Trudeau called it forth. What the son accomplished was infinitely more complex and difficult than his father’s first win and yet it was just as stellar.

Bruce Anderson, writer and pollster, on election night made the striking claim that this had been a “campaign for the ages.” Seasoned heads on the television set nodded in affirmation.

It turns out that Justin Trudeau caught the spirit of citizens and mood of the country just right. But a far greater task lies before him: to lift a noble people even higher in their pursuit of prosperity, equality of opportunity and compassion.

Judging from his election performance, we shouldn’t put it past him.

More Than Buildings

Ater b and w

“A UNIVERSITY IS JUST A GROUP OF BUILDINGS gathered around a library,” wrote American historian Shelby Foote years ago. It’s just the kind of minimalist view that Socrates would have disagreed with forcefully. “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” the old philosopher wrote not too many years prior to his death.

It’s likely that Shelby never took into account just what such an institution of higher learning would mean to billions around the world. To them it would be the highest of all attainments, a grand destination for all those seeking enlightenment.

In the regions of South Sudan where we have volunteered for years, there is no greater ambition, no desire higher for a family, than to see kids get to the post-secondary level. The problem is that there just aren’t those opportunities where most people live – high school is as far as they can get. It’s one of the great tragedies of our day that a people who have endured decades of civil war, completed a successful peace process, and formed their own nation (the world’s newest), can’t rise to the level of their own aspirations for lack of opportunity.

When we first adopted our kids from South Sudan, community leaders understood that something remarkable was now possible for the three kids, and so they counseled with us to do everything in our power to get them to university. We took them 100% seriously and then just a few days ago came confirmation that our son, Ater (17), had been accepted at Kings University College in London. Jane and I sat together on the couch as we heard the news and all the weight of that promise we made to those community leaders suddenly lifted from us.

I still recall the very first day we took Ater to public school. He was only nine-years old but had never had a day of schooling in his life. He was nervous and held my hand on the way there. Then he saw the other kids playing on the school ground, instinctively moving towards them in a subtle wish to enjoy a childhood that had previously been kept from him. The bell rang and he rushed with the others toward the door. Suddenly he stopped and ran back to hug me, saying words I shall forever cherish: “Thank you, Daddy. I wanted an education more than anything and you and Mom got it for me. Thank you.” With that he was gone and likely didn’t think of me for the rest of the day in his new and playful world.

But I never forgot one moment of it, even until this day. Look at the picture on this page. He carries the hopes of an entire Southern Sudanese nation in that smile, along with the heartfelt wishes of a Mom and Dad who cherish him. Perhaps even more vital, his courageous mother who gave her life in Sudan so that he might be free to have this moment must be beaming in heaven. With her life she gave him a path ahead, and with our resources we will follow through on that dream for him.

Ultimately, this is Ater’s moment. He did it, despite all the obstacles he has faced in his young life. To him, Kings University College is something far more transcendent and marvelous than a bunch of buildings around a library. It is his springboard to an enlightened life in which he will learn to help others and grow in the process.

I think of the observation of Richard Levins: “A scholarship that is indifferent to human suffering is immoral.” If so, then the opposite is also true: Enlightenment that can embrace a struggling humanity is the greatest service offered by any educational institution. It’s your time, Ater – take it. Build on that absolutely transcendent disposition of yours, and to it add a renewed commitment to allow your knowledge to take you where humanity requires the most hope and a sense of justice.  From heaven and earth, we’ll be watching with pride.

 

 

 

 

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