The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: federalism

Politics Without the Politics

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 6.22.12 PM

Read this post on National Newswatch here.

IN IRONIC FASHION, POLITICS IS SEEING a resurgence in Canada – not the kind that swirls around professional political parties but the kind which inevitably finds its way in discussions in coffee shops, among neighbours and employees, even between parents and their high school or university-aged kids. It’s not the rants between partisans that we have grown so used to and rejected, but open conversations about all those aspects of citizenship that we must live out together.

There was a time not all that long ago when people pined for this true essence of democracy. It’s been some time coming. Politics had become what citizens saw on television, and in social media, or encountered with indifferent bureaucracies, negative campaigning, and partisans raising their fists across the aisle at their opponents.

Nevertheless, while we look for the end of blind hostilities, the same can’t be said for the things the political class continues to scrap over. Climate change matters to us, as does education, healthcare, poverty, joblessness, and the need to better provide for our children. And, surprisingly perhaps, we yet look to politics to assist in solving those problems – just not the dysfunctional sort we encounter in Question Period. We are intelligent enough to know that it is politics itself that is meant to draw us together in times of national and international challenge. And so we refuse to give up on the political options as citizens that were meant to appeal to the better angels of our collective nature.

We have been through decades of hearing that government itself has been the cause of our discontent. It’s a narrative that has resonated with Canadians because we see the results in our national distemper, our decaying infrastructure, our growing inequities, and our almost absolute lack of dealing with a natural environment that is itself in crisis.

Yet now, with the devastating fires in Fort McMurray, we understand once again why politics is important. Even those who traditionally rail against government intervention are now requesting assistance from every political level and are demanding that parties refuse to be partisan about it.

Flint, Michigan, has recently endured its own catastrophe with the defilement of its water. While the Republican candidates for president were campaigning for smaller government, the people of Flint called on them to visit the area and see exactly what leaner and incompetent government had created. And then President Obama came to the city, providing an able defense on why citizens require a politics that is bigger than mere individual pursuits. As reported in Politicususa, Obama mused:

“It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how responsible you are, how you raise your kids. You can’t set up a whole water system for a city. That’s not something you do by yourself. You do it with other people. There are things we have to do together, basic things that we all benefit from. Volunteers don’t build water systems and keep lead from leaching into our drinking glasses. We can’t rely on faith groups to reinforce bridges and repave runways at the airport. We can’t ask second graders to raise enough money to keep our kids healthy. These are the most basic services. There’s no more basic element sustaining human life than water. It’s not too much to expect for all Americans that their water is going to be safe.”

Wrapping up, Obama exhorted, “We’ve got to fix the culture of neglect.” Who can deny it? The issue isn’t about big or small government, but effective and capable leadership and management. That takes resources, a focus on the essentials, and the kind of partisanship that clarifies the issue, as opposed to burying it under enmity.

Canadians aren’t fools, blindly believing that their democracy is enhanced by hamstringing government. But neither do they accept party promises that if people would only vote for them and turn over to them the keys of power that their lot will naturally be improved. They expect a politics that actually works. Should that transpire, then they are willing to accept that government has a vital and activating place in their collective life.

This country has progressed for 150 years, not through ideological belief but practical co-existence. What the political parties see as “politics” Canadians choose to view as people working together in collaborative fashion to keep a remarkably decentralized country together. Enact those principles and citizens will be prepared to let effective government back into their collective life as a catalyst for progress and management.

When the Past Can’t Escape the Present

wet maple leaf copy

TODAY THE LONDON FOOD BANK LAUNCHES its 29th Spring Food Drive amid growing doubts concerning this country’s resolve to take poverty, and those mired within it, seriously. Dr. Jason Gilliland, professor from Western University will report at the press conference that poverty and hunger have now become entrenched, not only in our city, but in numerous communities across the country.

This is a difficult spot to arrive at for Canadians, for it effectively moves poverty from being a serious issue to tackle to a permanent class of individuals and families. Effectively, we appear to be coming to an end of what American author E. J. Dionne Jr. calls “the Long Consensus” –  an era where governments from all jurisdictions legally came together to join their forces to battle numerous challenges, including poverty.

In Canada, we call it federalism, which had its foundations established at the Quebec Conference in 1864. It became the basic legal and jurisdictional framework through which the federal government, provinces, territories, and communities interacted and shared resources with one another to face the challenges of such a large nation. Up until the last three decades its strengths were far greater than its weaknesses, resulting in Canada becoming a beacon to the world for the exquisite balance it achieved between social justice and the economy.

Recent years have witnessed the slow dissolution of these partnerships to where we have now reached the point where we are forced to admit that the great nation of Canada can no longer afford to end poverty.

The conditions of federalism were a promissory note to every Canadian. This note was a vow that every man, woman, and child in Canada would be guaranteed the attention of all three levels of government in regards to their welfare and potential. But instead of honoring that obligation, we have been given instead a bad cheque marked “insufficient funds.” This has transcended political ideologies and, because of that reality, every government has failed in the past 30 years to one degree or another.

Author Richard Hofstadtr observed that, “memory is the thread of personal identity, history of public identity.” If that’s the case, then Canada’s rich history is slowly disappearing through a kind of collective dementia. What we built together we are now watching being undone.

Yet all this is transpiring when the wealth generated in Canada has risen remarkably in that same period of time, thanks in part to new information technologies and global reach that now means most of the profits from that growth have gone to a small percentage at the top of income distribution. The result has been financial inequality that has reached troubling levels. It begs a fair question: Why have we – governments, bureaucrats, citizens, media – been unwilling or unable to halt the growth of inequality or to use an increasing amount of that generated wealth for the common good?

The growth of the global economy no longer means opportunity, but “downsizing,” re-engineered jobs. Yet through all this there has been little public protest about the changing power structures of the economic architecture.

The failure of the governors and the governed to protect the responsibilities of federalism, instead leaving us to the fluctuations of the markets, has mean that instead of “opportunity” we have “austerity,” and a re-engineered workplace that functions ultimately for the benefit of those already with great wealth.

Instead of watching over the precarious nature of Canadian federalism, a tendency has grown over many years that caused the power and financial elite to forego at least a measure of their civic consciousness, their sense of ethical obligation to society at large, in pursuit of their own ambitions. For many within this privileged cohort it has gone a step farther with the emergence of predatory attitude towards the rest of society.

This has had a troubling effect on the Canadian dream, especially on those of low-income who can no longer find a way ahead. Those coming to food banks express an increasing concern over what appears to be the withdrawal of institutional support, both public and private. They are experiencing something of a crisis of civic membership, a troubling belief that while the public remains generous in food donations, there is a growing sense that they are being pushed out of the mainstream – a kind of redundancy that leaves them with a sense of hopelessness. They feel that their struggles for individual survival are slowly replacing the sense of social solidarity this country once enjoyed. If the poor are losing hope, can the middle-class be far behind, especially if the current financial trend towards inequality deepens? And just to be clear, the volunteer charitable sector in no way can pick up the slack left when government retreated from the public space in the past three decades.

We had never imagined that the global economy, nor the stock market, nor the profit margin could determine our institutional choices unless we were first consulted as a people and permitted to choose. Politics essentially fooled us, parading federalism’s historic social compact, all the while acquiescing to setting the stage for the new financial order.

We once had a rich Canadian history of a federalism that helped Canada become one of the most humane nations on earth, but that national history now can’t be separated from a financial present run amok. Our national agreements have themselves become unequal and ineffective in the process. Our history is trapped in our present injustice, and the poor are the first to sense it.

Community Engagement Podcast (11) – “It’s Time”

By 2030, 60% of the world’s population will be living in cities.  In a nation with one of the most urbanized populations on the planet per capita, we are heading in the opposite direction to other country’s who can see what the future will look like.  Our communities lie at the intersection between space and creativity.  There is no way out of our dilemma until they receive the priority they deserve.

Just click the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

Community Engagement Podcast (10) – At the Table

While various forms of community renaissance are going on around the world, Canadian cities remain stuck in neutral, in part because of their lowly place within the Canadian constitutional structure.  At the founding of our nation, the vast majority of citizens lived in rural landscapes and the power structures reflected that reality.  Today most of us live in larger communities and it’s time the political power structures began saving them a place at the table.

Just click on the player below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

Run Local, Think Global

imagesLeaders from our country’s communities gathered en masse at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in Vancouver this week and attempted to map out their collective future in a nation that continues to see its cities as the runt of the litter in political jurisdictions.  The irony of it all is that 8 out of 10 of us live in these very communities that are perpetually overshadowed. It brought the Federation to talk about the “historic disconnect” that has resulted from Canada maintaining a kind of constitutional federalism that no longer suits the modern age.  As one FCM publication says:

Why would the federal government want to take on long-term political and fiscal liabilities unless it had to?  Looking at many of the ad-hoc and short-term federal interventions over the last 20 years through this lens helps explain why so few delivered meaningful structural change or addressed underlying problems.”

There was something oddly sad about watching all these local politicians and civil servants who care about their respective communities attempting to get the other two senior levels of government to even take notice of the growing complex and at times alarming problems confronting those places where we live – ever the bridesmaid, never the bride.

And yet they can’t just go home and pretend such problems don’t exist.  In order to heal, reform and regenerate their communities, civic leaders simply can’t afford to ignore the bigger world around them, even if they feel overlooked by the feds and provinces themselves.

In the last few weeks I have met with five young Londoners who asked for a personal meeting to inform me they are going to enter the local race the next time a municipal election rolls around.  They were seeking advice, contacts, policy ideas, and above all affirmation that their efforts can really count for something in the political process.  Recently some of them spoke up publicly at the first anniversary of a Pints and Politics event in front of their peers and received encouragement for their honesty.

There will be two essential ingredients required if our next city council is to have any success in parlaying our past difficulties into tomorrow’s opportunities.  The first is a sense of respect and cooperation that goes far past anything we have seen recently from our Council chambers.  In this I can confidently state that each of those who spoke to me about running have, as one of their highest orders of business, a desire to make civic politics respectable again and are amply qualified.

But the second needed criteria is, in many ways, much harder to come by.  The problems resident in our cities cannot be fully solved within our municipal borders or regional county lines.  Our communities are part of a larger federation and it takes a lot more to be a city councillor than the mere knowledge of streets, cultures, businesses and possibilities in our communities.  Affirming this reality were the words of Karen Leibovici, President of the FCM:

When we look at Canada today, what do we see?  Do we see a country where all orders of government, regardless of jurisdiction, work together to apply their knowledge and resources to the full range of challenges and opportunities that play out in our communities?”

The answer to such questions is a clear no … at least not yet.  Such a goal shouldn’t be some kind of nirvana, but a concrete and doable partnership among jurisdictions that will bring out the best possible outcomes for all citizens.  Clearly, for that to occur, provincial and federal politics must begin paying attention to this country’s communities.  Yet the opposite is also true – it’s not all one-way.  We require city politicians and regional reeves who develop an interest in other governmental jurisdictions and develop a working knowledge of the policies and historical practices of those domains.  A politician who only understands the city might be of little service to her or his community since the majority of funding and legislation emanates from other levels of government entirely.

I have occasionally said in these pages that I grow disillusioned at times when I note just how many Canadians care little about what occurs overseas, as if such things have little bearing on our domestic landscape.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and yet such is the nature of humanity that the majority focus primarily on the world immediately around them.  One of the worst things that could happen to a local community would be to have councillors or representatives who possess little knowledge of provincial legislation, federal environmental policies, or shared funding arrangements.  It is of no help to our communities that local candidates run on platforms calling for an end to homelessness, comprehensive labour reform, environmental standards, or research investment that only call upon local initiatives. We have to raise our sights higher.

To all of those willing to run and put their names forward for local elections I express a deep appreciation that you are willing to step out in a jaded age.  But to have maximum effect on the communities you love, you will be required to view your community’s place in the larger world, especially as it relates to shared costing among the three levels of government.  Don’t care for your community by serving it in isolation, for, as Blaise Pascal noted, “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”  Concentrate on your community alone and it will surely end up alone – just as our communities are at present.

%d bloggers like this: