The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: democratic decline

The Biggest Obstacle In Running For Politics

You want to run politically – locally, provincially, or federally. You might think that your greatest challenge will be the uber partisanship that has destroyed so much of the political legacy of compromise in Canada, and you’d have a point. This past week the city of London, Ontario found itself the centre of national attention when one of its local elected officials (a former Liberal MP) was accused of using federal funds inappropriately during his time in Ottawa. Our community has been going through difficult times these last few years, but the sight of a present government MP slagging the London official in Question Period and on national media embarrassed our community on a nation-wide stage. No charges have been laid on the official, nor has anything yet been proven, but it didn’t matter. It was just a partisan kind of bullying that made Londoners deeply uncomfortable. Fortunately the other two government MPs from the city showed more admirable restraint.

This is the stuff you’ll have to face if you run for office, and if you end up choosing the party over your community you will have committed one of the greatest sins of elected office.

But you’ll have one greater obstacle and it will drive you crazy. You’ll soon discover that deeper realization that 20 years of the kind of partisanship mentioned above has turned off your constituency – apathy rules in most regions of the country, often typified by lower voter turnouts. The present American election season is revealing this once again, but in a new dimension. Numerous media venues south of the border have taken to “fact-checking” as a way to keep candidates from telling outright lies to the public. This was perhaps best displayed in the presidential debate when CNN moderator Candy Crowley corrected Republican candidate Mitt Romney on his accusation that President Obama didn’t condemn the terrorist attack in Libya until two weeks later. Romney faced the equivalent of being smacked down on national television for his subterfuge. Confronted by this following the debate, one Romney staffer stated, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” In other words, it isn’t about truth anyway.

In previous election seasons, media would call together panels representing both sides and let them duke it out. But falsehoods were rarely exposed in a definitive manner. So this time the media has taken to confronting candidates directly, in the belief that voters both want and deserve the clear truth. But it doesn’t seem to have increased public interest in the contest. Hyper-partisans still believe that negative and false ads work.

Maybe, but as we will see in a later post, I think the only thing such negative ads succeed in is turning people off of politics altogether, or baiting the ideologues who are incapable of curbing their anger for the greater good.

Truth is not red, blue, orange or green. It isn’t even black and white. We assume far too easily that everything has to have two sides and that we must select one or the other. In the modern world of politics we hardly find truth at all – just sides, often jarringly expressed. The modern Canadian voter is sophisticated enough to comprehend this and she/he turn away in disgust at the modern political spectacle of the tragic loss of the public space.

Canadians understand that politics is about the angle, the slant, the message, the barb, the perception, even deception. Citizens are looking for solutions but instinctively understand what Aldous Huxley expressed years ago: “Truth does not cease to exist because it is ignored.” All this “fact-checking” means nothing to the modern citizen because they stopped relating politics to reality years ago.

No party, regardless of its colour, possesses all the truth. The great and historic Canadian genius has been found in our ability to pull together the various aspects of reality from where we can gather it. But to listen to modern parties today you would think that opposing parties possess nothing of value. That is hardly true. What every party present in any legislative chamber possesses is the collective choice made by the voters in their riding. To slander such parties is to deny the democratic presence of those who voted for the person of their choice.

And that could be you. The only problem is that the majority of the people in your constituency likely won’t vote in the next election. It won’t be about you, but what they think of politics in general. There is only one way to get their attention and that is to stop slagging. Tell those listening to you that you will work with any other politician to tackle the major problems confronting our age. Not only that, you refuse to place your party, or even yourself, above those in your riding. You do that and you’ll get lethargic voters to sit up and take notice. They’ll have trouble believing that you’re real, so you have your work cut out for you. Your greatest obstacle will be the disillusionment of the voter, not your opponent. Your greatest accomplishment won’t be just winning an election, but winning back the belief of your fellow citizens that politics can matter again. You’ll win if you win them; all other political victory is hollow compared to that.

Go For It

By now we’ve all heard of Malala Yousafzai,  the 14-year old Pakistani education advocate who was attacked on her school bus last week by the Taliban. It happened in the largest village in the Swat valley and left her almost dead from shots to the head and neck. This week she was flown to a Birmingham hospital in England that is a specialized facility that treated British soldiers wounded in Afghanistan. Over 50 Muslim clerics have denounced the Taliban assassins.

So much has been written on this young heroine that we need not say anything more here – except for one thing. In a statement released just prior to the shooting she spoke of a change of priorities in her young life. “I had always wanted to be a doctor, but now I want to be a politician.” Impressive stuff for someone so young, but then again she has grown up in a region that ages a person before their natural time. Why take on the gruelling goal of politics? “To save my country,” she put simply. There is no better reason.

But how can we get Canadian young people, or citizens in general, to take up her challenge? Canadians are affirming in poll after poll that they are growing increasingly concerned, not only over the direction of our nation, but worried at the lack of any solutions to intractable problems like youth unemployment, the lack of future jobs, environmental decline, a stress-out healthcare system, the lack of financial security, or even the morbid state of our political life.

We require the media’s help with this – a responsible, reasoned, non-partisan effort to raise Canadian consciousness to the level of working solutions once more. The greatest challenge facing the media today is to convince the children and adults of modern technology not only that politics matters, but that they matter to politics. As a trend, media has been so successful at convincing citizens that democracy is deformed that it now can’t seem to assure them that political involvement is the only way out of our present malaise. In this the media must accept a large part of the blame for democracy’s decline – they have grown adept at living off of the political climate without engaging citizens in a manner to assist in reforming it.

It is only natural to state that politics itself has become its own worst enemy. What it presently offers is so unpalatable and offensive that Canadians are tuning out in droves. Citizenship can’t exist in a vacuum. In order for it to be at least able to pursue its highest ideals it must exist in a political environment which affords it the ability to capture and enact those dreams. Politics refusal to heal itself has escalated things to such a degree that ordinary citizens are despairing of the entire political structure itself. More and more people are opting for the outlook that politics is incapable of fixing anything.

Yet the country Malala lived and almost died in – Pakistan – is no piece of cake either. Why then would she change the course of direction in her young life from medicine to politics? Deep down we know the answer: in even the most challenged countries, political reform is the only long-term solution people have. Politics exists to resolve the largest questions of society. At its very best, politics creates and sustains social relationships, makes for economic prosperity and productivity, assists us in making our way into the larger world, and defends our interests with fairness and equity. At its worst it becomes the tool of the elites. Instead of comprehending and accounting for the popular process, governments are now increasingly responding to the narrow channels of power and money. The national welfare becomes eclipsed by parochial and partisan ideologies. In such a state, governments suffer for their failure to integrate citizens into the governing infrastructure. In this day and age of instant communication through the Internet, this becomes a death knell for politics overall.

In a recent American election, one U.S. Senator spoke with a refreshing sense of candour: “This city (Washington D.C.) is full of people who don’t like themselves, don’t like their jobs and don’t like their constituents, and I mean actively don’t like their constituents. And so they only entertain them in ceremonial formats. Everyone knows it’s fake.”

Well, it’s time we had people who do actually like their communities and who are willing to enter politics to serve them and not just the party or an ideology. But it is service, not ruling, and you will earn respect by moving downward in service instead of upwards in political prestige. Our communities await our own version of Malala. So many decent and talented people are refusing to run because of how politicians (and I was one myself) have ruined the franchise and introduced us to ongoing losing seasons. But how will we rescue ourselves? Recall Plato’s counsel in his Republic: “The heaviest penalty for declining to govern is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”

If a girl of 14 is willing to take on the Taliban in the arena of politics in one of the most troubling parts of the world, then we have no excuse. Our political system is yet salvageable, but we need people to enter it and make their mark. Political assassins exist everywhere. We now require noble citizens to enter the fray. Consider running.

Democracy in Reverse

The challenges were immense, but I took it on as a task of goodwill. We had been asked to assist in the peace negotiations between north and south Sudan, held in Kenya, and mediated by a very able and respected Kenyan ex-general. Taking part in peace exercises in Bangladesh, Ireland and Guatemala provided some training, but this was huge. It had been Africa’s longest-running civil war and everything was on the table – religion, tribalism, race relations, oil, the rights of women, etc. There were to be three rounds of negotiations held over a couple of years – extensive, frustrating, and not a little bit exhausting.

But what else was Canada going to do? We believed in democracy and supported United Nations efforts for decades in countries around the world. It’s what we did best, and everyone knew it.

The initial round was all about labeling, yelling, disrespect, age-old angst, and the absolute inability to find common ground. In the second round, through the thankful intervention of seasoned diplomats, knowledgeable not only about the region but human nature, belligerents were seen to be having coffee in various places inside and outside the host hotel near Nairobi. By the third round the pens were out, the dialogue less heated, compromise more possible. At last the deal was signed, against all odds and expectations – brokered by some very skilled public servants.

This is what we do, right? We assist countries unused to democratic debate, finding the commonalities, or striking a compromise, and remind them that peace and citizenship matter. We have been world experts at it. This is democracy in action – messy, guided, open, but eventually respectful and more dignified than competing sides had experienced.

How is it then that in Canada we are actually moving in the opposite direction? I was in a meeting recently in which people who should have known better accused the government and Stephen Harper of being “evil” and the “enemy.” I have heard the Prime Minister use that language himself on more than one occasion. The hurling of insults across the aisle of Parliament has now become epidemic – no respect, no dignity, no results. And this week in our own City Council chambers one respectful group of citizen protestors watched in dismay as another group took to catcalls, jeering and threatening because the politicians didn’t vote their way. It was shameful conduct for any public space. As was a certain councillor’s delivering a flyer showing Adolph Hitler and likening the Third Reich to people who supported fluoride in the water.

What is going on in Canada? Some will call it rebellion, others change, still others some kind of necessary adjustment. I agree with all three, but when we stop treating fellow citizens or politicians as ends in themselves and only as means to our ends, then we have lost our way as a people. In one of his more memorable speeches, John Kennedy stated, “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about highly opinionated people, is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”

I’ve been in public life a long time and I have never seen the public space so tainted by intolerance and the loss of personal dignity. Yes, politics has refused to lead by example; but then again, citizens are doing the same. There is now the feeling afoot in this once more peaceable nation that we have to yell louder, act more stridently, cast dignity and respect out the window if we are to get a hearing or make change. Many of the people holding to this view have turned their back on Martin Luther King Jr.’s counsel to keep away from the cycle of violence and anger, because it will be inevitable that one terrible deed or word will only bring on more of it. This was also one of the main tenets of Gandhi’s life or Mandela’s creed. Are we now at the place where such examples no longer have the power to refine our national character? Are we really so empty as to present them with titles and honourary citizenship and yet refuse their advice.

By honouring Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Winner, for her personal resolve to maintain dignity even during years of house arrest in Burma, the world endorsed a new generation of peace activists and reformers. To hear her utter the phrase, “I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons,” is to comprehend that a new age of effective politics will require practical respect for one another.

Canada is quickly becoming a chamber that echoes the voice of the strident over the quiet more modulated tones of Canadians still respectful of the public space and its importance. The best road to revolution is still through the ballot box. Unless those citizens arise and engage in the national dialogue it is only a matter of time until everyone will think everything is hopeless. We will become a stalemate nation rather than a progressive one. We will reach the point where our ears will become eclipsed by our voices.

In my global and domestic experience, only those willing to speak and act respectfully, despite years of war and disappointment, were able to eventually find peace for their people. The irony of Canada passing from a peaceable nation to one consumed by wars of words and disrespect is to turn democracy on its head and slam it into reverse.

You Say You Want A Revolution?

In fairness, those who corrupt language for the sake of an agenda could only get away with it if their hearers blindly accept what’s being said. For most of Canada’s existence there was a kind of fairness indicator or ethical monitor operating in the Canadian context that, while understanding language was often used to achieve a certain goal, would push back if there was deceit or even lying in the effort.

Times have changed; the fabrications within advertising have found their kin in federal politics. We understand that most claims made in television commercials are excessive, even misleading, but we accept it as standard procedure. But we never extended that grace to politics, at least not very far. To capture just how far our democracy has fallen, think of the words of playwright Noel Coward: “It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” Doesn’t this exquisitely describe our age? Authenticity, transparency and humble honesty have become so rare that we are stunned, even inspired, despite our scepticism when it appears. On the other hand, the paltry and petty verbal creations of partisanship merely make us nauseous in their frequency.

I’m out of politics now and have attempted to largely steer clear of commenting too much on the national political scene. But something has been occurring for a time now that needs to be talked about, especially in light of these blog posts on why language is so important.

In my time in Ottawa it’s likely no one was held in such high respect as Irwin Cotler, MP for Montreal’s Mount Royal district and the former Liberal justice minister. He repeatedly refused to play the game, opting to focus instead on issues of justice and human rights. He gave the Conservative Party his platitudes when he felt they had acted properly, but they also felt the sting of his legal mind when they failed to live up to their promises. Well it turns out that respect means nothing in Ottawa when it comes to aggressive political goals.

I went through a similar experience in my last election and was seasoned enough to know it was coming from party central and not from the local Conservative candidate. Nevertheless, all those calls led to one of the most disillusioning realizations of my life.

Now think about Irwin Cotler enduring such treatment (read this) from the Conservatives, not for days or months, but years, and you’ll get an idea of how hard it is to believe in government anymore. Cotler called the government out on this a short while ago, lodging an official complaint with the Speaker of the House. At the root was an endless round of phone calls in Mount Royal saying that Cotler was retiring, a by-election would be called, and that people were needed to support the Conservative candidate. The problem was that Cotler stated repeatedly that he would be staying.

This is a sad case, and in this instance it is the Conservatives that must shoulder the blame. But it’s in the use of language that the greatest grievance is to be found. When proof emerged that the government was indeed the source of such a shady practice, they first remained silent, then a few days ago owned up to it. From there it only got worse. “We didn’t break any rules,” the party claimed, and one of their MPs, John Williamson, had the gall to add, “This is an important part of the political process.” There was worse to come.

Peter Van Loan, the government’s House leader, eventually concluded that if the Speaker ruled against the government in this case then “freedom of speech should forever be repressed.” What? Have we reached the point where a man of deep honour is attacked by dubious claims and purposefully misleading information so that the government can win his seat and their only defense is that it comes with the right of free speech? There is something absolutely dastardly in this, perhaps even mildly evil.

Here is where language is used in an attempt to bring about a doubtful outcome. The government is telling the Speaker (a Conservative) that if he should rule in defense of a man’s earned integrity, and against false and admitted accusations, that he would be undermining free speech? There is a deep and abiding moral sickness in this and its chief tool is the abuse of Canadian language.

There is only one true reason why the government is undertaking such shameful action – they’re banking on the fact you don’t care. In other words, our ambivalence has created a situation where falsehood is accepted because it’s ignored. Such is their belief in your integrity as a citizen and the hard-earned respectability of this nation. This is not about policy or partisanship, hidden agendas or open hostility; it is about twisting our language to publicly defile us. And it will only continue until we say enough.

It’s time for a revolution – a healthy, open, transparent and honest upheaval of citizenship. It doesn’t matter if you’re Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Green, Bloc, or whatever; you are Canadian and this is beneath the standard of a decent country, and by extension, you.  Your political stripe doesn’t matter. In fact most Canadians don’t even support parties anymore. What is of vital importance is your reputation as a citizen – you either accept this deceit or you revolt. It’s as George Orwell said: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Indeed.

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