The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: government

Want to Defeat Poverty? Take Time.

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ASKED BACK IN 2012 WHY POVERTY WAS SO ENTRENCHED in affluent societies around the world, President Barack Obama provided an answer that, while infuriating some social activists, actually gave hope to others. He simply said that it was time to apply “two-generation solutions.” He meant developing initiatives that affected both parents and their children as opposed to isolated programs that helped one but not the other. And such policies would take time to develop to be effective, he believed.

We don’t really want to hear this because those enduring grinding poverty require quick alleviation of their distressing circumstances. We want to believe that through good-hearted actions that we create paths to escape from poverty’s hold. I wrote a blog post last week concerning how communities must bring their various anti-poverty initiatives together in order to begin this process, but we must come to terms with the reality that they will never be enough. They are vital efforts at galvanizing a community around the challenges of low-income, mental illness, the gender bias of poverty, hunger, and early development. Without them, every community would lose focus on those struggling to make ends meet.

But surely we can’t settle for the belief that donated food supplies are the ultimate answer for eradicating hunger, or that temporary shelters are the solution for the housing crisis, can we? Food banks, hostels, school breakfast programs, donated furniture or articles of clothing – examples like these are what keep citizens engaged, but they can never replace having a good job, a safe place to live, the income to purchase food for the family, or dedicated services to help someone through the difficult journey of mental illness. All the charity in the world will never be truly effective unless it leads to systems change. And for that, we require governments at all levels to up their game for poverty reduction – something that we’ll cover in the next post.

It remains vital to reform systems because those suffering in poverty or homelessness struggle far more against prevailing customs and system indifference than they do hunger, unemployment, or stigmatization. Virtually every person in poverty has had to learn to navigate economic, political, judicial, educational, and democratic system obstruction in order to survive and hopefully prevail. Hunger is real. The lack of shelter is real. Gender bias is real. But they became prevalent because systems couldn’t summon the courage to tackle them.

And if you want to reform systems, then be prepared to fight for a few decades – for perhaps two generations, as Obama notes. It will require healthy investments in early learning and childcare, post-secondary education, healthy communities, productive paths to employment, plenty of social capital, a democracy that includes all, roads to defeating endemic racism, secure housing, and all those facets of community life that lead to a productive future for all. There is just no way a single community, populated by remarkably generous citizens, can accomplish all this without proper policies, decisive decision-making, and resources that can only come from government levels.

Poverty didn’t suddenly arise because some people had money and others didn’t. Prevailing systems exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor. They refused to close the gap between women and men for equal pay for equal work. They legislated decisions that saw those suffering a mental illness being taken care of in hospital emergency rooms instead of in dedicated facilities that provided the kind of wrap-around supports that guided patients through a journey that leads to independence and success.

It is time that we added democratic conviction to community compassion, and if we refuse to bring that about, then poverty will prevail over our neighbourhoods and cities for decades to come. We have to stop maintaining that we are “affluent” societies when we tolerate child poverty at such high rates. There’s nothing affluent about living on a street where citizens can’t afford their own food, or where able-bodied women and men can’t find a career path. There’s nothing affluent about living in a neighbourhood where the colour of a person’s skin determines their prospects for opportunity.

We are either all in this together, or we will slowly come apart – as we have been doing for the last few decades. Canadians are a good people and can be counted on to share of their bounty. But goodwill can never eradicate poverty. Only equal opportunity for all can do that. And for that, we require legislation, more inclusive policies, dedicated politicians, and a democratic system that will fight just as vigilantly for every person to gain prosperity as it does for every citizen to secure the right to vote.

Gandhi once said that poverty is the worst form of violence, and he was right. Supporting systems that keep people in poverty is equally as dispiriting as relegating them to chains. This is not the Canada we want, and if we want to change we must begin by listening to those who have survived the systems of diminishment and yet still strive for a better life. Let’s take the time to do it right by listening to them and build an equitable society that refuses to compromise the most vulnerable among us.

Politics Without the Politics

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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.

Cities are Rebuilding Faith in Government

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IT HAS BECOME A PERSISTENT NARRATIVE, especially during the American primary season south of the border – politics is broken. There will be those who argue the opposite, but in the minds of most citizens north or south of the 49th parallel something has gone wrong in our politics and we feel it for a certainty. Yes, a cruel partisanship has gripped the political class for years. Yes, our deeper problems remain insufficiently addressed as an uncertain future moves into our collective life. But perhaps the greatest cause of the present disillusionment has been the growing distance citizens have experienced from the kind of society they would seek for themselves and their children.

Maybe that’s changing. While America fights through its own political wars for change, the feeling for many in Canada is that change has begun with the last election and we now have to see if it’s all just rhetoric or if it will stick.

Yet for cities in both countries, change and innovation have been part of the political dynamic for a number of years. In the process, people are regaining a certain level of trust in government again, but primarily at the local level, where they live and where they can more easily spot the progress. Citizens and politicians are discovering together that renewal is more easily generated the closer it comes to cities themselves.

The desire for progress following twenty years of austerity didn’t emerge out of some mere whim but from municipal streets and houses, businesses and non-profits, the arts and the poorer districts – anywhere where years of failure to invest have left obvious effects in the economies and hopes of people.

It was previously believed that cities were more or less outside of those larger economic and structural arenas where the feds and the provinces played. Often content to get the scraps from the table following any budget season, cities had to cobble together what they could while waiting for the larger players to pay attention.

Times have changed, and communities are fed up with waiting or merely being carriers of water. They wish to lead and to get the senior jurisdictions to pay more attention. “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision,” said Helen Keller. The same can be said for cities. Yet there is a stirring in communities around the world that links hope with vision, and not with mere pragmatic decisions of management or budgets. People want to actually live politics in its true democratic sense instead of just talking about it or fighting over it. They choose not to play at it or get partisan over it; they just want to practice it.

This goes even deeper. Citizens are coming to the realization that the modern pressures they face actually come from a lack of community, not just from the shortcomings of Ottawa or a provincial capital. And so they look for solutions locally – an extremely practical response. They see planning as an extension of vision and not the other way around. Citizens are putting everything on table: taxes, expensive infrastructure investments, joining the Smart City movement, and demanding collaboration from their politicians.

This is about government and our belief in its potential, not merely its pragmatism. Mere rhetoric just won’t cut it. Citizens are now seeking the tools that can assist them to build their collective dreams instead of leaving it to others to maybe get around to it at some future time. Cities are their “dream places” not someone else’s, and they are just at the beginning of a renewed citizen dynamic. They desire to be engaged in the spirit of John Lennon: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Politics is now in the process of getting real.

 

The Future Is No Longer A Gift

Contestants compete in an early round during the 6th Annual LG US National Texting Championship August 8, 2012 in New York's Times Square. A 16-year-old boy retained his title as America's fastest texter Wednesday in a duel of the thumbs staged before yelling fans on New York's Times Square. Austin Weirschke took home $50,000 prize money for the second time in two years when he bested 10 other texting demons in feats of thumb speed, memory and fluency in texting shorthand. One round was performed with the remaining contestants blindfolded and having 45 seconds to type the verse: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky." The event, sponsored by LG Electronics and using the company's cell phones, took place on a traffic island in Times Square. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages)

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Note:  This post is also available to view on National Newswatch here.

BARACK OBAMA WAS ELECTED ON A GENERATIONAL SEA CHANGE in politics and government. Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, is riding its crest. The American president’s agenda eventually came up against an angry partisan opposition, remaining somewhat unfulfilled. The new Canadian prime minister’s policies have yet to sail through choppy waters.

When the two leaders summited in Washington D.C. last week, there was the unmistakable sense that something new was brewing and that the brief moment in the sun between Obama’s retirement and Trudeau’s arrival was a kind of passing of the torch. But behind each of these men emerged a new social and political force that will make our tomorrow, for better or worse, unlike our present age of democratic underperformance.

For the first time, the abiding and somewhat lackluster political imagination of the Baby Boomers is formidably matched by the Millennial generation – those born from the mid-1980s onwards. We should have noted by now that the key trait of this new political reality is decidedly progressive. Like Trudeau and Obama they view the public estate through a centre to centre-left lens. How else can we explain the massive success of Bernie Sanders with young voters in the American primaries, or Trudeau’s enlistment of over two million new or re-engaged voters in the past federal election? Things are not only changing in both countries, but are transformational in their effect.

Naturally there are many of the younger generation that ascribe to the conservative agenda, but they are the exception, not the rule. Everything else among the Millennials is about a social and economic shifting of gears – the mobilization of the public spirit.

This new force demands transparency over backroom deals, authenticity over authority, social inclusion over historic stereotypes and practices. And unlike their predecessors, who systematically tolerated, even promoted, the shrinking and paucity of the public estate, the Millennials envision a strategic place for government in their collective future. In their own way they are angry, frustrated that two nations that produce more wealth than at any other time in their history would permit so much of it to be frittered away in the pursuit and practice of a narrowing capitalism.

What else should we expect? They face stiffer unemployment than their predecessors, are saddled with unacceptably high student loans, and have watched their wages either stagnate or shrink. They largely played by the rules, went to university or colleges in record numbers in order to secure well-paying jobs to secure their future – the same pattern their parents had employed and enjoyed. Except it didn’t work out for them, or for their respective countries.

And so they are playing the hand they have been dealt with, pressing for environmental renewal, for capitalism with a heart, for a politics that actually includes constituents, and governments that reflect their diverse communities. They shake their heads at a political architecture that still can’t work out wage parity between men and women. They reflect in wonder how countries so resourced and rich can tolerate yawning gaps between the rich and the poor. And they double-down in anger over a political class that has stood by and watched as dignity has been stripped out of hard work.

This new political force has now arrived – revolutionaries, not reactionaries. They want meaning and inclusiveness and they expect their politics and governments to fight for both. They aren’t so much a volatile force as a moral one, and they have the scars to prove it. They are no longer the future we frequently patronize, but the living, breathing present we must now accommodate.

Only months prior to his assassination, Bobby Kennedy made a remarkable observation while addressing a crowd, one that perfectly challenged his generation: “The future is not a gift; it is an achievement.” Fewer observations capture what’s going on right now in politics. Gone are the days when by simply by following a time-honoured agenda that the wealth and individual choices of the future would simply unfold for us. We are living in an era where we must fight back to reclaim the public space, where we get out to vote to change politics itself, and where we link money with meaning again. This is the era which gave us Obama and which propels Justin Trudeau. The recent meetings of the leaders in Washington weren’t so much about the affability of their relationship as this new reality of sacrifice in politics that put them in their lofty positions in the first place. Far from just electing change, this new generation wants to jointly build it.

The Good in Common

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WALK ALONG THE STREETS OF ANY Canadian city for a few minutes and you’re inevitably presented with a conundrum. There at the front entrance of a store or on a busy pedestrian corner is a homeless individual seeking help. All at once you are confused – to help or journey by?

This isn’t a post about poverty, but it is about Canadian citizens being confronted with the troubling possibility that our systems of compassion are failing. Author Robert Bellah put it poignantly regarding the American context: “… the difficulty of being a good person in the absence of a good society.” Either way, whether we withhold money from that homeless person or provide some spare change, we inwardly understand that neither option is the best one. In Canada – a compassionate nation – we come to see that our systems and institutions of well-being are failing, and because they are, we are faced with countless individual decisions every day to fill the gap.

Whether it’s about poverty, post-secondary education, Indigenous people, or trying to launch a startup business, we eventually come face-to-face with the idea that our “good” society might not be so great after all. At some point we bought into the idea that “loving our neighbour” meant government taking care of them exclusively. For a time it appeared to work, but then financial struggles came; we forgot to collectively fund our compassion. Where we had grown content with pursuing our individual options free of society’s greater challenges – poverty, climate change, political dysfunction, or growing deficits, to name a few – we’ve now come hard up against these realities in ways that face us everyday. We failed to comprehend that in granting the unending requests for cheaper credit, and the diminishing of corporate and personal taxes, that the bank balance for our public life together was in arrears.

Ultimately, we come to our greatest difficulty: by increasingly losing trust in our institutions, we are losing the capacity to care for ourselves in significant fashion. Thus personal acts of charity replace what once were more equitable government programs. The declining public support of research regarding climate change gives way to blue boxes. Self-help employment programs emerge when meaningful work across the various economic spectrums declines through a lack of oversight and pivotal investment.

And so we are left with the homeless person before us, and the ethical decision as to what to do about his or her condition. Somehow the greatness of our society seems diminished each time we are confronted with such choices. We know we can make differences individually, but we also understand that only the collective actions of all citizens through their shared institutions and initiatives can address the myriad challenges before us. To solve our daunting problems, or even deal with the sense of hopelessness inside of ourselves, it is necessary that we enhance and improve our capacity to think and act through our institutions.

It would be correct to say that we form our institutions, just as they have formed us, and our outlook on life. Today we are tempted to believe that all we require are committed individual actions, governed by some fair-minded rules and regulations, to solve our problems. Except that we aren’t. Added to such commendable efforts must come the collective resources of institutional support. If the greatest problems that confront us are collective in nature – finance, government, poverty, corporate – then only a gathered response from all of us will overcome such challenges. Social commentator Dennis McCann said it suitably:

“It is central to our very notion of a good society that it is an open quest, actively involving all of its members. The common good is the pursuit of the good in common.”

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