The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Justin Trudeau

Stillborn Democracy

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This post can also be viewed at National Newswatch here.

HIS ELECTION CAMPAIGN SIGNED UP MILLIONS of new voters, partly by the ingenious use of modern communications technology. Being young and vibrant, it was only a natural development that younger generations flocked to his campaign. He had a telegenic wife and young kids. Rather than following the historic pattern of saying that he and his party were the right prescription to get the country moving again, he asked his nation to believe in itself once more, to build optimism into its future outlook, and to engage itself in a new kind of politics. And he won in a fashion that appeared to usher in a new age of collaboration and political accomplishment.

No, this wasn’t Justin Trudeau but Barack Obama, back in 2008 – a remarkable season when Americans responded to the new president’s call of “Yes We Can” by stating “Yes We Will.” It was a fascinating evolution in politics that wasn’t only historic in its implications, but freeing in its spirit.

What happened? Despite his numerous successes, the Obama momentum stalled not too long after it commenced and never reached its expectations. The obvious reason was that the opposition forces circled the wagons and disrupted the momentum from its inception. Or as Obama operative, David Axelrod pungently put it: “For seven years, the GOP establishment knowingly and cynically rode the anti-Obama tiger, feeding the beast with a steady diet of red meat.”

None of this is new to us; it has been playing out in our newsfeeds since 2009 and the political dysfunction resulted in the chaos we now witness in the Republican primaries. Bill Clinton claimed there was a key but overriding reality that undercut everything else: “We only have one remaining bigotry. We don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.” Few observations better describe what is currently running rampant through American politics. People are confused and angry, giving a level of credence to Charles Bukowski’s view that, “The problem with the world is that intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

The question is whether it’s becoming increasingly true in Canada? Judging by the last few parliamentary sessions, there is cause for some concern. The hyper-partisanship of recent years has made it increasingly difficult to forge a consensus, to achieve compromise, or to take all Canadians into account rather than merely catering to party supporters.

Barack Obama believed he could work across party lines when first elected – an assumption prone to naïveté in hindsight. In other words, it wasn’t meant to be, because the goal of collaboration was rigged from the outset. Democracy and politics ended up being two different things: the one, the will of the people, the other, the wickedness of partisanship.

Trudeau’s recent election win provided intriguing insights into the Canadian mindset. One of the lessons was that, though progressivism was clearly on the upswing as a societal force, opposition remained obstinate. We shouldn’t allow the Liberal’s majority mandate to gloss over the sobering reminder that millions of Canadians voted otherwise. This is democracy, after all, and healthy dissent is a good thing.

Mindful of the political chaos south of the border, Canada could nevertheless run the danger of replicating a form of dysfunctional politics through the use of blinded opposition. We won’t get far as long as citizens or their representatives view compromise of any kind as tantamount to surrender. It is nothing of the kind. It is rather the acknowledgement that the people have voted and there is the responsibility of respecting that reality by contributing to healthy government and a vibrant society. Far from being an option, such compromise is the only way modern societies, with all their complexities, can survive.

The Liberal Party’s electoral victory, sweeping enough to provide a majority, has served to raise the expectations of its friends.  Anti-poverty activists, environmentalists, Indigenous advocates, free traders, researchers, electoral reformers, gender champions – these and so many others will have to temper their euphoria with the understanding that any government must delicately balance the interests of all Canadians in ways that are manageable.

As the recent parliamentary sessions have shown, dysfunctional politics is as near as a government that only rewards its friends, or an opposition that cares only for overthrowing the powers that be through the practice of cheap politics.

Only a few months prior to his assassination, President John Kennedy, mused on the future of democracy, saying, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Opinions are important because they reflect the views of citizens. They are damning when they are spiced with a bigotry that can’t hear or respect contrary views. The success of Trudeau’s mandate, and of democracy itself, will depend on that distinction.

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.”

Canada-U.S. Relations – Democracy for the Rest of Us

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AS JUSTIN TRUDEAU, BARACK OBAMA, AND THEIR respective teams hook up in Washington D. C. this week they face a pressing reality that they can’t escape: a restless citizenry. Regardless of the Trump controversy, the Republicans are enjoying significantly swelling numbers of support, as are the Democrats, primarily with Bernie Sanders. It can never be business as usual for the Washington meetings, simply because no one is quite sure where energized citizens in both countries will land. Canadians have made their choice but are hardly settled; Americans are in the middle of a cauldron.

In other words, civil society is biting back. What do we mean by the term “civil society?” In loose terms it speaks of the multitude of groups serving as intermediaries between the individual and state. It’s how individual citizens organize themselves for impact. And their operational principles are often different from those of the free market or government.

A lot of research, commentary, and narratives have emerged in recent years claiming that civil society has been in a state of integration for some time. A few conservative observers like to say it is because government has taken over roles that once used to belong to communities. Others maintain that individual efforts can never match the capacity of government programs and initiatives and that, as governments downsize, the collective effect on society is debilitating.

Whatever the reason, recent research is beginning to show a troubling pattern. Carlton University professor Paul Reed talks about Canada’s “civic core” and how it has declined. A smaller and smaller percentage of the population Is responsible for the lion’s share of charitable giving, volunteerism, and civic activity. His research has revealed that only 6% of adult citizens are now responsible for between 35% and 42% of all civic engagement. Reed concludes that his research clearly reveals a “civic deficit” and that it’s a growing problem. American scholar Yuval Levin takes it a step further, seeing in the decline of civil society “a loss of the central pillars of our moral life.”

British PM David Cameron sees a role for government in it all: “The success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people – on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them. So government cannot remain neutral on that – it must foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social actions.”

Some fancy speechwriter composed that. But what happens when civil society itself begins to fight its way back? That’s the dilemma Trudeau and Obama both now face. All around them citizenship is stirring and people are demanding governments that show greater sensitivity to where people live, the challenges they face, and the kind of politics they want. Back of every tinkling of champagne glass lies the broken glass of middle-class dreams. Behind the lavish décor lie hundreds of thousands of homeless. And with every lofty bit of political rhetoric lies a citizenry in the wings raising its own collective voice, crying that there is a democracy for the rest of us. Both leaders would do well to hearken to philosopher John Dewey’s counsel:

Whatever the future may have in store, one thing is certain. Unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately resolve its most urgent problem, to find and identify itself. But if it is reestablished … it will be alive and flexible, as well as stable, responsive to the complex and worldwide scene in which it is enmeshed. While local, it will not be isolated. Its larger relationships will provide an inexhaustible and flowing fund of meanings upon which to draw. That and that only gives reality to public opinion.

Canada-U.S. Relations: Rising Tides

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CANADA VISITS THE WHITE HOUSE this week and behind all the glitz and glamour naturally produced by two leaders who effectively know how to work a crowd are issues that will take a lot more than popularity to address. We’ll consider some of these in the next few posts, starting with perhaps our greatest challenge.

Both Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama got lots of press at the Paris climate change summit last November. They got along well and agreed the time had come to raise the game between the two nations regarding climate change. The buzz from the agreement still moved through the streets of the great French city when I was there in January.

But while all this is going on, environmental decline is picking up pace whether or not some kind of effective global response can be worked out. World leaders were reminded of this in Paris when they got a quick briefing on sea-level rise. In a little over a century (1901 – 2010), the level of our oceans climbed roughly seven inches. Things have changed so dramatically that it has become difficult to predict what the next 100 years will look like.

The last time our planet reached the levels of warming it has today – roughly 300,000 years ago – sea levels rose 20-30 feet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the planet is now reaching similar temperatures by 2100. The Panel concludes that within the next 100 years sea levels will rise 3-4 feet. Unknown is what will transpire when the West Antarctic ice sheet melts. The best guess is that water levels will rise 11 feet if and when that happens.

That’s a small portion of the data, but the real issue will become the human cost. Columbia University professor Maureen Raymo put it bluntly: “I don’t think 10 years ago scientists realized just how quickly the potential for rapid sea level rise was.” The effects on places like the Florida Keys or Chesapeake Bay will be devastating, but the ultimate tragedy will play out in the developing regions of Asia, Africa, Central and South America. The United Nations estimates that some tens of millions of climate change refugees will be the ultimate result of people who can no longer live in their historic coastal homes and who, with precious little resources, will begin to move across borders in search of security and survival.

Every day we have witnessed the pressure placed upon European nations of refugee numbers out of control. Serious as it is, the appearance of millions of Syrian refugees on the world scene is only a harbinger of what will arise once the environmental refugees begin to make their migrations.

In perhaps a sad bit of irony, Trudeau and Obama will enjoy a state dinner and numerous other formal venues at the same time that a significant citizen revolt is underway in both the Democratic and the Republican parties – people have had enough. Canada, while hardly pushed to the political extremes experienced at present by their southern neighbour, nevertheless voted for their own desire for change only a few months ago. But unless the two administrations can move quickly into emergency mode, everything runs the danger of image without substance.

Both political leaders are overseeing a political estate in various levels of turbulence and must confront the economic devastation of global capitalism that is about to be matched by environmental devastation. This is not the time for mere policy discussion between two neighbouring friendly nations who just happen to share the largest unprotected border in the world. If we can’t get it together, all the silverware, photo ops, and political bargaining will come to mean little.

We are facing the greatest challenge of this or any other time, with climate change threatening our very survival. As both capitalism and the environment create such massive fallout, it is time for friends to become compatriots in the task of saving democracy and the planet in these most precious of moments.

No doubt the Obama-Trudeau gatherings will be a photographer’s dream, but something serious, really serious, must go on behind the glitter. Best to follow W. Somerset Maugham’s advice: “When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character.” The time for serious work is upon us.  That’s what friends do in times of seismic challenge.

Would Martin Luther King Jr. Have Supported the TPP?

 

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JUSTIN TRUDEAU WAS IN DAVOS, SWITZERLAND, at the World Economic Forum yesterday reminding the world’s elite that Canada was a great place in which to invest. That’s exactly what prime ministers are supposed to be doing. The key issue however is how to invest.

Our new Prime Minister has an important decision to make regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal involving 12 countries. Many have warned that this isn’t about trade at all but about the growing ability of corporate business interests to affect domestic policy. The rather stark opposition to the deal from a litany of civil society groups, economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, and the founder of Research in Motion, Jim Balsillie – all normally strong promoters of globalization, has been noted. Even the United Nations has come out in opposition, claiming that the deal favours global capital instead of strengthening democracy by removing decision-making away from the average voter. Trudeau’s promise to leverage an increased voice for civil society seems, on the surface at least, to be violated by the TPP deal.

The focus of this week’s blog posts have been on the abiding influence of Martin Luther King Jr. and how he approached vital files like poverty and civil rights. What would he counsel regarding the TPP if he were still present among us. We can’t propose to know the direct answer, but he would provide us some criteria regarding such a major decision. And he would ask questions, serious ones.

He would surely remind us that the rash of trade deals in the last three decades have coincided with the growth of poverty in affluent nations, the lowering of labour standards, a threatening toll on the environment, and a burgeoning disillusionment with government and democracy. He would then challenge us to question if these things were related. The leaders in Davos will hear of the newest research from Oxfam showing that “income and wealth are being sucked up among the elite at a fantastic rate.” The same study will inform them that a mere 62 people have $1.76 trillion (US), or more than half of the world’s population.

These aren’t easy questions, but must be asked, and King would ask them directly. It isn’t just that with fabulous amounts of wealth being created that most of the planet gets little of it in proportion to the wealthy. King would look at this development through the lens of social justice and not mere economics. He would challenge us to do the same. And he would wonder why the world’s governing leaders would continue signing deals that move us down that perilous road. Better yet, he would ask if such deals could effectively be adjusted to solve these problems.

I suspect he would hang his head in disillusionment, sensing that his great dream of equality would have to once again be deferred. He would be aware that most of the political leaders would have quoted him at one point or another during their respective tenures, but that they quietly refused to bring about the changes necessary for the dream to be realized. He would put it in the terms he used during his message at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967):

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people among our decision makers, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Today he would, with justification, add climate change, poverty, democratic decline, and the failure to build gender equality to the list.

Those who maintain that deals like the TPP are ultimately good for us must tell us why past such deals have been unsuccessful in solving these problems. Furthermore, they will have to wonder if such arrangements haven’t actually had a hand in causing them in the first place.

It is always a dangerous thing to suggest what a historical figure would say in the modern era, and I don’t wish to imply whether King would say yes or no. But he would ask the questions and he would wonder if all these economic dealings that benefit a few over the many are arcing our world towards justice or away from it.

Ultimately King was a moral voice and it is that voice that is missing in the halls of both finance and parliaments today. His ethical strains cut through the fog of distortion and spoke truth to the establishment. To his credit, Justin Trudeau claimed such a voice when he brought gender equality to the federal cabinet and when he claimed a new day for the Indigenous people of Canada. These were moral victories, not mere political expediency. Now he must sit down and answer these questions that King would have asked and decide whether to side with civil society and citizens or with the elite money gatherers. No trade deal in the world brings about justice; only acts of conscience are capable of it. And if politics today is to be successful, and democracy itself to be saved, it is time for the latter.

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