The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: citizenship

The Real Strength of Canada’s Global Influence

This post can be found in its original National Newswatch format here.

So, Canada is bulking up, and with Foreign Affairs Minister Christia Freeland’s unfolding of a new global agenda in the House of Commons last week, there appears to be a serious amount of political capital, not to mention funding, going into the effort. It was substantial enough that columnist Susan Delacourt termed it a “manifesto” – a finger in Donald Trump’s eye.

There’s a lot of chatter these days about America losing its place of global leadership in the world. Commenting on Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Change accord, CNN analyst and author, Fareed Zakaria, boldly claimed, “This will be the day that the United States resigned as leader of the free world.”

That’s a hasty judgment. For all of the American president’s actions and rhetoric lately, the United States is too enmeshed in global networking and resourcing to simply step off the leadership escalator and leave the task to other nations. Donald Trump might be making nationalistic noises about making America great again, but too many American citizens and institutions remain engaged in global activity for Trump to simply pull the plug on decades of international responsibility. And there are no signs yet that his brand of isolationism will last more than a few years.

Yet his current nationalism is creating opportunities for other nations to up their game in the arena of global responsibility. Freeland’s speech in the House was a delicate thing, balancing deep respect for America’s historical leadership while, nevertheless, expressing disappointment at our neighbour’s penchant for turning inward.

Around the globe, international leaders are debating how to fill in the gap created by Trump’s retreat. Canada is now to be no different. Freeland’s review was underway prior to Trump’s election but was no doubt hijacked by the American president’s predilection for fraying many of its global alliances and agreements. It gave the review a challenging urgency and sense of focus, and ultimately provided Canada with a new way of looking at its own international influence.

The Trudeau government’s decision to commit $62 billion dollars in defence spending over the next two decades emerged from this new appraisal of Canada’s opportunities in the world, as did the commitment to focus at least 95% of the government’s international assistance allocations towards the empowerment of women and girls, in what is called the government’s “feminist policy.”

And then there is the Prime Minister’s recently announced intention to commit $2.65 billion to assist with international climate change efforts. Trump doesn’t like it, and political opponents are attempting to shred it, but it remains part of a larger cooperative effort to put Canada back on the international stage just at the time the U.S. leader is taking a step back.

All of this goes some distance to expressing the competing outlooks of Trudeau and Trump. Whereas the American president views the world as a moving state of competing nations, each vying for supremacy and advantage, Canada’s PM is betting that the only way to achieve a sense of justice and sustainability is through the kind of global collaboration that sees nations working together for common pursuits. Such approaches are polar opposites of each other, but the days of Pax Americana are slowly giving way as new options take its place.

“Our greatest export isn’t military prowess or even our wealth. It is our people.”

Yet for all the military, environmental and gender expansion that Trudeau’s government wants to project, its greatest calling card to the world is the one thing other partners have difficulty achieving: a peaceful domestic environment. Those of us who travel extensively continue to encounter foreign leaders who express sincere interest in our form of federalism. For all our foibles, regional disparities, languages, and political partisanship, the fact that we have held ourselves together while other advanced nations have sailed into troubled waters that threaten the historic world order says something about our own practicality and survivability. If Canada were currently roiling in animosity, the government’s recent global announcements would prove ineffectual.

Our greatest export isn’t military prowess or even our wealth. It is our people. Recent efforts to expand our influence in the world aside, comedian Jon Stewart’s observation remains relevant: ““I’ve been to Canada, and I’ve always gotten the impression that I could take the country over in about two days.” We will fight if we have to – against injustice, for gender equality, or for a more sustainable planet – but the reality that we remain a peaceful people is still the key attribute that empowers our global influence.

Mine, Yours, Ours

Photo credit: Sasin Tipchai

For all our talk concerning the ability for our communities to enjoy both prosperity and well-being we have proved remarkably one-sided in that approach by consistently allowing prosperity to become the benchmark for the welfare of our communities. Growth and all our rampant belief in its ability to provide a better future is quickly forcing us into a corner, where our desires are no longer affordable and our resources are rapidly dwindling in the process.

What else did we expect? In a world where wealth moves ever upward and the planet comes closer to living on life-support, the results of our mad dash to material nirvana are evident for all who wish to see and acknowledge them. As the New Yorker reminded us recently, we live in a world where only 2% of the world’s income is possessed by the bottom one-fifth of global population. If this practice persists, then it’s inevitable that something has to give. In most cases it’s the poor themselves. Looked at through another lens, the picture becomes even more revealing. A Credit Suisse report recently noted that the world’s 1% presently own more than half of the world’s wealth. That same report reminds us that while the growth of the world economy has doubled in the past quarter-century, the heavy cost for that expansion has been the 60% deterioration of the world’s ecosystems during that same period.

What has been the cause of this great global irony? In a word, inequality. It’s everywhere – between nations, between citizens, within nations, between communities in a fashion that keeps them endlessly competitive, and within those very same cities. It’s affecting everything and leaving us increasingly unsure an insecure in the process.

Is there another way, maybe a better one? Definitely – more than one in fact. But such innovations aren’t likely to find vast public support – at least for a time. Yet around the world communities are striving to find a balance between what we want and what the planet needs, and some have achieved success. They have built into the very sinews of their communities the idea of prosperity that needs to have sustainable lifestyles, individually and collectively.

Prosperity shouldn’t just be about money, economics, and luxury. Somehow we have to get into our minds that there is only so much in the way of resources to go around and that if an abundance of those resources deplete the planet or go to a minority of people at the expense of others, then “prosperity” might be the wrong word. Indeed, prosperity should be about shared living and not just success in isolated existence. Good health, adequate education, mutual respect, meaningful work, community responsibility and heightened citizenship – these, along with a healthy environmental ecosystem, need to be migrated into our very understanding of what prosperity really is and what it involves.

In a report by Professor Tim Jackson for the United Kingdom Sustainable Development Commission that I’ve be rereading while here in Britain this week, emerged a rather bold concept that could conceivably become the only way our planet and its people can survive. Jackson talks about “prosperity without growth” and, given our modern penchant for everything material, it forms a revolutionary statement. It makes sense of another of Jackson’s observations has merit: “the same old, same old, is not longer working.”

If he is correct – and many communities are banking on it – the only way we can survive while perhaps achieving prosperity at the same time is to build sharing economies. In other words, where we used to just collect and collect for our own individual pleasures or purposes, we can learn to share our resources with one another in any way that gives us meaningful and comfortable lives without impoverishing large portions of the human race or depleting the planet’s limited supply of natural resources.

Jackson, and others, favour the phrase “regenerative human culture” as a means for conveying their ideas. If in order to prosper we have to strip the planet at the same time, then eventually everything becomes a lose-lose scenario. But if we learn to collaborate and share the blessings we already have, then society can renew itself, spread the wealth, and heal the planet at the same time. It’s about using what we already have as opposed to inventing ever-new products for us to acquire. The website Global Transition to a New Economy has numerous revealing examples of such an economy action. The idea is simpler than its implementation, but the point is that it is doable. Prosperity for all is created by all of us through collaboration and not so much competition. The initiative SolidarityNYC put the challenge clearly:

Rather than isolating us from one another, shared economies foster relationships of mutual support and solidarity. In place of centralized structures of control, they move us towards shared responsibility and democratic decision-making. Instead of imposing a single global monoculture, they strengthen the diversity of local cultures and environments. Instead of prioritizing profit over all else, they encourage a commitment to shared humanity best expressed in social, economic, and environmental justice.

Share more while using less. Include others instead of retaining everything in isolation. Try being collaborative instead of competitive. All these are possible but not yet popular. There is much to learn from in our present economic practices, but they never were sufficient as long as they created winners and losers, poverty and wealth, environmental degradation and the a throwaway generation. Shared economies are more than an idea at present. In time they will become the only way ahead.

Good Politics

This post can be found in its original on National Newswatch here.

John Buchan was a Scottish novelist, historian and politician who embarked on these three careers at roughly the same time. His novel The Thirty-Nine Steps remains a classic. He also just happened to be Canada’s 15th Governor-General (1935-1940). A key to his long and diverse career is found in his autobiography:

“Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest of ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honourable adventure.”

I quoted this passage during a speech recently, only to be met with a baffled response. It wasn’t hard to see why: few look at politics in such lofty terms. In reality, much of populism’s response in recent times can be attributed to the resentments voters and citizens feel towards politics and those who dabble in it. Polls document it. Elections reveal it. And coffee shop banter is enlivened with it.

And yet much of this assessment is hardly fair or even warranted. True, many who run for elected office are more interested in power than public service. Yet there are many good politicians out there whose goal is to better their community, their country, their world, and their efforts should be honoured. The problem, really, is one of results. Dedicated people can do little when the political climate is one of battling, animosity, undermining, and the refusal to cooperate to achieve the public good. Because of the prevalence of these darker political practices, our deepest challenges frequently remain unaddressed, despite the party professions otherwise.

And since politics is a two-way street between citizens and their elected representatives, voters must be willing to accept some of the blame for the current state of political decline in our world. Some of our voting choices haven’t reflected well on us. We can blame politicians all we want, but many of those voted into office were just as scurrilous prior to their election as they were following. It was the voter that put them there, however, and if democracy is to be refined and enhanced it will require better choices from average people just as much as from our elected representatives.

From humanity’s very beginning, politics has been essential to our welfare, security and progress. Our modern problem is really about what kind of politics we are talking about. Julian Barnes was correct when he wrote in his Flaubert’s Parrot: “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.” The problem is not only that we elect individuals who behave this way but that we tolerate it year after year, even in ourselves as voters. Politicians and citizens will never achieve the outcomes they are looking for as long as the democratic state grows increasingly dysfunctional.

We require a better a way of governing ourselves because politics is the only constituted way in which we can forge our disagreements into enough of a consensus to move us forward into our many challenges. For all the recent debate about designing better political systems, the greatest step we could take towards the renewal of democracy is that of reforming ourselves. “We assume we are better people than we seem to be,” says University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay. The presumption affects our politics, he continues. “We assume that our politics should therefore be an endlessly uplifting pursuit full of joy and inspiration rather than endless wrangling, head-butting, and petty self-interest.

The problem, of course, is that there are many politicians and citizens who love this stuff – the blood letting, the sabre rattling, and the love and pursuit of power over others. Yet this isn’t where the average British, French, American, Chinese, Russian, or Canadian citizen lives. They merely seek a better and more secure world for themselves and their families. Politics to them should facilitate such noble and practical outcomes; when it doesn’t, anger and constant turnover results. For political viability to return, it must re-engage with the ambitious agenda of bettering the average citizen, including the marginalized, and honouring the politician who pursues that goal above all else.

Our politics is distracted because we, as a people, are distracted. We should be getting on with the business of enhancing productivity, ending poverty, achieving true gender equality, aligning ourselves with the sustainability of the planet, building meaningful communities, and creating a patriotic fervor that is as true in fact as it is in hopes. “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. We have become too accomplished at both and only a rebirth of a meaningful politics can begin to rebuild the “honourable adventure” that John Buchan believed was possible and is now proving essential.

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.

 

 

 

 

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