The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Media

Catch and Release

This post was originally published at National Newswatch here.

Author Chris Gould, in his Aristotle: Politics, Ethics and Desirability, made the rather sage observation that, “the best promises forever seem to be made by amnesiacs.”  Politics has frequently been measured as the distance between what a politician promises and what is ultimately delivered. As voters themselves move all over the political map, those seeking their approval make ever more outlandish vows in order to secure their trust, and often fail to complete them.

The more this goes on – the over promising and under delivering – the more that essential ingredient of trust slips away from our democracy. We have reached a stage in the modern era life where politics itself has escaped the very democratic system it was supposed to guard and empower.  The generation that endured the deep disillusionment of Watergate and lost faith in democracy’s institutions, its ideals and its pragmatic ability to find commonality, never recovered.

Canadians. who endured years of Senate scandal, eventually grew to distrust and ignore the Upper Chamber, with many calling for its abolition. Even Justin Trudeau’s efforts to reform the Senate have so far failed to restore it to a place of respect, and perhaps more importantly, effectiveness. Trust has yet to be rebuilt.

Europe is currently walking a perilous tightrope as old institutions fall into disfavour, political leaders make outlandish claims, and citizens themselves collectively retreat from the comity that once spoke of a more hopeful future. Current French elections are only the most recent example of the creeping era of democratic distrust.

Throughout democracy’s history were numerous unorthodox figures and statements that frequently served to spice up debate and make the news more interesting. But many of today’s current leaders are, like Nixon, willing to undermine the very integrity of constitutions and revered political practice in order to achieve their ends. For them it is not enough to win; they must trounce the system, drain the swamp, get the voters to detest government itself, if they are to retain their popularity. In Harvard University Law Professor’s Jack Goldsmith’s view, it is now becoming the normal for a political leader to claim that “lawful is awful.”

All of this willingness to push beyond the limits of law and common sense has left the average citizen with the sense that nothing is politically sacred anymore – not common purpose, compromise, personal integrity, even law itself. The goal posts keep moving. The rules keep morphing. The characters keep changing. Yet, in all of it, little seems to be getting done. For all the talk of democratic reform, little changes. Lofty statements on the need to radically challenge the encroachment of climate change remain largely empty. Poverty remains stubbornly present and damning. Calls for political parties to cooperate on our greatest challenges have yet to successfully tear down the walls of animosity between them.

It’s the political equivalent of catch and release: use whatever bait it takes to hook the fish, but once it’s in the boat, toss it back into the water. Do or say whatever it takes to get the vote, even if it means undermining democracy itself, and then govern as though the only thing that matters is political survival.

Founding figures in both the United States and Canada launched their precarious experiments in democracy in the belief that only a commitment to high standards of human behaviour and respect, along with maintaining the abiding trust of citizens, could guarantee the success of their efforts.   It is becoming more evident that we are failing in that quest across the board – politicians for making promises that they sensibly can’t make, and citizens for continuing to vote for those moving more and more to the extremes. Abraham Lincoln understood this well enough to say:

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

Politicians around the world are going to have to work exceedingly hard to regain the trust of the voters and that will mean making sensible promises and working in collaboration to achieve them. And citizens must begin the process of finding and building on the common ground that was once the most expensive piece of public real estate, but one we are increasingly in danger of losing.

A Crying Shame

“The waste of plenty is the resource of scarcity,” noted Thomas Love Peacock, and in Canada, right now, there is no better example of this than what we do with our food. If it’s true that we are what we eat, then it’s also true that we become what we toss out.

So, it’s only logical, then, that we grow a little troubled and philosophical upon discovering that each year Canadians throw out 200,000 tonnes of food into our landfills – $31 billion dollars worth. That’s $31 billions dollars of lost revenue – all at the same time that roughly 850,000 people turn to food banks for help each month. And it’s troubling to learn that 13% of Canadians lived in a constant state of food insecurity.

Or think of all this in another way: according to Cantech we lose 2% of our GDP each year to food waste. Adding fuel to the fire is Tommy Tobin’s observation, that $31 billion is greater than the combined GDP of the 29 poorest countries in the world.

It seems immoral and becomes increasingly so as we think of the amount of people in Canada who are food insecure. Why can’t we get our act together on this, say through solid food diversion programs practiced by numerous European countries? What does it say about how we value food, those in low-income, or ethical responsibility when 40% of all food in Canada is thrown into the garbage? Clearly we have some work to do – lots of work, in fact.

Fortunately, the National Zero Waste Council announced a National Food Waste Reduction Strategy a short while ago. It’s a great initiative but it requires support – from citizens, food companies, government, media, and producers, including farmers. The strategy suggests a national target of 50% food waste reduction by 2030. It also puts out another intriguing idea: use federal tax incentives to encourage businesses to donate their excess good food to charities instead of dumping it off at the landfill.

It’s important to realize that 50% of food waste is generated by consumers directly, so a lot of the needed change can start with us. Companies can enhance their infrastructure to begin diverting their food earlier in the process. Governments can help with legislation and resourcing. It can be a win-win-win.

The arrival of this initiative is welcome, but it comes at a time when we are already behind American and European efforts. There’s a lot of catching up to do, but at least with a national strategy we can now move quickly – if we wish to. Since we say we care about hungry families, and since we maintain that we are an ethical, value-driven people, we must do something.

“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry,” Pope Francis said recently. And yet it’s more than that. It also about tossing out the better angels of our nature. We are better than this in our values and in our abilities, but not in our choices. That time has now come.

 

 

 

 

Enduring in Epic Times

It was the first bold political development of the new millennium, full of cautious hope and promise, and it’s now flirting with disaster.

We were in South Sudan as international observers in 2011, as people voted by a huge margin for the right to establish their own independent state. Subsequently, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. The mood within the country was euphoric, but the caution felt by the international community was well placed. It was one thing to form a united southern front against the northern government of Sudan in the decades-long great war, but would the southern tribes, many historically at odds with one another, be able to hold it together to enable the successful birth of the new nation?

We now know that the answer to that question is no – at least for now. Soon after independence, the two main tribes fell out with one another and a new southern civil war has ravaged the country for almost three years. Attempts at peace have failed and the cost to the average people of the south now borders on the epic.

The numbers are staggering. Nearly 7.5 million people are now living in desperation. According to the United Nations, some three million have fled their homes due to conflict and starvation and are now living in other parts of the country. Slightly more than 4,000 have been forced to leave for neighbouring countries every day. And 6 out of 10 South Sudanese refugees are children. Recently we learned from the UN that half of the entire population will face extreme hunger by this coming July.

These are the events we hear of everyday through news reports. Yet we rarely come across the remarkable stories of endurance, dedication, and even survival that occur on an ongoing basis in South Sudan. They are worth remembering.

Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan (CASS), for which I’m volunteer executive director, has been in the Aweil region of South Sudan for the past 18 years. It has never been easy, but amply uplifting to the human spirit. In all that time, Londoners have been in the area helping to rehabilitate former slaves, building public schools, developing women’s programs, clean water initiatives, supplying medicines to rural clinics, and training women leaders.

The organization has been there in times of war and peace, but nothing quite prepared CASS representatives Carol Campbell and Denise Pelley for what they encountered two months ago. Veterans of numerous support trips to the region, they reported back that, despite accounts of bloody conflict in other parts of the country, the Aweil region has remained peaceful, permitting the organization’s programs to remain active and effective.

Such encouraging news was accompanied by some troubling realities, however. The very Southern Sudanese champions of these CASS initiatives were on the cusp of starvation – both for themselves and their families.

“This journey was more difficult than my first visit during the war with the north,” Carol Campbell observed with emotion. “Those were terrible times, but what made this visit so difficult was to see how the lack of food and medical care has devastated the women leaders we have known from the beginning. It was heartbreaking.” Denise Pelley concurred.

During that first trip to South Sudan that Campbell was referring to during the war (1999), rebel commander Salva Kiir was assigned to protect us, his image captured fittingly by London Free Press photographer Derek Ruttan, who accompanied us. Now he is the President of the country and his failure to protect his eleven million people from the ravages of war has led to a troubled age.

Yet his intransigence doesn’t typify the actions of the average Southern Sudanese, who simply want to get on with building new lives and opportunities. The chief pursuit for men and women, boys and girls, is education, and even during these troubling days the desire for knowledge hasn’t abated. The high school completed by CASS last year is now full of curious boys and girls despite the chaos in the rest of the country.

With 800% inflation in the area, many can’t afford the price of food.  Mary Adeng Akot, walked with her grandson Garang, for two days to ask CASS for help.  “I am old.  I have nothing.  I ask for my family.  During the earlier war we ate leaves to live.  Now we are eating them again.”

How can all these remarkable programs go on in the midst of terrible, seemingly senseless conflict? The answer is that the Southern Sudanese accomplished all those things for half-a-century previously during the broader conflict with the north. They not only survived but prevailed. And they can again.

But can success be achieved when you and your family are on the doorstep of starvation? Recently my wife Jane Roy and I were asked to present to the Human Rights Committee in Parliament regarding the stakes in South Sudan. We reminded them that Canadians have been there for years and that millions of dollars of investment from this country have empowered the people of the south, women especially. Should we stop now, all that investment will be lost.

Admittedly these are difficult times for donors, too, including Western governments. And when all the news is negative and overlooks the Mary Akots, it remains an easy thing to lose hope. But faith in the people of South Sudan, struggling against the failure of their own political leaders, is now more important than ever. We must champion the champions, invest in their survival, and equip them to lead the women’s development programs.

“You must continue to come to us,” said Deng Deng Akuei, the governor of the region who had been schooled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a certain urgency. “Your presence reminds us that the world still cares for us. We still have high hopes that our country will succeed. Your being with us helps us endure.” And so the call to “be there” continues.

Winning Is Never Enough

We were still. We were mournful. We were respectful. We were undone.

Last evening we joined a community gathering to honour those who paid the ultimate price at Vimy Ridge 100 years ago. The pipes played, the respectful speeches given, and our hearts were moved. We can only glimpse this important Canadian event through a glass darkly. It was before our time and beyond our ability to really understand. Yet we stood in awe last night, although the tragedy and loss was beyond us, because we comprehended that we likely wouldn’t have been where we were at, individually and collectively, at that moment without those remarkable soldiers being where they were at during their exact moment when duty meant total sacrifice.

I was reminded of one of Robertson Davies characters in his Fifth Business. As he watched King George V pin the Victoria Cross on his uniform he experienced a great moment of remarkable clarity:

“Here am I … being decorated as a hero, and in the eyes of everybody here I am a hero. But I know that my heroic act was rather a dirty job I did when I was dreadfully frightened. I could just as easily have muddled it and been ingloriously killed. But it doesn’t seem to matter because people seem to need heroes; so long as I don’t lose sight of that truth, it might as well be me as anyone else.”

And yet we as Canadians understand the sheer fate of it all – a few feet to the left, a dysfunctional gun, an artillery shell landing farther afield, a medic nearer at hand, and death wouldn’t have visited these particular soldiers. Canada has never been great at the “hero” thing, but we have proved excellent and deeply respectful of lionizing those who never made it. We know in our heart of hearts that we owe them – everything. We know that some 100,000 Canadians fought at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. We also know that 3600 soldiers died and more than 7000 were wounded in the successful attempt.

But we are moved by what we don’t know. The fear, the crying for family, the unbelievable heroism, the prayers, the patriotism, the insanity – these must have been monumental on a human scale. It is not just their death that moves us so; it’s all these things they endured just prior to their ultimate sacrifice. Life’s end should have been better for them.

They are the heroes we seek and we honour them year after year – the resurgence of interest in Remembrance Day is proof of it. But because we are Canadians we venerate them as pioneers of peace instead of merely soldiers of war. War is not glorious to us, but peace remains a preoccupation for the Canadian imagination and those that fought and died a Vimy paid the downpayment for us to stretch that imagination, that dream of a better world with Canada’s noble efforts in it.

Aristotle was right when he wrote that it is never enough to win a war; we must organize ourselves to win the peace. How profound! Perhaps Governor General David Johnston had this in mind when, profoundly moved at the Vimy Memorial in France a few years ago, he implored:

“It’s important for us to remember the lives lost here, and the reasons for which the lives were lost, and that is so our rule of law, our thin veneer of civilization can be strengthened and polished and, we hope, extended around the world.”

I was honoured to be asked to give the speech in Parliament in 2010, when John Babcock, the last Canadian World War One veteran passed away. They are now a generation gone. But we are not. We hate war, but will fight if required. Far better the truly Canadian dream of peace in a better world. We honour the Vimy dead because we still dream that what they were fighting for is now our task. Though dead, they live in us. Though gone, they empower us. Their end is our beginning.

The Governing Cancer of Our Time

In what could only be seen as a stunning defeat, the author of the Art of the Deal found himself unable to close. Instead of “draining the swamp,” as he had promised, Donald Trump found himself drowning in it.

Regardless of which side one stands on the recent showdown in Congress, the event signaled again that hyper-partisanship remains “the governing cancer of our time,” as David Brooks and Bill Clinton each put it. Each side blames the other, year after year, and now decade after decade, but the result always leaves good policy initiatives lying in burning ashes. In his attempt to browbeat a recalcitrant political establishment and special interest groups, President Trump invariably became part of it all, forcing the division even further.

No matter where we look in a modern democracy these days, compromise seems not so much a dying hope as a lost art. The venerable traditions of civil discourse and hard work to attain common ground no longer seem practical to political activity. As a Member of Parliament a few years ago I was proud to second Conservative MP Michael Chong’s beleaguered attempt to reform Question Period. It was sincere, well thought out attempt to recover a saner version of politics that generated a lot of support outside of Ottawa but little interest within Parliament itself. It’s to his credit that Chong has taken his campaign for a more accountable and civil politics to a higher level in running for the Conservative leadership. Still, while respected, he occasionally feels like a credible voice crying in the wilderness in the midst of partisan mayhem and political dysfunction.

It has always been true of our politics that elected representatives joined existing factions and frequently clashed with those who disagreed with them. Yet common purpose was possible and frequently resulted in effective legislation that assisted in governing a diverse and often divided populace. Such occasions are now so rare as to almost be forgotten, despite the nobler intentions of most politicians.

Whether it was the outsider Trump promoting health care reform or insider Justin Trudeau promising electoral reform (both campaign promises), the result has been a lack of closure and more partisan division than had existed before such efforts. When opposition parties performed due diligence in Parliament’s electoral reform committee and sought what appeared to be a sincere compromise, such efforts were ultimately ignored in favour of the status quo. Whether or not this was due to partisan intent, the result was that a unique moment for political innovation and common ground was lost.

As David McLaughlin noted in a Globe and Mail article in 2013 during the previous hyper-partisan effects of the Harper era:

“Faithful to the partisan glue binding them to their parties, our political class is doing everything possible to diminish, demean, and destroy the precious commodity they actually hold in common: their own political integrity. In their relentless attacks on everything and everyone on the opposite political divide, they continue to devalue the basic political currency – trust – essential between electors and elected in a democracy. We, the voters, are the losers.”

Yet we voters are often part of the problem, often utilizing social media to fling invective out on anyone who disagrees with us. The dysfunction of Parliament has coursed its way into the electorate in an endless feedback loop of animosity. Traditional media, in order to compete, too frequently places its own emphasis on political conflict in search of readers and viewers.

We all share in this declining democracy that concerns us all. The divisiveness of our politics today can only result in eventual inaction for the public estate. Increasingly, research informs us that the hyper-partisan mind can be a wicked thing, that politicians don’t know how to break out of it, and that our modern societies are receding into dysfunctional isolation. There is no easy way out of the mess we have all accepted or even created.

Partisanship has been a historical player in effective politics, both giving and clarifying choices for voters. But it has now become so pervasive that it seems that no one has a choice anymore. We have all been drawn into the swamp Donald Trump now finds himself in. Only the collective will from both politicians and the people to find common ground can put responsible choices back on the table of our public life. Common ground will only be found when we once again find common resolve.

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