The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: decency

It’s Called Civil Society For a Reason

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

Numerous insights have been written in recent years regarding the eroding effect of partisanship on the political estate, most recently in America. That’s too bad because it’s a red herring and frequently masks what is the real underlying cause of political dysfunction. The fact that individuals hold opinions often at odds with others and support parties of various convictions has been essential to both the spirited and fluid nature of democracy itself.

Others feel differently. Writing recently in Fusion, American commentator Hamilton Nolan went so far as to say that those who profess to be non-partisan are surely part of our present problem. The title of his article speaks for itself: “Bipartisanship Means I Don’t Understand What Politics Is.” Bipartisanship is all too often an excuse from preserving the status quo, he believes, and the refusal to address America’s deepest problems – violence, poverty, racism, elitism. He believes not everything can be solved by compromise, and he has a point. Yet he maintains that many of those who seek such compromise are “moral monsters” and that those who call for more civility in politics are, in reality, “obscene.”

It’s easy to understand where Nolan is coming from, even as we consider the Canadian context. Why is it, for example, that no matter who holds the reins of power in Ottawa child poverty remains stubbornly high, that efforts to battle climate change are hardly sufficient, that gender equality is slow to achieve, or that Canadians remain disillusioned between political promise and effective performance? These are valid queries and deserve deeper consideration.

But to say that they endure because of bipartisanship or civility is something of a stretch. Civility lies at the very essence of effective politics, and as long as it is practiced with a willingness to listen respectfully to other points of view democracy has a chance of moving forward. We call it “civil” society for a reason. Far from being tepid, civility lies at the heart of effective politics. It permits those of whatever persuasion to remain in the room long enough to seek solutions together. For hyper-partisans such a pursuit is useless; with minds rigidly made up long in advance, the very thought of finding common ground is anathema. Political wars are their bread and butter.

One of the problems in Nolan’s perspective is that in poll after poll, on both sides of the border, the large majority of citizens want their politicians to “dial down” the endless bickering and get on with running their country in a collaborative fashion. There’s a reason why there are increasing calls for more respect in politics, and since it comes from citizens themselves there is clearly relevance to it. They don’t mind the partisanship but reject its rabid extremes and, for all its talk, the lack of effectiveness.

In less than a week Canadians will be celebrating the country’s 150th birthday, but it’s about more than just partying. It’s about collectively acknowledging a century and a half of living together, despite every division imaginable – geography, regional distinctions, language, distance, ethnicity, race, and, yes, partisan persuasion. While other nations struggle to hold themselves together at these weak points, Canada somehow finds strength in them, despite the friction.

In a real way, we have proved that it is our civility, our respect for our differences, that has allowed us to not only endure but to prevail. Our problems are numerous, yet we aren’t frozen in place by them. In effect, it has been our respectful civility that has been the precondition for our survival as a nation. It hasn’t been about our divisions, but the process of how we deal with them has been the secret to whatever success we have achieved.

Canada has proved to be an enduring triumph among global nations and deep down we all know it. Around the world, Canada is known for the congeniality of its people. Our problems are massive in scale, but it is how we have gone about handling them together that attests to the genius of our collective co-habitation. We have placed the ability to be civil at the centre of our innovation and curiosity as a people. By standing up and demanding that our politicians and other leaders put aside meanness for fairness, we attest to our ability to endure instead of self-destructing.

The majority of us comprehend that we cannot solve our abiding problems with hateful rhetoric, opinionated destruction, or namby-pamby citizenship. Partisanship is essential to our future; blind partisanship will kill it. Civility is what allows us to talk about our differences. Political will is what helps us to overcome them. For all our problems, it is time to celebrate that we are still together.

The Real Duffy Dilemma

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You can also read this post on National Newswatch here.

DEPENDING ON THE PERSON YOU LISTEN TO, Mike Duffy has been fully exonerated, escaped conviction, or everything else in between. The failure of the Crown prosecution case to “bring it home” prompted Judge Charles Vaillancourt to veer from the anticipated criminal ruling into some unexpected observations of the political mess that formed the essential intrigue of the entire Duffy affair. One thing is certain: the manifest sins of the political elite in the highest places of the Harper regime tainted everyone involved, regardless of the trial’s outcome.

Mike Duffy is free to get back to business in the Senate, his budget and participation now reinstated. Or as the CBC’s Rosie Barton poignantly phrased it: Duffy now “rolls back into” the Red Chamber both exonerated and exhilarated.

And that’s just the problem. This highly partisan individual, so keen to serve at the Prime Minister’s command for party purposes, is striding back to claim his seat in a new era where partisan loyalties are supposed to take a back seat to the more noble responsibilities of the Upper Chamber.   As numerous pundits have effectively reminded us, someone might be declared criminally innocent who is nevertheless politically manipulative. There is nothing to stop Mike Duffy from continuing to pursue the same divisive practices as those he demonstrated prior to his trial.

We hear repeatedly that the Senate rules must change, that more oversight be given to independent bodies, that a more thorough examination be maintained over Senate activities. Who can argue? But none of these things can impede a hyper-partisan on a mission. Matching the need for more regulations over Senate practices must be the introduction of senators themselves who innately comprehend the need for decency, respect, and ultimately the necessity for compromise that more effectively reflects the opinions of Canadians across all regions.

This isn’t about partisanship, which is a requirement for political debate that provides voters with real choice and clarity of principles. Acknowledging the divisions among the electorate is hardly a bad thing. All positions along the political spectrum are alive and well in this country and should be admissible in the House of the people, where citizens carry more opinions than can possibly be assimilated into the governing process.

No, it isn’t healthy partisanship that ails our politics in Canada, but stupid, arrogant, blind, unbending, disrespectful and “gotcha” hyper-partisanship that has crippled us in recent years. Justin Trudeau should make ample room for the former in the Senate and refuse to appoint anyone who smacks of the latter.

We can’t be surprised when the Bipartisan Policy Centre south of the border, which has researched both the good and ills of partisan political behaviour, recently concluded that of the 12 most partisan years in American history, 10 have come in the last 10 years. The effects of that reality are playing out on our television screens during this American primary season. It is a theatre where things have become so belligerent that immovable partisan opinions are more embedded in concrete than open to compromise.

Canada is divided in its opinion, and always will be. The propensity for every succeeding government to maintain they have a mandate to do whatever they like is foolhardy, and will continue to be so until partisanship itself is wrestled back to the negotiating table and willful corrosion of the political system is expunged. That was what our first Prime Minister, John A. McDonald, struggled for when he noted, “A public man should have no resentments.” Neither should any modern public man or woman.

As former Clerk of the Senate, Gordon Barnhart, reminded Rosemary Barton last week, the Senate was once a place where members held themselves in deep respect until hyper-partisanship came in not long ago and friendships were destroyed. “I am hopeful that kind of respect will return,” he offered Barton in conclusion. But that can’t happen if people like Duffy aren’t humbled by the shamble they have created.

We must avoid at all costs the practice that David McLaughlin powerfully exposed in a 2013 Globe and Mail article:

“Faithful to the partisan glue that binds 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.”

Indeed we are. And if Mike Duffy reenters the Red Chamber as full of partisan braggadocio as his recent contributions have demonstrated, then it isn’t merely the Senate or the House that is the ultimate loser, but democracy itself. Fewer things are more dangerous than an unprincipled political operative. The task for Mr. Trudeau isn’t to cleanse the Senate of the partisans but, rather, of the unprincipled political warriors who would bring down a historic Canadian institution for the sake of unbridled power.

Up Periscope

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TWITTER’S NEW LIVE STREAMING APP, Periscope, has been all the rage in the last two weeks and perhaps represents an entirely new direction for social media. And yet each time a new tool is developed to help with communication, it eventually gets hijacked by the haters, the trolls, the bigots. No sooner had Periscope launched than it ran into some trouble.

Scott Kelby is an Adobe Photoshop expert and a digital design specialist who immediately took to Periscope for its ability to get a messages out. But then he began to spot some troubles and wrote a piece titled, “Seven Things They Need to Fix in Periscope.” Most were just technical enhancements he recommended, but one has serious social consequences and he used it to challenge Twitter to up its game.

“I have seen some absolutely mortifying, disgusting, and downright filthy comments appear on screen while watching a Periscope broadcast, particularly if the person broadcasting is female. I’m stunned at some of what I’ve read . . . If Periscope doesn’t do something meaningful to curb this type of very inappropriate comments, it maybe its undoing.”

Kelby is only the latest well-known person to start pushing back at social network forums that continue to let hate in through the back or side door. The head of Twitter said only a few weeks ago that he was “ashamed” at what his own service was permitting and that concrete action would be taken. Celebrities like Adele and Naomi Judd are also fighting back against the trolls and haters after they became two of the better-known victims of online attacks.  Two women have committed suicide in the last year over online attacks.  It’s serious stuff.

For a number of years now the door has swung wide open to online comments of any kind in most digital venues, but it appears that things might be about to change. Over a half-century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. shouted out that, “Hate speech is not free speech. It rips people to shreds and destroys society in the process.” We are increasingly understanding how prescient that observation was. A quick search on Google regarding online “trolls” and “haters” quickly turns up numerous research findings as to the twisted reasoning of such individuals and how they seek to use any new invention to better the public space as an opportunity to stalk individuals beyond any sense of decency or respect.  Beyond any good measure, researchers say, such individuals become infatuated with certain people, troll them, seeking to destroy their reputations and place in society.

As citizenship itself takes on new importance in a time of fundamental change, it will be inevitable that permitting any kind of hate language in the name of free speech will be to undermine the very essence of citizen responsibility. Even newspapers, online and traditional, are understanding it better. Large papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are now rethinking their online comments sections in light of the abuse they engender. Most newspapers don’t have the staff to sift through all the online entries in order to remove the bad ones and so anything goes. But now many of these papers are coming to terms with the liabilities that come inherent with providing a venue that could result in hatred, especially if proved those comments had direct damage on victims. Perhaps even worse, newspapers that refuse to moderate such comments are watching their readership decline due to their permissive attitude. A growing number of good people are not only getting off of social media, but no longer reading the newspapers either.

That old champion of liberty and right of free speech, Thomas Paine, understood what would happen if it was taken to excess. Challenging the leaders of his time, he wrote, “A body of people holding themselves accountable to nobody out not to be trusted by anybody.”

As with so much these days, it will likely be citizens that take the lead in demanding that the public space be an honourable and respectful place. As more and more studies are being released showing that online hate is slowly poisoning that place, taking action will involve more than just “blocking” or “unfriending.” Eventually pressure will have to be brought to bear on those organizations and venues that blindly serve as a forum for the worst of humanity.

Get the Picture?

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LOOK AT THIS PHOTO AND JUST TAKE IN its uniqueness. It’s from the Parliamentary holiday party in 1971 – a throwback to a previous era when respect in government was still seen as one of the prerequisites for effective public service. At the right is Tommy Douglas (NDP leader), dressed as King Arthur, but you can also spot Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, Stanley Knowles (NDP), and Audrey Schreyer as Queen Guinevere. It would be a gathering as difficult to pull off today as the original Christmas story.

The occasion had been the annual Christmas party for the New Democratic Party and it was common for  figures from other parties to share in the spirit. Yet for a whole new generation of Canadians the thought that such a thing once occurred in this country would likely never enter their minds.

The photo is, in its own way, a sign of so much that is wrong in politics today. This is the time of the permanent election campaign, where constantly bashing the other parties (especially their leaders) has become a sport and an occupation – and, sadly, a distraction.

How we respect one another in our differences as citizens now becomes more vital than at any other time in our history. The situation has reversed itself, where politics itself now looks to the citizenry for role models.

It used to be that the term “golden rule” carried sway in the political chambers of our nation. It found its origin in the numerous scriptures from different faiths, but it essentially urged people to treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated. It’s a simple rule, one which, in one form or another, we have sought to teach our children from the beginning. Now, no one expects politics to easily apply such a challenge, but it nevertheless should still stand as a goal for political behaviour.

We could utilize the golden rule in the ways we communicate and debate one another as citizens. In a world where political parties maneuver themselves into ideological corners from which they can’t escape, Canadians can discover avenues of engagement unrestrained by such archaic confines.

All this leads each of us to an important question: “How would we like others to behave towards us when engaged in political discussion?” We already know the answer: take me seriously, show respect for my opinion, listen sincerely as I attempt to explain my position, and be open to some aspects of what I’m saying that you might agree with, and perhaps we can start from there. This is how the politicians of the past did it, but it appears more and more likely that only citizens can accomplish it for the future.

In such a context, why would I brandish a party label and be crude with someone when I would dislike being treated that way myself? We wouldn’t want our opinions distorted or maligned, so why, then, would I do that to others?

There were times when official political rhetoric wasn’t as poisoned as now, where representatives found the common ground together and worked out their compromises from there. In a modern world of negative ads and spin-doctors it is admittedly a difficult thing to recreate. But as we increasingly accomplish that feat ourselves as citizens, we remind all those seeking political life that such things as the golden rule are more than abstract principles or some kind of symbolism for an ideal world, but a practical guide as to how we can get ourselves, and our democracy, out of this mess.

“I believe in the Golden Rule,” noted famed country singer, Loretta Lynn, “but more than that, I believe in practicing it.” In that distinction might very well lie the future of our political estate.

 

 

 

The Loss of Canadian Honour

This morning the Huffington Post has run an article of mine on the loss of honour in Canadian federal politics. With the recent abuse of Parliament, the contempt charges, and now the obfuscation coming from the government on the F-35 costing, the ability to just do the right thing has become passé. Click on the link below to see the article.

http://huff.to/Hxgs4L

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