The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: elections

Election 2015: Now For Some Good News

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ELECTIONS ARE MOST OFTEN ABOUT PROBLEMS, as they should be – a government’s legacy is on trial. And the coming federal election has had more than the usual share of difficulties. There were the expected: corruption in government, economic upheaval, the bottoming out of oil prices and the sliding Canadian dollar, severe privacy in the PMO, the cross purposes between the feds and the provinces.  And then the unexpected: our meager response to the refugee crisis has placed a certain urgency into the things that trouble us.

There are those times, however, when we should consider just how fortunate enough we are that we – average citizens – possess the ability to alter our fate, to set a new course, to recapture meaningful politics again.

Elections form a time when we are forced to acknowledge that we live as a part of something larger, more universal. We are compelled to place a certain restraint on our individual freedom as we contemplate our country as a whole, and our role within it. What Canada truly is never becomes firmly established due to our vastness and complexity, but it is during elections that we can dream about what we want it to be and mark a piece of paper to signal our desire to move in that direction.

As individuals we derive the ability to view the system from the outside. Sadly, politics, and perhaps especially the present government, would like to just keep us there, watching from a distance and remaining separated from our collective potential as a citizenry. We are informed that government is too often in our way and that we should just move off, back onto our own path, and leave the rest to Ottawa. Yet in recent years we have witnessed the cumulative effect of a distracted democracy and a hyper-controlling brand of politics. We understand that our individual pursuits are actually impinged upon by the devastation of climate change, of a lack of infrastructure investment, of an economy too driven by the natural resource sector and not enough by the human resource dynamic.

And it is during an election that we get to turn our face once again to our heritage and our future and make a judgment call on how we respect the former and shape the latter. It is during election season that we get to transcend our personal limits and identify with the common cause of Canadians in general and their great potential as a people.

Between elections we are largely dominated by political jurisdictions that can either better or worsen our lot. But during elections themselves we become the dominant ones simply because the ultimate joy of democracy requires my approval, your approval, if it is to have a future and what that future will look like. We suddenly become important because we hold the vote.

In so many ways it seems so counterintuitive because for years politics goes on in ways that give us little thought. But not now, and not in this campaign. We are back, and this time we are a bit more engaged than usual because there are big problems we have to work on. And the glory of it is that we as individuals, by moving collectively towards the ballot box, can change the outcome, if we so desire. The joy of democracy is never so revealed as when an empowered citizen, aware of her larger responsibility, or his consecration to the future of his children, moves with others to address the nation’s condition. For a few weeks the attention is on us and, this time at least, we appear to be more interested in the need for change.

James Russell Lowell said that democracy gives every man and woman the right to be their own oppressor. He meant that we get what we vote for, and that if we permit a negative situation to continue, then we are ultimately to blame for our collective and individual fates. Yet the opposite can be true; we can be our own liberators, freeing ourselves from the poisonous kind of politics that pits people against one another and the opportunity to come together in ways in which Canada itself triumphs. This is the greatness of democracy – we decide, and we see its fate in the mirror.

Election 2015: Fear and Elections

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AUTHOR JEREMY ALDANA NOTES, “Insecurities have the ability to shape and mold our minds to live with things we otherwise wouldn’t accept, thus creating pain.” With the rise of rogue terrorist groups carrying out their actions around the world, we can easily get the sense that we are vulnerable, that all isn’t well with the world, and that, if we’re not careful, we could be placed in danger.

Modern elections are all about this propensity for fear and insecurity, and, to be sure, such threats carry weight in any campaign. Trouble emerges, however, when political parties, especially those with an authoritarian bent, opt to use election seasons to rouse up fears in the voters instead of hope and creativity. In such a state of perpetual insecurity, citizens lose perspective on other things they would normally worry about. With global insecurity once again an active element in political life, our own worries can easily eclipse other problems we can overcome.

What of our fear for our children’s future in areas of education and employment? Surely those count for something. How will we overcome our insecurity regarding climate change and the coming desolation? With poverty becoming more deeply entrenched every year, how will we deal with our collective worries about our declining social expectations?

In each of these areas politics has failed to come up with appropriate and timely responses, and so it does what it always does to distract us: scare us into overlooking such things in our distress over terrorism. Surely a capable government would assuage the fears of its people in all these areas.

It remains a foolish thing to believe that military action alone, or exclusive concentration on international trade, will be sufficient to keep us safe in all these dimensions. The number of Canadians involved in international peacekeeping presently numbers less than twenty. How can we fight war when we have undermined the resources for peace? The Harper government’s penchant to shut down embassies, abolish the Canadian International Development Agency (it is now part of the trade file), pull out of global institutions in which it was once an active member, the cutting back of diplomats, and black and white policies that only foster more conflict, means we have become victims of fear as opposed to proponents of peace.  They are signs that we have been in the process of gutting the very international diplomatic, development, gender, even military infrastructure, that were developed to deal with problems where they occurred and not wait for them to visit our shores. It is for these very reasons that Canada couldn’t win the slam dunk opportunity to be voted into the United Nations Security Council.

If a government were serious about protecting its people against foreign evils, it would place the bulk of its efforts on prevention, since such actions as peacekeeping, international development, gender equality programs, and, yes, trade deals that benefit the average person in difficult regions, have proven track records. The more we cut them out of our actions as a nation, the more that armed conflict will become inevitable.

That will also prove true domestically. Unaffordable post-secondary education, a growing gap between the rich and poor, the refusal to take climate change or our aboriginal situation seriously – these things, along with a growing list of others, will eventually lead to internal discontent in Canada. Perhaps worst of all, our dysfunctional political system shows no propensity for coming up with solutions to such dilemmas.

The chief character in the book (and subsequent movie), Divergent, watches everyone shrink back because of collective fear. “Fear isn’t supposed to shut you down; it wakes you up.” she tells the collective gathering.

It’s time we all woke up from our fearful nightmares and got to work on our collective dreams to build opportunities domestically and grow the peace globally. Franklin Roosevelt was right; we have nothing to fear but fear itself, especially the kind that renders us inactive in an age when democratic renewal is required more than ever. The opposite of fear is not courage, but peace, and it’s time we had a government that understood that distinction.

Election 2015: It’s About the Fate of Democracy, Not Politics

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“POLITICS HAVE NO RELATION TO MORALS,” said Niccolo Machiavelli back in the 16th century and there are many of us who surely disagree. And yet the idea the politics itself has become a real-life version of House of Cards is growing in strength the more the mudslinging and misrepresentations continue.

Those undergoing Canada’s federal election season likely struggle hard to maintain their belief in a politics that matters, but it isn’t easy. In fact, across the entire Western world democracy itself is losing its moorings; we know it and we are troubled by it. So, yes, it is likely the easiest to blame our present political difficulties on politicians themselves. And it is largely true that if they wish us to believe in good politics once again they are hardly providing us reasons and examples for moving in that direction.

Look at most developed nations and it obvious that a sense of angst runs through their populations – a key expression of democracy’s troubled state. Yet at the same time most of those people say that are primarily happy with their private lives; it’s just the collective condition of their city, province, country, or territory that they are down on.

But here’s something for us to consider: what if our present difficulties have more to do with democracy itself than merely the professional politics itself? Government was once viewed as vital to our prosperity and future; now it borders on the villainous. Democracy was founded on the belief that if you didn’t like any particular government that all you had to do was enter a ballot box and toss them out. Yet increasing numbers of citizens today avoid the vote, saying that nothing will change regardless of who is elected. Reform at any time can prove difficult, but when the elected watchers of the State seem out of touch with the times themselves, believing that we can alter our course isn’t common.

In a modern world built on the principles of collaboration and innovation, how is it that we have ended up with a federal Parliament as bitter and partisan as any time on record? At a time when citizens themselves and their input are seen as crucial for the future, why is it, then, that those same citizens refuse to come out in significant enough numbers to turn their respective nations in the proper direction? These two questions are even more confounding when we realize that the majority of the people in politics, and those in the citizenry, are basically solid, intelligent, and compassionate human beings who just happen to be avoiding the tasks necessary to realign the public and the private good.

Our problems might not be merely the people, but the systems themselves. Politics has become all about stifling partisanship, while citizens often prefer to blame politics rather than using the democratic franchise to reform it. Maybe we have changed more than we care to admit. Perhaps, as citizens, we are so distracted and preoccupied that we no longer desire to be troubled with the larger, more collective, picture. The political system knows this and senses it can get away with bad behavior because we don’t care enough to demand change from it. They would prefer to buy us individually with their money than inspires us collectively with their vision.

As many have noted in recent months, we presently have a federal government that is one of the most secretive and authoritative in Canadian history and yet citizens voted them in. How is that possible in an age when inclusiveness, transparency, and empowered citizenship are supposed to be the way of the future?

If democracy itself depended on the energized relationship between elected and elector for its success and both sides no longer care for that relationship, is democracy itself not really the issue? We have no alternatives, of course, and it’s likely the Churchill’s view that democracy is still the best of all political solutions rings true for the majority of us. But what happens when a divorce seems more imminent than reconciliation? If that indeed be the case, then democracy itself, and its future, is the thing we should ultimately be worried about in this election. Our only way to bring our nation back to a place of health is to vote to stay in a collaborative relationship. Will we show up in critical enough numbers to recapture a national consensus? Will our politicians run against a system that seeks to divide and conquer? Again, it will all come down to a pencil on a piece of paper. Either way, this election is about the fate of democracy, not mere politics.

10 Essential Traits Our Next Prime Minister Will Need

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BEING AN EFFECTIVE LEADER IN ANY DISCIPLINE is an art, but in politics it comes close to the impossible. Citizens want many things from their politicians, but, their chief desire, by their own admission, is character, a person they can trust. But in politics, a leader learns early on that to get the most support you have to be all things to all people. To have so many sides to you in the effort to woo voters while at the same time being honest and true to yourself is a balance so exquisite and difficult that it’s rarely managed well.

This is what happens when good people go into politics. Coupled with a commitment to serve their country, they have egos and desire to rise in the political establishment and so they do whatever their party leader asks. In their desire to serve the country, the end up slaves to the party. They become purposefully vague in policy in order to cast a large enough net to grab the most votes. In the end we watch in sadness as those who are capable of a healthy respect for others grow to despise those of other parties. Individuals who believe in democratic openness suddenly refuse to show up at political debates, thereby confusing everyone but the most ardent partisans. This narrative is a never-ending cycle in politics.

Now that Canada has entered an era of change and transition unlike anything we’ve seen in decades, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that politics, and elected officials, promise certain things and yet can’t solve our greatest problems. As that trend continues, trust in politicians ebbs, while distrust in their characters and intent grows. Thus frustrated, Canadians yearn for political leaders who are what they say they are.

These next two posts will be about those traits the next PM of Canada will have to exude if trust is to be re-established and if democracy is to be led out of its present doldrums. Here are four traits of character to get us started.

  1. Be passionate about Canadians, not just your own ideas. This is vital because most voters increasingly feel isolated as everyone else gathers around their party leaders. Political leaders work hard at appearing people friendly. They get tutored on how to wave, who to look at, how to shake hands, and how to appear interested. With citizens presently sensing no one really cares about them, it becomes vital that the next PM actually is interested. Passion is contagious, it’s true, but citizens are increasingly savvy in their instincts about what is genuine and what isn’t. The next PM must get out of the political bubble and into the citizen arena if he hopes to grow the democratic spirit.
  1. Don’t lose yourself. Probably nothing is more vital than this. Political life is a world of busyness, hyperbole, animosity, patriotism, tribalism, groupies, enemies, and a constant need to get the message out. In such a world, one’s inner compass can be obliterated in a context of spin. Authenticity is your only salvation. Even if you’re successfully elected, your reward will be temporary and the loss to your reputation, your honesty, even your family connections, will leave a permanent imprint. Govern with a clear aura, not a multitude of masks donned for different occasions. People won’t just follow you because you speak well but because you have remained true to your first convictions that you brought into public life.
  1. Be accountable. This should be obvious, but it becomes a major struggle for any PM. It’s not about being responsible merely to your party, but to Canadians in general. What are their fears? Their hopes? Their convictions? You are responsible to them, not your political hacks or party insiders. And be responsible to your family. They know you and can tell when your head is too big or your spirit too small. I once spoke with a prime minister who told me that, “Canadians are busy and more like sheep and just don’t get it.” Mistake. Big mistake. Nobody who is accountable to others talks like that, even in private. Canadians are your present and your future. If they don’t understand, it’s because you didn’t enlighten them. Or they might be right, but in your bubble you can’t see that.
  1. Be approachable. In today’s political world, for a PM, approachability is all about media availability and the odd handshake with a supporter. You’ll never understand Canada that way and, worse still, Canadians will never comprehend you as a human being. Welcome criticism if it’s constructive. Open the intriguing world of politics up to average people. Don’t create a world where the only people who are honest with you are the party pollsters. You are the leader of over 30 million people. If your life revolves around coterie of only 30 people, you’re doomed before you even start.

Famed UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, inspired his players before a championship game by saying, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” Such instructions shouldn’t merely fall in to the realm of youth, but into the highest political office in the land. If the next PM becomes entranced more with his reputation than his character, then the country itself will suffer the greatest cost and nothing will change.

Tomorrow: 6 more traits to reckon with

Election 2015 – The Best Way For Canadians To Predict Their Future Is To Create It

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ELECTION CAMPAIGNS ARE ALL ABOUT CHOICES. We’ve known that since the early days of democracy itself. But it’s time for us to focus on the choosers, and in this case the federal government itself and the implications of its own choices both in and out of a lengthy election campaign.

I had dinner with Dr. Don Lenihan a few years ago in Ottawa and found him to be remarkably informed on issues of democracy. It was only later that I learned he had become a Senior Associate in Policy and Engagement at Canada 2020 – this country’s leading independent progressive think-tank. He’s well respected internationally as an expert on democracy and the new spirit of Open Government, and chaired an expert group on citizen engagement for the United Nations.

Yesterday, all that experience and knowledge were combined in a piece Dr. Lenihan wrote regarding what happens when a government refuses to listen to citizens. Titled, Should You Vote for a Leader Who Doesn’t Trust the Public?, the piece immediately drove to what is the central issue for the democratic spirit in this federal contest. He writes,

The use of omnibus bills, the refusal to comply with access to information, the gagging of public servants, the attack on officers of parliament, the manipulation of committees, interfering with the Senate, proroguing Parliament to avoid a confidence motion, refusing to work with the provinces or the media—the list of his democratic infractions goes on and on.

Lenihan’s conclusion in all this is pungent: Our prime minister doesn’t trust us. In an era of open transparency and accountability, this is indeed a troubling portent. You can catch Lenihan’s article here.

All this leaves us with questions: If government doesn’t trust its people, how then will they direct their future? Or can they?

When nations approach a series of crossroads, it all can be a bit unnerving. We know change is upon us and that our choices in such a setting take on extra meaning. Historically, we’ve trusted that our politic leaders would guide us through the shoals and bring us successfully to the other side. But in our modern world, citizens want a hand in that direction, believing that their opinions matter and that their discernment should be sought. Yet, again, what happens when a government isn’t interested?

It isn’t enough anymore for political parties to lay out their policies from which we are to choose one among them. Citizens are now more savvy, seeing in all parties solutions and leanings that make sense. Increasingly, they are discovering that no one party has all the solutions, or even the right questions. In such a setting, they desire parties that are open to input from citizens (voters), and are willing to build on areas of commonality with their competitors for the sake of the country.

We are now in an age of experimentation, where we can strive for enhanced levels of cooperation and discover new methods for facing the great challenges of our time. Political leaders might conveniently claim we, as citizens, are “innovating,” but in truth we are leading. In fact, that path through our present political wilderness lies in our hands. Whether we select our leaders or demonstrate leadership ourselves, the future is rightfully ours to imagine. Yes, we can entertain ideas from politicians, but in a fulsome democracy, they must also respect ours.

To live in a nation where government refuses citizen input, contributions from seasoned experts, and transparent dealings between government and people, is to refuse the progress history has given us and to turn our back on our own potential. Our best way to explore our own future is to create it ourselves, and for that we require governments that give us a seat at the table and welcome our ideas and convictions. The opposite to that is what we have at present. As Lenihan powerfully puts it: “Canadians who really want to make an informed choice in this election should not only consider how the party leaders are asking us to see them, but how they see us. And as they reflect on this, they should keep a key question in mind: If a leader doesn’t trust me, why would I trust him?”

More than any other Canadian federal election, this present campaign could be the one where citizens say “enough.” It’s one thing to have parties vie for our vote, but it’s another entirely when one seeks the keys to the kingdom while distrusting us in the process. And since that decision has already been made, it’s time for us to make our own.

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