The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: accountability

Serious Elegance

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You can read this post on National Newswatch here

EVERYONE IN THE ROOM SENSED THAT PAUL MARTIN would be prime minister soon enough. There was an excitement in the air as my wife and I attended a London, Ontario event where Martin, as finance minister, was scheduled to speak on healthcare.

His arrival was met with enthusiasm and he quickly warmed to his audience. Partway into his address a door closed at the rear of the hall and someone quietly entered. People whispered to one another, “It’s Jeffrey Simpson.” While the audience might have appreciated that one of the country’s best-known journalists would attend their event, the effect on Paul Martin was immediate. The finance minister is known as an engaging speaker, but his connection with his audience that evening dissipated as his eye continued to follow Simpson’s progress up the side of the hall. He was more careful, not as bellicose or partisan. While the journalist jotted down a few items in his notebook, it was clear to everyone that his presence had changed the dynamics.

The ultimate moral of this recounting is how experienced journalism can affect our politics. This wasn’t some frantic or wannabe reporter using social media to raise his profile. He was instead an objective witness to events and his insights served to remind the political establishment that accountability still mattered and that a reckoning would surely result the moment political figures ignored that responsibility.

When the Globe and Mail announced this week that Jeffrey Simpson was signing off following a stellar career as a columnist there were the expected plaudits. Starting at the Globe in 1974, he soon became a national affairs columnist. He was no wide-eyed idealist, having earned degrees from the London School of Economics and Queen’s University.

There was a kind of serious elegance about him that easily translated to his writing style. The gravitas he exuded served effective notice to the political elites that he saw through their trappings and partisan rhetoric. And he was recognized by his peers as someone who could spend hours researching a topic and just as long in crafting his words that ultimately became his columns. He was awarded all three of Canada’s noted literary prizes, awarded numerous honourary doctorates, and became recognized as one of the country’s leading thinkers on public policy.

So, yes, Simpson has enjoyed an accomplished career, having authored six books in the process. But it was his effect on the Canadian policy establishment, including the politics that so often diffused it, that might prove his ultimate legacy.

Simpson’s 42-year career coincided with massive changes in the news and publishing industries – a transformation that has redefined journalism in the process. Yet his columns remained remarkably sanguine when it seemed as though everyone else was heading off in all directions attempting to catch the latest trend. Knowing effective policy and good politics to be the essence of a healthy democracy, he couldn’t bring himself to pander to the flightiness of the age.

In his The Way of the Modern World, author Craig Gay recounted the effects of modern journalism’s infatuation with the immediate:

“By focusing exclusively on the events of the day, journalism all but severs the connection between time and eternity. It makes the world appear to be nothing but an endless jumble of events through which it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern anything beyond the relatively base motivations of lust, calculated self-interest, and the will to power. In short, journalism is not able to communicate wisdom.”

To his credit, and that of the newspaper that understood his value, Simpson refused to walk down that path. Instead he did as he always did – engaged his readers with serious insight. In so doing he became the embodiment of esteemed journalist Bob Woodward’s observation: “I think journalism gets measured by the quality of information it presents, not the drama or the pyrotechnics associated with us.”

This year has seen the retirement of a number of dedicated columnists who believed that their craft deserved proper and serious context. But as a nation says farewell to Jeffrey Simpson, it is aware that it is losing a refined writer who dealt with them as citizens of the mind as well as passion. Ultimately, it will be his sage observations of accountability and watchfulness that will be missed the most in a political and bureaucratic world all too willing to spin on a dime if it would curry more public favour and influence. We wish him a well-deserved and contented retirement, but our journey from this point forward will be all the more difficult without his elegant writings of public responsibility.

Election 2015: Citizens and Power

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IT’S BECOMING CLEAR THAT THINGS ARE MOVING dynamically in this final week in the run-up to the election. Interest is growing. Voters are changing their minds. The media are having a field day.

But on October 20, with the election done, everything settles back into that one great goal: the possession of power. A feeling develops in Ottawa that the winners have been legitimized by a process of voting that now gives them sway to carry out their own designs. It’s as if democracy is all about the vote and never about the four years following.

There’s been much hoopla about the increase in advance voting as compared to the last election, and it is encouraging. As citizens we are coddled, prompted to dream, to trust this party or that, to get engaged, to make a difference. But at midnight of Election Day we are largely overlooked as the focus becomes the power structure in Ottawa once again.

This being the case, it is always a dangerous thing for citizens to emphasize the few weeks of election at the expense of the few years following. Power is not just about voting, but vigilance, and that’s a lot harder to accomplish. The office of citizenship (and, yes, it is an office) is built on the premise that power is really established in the will of the people. But the irony is that citizens most often exercise that privilege during an election and rarely follow through afterwards, whereas the political class panders to voters in the electoral contest while become fixated on the years of political power in the future. If that practice is maintained, citizens will never be able to change anything.  The assault on democracy prevalent in recent years will only continue.

Power is not just about the one who wins it, but the many who guard it. Should citizens not want to take part in the long game, power and its use, its winner and losers, will be determined in Ottawa. Citizens don’t like to talk about power, especially as the political structure itself becomes more dysfunctional. But power, and the pursuit of it, is remarkably real, and whoever holds it will inevitably affect the lives of millions. We can go ahead and presume the practice of politics is sordid, but if it causes us to opt out, to remain ignorant of the ways of power, then our future is decided by others, without our input.

It is encouraging to witness the present interest in the 2015 federal campaign. Citizens are showing up in significant numbers in advance polls and it could be an indication that they are feeling enough is enough. They understand that our greatest challenges aren’t being addressed and they are somehow wishing to acknowledge that reality by visiting the ballot box. But that is meant to be the beginning of their engagement in power, not the end of it.

If we as citizens don’t wake up to the realities of power, we will simply be left out of its workings in the coming years. If people desire change, then they must adjust themselves to collectively stay tuned to politics instead of turning away. Elections alone are never enough.  Politicians and political parties alike have grown accustomed to returning to the voter every election in order to get their papers to govern again. But our political future will never change unless, following our vote, we remind our representatives that we desire a place at the table – not in Ottawa, but in our home constituencies. We need collective and cooperative meetings with our politicians on an ongoing basis, to demand accountability, yes, but to also teach us the nuances of power itself and how we might play our own needed role – collectively.

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire notes that, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” There is important truth in this insight. To turn away from vigilance regarding political power only leaves those who seek power for power’s sake forever in charge and leaves millions defenceless.  .

Election 2015: Please, Don’t Think

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ACROSS THE COUNTRY, CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATES have become, once again, conspicuous in their absence at election debates. If any one word was used to describe democracy it is supposed to be “participation,” but this trend of avoiding the voters while at the same time asking to be their representative is a bit confounding. It would be similar to a teacher failing to show up for a parent interview, or a doctor avoiding a consultation. The government has already provided the script to all its candidates in case their absence is missing: “I am out canvassing and meeting constituents in their homes.” But there is no evidence whatsoever to prove that these absentees have visited any more homes than those of other parties who consistently show up at debates. Call it “absentee democracy.”

Pundits believe such a practice is designed to keep individual candidates from “going rogue” and deviating from the government line or the PMO talking points in any manner that could embarrass the leader or the government itself. It’s just another example of a dedicated candidate being forced into the safety of solitude as opposed to the accountable world of defending legacies and sharpening ideas.

Ultimately it is the belief that citizens don’t care enough about their democracy to really hold governments accountable for such travesties that permits the practice to continue. As such, it isn’t only about liability control but the underestimating of citizens that is really the issue.

For some in politics, the citizen stands as the one impediment to their grand designs. Instead of empowering or enlightening the average voter, the wish is there to keep them vague, in the dark, docile, and perhaps so totally uninterested as to not vote. It’s about as pessimistic a concept of democracy as exists and yet it appears to have been effective – at least until now.

Elections can be all about the dispersal of selective bits of information designed to have you believe in change while at the same time being too disjointed to actually deliver on it. Ideally, an election should be about deeper consideration of the public estate as opposed to the hyper-simplification of it, but that’s not what modern electoral contests are about. The result of all this is the emphasis on the management techniques of democracy as opposed to its real values. And then begins the long process where we begin to devalue ourselves.

We see the results of this everywhere: efficiency becomes inefficient, austerity becomes something cheap, what things are done become more important that why we do them. But it gets even worse. Prosperity is transcended by a growing poverty, costs becomes more important than values, press releases replace policy renewal, advertising trumps accountability, and, in the end, a kind of grueling partisanship takes the place of collective purpose.

A citizen who begins to think contradictory thoughts during an election, who decides to step off the political treadmill of mere opinions and take a more objective look around her, can quickly spot the emptiness of it all. It is then that she becomes an impediment to the political process because she refuses to accept the shallowness of it. She begins to understand that the great progress of the last few centuries weren’t the byproduct of rational thought or management systems, but of daring enterprises, visionary leadership, and the belief that the Canadian people are at their best when challenged to develop a better, more inclusive future.

Canada is in a state of uncertainty at the moment precisely because we accepted incremental structure over transformational action when it was required. For a government bent on sheer domination of the political landscape, the awakened citizen intent on action is of far more a threat than any opposition party, especially when others citizens join in the cause. The concern of our present state is produced just as much by an absence of values as it is candidates refusing to attend debates. Either way it is the belief that citizens are at their best when they’re mildly compliant and not agitated. Nothing could be worse for democracy, ourselves, or our nation.

In a world drowning in political words that no longer carry meaning, the only hope is the empowered citizen, engaged and determined to place values back into the centre of the national conversation. It might be the last thing the government wants, but it’s the first thing the country needs.

“Idiots” – Community Engagement Podcast (25)

If citizens check out of the political process, then it becomes increasingly easy for governments to do as they wish.  We all know that.  And yet, with voter turnout declining in most democracies around the world, the democratic estate is becoming increasingly ineffective.  There’s an ancient name for people who don’t wish to take up their societal responsibilities and until they do, then our challenges will only get greater in equal measure to our disillusionment.  We can solve such difficulties, but it will require a new kind of citizenship.

Click on the audio button below to listen to the six-minute podcast.

Conscience and Cowardice

563030_468418673211852_987616969_n“Conscience and Cowardice,” said Oscar Wilde, emending Shakespeare, “are really the same things. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm.”  H. L. Mencken partially agreed, noting that nowhere in the English language is a term so rich in ironic ambiguities than “conscience”. 

It seems to me that modern citizens are caught in the ongoing tension between these two realities.  It has been a simple thing of late to pile on politicians for “not living up to their conscience” or “behaving as cowards by not standing up for the constituents.”  Who can argue?  The party system gave up attempting to inspire us a long time ago, opting instead to try to steal our vote by hammering the other parties.

But for the citizen these two terms equally apply – often two sides of the same coin.  Of course, when it’s “open season” on politicians for lacking something of a spine, it’s never a good thing to say the same of voters because, well, they’re voters and everything depends on getting their support.

By-elections have been viewed as occasions when citizens hold a disproportionate influence over the electoral process.  There’s no full national or provincial campaign going on which can swing local ridings one way or another.  Candidates, though often affected by the reputation of their parties, nevertheless can gain slightly higher profile in a by-election.  There is some wiggle room here for a candidate who wishes to place a personal stamp on a campaign by showing they can think independently or put forward some of their own ideas.  I won in a federal by-election in 2006 against a national party leader, former mayor, and a former city councilor.  All were good candidates.  I opted to talk about how cooperation with all the other parties would be essential to the success of any government (ironically, an odd idea at the time), and that overt partisanship was a curse to any kind of politics.  That would have been much harder to achieve in a full national campaign.

Conventional wisdom also says that by-elections form a kind of referendum on the current power structures of the day.  This is no doubt true, as citizens often use the opportunity to take out their frustrations.

But there is one aspect of by-elections that rarely gets mentioned, and that’s the fact that they are also referendums on citizens themselves.  If it’s true that citizens can squeeze out a bit more influence during by-elections, then one would think they would jump at the chance, not only to make a difference but to highlight their local issues at a time when other jurisdictions are watching.  Sadly, citizens often blow that opportunity by thinking such contests mean little anyway and don’t bother making their mark.

Which brings us back to the idea of conscience and cowardice.  We have a provincial by-election where I live in London today.  People have been hard on the politicians, saying that it’s the “same old, same old” and that they’re tired of the bickering.  As a direct witness to this campaign, I can attest that there is some validity in these claims.

Yet such things don’t represent a valid excuse for not voting, because a significant aspect of the viability of democracy is just in the showing up.  Let’s not confuse dramatics for conscience.  People can scream all they want about how angry or confused they are, but these are hardly protestations of conscience.  Acts of conscience require the courage to show up, despite the odds or feeling of ineffectiveness.  By-elections aren’t merely about them or our disappointment in the political process; they are about us, and our responsibilities.  Communities matter because we do – it’s true.  But so is the opposite: we are directly impacted, refined and made better by those places where we live.  To abandon that community at a time of political anger or feelings of emptiness is hardly an act of conscience, but of copping out.

If we keep giving up, then what do we leave to our children or grandchildren – a political estate even more destitute than today?  Gaylord Nelson put it this way: “The ultimate test of a person’s conscience may be his or her willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”

Political campaigns bring policies and parties to the dividing point and people have to choose. The same holds true for citizens.  To say you have the right to not show up today and vote is like saying you have the right to let your neighbor starve or your child to go without an education.  You can do that, but what it says about a person who will do that is too troubling to mention.  Today is choice day – not just for political parties but citizens.  Voters have two choices from which they must choose – conscience or cowardice.  A third “c” – copping out – isn’t on the list.

Our communities and our country are going through some of the hardest eras in years.  This is supposed to be one of those times when leadership from our political order emerges.  That remains to be seen.  It is time for citizens to encourage one another to grab the franchise and mold it into the politics of tomorrow we say we wish for.  Today isn’t so much about politicians – they’ll come and they’ll go.  It’s about us and about whether we have the courage of our convictions.

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