The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

The Fight to Vote

Posted on June 9, 2018

It’s Election Day in Ontario and many remain as confused as ever as to the choice they must make.  Too many have said that they’re not heading to the ballot box this year because elections themselves no longer provide the outcomes people hope for.  There’s a lot of truth to this, and should be acknowledged.

The problem is that, while elections increasingly frustrate us, there is as yet no clear alternative to someone heading into a private area, marking their choice, and then living with the result.  There are numerous ideas of how to rank ballots or prioritize them, but there is still no substitute for the act of a private citizen voting.

Sometimes votes aren’t about choices at all, but a choice.  There are those occasions when we vote for the system we believe in as opposed to any particular candidate.  We are all smart enough to know just how much pain and struggle entire sections of our population had to go through just to gain the right to mark a ballot, especially women.  Our vote today is in affirmation of that struggle and their eventual triumph, whether or not our candidate choice is clear.  What would they think of our temptation to abandon our short trek to the polling station after their centuries-long sojourn to win that right?  At the very least, do it for them.

And let’s do it in recognition of just how far we have come.  Yes, our present version of democracy, and the elections that come with it, are showing signs of dysfunction and ineffectiveness, but that was the way our democracy was in the first place, before it was refined, enhanced, empowered, and emancipated.  Initially it was only the white privileged males, blessed with property, who could make their choice.  Those days are gone and even the most marginalized or poor, even homeless, individuals have a right to choose their representatives.  It doesn’t mean that they will, but history has not given them that choice.

We have come a long way and we have fallen back somewhat, but the gains are still there and provide the only channel through which we can fight through to a better day.  Every meaningful and costly journey meanders through difficult terrain and now is not the time to call it quits after so much has been discovered and achieved.  Each preceding generation struggled to straighten out that path; let’s not abandon their daring and their accomplishments.

We are talking about the fight to vote here and not just the right.  Too much has been sacrificed, so many have been lost in the struggle to get us to this point only for us to pack it in because we are having trouble locating the meaning in our present political order.  We would never turn back after Vimy, or Passchendaele, Dieppe or Helmand province because we know just how much was sacrificed to just give us the right to march down the street and put pencil to paper.

This isn’t just about a political system that is floundering, but about those who do the electing, and the confession that citizens, too, have contributed to our malady through their own divisive bias, hyper-partisan blindness, or just an outright “I don’t give a damn” attitude.  We are not only democracy’s warriors; we can also be its weakest point.  Should we give up, the entire system comes crashing down, and the generations who fought to build it lower their eyes in disillusionment as it becomes clear to them that we have not appreciated their collective sacrifice.

We are in danger of forgetting that voting isn’t just important to democracy but isdemocracy itself.  We might believe that citizens no longer matter in the political process, but our lack of voting locates the blame for that on us, not our leaders.  We must always fight, must always believe in our collective ability to alter our course, and we will validate that conviction by performing the most simple, yet profound act – filling out a ballot.  Fail to do that and we will surely confirm that none of it matters.

The office of citizen is the most powerful in the land and its chief defender and advocate is the vote.  It is what decides if we fail or succeed.  It remains the citizen’s ultimate protection and the politician’s final validation and fear.  Take it away and neither one matters.  It is all decided by who shows up.  See you at the polls.

Do Elections Work Anymore?

Posted on June 5, 2018

I admit to being purposely provocative here, but the question arises from a place of sincerity.  It’s simply this: in an age when democracies are struggling everywhere for legitimacy, do elections still make sense?  Writer David Van Raybrouck ruminated on this a number of years ago and wrestled with the answer.

Doubts have been driven by radical democratic moments in Europe, Brexit, the great chaos that is the American political system today, and now the troubling turbulence of an Ontario campaign due to be settled(?) this week.  The campaigns of this modern era result in more confusion, not less, once concluded. Buyer’s remorse emerges the moment a campaign has concluded, the ballots have been counted, and organized chaos ensues.

These days almost everyone talks about politics and yet increasingly distrusts it.  This regularly results in anger, rank partisanship, verbal and personal attacks. The citizenry is more easily riled or, more likely, turned off altogether.  Decades ago people were less excited by politics, leaving the democratic state more stable.  Now, everyone has some kind of response and democracy itself is in trouble.

Just how complex this has become was revealed a few years ago when a World Values Survey interviewed 73,000 people from almost 60 countries, and 92% concluded that democracy was still the best way to manage a country. Sounds good, until we read that a good many of the respondents desired some kind of “strong leader” who could just lead without worrying about parliaments, elections, or process.  In other words, it’s about leadership and not elections as the best way to get the people what they want.  This describes the present experience of many democratic nations today, most notably America.  As disillusionment grows, we are increasingly seeing situations where leaders get elected while still losing the popular vote.  This wasn’t the way we perceived democracy even just a few short years ago.

Three centuries earlier, political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was already questioning the validity of elections for getting the average people what they wanted:

“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free: they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.”

This is indeed a troubling outlook, when many looking back regard Rousseau’s era as the beginnings of modern democracy.  But looking at recent elections in the West, is this not what the public has come to?  They believe their vote makes little difference, that it will result in the same-old, same-old, and that nobody really cares about the average person. They look for the “strong man” or “strong woman” to break up such a system of elite mismanagement and, for wants of a better term, “drain the swamp.”

If the process of voting doesn’t get us what we want, and if half the electorate opts not to vote anyway, then just how effective are the elections that crop up every few years?  When someone responds that it’s the only method of legitimacy that we have, then what does it say about the system itself that it seems incapable of overcoming our greatest challenges?  If racism, bigotry, gender debasement, and outright hatred are making a comeback in our world, someone could be forgiven for asking just what all those elections were for if this is what we get.

Perhaps we were fooled too easily into believing that our highest civic duty was to vote.  Any action that occurs only once every few years doesn’t hold much of a chance of keeping the individual engaged in the process once they marked their ballot.  Maybe new ways have to be found at engaging citizens themselves in the democratic process in a fashion that isn’t just about tweeting anger or blind partisanship.  They can remain this way because little is expected of them following their vote.  Perhaps elections themselves are on the lower end of the spectrum, not the highest, if they only result in a lack of involvement once concluded.

Are elections worth it when parties can say one thing while on the hustings and something else altogether when in power?  Do they really count when half of citizens don’t participate, and much of the rest don’t understand the issues?  If elections increasingly become about what people are against as opposed to what they are for, where will our political stability come from?

These are questions asked during one of the most confounding elections in Ontario’s recent memory.  Other than the party loyalists, those who vote are more likely to be fed up and confused than they are informed and purposeful.  Have elections themselves, like marriage proposals or business partnerships, any credibility left if too few are willing to keep the relationships going after they sign the paper?  We are in the process of learning that elections can’t work in a democratic system where the people themselves no longer care to do the work necessary to find compromise and a collective way forward.  The way ahead isn’t to get rid of elections but to make them more accountable once more.

It All Comes Down To Us

Posted on June 3, 2018

And, so, it has come down to us – citizens – just as it always has. An election isn’t just about winners and losers; it’s also a kind of scheduled checkup on the health of our democracy.  So far, the vital signs aren’t good.

To be sure, there are indications that people remain committed to the political process and its importance to how we carve out our future together.  But not as many of them, and not nearly with the sense of confidence required to restore the optimism that was once part and parcel of our daily lives.

Something about this particular provincial election is deeply unsettling.  It’s hardly a secret, as people all over the province express a deep sense of disquiet over the manner in which political parties, their representatives and citizens in general have behaved.  Only the kind of people who thrive on politics feel pumped about electoral politics at the moment.  The rest turn their heads away in either disgust or shame at what is becoming of our political class.

Many wonder when sanity will prevail again.  Promises are made that can’t possibly be fulfilled but which are nevertheless trotted out in the hopes that voters are too dumb or too distracted to even notice.

And what of the attacks against female candidates that have become particularly acute in our city?  They are malicious, demeaning, and frequently border on the edge of hatred. For any particular party or candidate that uses such malevolent voices for their own twisted ends, there can only be one conclusion: that the political “win” warrants such practices, even if they bring down community in the process.

We are perhaps the last generation that will remember what life was like before the Internet.  For those who have lived through that transition, there is this troubling understanding that its potential to undercut and destroy the societal trust that once held our populace together is real and powerful.  Used in the right hands it can restore democracy, bring communities together, and help us believe in one and another and our collective potential again.  But elections are the optimal time for seeing what the online world can become when people will do anything, say anything, and believe anything as long as it cuts a path to power.  We have forgotten that, for all that the digital world has done for us, it demanded something from us in return – to be open-minded, fair, humble, always learning, and ready to speak out against intolerance and bigotry where they are found. We overlooked that part of the bargain, leaving our politics in a state of dysfunction just as we most require it to tackle our great challenges.

There are credible candidates running in this election, and there are sound policies from which to choose.  But makes no mistake, our politics is changing.  It’s not some kind of add-on to what has gone before.  It, instead, seeks to blow up what preceded it if that’s what it takes to win.  It will never rest until it can divide us sufficiently enough to gain power.  This will go on and on, election after election, until our democratic estate, like Humpty Dumpty, can’t be put back together again in some kind of manageable way.

What will we carry forward into the future should we, as citizens, continue to tolerate this kind of shame in our public life?  Are we honestly willing to put behind us what once made our democracy respectful, human, and malleable, despite its shortcomings?  We are proffered simplistic solutions instead of reasoned questions about how we should all live together.  And that’s because some who seek our vote think that’s all we as citizens care about.  Are they right?

The highest political office in the land isn’t in Parliament or Queen’s Park.  It is that of the citizen.  Only citizens can remove from power or deny power to those who would seek to weave a demeaning discord among us.  We are at our best when, despite our differences or party affiliation, there is a sense of respect and compromise for journeying into our future.  To tolerate the politics of bigotry, racism or outright hatred is to demean ourselves beyond the point where democracy can help us.

When we make a choice in a few days, let’s not just vote by our opinion alone, but with the sense that, whatever the electoral outcome, we are still left with the task of building our communities and our province together.  Let’s not burn the bridges we all need to cross in order to come together once the election is over.  Surely we can do better than what we have tolerated in this election.  It all comes down to us – citizens.

Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.


Follow the Food

Posted on May 31, 2018

There are many key components that keep a city functioning, but if you would want to check up on its overall health, it’s helpful to follow how it moves its food around.  Seriously, it’s one of the main ways you can judge just how integrated things are.

If healthy local food from the region is largely bypassing a city on its journey to other markets, then you know there’s a problem.  Should there be numerous food deserts that leave significant holes for food resources in neighbourhoods, it has a serious impact on citizens, especially for those in low-income situations or who aren’t mobile. If there are successful urban gardens that experience difficulty in the distribution of their harvests to locations that require them because of a lack of institutional support, then clearly something needs to be unblocked.  Or if food trucks aren’t permitted to transport their quality foodstuffs into areas of town that desire them, then that’s a whole other problem.

There are many such dysfunctions in communities today, but perhaps the most telling is just how much good food is directed to landfill sites that otherwise could have been put to better economic or charitable use.  It’s one thing for a city to attempt to remove the blockages that keep food from moving freely through its streets, but it’s especially serious – some say immoral – when good food ends up in landfills it was never destined for and which creates the kind of serious methane gas that contributes significantly to global warming.

A few years ago, some of us at the London Food Bank began looking into how food was flowing through our good city in an effort to reflow, replenish or rescue good food that wasn’t getting to its needed destination.  What we discovered prompted us to be one of the founding members of the Middlesex-London Food Policy Council – a group tasked with developing sound action items and policies in a collaborative and coordinated way across the region and not just London itself.

While the London Food Bank is now in its 32ndyear, the majority of that time saw us working effectively with grocery stores in the city at numerous levels, including through national and provincial networking opportunities.  Over the years, grocery stores began offering their surplus products to us in what eventually became a steady and sustainable stream of corporate goodwill.  It was successful enough that 43% of all donated items are of the fresh food variety.  But it had all come together organically over the years with no real systemic architecture that was city-wide.

Until yesterday.  When the food bank sat down with officials from the City of London and the Middlesex-London Food Policy Council, we quickly learned that there was a keen desire to “rescue” healthy food from grocery stores at a wide level.  And since the London Food Bank was already working on an ad hoc basis with the city’s stores and had the infrastructure to support it, it was agreed that a new comprehensive effort be established that not only freed the area landfills from such products, but also redirected them to families suffering in food insecurity. Western University is also assisting with the research and design of the effort. The enterprise was formalized and yesterday was the press conference announcing the effort, recognizing that it was a plan launched by the City, managed by the London Food Bank, and guided by the Food Policy Council and university research.

The food bank has also been working with farmers in the region for a number of years through the Community Harvest program, and with assistance from London’s Western Fair Association, to pretty much accomplish the same thing in rural areas.  But this move to establish a city-wide effort with numerous partners is a significant development in our city’s move forward.

And for the London Food Bank it represents perhaps the biggest challenge we have faced in the last three decades.  We are working with others to secure a large enough warehouse, with walk-in cooler and freezer space, to house the food, that will then be distributed to other agencies.  Additional vehicles with similar capacities will have to be procured.  There’s a lot to do, but we as a food bank board have been encouraged by the leadership already being demonstrated by the grocery stores and their corporate headquarters.  They are releasing their produce earlier in the process, which permits us extra time to get it to its next destination.

The challenge is intense, but the London Food Bank remains committed to assisting with such efforts to keep food flowing more easily throughout our city and region as a means for making our community healthier and more functional.  We have also been taking a lead in bringing partners to together in an effort to establish a regional southwestern Ontario food hub within London, which will prove to be a significant step forward in food sustainability and locally grown production capacities.

So, yes, follow how food moves about in London in the next few years as an indication of how our community is coming together, eating together and collaborating together in a manner that’s not only good for the environment and struggling families, but for a community that’s taking its food responsibility seriously enough to chart a new course for the future.  For the food bank the challenge is there, but we couldn’t be more committed to it, for the sake of all Londoners.

The Time For Tinkering Is Over

Posted on May 25, 2018

Writing posts like this is never easy.  Partisans of one stripe or the other relentlessly claim that their party’s policies will do the trick, introduce a new era of prosperity, or restore voter confidence in politics and democracy.  We’ve heard all this before, numerous times, and in diverse fashions, but the net result always seems the same – loss of voter confidence that leaves many wondering if anybody can really turn things around.

Yesterday I did an interview with our local paper on a Toronto Star story that concerned how government interventions at various levels have helped the city’s food bank – the country’s largest – see their numbers decline somewhat.  It true – all of it.  Remedial efforts through things like tax credits, transport passes, housing funding and the removal of claw-backs that inevitably robbed Peter to pay Paul have had clear effects and for the families in need of such actions there is some relief.

But do we honestly believe that rolling out a diverse array of social programs is going to end poverty?  They are welcome and we credit those governments for implementing such initiatives, but by themselves such actions will never deal effectively with mental health problems that are systemic, an affordable housing crisis that will take years, decades even, to finally meet the demand, or Indigenous poverty that remains at alarming rates.  And how will poverty be overcome when jobs continue to disappear and those that are appearing are primarily minimum wage in the service sector?  A Basic Income Guarantee could be promising but it’s still too early to tell.  Regardless, people would still prefer a good job.  Can poverty be overcome in my own city of London when almost half the workforce (48%) is presently employed in precarious or vulnerable employment?  Fix that problem and then we can sit down and seriously discuss the eradication of poverty.

What of our collective response to the emerging catastrophe of climate change when we can’t even agree of a price for carbon emissions?  When will Canadian women attain equal pay for equal work?  These are serious challenges in an age of relentless hurdles.  No government has the funds to seriously attack the problems.  Citizens don’t want to be increasingly taxed to pay for such improvement.  Corporations remain focused on their bottom line.  And let’s not get started on discussing political renewal.

It doesn’t matter which part of the political spectrum one occupies, none has solutions that are fulsome  and truly revolutionary. The sad fact is that whichever party gains power there is little progress to show for it – things remain stubbornly stagnant or in a state of gradual decline.

Why has there been such little forward movement?  The answer should be obvious: such things cost substantially and all parties are reticent to draft election platforms proposing that we must all share in the burden of progress by investing more.  There is no vision, agenda or long-term plan for this. Instead we have tinkering – take a little bit here, give a bit there, and limp along as before, hoping to win government in the process.

The sad truth is out there: no one has the plan or temerity to challenge us as citizens and companies to step forward once more, as we did following the Second World War, and indulge in the kind of civic activism and sacrifice that can build communities, hospitals, local businesses, hospitals, universities, a vibrant arts culture and a media climate that puts citizenship before click revenue.  Parties and their respective leaders would love to adopt such a vision, but they are firm in their belief that we want more, not give more, and so they promise, promise, promise.

So little is changing for all those promises and all those governments of all stripes.  Governments around the world are as equally flummoxed as to what to do.  The reality is that neither the Left, the Right, nor the Centre presently has the solutions that can tackle our deepest challenges and we’d best come to terms with it.  It’s tough to have vision when you believe citizens and companies who say they actually want it have no intention of paying for it.  And, so, the electoral promises always come up short.

How can we build a better future world if we can’t even repair this one?  Seriously. The scriptures say that without a vision the people perish.  That is equally true today since no vision can work that doesn’t include the people themselves.  All those promises of progress have become cursed by stagnation.  Jobs without people.  Wealth without work.  Politics without principle.  Citizenship without sacrifice.  All these add up to what we have and will never change until each of us steps up and demands to be part of the solution.

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