The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: fairness

Can Canada Afford Its Dreams? Follow the Money

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IT’S BUDGET DAY, AND ONGOING POLLING SPEAKS to significant amounts of support for the new Trudeau government. The new PM himself has hinted that he is prepared to help lead a reinvigorated progressive movement internationally. It’s still early days, but it’s difficult to deny that the initial impressions of Justin Trudeau internationally have been favourable.

To be one of the leaders of global progress, however, Trudeau has to show that his ideas work at home, and on this particular budget day that will be a tall order. We’ll hear the usual spin from politicians, economists, media pundits, and interest groups on the budget’s effects. People will debate the size of the proposed deficit, the effectiveness of investment in infrastructure, and how Canada has to get its productivity moving again.

Yet, as with the recent meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, all this maneuvering will be taking place against a backdrop of staggering global financial inequity. Just as in Davos, where the world’s elite heard directly from Oxfam that 62 people now control over half the world’s wealth (more than the poorest 3.5 billion people), Canada has to come to terms with the harsh reality that much of the great wealth created in this country goes to fewer and fewer people. While today’s budget will mostly involve tinkering, it’s likely that the fundamental flaws on inequity on how we handle our finances will go unaddressed.

Oxfam’s revealing study was the work of Deborah Hardoon, Sophia Ayele, and Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva. One of their main subjects of research was the increasing disconnect between workers and their earnings. In advanced nations, like Canada, the national income going to workers is falling, while that going to owners and elite executives is growing. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us who have watched average wages remain stagnant at the same as corporate profits mushroom.

In the poorer countries, the same trend continues. Between 1990 and 2010, in many developing nations learned that some 40% of their workforce saw their wages grow more slowly than the national average – a tragic reality that left 200 million people mired in abject poverty despite the growing wealth of their respective nations.

Then came the intriguing revelation in the Oxfam report that $8 trillion dollars of global generated wealth remained untaxed because it was diverted to offshore savings accounts. Much of this was from countries like Canada and the United States – revenue that could have been put towards alleviating poverty or increased worker wages in advanced nations. This has remained the financial backdrop for successive Canadian governments.

We’d be making a great mistake to assume that this vast inequity in our wealth is only taking place in poorer regions of the world. It’s a reality that continues to cripple worker wages in Canada and to rob citizens of the vital investments required to prepare ourselves for a fairer economic future. Canada was built upon the model of effective wealth sharing – the only method possible to adequately manage such a large nation with a relatively small population.

This is crucible working its way through the global financial system at the time that Canada’s new government is laying out its first budget. To lead a global progressive movement means to come face-to-face with this one great conundrum: how to work toward income equality when the financial trends are heading the other way, burgeoning the gap between the rich and the poor? Countries shouldn’t become victims of their own wealth, but, indeed, be liberated by it. Budget 2016 is likely to be more about the former than the latter.

It will take a remarkable amount of courage, ingenuity, and popular support to lead a global movement that will reverse current trends. Mr. Trudeau has some time to develop that leadership by showing that it works at home. People in Canada and around the world are dissatisfied following a decade or more of austerity and the lack of investment in people and in the planet. They are eager for change and it’s this reality that has provided a window for progressivism to take on its onerous task. But should we tinker, the downward slide will continue, affirming Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s observation: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey. Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Betrayed by Silence

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“I AM NOT A SAINT, UNLESS YOU think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying,” Nelson Mandela said reflectively. It’s hardly an accident that the former South African human rights champion looked on Martin Luther King Jr. as one of his guiding lights. Both men were flawed, yet they endured against significant odds, believing in their ideals when others thought they should pull back. Robert Louis Stevenson would have agreed with Mandela’s observation: “Saints are sinners who kept on going.”

All this week we have been dealing with the life of Martin Luther King Jr., noting his power of rhetoric and ideals, his refined sense of justice, and his deep understanding of human nature. There is ever the tendency to turn dead heroes into saints, but we had better be sure how we define saints if we travel down that road.

We quote King, admire him, and in many ways wish to be like him. But just before we do that, we must consider what it would mean. He had no halo, but he did possess a burning light of illumination in his head that continually placed him at odds with his generation.

He was one of the first to speak out against the war in Vietnam, but not for reasons we might expect. Yes, he turned his back on violence, but his chief reason for pessimism about that Asian conflict was how it had sucked the air out of everything else, leaving legislated ideals unfulfilled. “This war has eviscerated the national anti-poverty program,” he mused, and he was right. Lyndon Johnson’s vow to eliminate poverty in a generation was lost forever due to a protracted battle thousands of miles away.

And how would all those people who admire him if they understood that he was a democratic socialist, much like Bernie Sanders is today? In truth, King was a radical, one who believed that the political and financial systems were purposely geared to reward the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Such views made him unpopular. An August 1966 poll discovered that 66% of Americans had an unfavourable view of him. His call for a transformative redistribution of political power and financial wealth was deemed as anarchy to many.

And yet there is something remarkably relevant about King’s outlook today. We know where he would be. He would be standing with the workers locked out of their places of employment. He would rail against the fact that half of the world’s wealth belonged to only 63 people. He would side with the homeless and demand proper care of refugees. And he would call for the kind of political reform that would extend power to the oppressed so that they could alter their own fate. He would call for international development instead of military exploits. These and many more issues would feel the sting of his rhetoric.

“The time has come when silence is betrayal,” he mused to an audience shortly before he died. It remains difficult to locate any politician today who would take such a stand. And yet he is widely praised in the modern era. Clearly what people say they respect is not necessarily what they desire. When he openly pushed for government to guarantee a person’s right to work he was vilified, yet today the need for such an action is more necessary than ever.

It’s true that King had a dream, but he also had nightmares – worries that unless the world fought for equality and financial equity, all he struggled for would be lost. Is his dream alive in us today? Not unless we have a personal stake in changing a politics that rewards the elite and a financial system that degrades the poor. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” he preached. He never stopped raising his voice; we have remained in our silence too long. No dream becomes a reality unless we pay the full cost for those visions. King became a saint, not because he was flawless, but because he was restless and never ceased in his struggle for fairness. We presently honour King by naming a day after him. We’d be better served if we built a future on his architecture of justice.

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 Partisan Mind (1)

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The dictionary defines the word partisan as an “adherent or supporter of a person, group, party or cause.  A person who shows a biased, emotional allegiance.”  It also carries a military connotation, meaning someone “engaged in harassing the enemy.”  We get our English word from the Latin pars, which means “particular” and which evolved into the word “partiality.”

The term has always possessed a kind of edge, yet previous times viewed a partisan as a loyalist who held to certain views.  Today it accumulates increasingly negative baggage and such a person is frequently viewed as incapable of understanding and blind to further truth.  That’s a shame.  Sincere partisans are everywhere in politics, believing in their cause, and furthering their point of view.  All of us hold opinions and have every right to express them.

Sadly, partisans can sometimes get caught up in a bigger game where larger forces seek to manipulate their leanings, where the stakes are higher and the modus operandi becomes mean instead of meaningful.

The unfortunate part is that even the best intentioned partisans can slide into a pattern of behavior or a culture that makes permissible what would never be accepted previously.  Those larger forces pump us up, and, as time draws on, our need to fight for an ideal gets transcended by the need to see those with opposing views as somehow diminished or even demented.  In willy-nilly fashion our political leanings become a form of blind faith that quietly closes the drapes and depends on interior lighting.  Over time, we sell ourselves into it as a kind of political worshipper, bowing to the leader and serving up the sacraments of our new religion.

By this very process we slowly become drained of morality just at the time we think we are practicing it.  The truth evolves into “our” truth and seeks to view society through the lens we have created.  Yet the more we remain in such a setting, the less effective we become in the broader world.  We sense we aren’t connecting and grow inwardly bitter as we live only for the horizon we see.  Certain intrigues of cruelty breeze among us towards other persuasions and eventually they hardly trouble us.

Over time, as with ingrown religion, it becomes apparent that society at large just isn’t interested in our fervor and this reality frustrates us.  Yet it is a democracy and if we are to succeed we must gain broader support.  And though we can detect the detachment of citizens at large, we can at least conceal our own narrowed identity and pass among them without any real friction.  In living this kind of double life, our pretences become hollow.  We know if we express the true passions of our beliefs that our very ardour will trouble a general audience.  The fervor that we once had plods on mechanically while our reasonable minds slowly leave us. 

You can spot this most clearly in community versus political life.  The modern partisan can work on school boards, charitable committees or broader community initiatives with people of other persuasions, flowing effortlessly through the waters of engagement.  And yet he or she can’t operate in the same fashion in a parliament or even a city council because that would expose a kind of political weakness.

Without realizing it, when it comes to politics we can no longer incorporate half-tones in our visions; we have become a people of primary colours.  And it could be worse than that: we view politics as black and white, monochrome and contrasting.  We know only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without troubling ourselves with the finer shades required for community understanding and usefulness.  We eventually become at ease only in extremes and express superlatives by choice.

The broader community can watch this process from a distance, understanding that our logic, our group-think, is leading us to absurd ends.  They see our imaginations as vivid, but not creative.  But the heavily partisan among us can’t spot in himself what the majority of citizens do in his movement.  Where he once believed in values for their own sake, he now must take the form and custom of the tribe.  In so doing, he loses his relevance and becomes perennially angry as a result.

Soon to be retired New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg witnessed the effect of all this on his own city, concluding:

The politics of partisanship and the resulting inaction and excuses have paralyzed decision-making, and the big issues of the day are not being addressed, leaving our future in jeopardy.”

Our communities require creative thinking not conformist ideologies.  The sincere partisan who holds to valued principles must ever be careful of subscribing to the skepticism of modern politics and moving from the former to the latter.  Unfortunately it is a journey increasing numbers of politically motivated and sincere individuals are taking.  There is a place for partisanship in the modern political structure, but it is not the prominent place, nor even the most important public one.

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