The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Liberalism

A Life More Important Than Words – Citizen Engagement Podcast (33)

The genius of democracy is not how right, or even how smart we are.  It is how open we are to find compromise that will permit us to move ahead as a citizenry.  Our present democratic state is mired in rigidity, in policies that won’t budge, and in characters than think having a strong opinion is the same as possessing strong truth.  No leader can deliver us from this and no government can legislate an open mind.  There’s work to do and humility is the one great essential if we are to succeed.

Just click the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

A Crisis of Power

Powerless+Structures,+Fig+101+boy+on+rocking+horse+4It’s a voice increasingly coming from the economic periphery and gaining more traction the longer it takes for global economies to get up off the mat.  While not exactly the voice of doom, as in apocalyptic, it nevertheless speaks of a coming world where limited choices will lead to a reprioritization of how we spend and how governments will behave in a time of diminishing returns.

Gwynn Dyer, for example, in a syndicated article in the London Free Press this past weekend, speaks of the “lethal consequences for a large part of the human race,” if we don’t reign in our fossil fuel consumption.

There’s no predetermined path out there, no clock-like scheme, hovering over us and leading to an increasingly risky future, merely an endless consumerism and a prolonged array of government choices that place a higher priority on economics than human preservation and adaptation.  Speaking in the midst of the last Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt developed a maxim that, while painfully true in his time, takes on an ever greater poignancy today:  “We have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals, we now know that it is bad economics.”

Naturally, the vast majority of voices in almost every discipline think this a little shrill and excessively negative, but as time goes on we have that sinking feeling we’re running out of options.  We go into each recession feeling it will end in a few months, then feel encouraged when economists boast of 3% or 5% growth in the future – predictions that largely materialize.  And yet with each recovery we find unemployment continuing to escalate – growth seems increasingly contingent on less labour.  As unionized workers continue to decline, our ability to protect workers becomes more vulnerable and, sadly, workers begin to turn against their unionized brothers and sisters.

Although many conclude that poverty is relative and that the poor are better off than, say two decades ago, we continue to see a growing gap between rich and poor that continues even after recessions end.  Homelessness increases.  Those vulnerable to mental health conditions are increasingly less resourced.  Food bank numbers grow to alarming heights.  And yet all this continues to transpire even after recessions conclude.

Farmers are losing their businesses.  Students are opting to keep out of university because they either can’t afford it going in or in exiting with massive debts.  Seniors are heading back to work and twenty-five year veteran employees are headed for the breadlines. 

We perhaps see it the most clearly in our communities, where we can no longer afford the quality of life and feelings of optimism that infused our parents.  We are told we can’t afford public housing, public transportation, public libraries, public health systems, public infrastructure, public post offices or even public education.  There are private alternatives to all of these things, and though we remain doubtful as to whether they are cheaper, we are nevertheless told we can no longer live as we want to.

But just to be clear: this isn’t what we wanted, right?  True, we enjoyed the food brought in from thousands of miles away, but we didn’t mean to put local growers out of work as a consequence.  Yes, we elected good people to politics who now seem so fully ineffectual, but we didn’t realize partisanship would get so completely out of hand, correct?  We’ve actually reached the stage as a citizenry where we turn on teachers, firefighters, police, nurses, etc. and yet glorify teen idols and sports superstars, who really have no understanding of how we live and who have no influence over our children that doesn’t involve riches and fame. 

This is not what we signed up for as a citizenry.  We know that the ranks of millionaires and billionaires is growing globally but regard that wealth as out of reach until we realize it’s also out of control.  There was once a time in this country where taxes for ports, railroads, airports, rural roads, culverts, and water supplies came largely from companies that leveraged their profits from such amenities.  But most wealthy don’t make their money off of such things anymore.  They make money from money, from investing and dealing.  We ask so little of them anymore and yet the level of investment abandoned by such firms can hardly be made up by taxing the middle-class alone.  They demand governments invest in various kinds of deregulation and tax breaks, leaving the running of a huge country with a small population up to average working people who can neither afford it or take full advantage of it.

And now we discover that the vague stirrings of a global economic meltdown might actually have some substance to them.  We are told that oil, food, and other amenities dependent upon fossil fuels is about ready to escalate beyond what we thought possible.  We understand as a people, and as communities, that the amount of money made in a single day would simply blow away any other time preceding ours, and yet it increasingly lands less and less in our communities, our hopes for our children, our plans for our cities.  All that money; so little hope.

All of these things are ours to change.  We established a democratic order specifically to enact fairness, opportunity and innovation through legislative equity.  So we can change it.  We can demand a greater economic accounting from our governments, our lending institutions, corporations and ourselves. But we’re not there yet and the road is about to get much steeper until we are ready.


Bring On the Lunatics

limitationsToday we start a new series concerning the end of growth and how to learn to live with the new normal.  Really it’s about stasis – ancient Greek term meaning “to stand still”.  Most of us have been sensing this for some time as our communities, economy, citizenship, environmental sustainability and democracy appear mired in inadequacy in a fashion we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.  None of our present institutions has come forward with sufficient solutions to lift all of these dimensions from their doldrums.

It’s time we started telling the truth to one another, especially as it refers to how we plan our economies.  A raft of new books and studies have appeared in recent years that point to our ineffectiveness – the end of growth, a post-democratic era, days of decline, etc.  It’s not the first time the developed world has leveled off, or even declined in such a fashion, but our present predicament in unique in the sheer amount of wealth flowing around the globe.  Canada has never seen so much money moving through its financial sectors and yet a diminishing portion of it filters down to our communities and institutions.  The middle-class is increasingly squeezed every year.  Solutions to poverty now appear farther off than ever before and our country runs the risk of tolerating a permanent society of classes.  A rising number of fellow citizens are working far longer hours for less.  Also rising is the number of unemployed.  Governments are running out of funds at all levels and years of attrition appear to lie ahead.

I think we all sense this but remain reticent to speak honestly with one another lest by even introducing the subject we hasten our days of diminishing returns.  Worse still, our leaders at all levels don’t dare utter such warnings for fear it might undercut and undermine their own validation as elites.  Politicians, public officials, educators, media spokespersons, writers, artists, researchers, even advocates, fear to break with the conventional wisdom of unending growth because they lack any kind of robust solutions to our daunting challenges.  And so they carry on, tinkering around the edges of the status quo because to tell the truth would reveal their own ineptitude.

In their own way, citizens are no different.  Having increasingly dumped on institutions for the better part of two decades, they nevertheless show little inclination to pull themselves together in ways that compensate for the dysfunction of the political order.  At both ends of the democratic spectrum – governors and governed – the ability to speak truth to power has lost any salience because no one is really sure what the truth is anymore – we are only aware of the consequences of not possessing it.

The greatest danger of all is that, knowingly or unknowingly, we are in the process of slowly training our guns on one another.  As we hearken to our leaders telling us we have less and less financial resources with which to face the future, we begin to witness workers turn on the unemployed or unionized employees, citizens dealing more aggressively with their aboriginal people and vice-versa, the middle-class fighting the marginalized for fewer resources, politicians ignoring their citizens, voters disposing of their ballots, Canadian west and east duking it out, political parties seeking to obliterate rather than cooperate, and Canadians maintaining actions clearly hostile to the environment.

The devastating recession we recently endured supposedly ended almost two years ago and yet little is changing.  We know it and we witness the devastating effects on our fellow citizens unable to get ahead of the downward economic pull.

We are instructed repeatedly that we are in precarious times of transition but as long as we get the fundamentals right that we’ll be okay.  When is that going to happen?  This hasn’t been a two-year phenomenon but a decades-old financial and economic model that is leaving more and more on the margins.  And as long as we continue to accept such platitudes and assurances, we will participate in our own decline and disenfranchisement.

We are Western democracies.  That means we can control the levers of government to turn it in favour of the critical mass of citizens.  Well, we used to believe that anyway.  Now we’re informed that globalization has placed true and fundamental reform out of our reach as democracies – markets and their inexorable laws rule.  Then what’s the good of a democracy if we can’t truly alter our fate?

I just finished reading a lengthy book on the life of Theodore Roosevelt.  One of his observations has stayed with me: “Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.”  If that’s the case, then bring on the lunacy because our perceived sanity is not longer effective or even real.  Lunacy is relative.  Diefenbaker felt Pearson was “crazy” for introducing a new flag.  Tommy Douglas was viewed as a Western Canada fanatic for his belief in healthcare.  Let’s have more crazy people just like them because we now live in days of confusion and decline and a little reform might just be the ticket.

But we’re not going to fight for that – at least not yet.  The time will come when economic oppression will cause us to clamour for change and vote accordingly.  But until that moment, let’s spend some time considering the new normal and what it means for us.

Will Canadian Politics Have A Breakthrough?

pain_knot_yogaDoes politics really matter anymore?  The greatest challenges facing our generation are getting short shrift from the major parties as they continue to tinker around the edges and continually seek out that “sweet spot” that will hopefully launch them into power.  The rise of Justin Trudeau to the Liberal leadership has caused a stir, in part because he is viewed as a new leader for a new era.  Trouble is, we still have old problems, and should the new Liberal leader propose incremental policies on files such as climate change or poverty, then he will have wasted his opportunity to take our country in a new direction.  People always say we require bold policies if we are to embrace change, but we yet await that party – any political party – that will actually take the risks and tackle our systemic problems head-on.  Follow the link below to my new Huffington Post piece on why politics won’t matter anymore if we can’t create effective change surrounding our greatest challenges.

Over His Head

negativityOver two years out from the next federal election but the campaign has already begun, as the party leaderships are now clearly in place.  It didn’t commence when the Writ was dropped or the government fell, but by that first action that now seems to signal the coming electoral conflict in the post-democratic era – the negative ad.

We continue to hear that they are used because they work.  Even certain political pundits seem to kind of relish this battle of the combative airwaves, as if admiring the tactic.  They are smart writers and observers, and they know well enough that the goal is to suppress voter turnout, yet they continue to take a certain morbid delight in their use. They mused enough about the cause; now they should write about the effect.  It’s like the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum – a kind of bloody entertainment that actually said more about the decline of the empire than it did the ghoulish tastes of the spectators.  

The use of these most recent ads against Justin Trudeau is all about retaining power, not expanding democracy.  It’s the PM’s way of saying that we’re stupid.  He knows that by airing them that he fans his base, brings in tons of cash from supporters, and gets to spend the next two years framing his opponent.  The stupidity doesn’t come from the fact that we tolerate them as much as it results in moderate and progressive voters turning off and refusing to go to the polls.  He was correct on this in the past, but what it says about the head elected official of the land’s willingness to “dumb-down” the citizenry is more than just a bit troubling to consider.

One of the recent ads is about Trudeau’s being “in over his head.”  It surfaced a mere few hours after the leadership was decided.  This is an all-out war campaign, to be stretched out for 24 months, to convince Canadians that he’s too young to lead.  It troubles me a bit to do this, but let’s use that same litmus test on the Prime Minister himself.

Somehow, a year before this past recession began, he lost a $12 billion dollar surplus that was vitally needed for the upcoming economic downturn.  Under his watch, Canada lost its chance at a Security Council seat.  We lost our vaunted place in international rankings on everything from child poverty to food security.  The Prime Minister lost all of the momentum and goodwill that had been generated from the public apology to the aboriginal people.  He lost the battle against poverty.  We lost Kyoto and we lost any real opportunity for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to break out of the political traps and lift this country’s international reputation by putting the poor ahead of the Canadian corporate interest.

Then there has been the cost to politics itself.  Stephen Harper lost the confidence of the House twice and was found in contempt for the first time in our history.  He somehow lost a 250-page handbook on how Conservatives were to undermine parliamentary committees so that nothing could get accomplished – an embarrassing revelation.  The House of Commons has lost the ability to compromise under his watch.  We have misplaced democracy, lost trust, lost confidence, and in the process we have lost ourselves for a time as Canadians..

So, I’m kind of wondering about who really isn’t up for the job?  How could someone with such a record like that above, established over six years, dish the dirt on someone who only became a party leader not even a week ago?  Shouldn’t the barrels be turned in the opposite direction?

My personal answer to that last question is no.  Should Justin Trudeau ask me whether he should take such negative ads to Stephen Harper, I would say don’t do it.  It’s not because I’m a pie-in-the-sky ideologue.  It’s simple, hardl reality, and all parties do it. The more of these things we send out on the airwaves or in print, or the Internet, the more quickly we hasten our demise.  “Democracy never lasts long,” American founder John Adams said.  “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

The realistic facts of the case are that democracy is “murdered” by the countless character assassinations that precede any undermining of moral and popular authority.  Parties and their leaders have every right to run ads revealing the flaws in their opponent’s policy and practices.  Yet it is done most often not as a democratic duty, but as a way of winning an election.  What happens if we hold an election and nobody came?  We are now closer to that reality than at any other time in our history, and it’s not just because citizens are distracted or governments are inept; it’s because political parties have taken to the use of negative ads to suppress voter turnout, thereby robbing democracy of its true owners.

Any leader that supports such a strategy that belittles citizens instead of elevating them should hardly use the “over his head” slogan to describe another when he has been unable to manage the complexities of a robust democracy that we are clearly at risk of losing.

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