The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: government

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.

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.

 

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