The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: government

Catch and Release

This post was originally published at National Newswatch here.

Author Chris Gould, in his Aristotle: Politics, Ethics and Desirability, made the rather sage observation that, “the best promises forever seem to be made by amnesiacs.”  Politics has frequently been measured as the distance between what a politician promises and what is ultimately delivered. As voters themselves move all over the political map, those seeking their approval make ever more outlandish vows in order to secure their trust, and often fail to complete them.

The more this goes on – the over promising and under delivering – the more that essential ingredient of trust slips away from our democracy. We have reached a stage in the modern era life where politics itself has escaped the very democratic system it was supposed to guard and empower.  The generation that endured the deep disillusionment of Watergate and lost faith in democracy’s institutions, its ideals and its pragmatic ability to find commonality, never recovered.

Canadians. who endured years of Senate scandal, eventually grew to distrust and ignore the Upper Chamber, with many calling for its abolition. Even Justin Trudeau’s efforts to reform the Senate have so far failed to restore it to a place of respect, and perhaps more importantly, effectiveness. Trust has yet to be rebuilt.

Europe is currently walking a perilous tightrope as old institutions fall into disfavour, political leaders make outlandish claims, and citizens themselves collectively retreat from the comity that once spoke of a more hopeful future. Current French elections are only the most recent example of the creeping era of democratic distrust.

Throughout democracy’s history were numerous unorthodox figures and statements that frequently served to spice up debate and make the news more interesting. But many of today’s current leaders are, like Nixon, willing to undermine the very integrity of constitutions and revered political practice in order to achieve their ends. For them it is not enough to win; they must trounce the system, drain the swamp, get the voters to detest government itself, if they are to retain their popularity. In Harvard University Law Professor’s Jack Goldsmith’s view, it is now becoming the normal for a political leader to claim that “lawful is awful.”

All of this willingness to push beyond the limits of law and common sense has left the average citizen with the sense that nothing is politically sacred anymore – not common purpose, compromise, personal integrity, even law itself. The goal posts keep moving. The rules keep morphing. The characters keep changing. Yet, in all of it, little seems to be getting done. For all the talk of democratic reform, little changes. Lofty statements on the need to radically challenge the encroachment of climate change remain largely empty. Poverty remains stubbornly present and damning. Calls for political parties to cooperate on our greatest challenges have yet to successfully tear down the walls of animosity between them.

It’s the political equivalent of catch and release: use whatever bait it takes to hook the fish, but once it’s in the boat, toss it back into the water. Do or say whatever it takes to get the vote, even if it means undermining democracy itself, and then govern as though the only thing that matters is political survival.

Founding figures in both the United States and Canada launched their precarious experiments in democracy in the belief that only a commitment to high standards of human behaviour and respect, along with maintaining the abiding trust of citizens, could guarantee the success of their efforts.   It is becoming more evident that we are failing in that quest across the board – politicians for making promises that they sensibly can’t make, and citizens for continuing to vote for those moving more and more to the extremes. Abraham Lincoln understood this well enough to say:

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

Politicians around the world are going to have to work exceedingly hard to regain the trust of the voters and that will mean making sensible promises and working in collaboration to achieve them. And citizens must begin the process of finding and building on the common ground that was once the most expensive piece of public real estate, but one we are increasingly in danger of losing.

The Governing Cancer of Our Time

In what could only be seen as a stunning defeat, the author of the Art of the Deal found himself unable to close. Instead of “draining the swamp,” as he had promised, Donald Trump found himself drowning in it.

Regardless of which side one stands on the recent showdown in Congress, the event signaled again that hyper-partisanship remains “the governing cancer of our time,” as David Brooks and Bill Clinton each put it. Each side blames the other, year after year, and now decade after decade, but the result always leaves good policy initiatives lying in burning ashes. In his attempt to browbeat a recalcitrant political establishment and special interest groups, President Trump invariably became part of it all, forcing the division even further.

No matter where we look in a modern democracy these days, compromise seems not so much a dying hope as a lost art. The venerable traditions of civil discourse and hard work to attain common ground no longer seem practical to political activity. As a Member of Parliament a few years ago I was proud to second Conservative MP Michael Chong’s beleaguered attempt to reform Question Period. It was sincere, well thought out attempt to recover a saner version of politics that generated a lot of support outside of Ottawa but little interest within Parliament itself. It’s to his credit that Chong has taken his campaign for a more accountable and civil politics to a higher level in running for the Conservative leadership. Still, while respected, he occasionally feels like a credible voice crying in the wilderness in the midst of partisan mayhem and political dysfunction.

It has always been true of our politics that elected representatives joined existing factions and frequently clashed with those who disagreed with them. Yet common purpose was possible and frequently resulted in effective legislation that assisted in governing a diverse and often divided populace. Such occasions are now so rare as to almost be forgotten, despite the nobler intentions of most politicians.

Whether it was the outsider Trump promoting health care reform or insider Justin Trudeau promising electoral reform (both campaign promises), the result has been a lack of closure and more partisan division than had existed before such efforts. When opposition parties performed due diligence in Parliament’s electoral reform committee and sought what appeared to be a sincere compromise, such efforts were ultimately ignored in favour of the status quo. Whether or not this was due to partisan intent, the result was that a unique moment for political innovation and common ground was lost.

As David McLaughlin noted in a Globe and Mail article in 2013 during the previous hyper-partisan effects of the Harper era:

“Faithful to the partisan glue binding 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.”

Yet we voters are often part of the problem, often utilizing social media to fling invective out on anyone who disagrees with us. The dysfunction of Parliament has coursed its way into the electorate in an endless feedback loop of animosity. Traditional media, in order to compete, too frequently places its own emphasis on political conflict in search of readers and viewers.

We all share in this declining democracy that concerns us all. The divisiveness of our politics today can only result in eventual inaction for the public estate. Increasingly, research informs us that the hyper-partisan mind can be a wicked thing, that politicians don’t know how to break out of it, and that our modern societies are receding into dysfunctional isolation. There is no easy way out of the mess we have all accepted or even created.

Partisanship has been a historical player in effective politics, both giving and clarifying choices for voters. But it has now become so pervasive that it seems that no one has a choice anymore. We have all been drawn into the swamp Donald Trump now finds himself in. Only the collective will from both politicians and the people to find common ground can put responsible choices back on the table of our public life. Common ground will only be found when we once again find common resolve.

Making America Grate Again

Depending on how one looks at it, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of President could be one of the best things to happen to the United States and beyond in some time. Call it “Making America Grate Again,” or “Mourning in America,” but the dynamic nation just to the south of us is experiencing an age of angst and energy that hasn’t been seen in more than a generation.

A couple of observations from comedian George Carlin come to mind. “In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.” He went on to note, “That’s why they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Well, the United States is many things at the moment, but nodding off isn’t one of them. The rustling, and wrestling, spirit of the country is casting off its indifference and expressing its pleasure/displeasure every minute of the day. Though the opinion of what constitutes the “American Dream” varies widely, the country’s days of slumber have come to an end.

The nation has never been good at standing still. America’s teeming masses have always faced issues that, at times, threatened to split the country wide apart. Racism, slavery, women’s equality, the tragic Civil War, and political opportunism have caused citizens to pull back from the edge of destruction on numerous occasions. Yet because of its great wealth, ingenuity, occasional timely leadership, and fierce independence, it has somehow gathered itself together to fight another day.

But in the modern era, nothing has quite jostled the United States to its core the way Trump’s election has. Only weeks into his tenure, the airwaves and lawyers are alive with the possibilities of a Constitutional crisis. Immigration has become a touchstone of this conflagration. Protest marches have stretched across the country and the globe at the same time.   This list could go on, but we get the drift: everything is in flux.

Well, maybe not. While much of the country went Republican, nine million Californians turned the region an even deeper blue, and America’s most populous state has sworn to fight Trump’s efforts to bypass traditional authority structures every step of the way. International trade agreements can’t be discarded easily. Whether it’s NATO or the handling of Russia’s Putin, pushback is coming because no one person or position should be able to sweep away so unilaterally something that took decades to construct. Donald Trump might yet become the key transformative leader of populism around the world, but if he wants to effect change he’ll have to negotiate those agreements enacted previously by elected Democratic and Republican administrations.

Democratic institutions, for all their ineffectiveness at the moment, exist to provide safeguards against the abuse of power. George Orwell’s 1984 reminds us why that is: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” Donald Trump has accomplished the first part of that equation; many worry that he might also fulfill the second, and so they are fighting back. For those who think this a bit severe, a recently unearthed 2013 quote by Trump’s chief political architect, Steve Bannon, to writer Ronald Radosh gives pause: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

The age of pushback is here, with no one knowing quite how it will play out. It will come from places like the state of California, and from protest marches. In an insightful column in the National Post, Andrew Coyne challenges nations to act with a united front in dealing with Donald Trump and not permit themselves to be treated on an individual one-off basis. He’s right, and he challenges Justin Trudeau to consider such a response. In everything from investments to environmental reform, from global security to foreign aid, a sense of dependability is essential lest things spin out of control.

And then there is the response from civil society itself. It will have to consider what to do with Amit Kalantri’s observation: “In a democracy, there will be more complaints but less crisis, in a dictatorship more silence but much more suffering.” That is usually true, but we have now entered an era where the complaints and crisis are marching hand in hand into the future.

America is more bustling at present than it has been in years. Democracy is grating against autocracy and the sparks are flying. Donald Trump has won his election and has the right to lead. But should he do so at the expense of hard-earned democratic and constitutional gains, only a united global opposition can hope to prevail over the most powerful office in the world.

 

Shape Shifters

There’s “nothing orderly” about Donald Trump’s presidency process, wrote the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, going on to add, “Trump always said he liked to be unpredictable.” It’s fitting in its own strange way, since so much of politics globally remains in a state of flux. Citizens, too, remain uncertain in their sentiments – a trait causing political office seekers to cast about wildly in their efforts to find a constituency to elect them.

Call them the “shape-shifters,” of whom Trump is perhaps the most obvious. They are everywhere in politics these days, seeking pockets of voters who might propel them to victory or incumbency and then modifying their language and principles to suit. Such a tendency has been endemic in politics from the beginning, but is increasingly becoming standard practice in a volatile world where vote getting at any cost often comes at the expense of solid policy.

This tendency was helpfully identified by author and journalist Susan Delacourt in her recent book, Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them – a fascinating journey into how our politics is taking us into unknown territory. Amazon’s description of Delacourt’s book posits the danger for modern democracy: “The book explains how parties slice and dice their platforms for different audiences and how they manage the media. The current system divides the country into ‘niche’ markets and abandons the hard political work of knitting together broad consensus or national vision.”

The term “shape-shifter” was first used publicly in 1887 but has now become standard fare. In modern politics this constant morphing has become an essential tool in the endless quest for ascendancy. Everyday, politicians have to shape their message and their image to the multitude of groups and individuals and hope to keep some semblance of policy coherence. Sometimes it can be an impossible task. The pressures seem endless: answering questions regarding climate change, international trade, foreign aid, terrorism, healthcare, pensions, and even the price of gas. One minute the politician is attempting some lofty rhetoric in the House of Commons, and an hour later she is addressing some beleaguered people in a homeless shelter. Constant adaption has become an occupational hazard.

Things were easier when great swaths of voters remained loyal to particular political parties. Those days are gone, and with them the ability to put out a traditional message that gathers the troops. Voters today frequently have entire menus of items that they care about that often blur the lines between party policies. Navigating through such wants while, at the same time, retaining ongoing support can be a tricky thing.

That’s especially true for those seeking leadership. Traditionally, voters have appreciated their leaders when they displayed a positive bent, but if recent elections are anything to go by an increasing number of voters are going for those angry voices that call for change. Discerning this not so subtle change, modern leadership aspirants are taking extreme positions that previously might have proved destabilizing and unacceptable.

The success of Donald Trump has prompted leadership contenders like Kellie Leitch to brandish harsher policies, believing they can carve out enough of the electorate to find a path to victory. Yet many who knew her previously have been surprised at the severity of some of her positions, especially on immigration – as they were with her “snitch line” announcement in the last election. But Leitch isn’t trying to be consistent; she’s shape-shifting in her reach for the crown. She’s hoping that by employing Donald Trump’s tactics she can summon the same kind of groundswell that occurred south of the border.

That Leitch remains silent while her campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, blatantly publicizes his willingness to use “fake news” to support her campaign hardly squares with her principled demeanour evidenced in her pre-political professional life. As Maclean’s writer Martin Patriquin put it this past week: “Kouvalis has a history of posting provocative, absurd and often completely false information. He does so, he says, ‘to make the left go nuts.’ “ It is a troubling admission revealing that politics runs the danger of not only promoting shape-shifting personalities, but of debasing facts in the process.

It can be tempting to see such practices as a partisan issue, but these behaviours frequently move across party lines as political ambition squeezes the integrity out of the democratic process. It says something that we, as citizens, are perceived as gullible enough to accept such designed manipulations. As Donald Trump’s inauguration reminds us this week, if voters no longer know what they’re getting, trust in democracy itself becomes the ultimate loser.

A Policy for All

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THIS IS THE LAST IN A SERIES OF THREE POSTS on how we as citizens should address the poverty problem in Canada and in our communities. In the first, we referred to the need of all the charitable efforts in our cities to work more collaboratively in an effort to get our fellow citizens to become more aware of the gripping effects of poverty. In the second post we talked about how charity alone can never fully deal with the problem and that, at some point, governments at all levels must take the problem more seriously.

Now is the time for citizens and governments alike to realize that times have changed and the desire to more effectively deal with the ramifications of poverty has now emerged. Maybe we have arrived at a point where we are willing to repair the moral and ethical damage we permitted to develop over decades, and which marginalized more people and families than we cared to notice. As Canadians, we share an awareness that poverty is wrong and it seems that we are gradually getting past the point where we blame its presence on the poor themselves. We are evolving in our understanding that the very systems we created over time not only left people mired in poverty, but also maintained an inequitable pay ratio between men and women, that left our aboriginal populations at the fringe of our concerns, and that tolerated a high child poverty rate for decades. We are slowly arriving at the conclusion that we must redress the imbalances we have tolerated over decades.

This isn’t some mere exercise in reallocating funds, but in realigning our moral sensitivities. We have perhaps chased material wealth to such an excessive degree that we left many behind and we believe the time has come to repair the damage. We have slowly dismantled the codes of collective consciousness that once had us believing in the “fair society.” And, like the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, we are ready to “go public” with our desire not only to help the marginalized but to realign ourselves with the better angels of our natures – to walk our own Secret Path to personal and collective recovery.

And it’s also time we conceded that solutions do exist – have for years – but we collectively chose not to support them politically, socially, or economically. The effects of our distractions are now apparent to us and we appear increasingly inclined to deal with our unintended oversights.

At local, provincial, and federal levels of government new initiatives have arisen that are partially fuelled by this new awareness among citizens. Following years of little policy shift on the poverty file, a plethora of new ideas and initiatives are spreading across the country. Whether or not a Basic Income Guarantee, as an example, is the best way ahead for poverty alleviation, it is, at last, getting a fair hearing.

Numerous provinces have discussed the possibility of effective poverty reduction efforts, including pilot initiatives in certain areas. And following decades of stagnation, governing forces at the federal level have begun seriously considering floating a national anti-poverty plan following years of civil society pressure from key groups and individuals. The federal minister in charge of families, children, and social development has expressed a willingness to launch poverty reduction initiatives in six areas across the country. In numerous conversations taking place in Ottawa these days, the subject of a national anti-poverty plan is consistently raised, supported, and seeks multi-party support.

Many of us have supported the efforts of NDP Member of Parliament, Brigitte Sansoucy, who has introduced a Private Member’s Bill – Bill C-245 – to provide for the development of a National Poverty Reduction Strategy. Considering that every day some three million people live in poverty, the timing of Ms. Sansoucy’s effort is revealing and deserving of all our support.

American President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech in which he challenged average citizens to get into the policy-building process. He wrapped up his thoughts by saying:

“The whole purpose of democracy is that we may hold counsel with one another. For only then can the general interests of a great people be compounded in a policy suitable for all.”

 That’s us – the people. It’s time we got back into the process in significant enough numbers that the most marginalized among us become truly one with us. In an age where the public dialogue is being taken more seriously by the political class, reducing, or even ending, poverty becomes not merely a noble action but a signal of a public renaissance whose time has come and a people willing to be accountable.

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