The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: mps

Identity – United We Fall

MuzzlingAt some point you have to stick up for yourself.  That is especially true in politics, where countless people come after you with their own agendas.  If you don’t, you might lose their vote.  And if you accede to what they wish, even though you disagree, you might lose yourself. – a tough bargain.

Conservative MP Mark Warawa has recently discovered a thing or two about this.  I know Mark, and even took French lessons with him one summer in Quebec.  He’s a nice enough guy, though we disagreed on many fundamental issues.  He holds strong opinions that are often fortified by support from a large number of his constituents.  When he announced in Parliament recently that he wanted to provide a MP privilege motion on the floor he entered a world of hurt. His own party, the party Whip, fellow committee members from his party, even the Speaker of the House (a Conservative) blocked his ability to stand up in the People’s House and represent the people of his riding. 

This was all because Warawa desired to put forward a motion against abortion.  This is just like Mark – go it alone if you can’t get your party to support you.  Yet as difficult as this for some people to accept, that’s exactly what an MP is supposed to be able to do.  As a Member Parliament, he has the “privilege” because he is elected to speak on matters important to him in the House.

The entire thing was a mess, but it was also a violation, not only of Parliamentary protocol, but of the lack of spine evident in so many MPs to stick up for the process of MP rights, even if they didn’t agree with the subject.  Mark found himself in the uncomfortable position of having his rights defended by a few opposition members, while at the same time having them denied by his own team.  But this was never about teams or partisanship; it was about the right of an elected official to raise a matter of privilege in the House of Commons.  He even consulted a parliamentary expert who agreed on the process and his right to put his motion forward.

So, Ottawa has come to this.  In the end it wasn’t about the government against the other parties, which has reached cancerous levels, but about a single MP representing his riding having no standing in the one place where he is supposed to be able to stand up for his constituency.

I enjoy Andrew Coyne’s writing, in part because he so quickly cuts to the chase on issues like this.  In his powerful article, How Mob Rule Muzzled Mark Warawa, and All Other Canadian MPs, he states, 

This isn’t a team.  It’s a mob: mindless, frightened, without purpose or direction except when the leader decides, and unquestioning in its acceptance of whatever the leader decrees.  What we have been watching these past few days is an exercise in raw power politics, designed as much to humiliate the individual in question as anything else.  And let it be noted that a good many members of Warawa’s ‘team’ were more than willing to take part.”

It’s bad, isn’t it?  Even shocking.  But we would miss the point of all this if we merely placed the blame on parties, or even the Prime Minister.  The real lesson here is that MPs not longer defend the process of Parliamentary procedure and democracy.  This is where Coyne is his most compelling: “… it is as much about the character of the individuals involved … Everybody has a choice … They could, as a few have done, stand up for what was right: they could protest against the leader’s abuse of power and the steady erosion of MPs’ prerogatives that made it possible.  Or they could choose to pile on, and collude in their own servitude.”

At the bottom of all this is you.  If Mark can’t be defended by other fearful MPs, then what happens when something urgent in your riding arises and you require an advocate for the cause?  What if the leader doesn’t want it championed?  What if your MP’s party decides it’s too risky?  Well, in the end, democracy isn’t really about them anyway, is it?  It’s about you, whether you deserve it or not.  A system has been put in place that permits your voice to be heard in the very centre of power through an elected representative.  The moment that is no longer possible, then you, your MP, and the entire democratic system, is worth little.

This is why Parliament itself can only be saved from its downward spiral by conscientious MPs who put ethical Parliamentary procedure before their party or even their ambition.  Their choice is a torturous one – legitimacy or the party.  They either stick up for the process of open access to power or they bury it. 

This is what citizens have been suspecting all along and Mark Warawa’s blocked efforts only confirm it.  Politics is all about fighting on a field between well-prepared and resourced troops drawn largely from the professional political class.  Not being able to play an equal part through their representatives, citizens have vacated things altogether because for them it was never a battlefield.

The deepest lesson in all this is clear.  The system can only be saved by courageous individuals, and not just a new leader or party renewal. 

The Bigger Things

My wife caught me off-guard. We were driving to Ottawa with the kids at the end of August for what was to be my final caucus meeting for the federal Liberal party. As we neared what was my home away from home for almost five years, Jane said, “Doesn’t this make you feel odd?”

Truthfully, it didn’t. Ottawa is a marvelous city, and serving in Parliament was a deep honour, but it was over for me and I was happily moving on. Later, as we talked over tea, Jane said it was sad that I wasn’t in Parliament, fighting for the “bigger things” and that she missed that for me. She always felt that I had a unique role to play in the federal political drama and she was sad that I was no longer to play it. Yet citizens voted otherwise, and that was good enough for me.

Ruminating on it later, my mind kept drifting back to her phrase “the bigger things.” We’ve always lived this way, the two of us, and our most memorable conversations have been those that talked about the greater issues of national and international life. So, yes, the bigger things do matter and always should to citizens. But here’s an irony. I entered politics to fight for four key issues: the environment, women’s issues, anti-poverty efforts and Canada’s unique role in the world. Those are big issues all right, but during my time in federal politics each one of those issues fell into decline.

Canada today is witnessing progress in many areas primarily at the provincial level. As three of those provinces move into election mode, the incumbent governments have shown clear progress in issues like environmental reform, full-time employment growth, declining health wait times, poverty reduction measures, and educational enhancements. Regardless of your political affiliation, these are welcome developments in a time of economic turbulence. The lack of imagination is largely occurring at the federal level. Then again, no one has really looked to Ottawa for anything creative for years now.

The “bigger things” are challenging and overriding issues that need to be addressed, but it’s a lot harder in Ottawa than you think. The recent Samara report on exit interviews with MPs who are no longer in Parliament is especially helpful in this regard. One conclusion was that, “For many MPs, their most fulfilling times as Parliamentarians came when they worked outside the ‘the bubble’ and stayed true to what brought them to public life in the first place.” I believe that is correct, since the majority of politicians I knew in Ottawa remained frustrated with the system as it is – the “bigger things” were beyond their reach. Many desired closer relationships with their constituents, but political parties largely remained ambivalent to that wish.

In a world in which political choices are supposed to be plenteous, average MPs have hardly any choice at all and they find it deeply frustrating. In the end only one choice overrides everything else – choose to side with your party or your constituents. If you choose the former, you’re likely to never rise in the party or acquire a position of influence. You might not even be permitted to stay in caucus. So many voters desire their representatives to make just such a choice, little realizing that an independent MP has no clout at all. Ottawa runs by parties and leadership machinery; you are largely nothing unless linked to both of these.

I found the Samara report fascinating, largely because many of the 65 former MPs interviewed saw themselves as kind of rebels, chafing against the party system and the Ottawa workings in general. Perhaps, but as Samara concluded: “Few MPs accepted responsibility for this state of affairs … instead they blamed party politics.” All of us, including me, should wear that. So many clearly struggled mightily to stay within that system. Why? Because the bigger things are what mattered and they knew of no other way to stay in the arena than to toe the party line and live in a world of partisanship.

When my wife asked if I felt odd in heading back into Ottawa for the meetings, she assumed I missed the opportunity to fight for those larger issues I believed in. I don’t. I miss some people, to be sure, but in my community I’m preparing our food bank for the lean years that are about to come, assisting emerging leaders to learn how to hold the political system accountable, and expanding Canada’s influence in Africa. Are those not “bigger things?”

I’m fully happy at the level I’m at, but it’s sad that things in Ottawa remain that way and it forms a key reason more people are shunning political life – leaving the door open for the ambitious as opposed to servants of the public. More discouraging yet, those that derided numerous democratic accountability mechanisms now enjoy majority status. As long as Ottawa remains a sterile capital of ideology and hyper-partisanship, the “real” politics will occur at the provincial and local levels. That’s where the bigger things are at present. Lester Pearson’s belief that the role of government is “to excite the daring, test the strong, and give promise to the timid,” lives far out of Ottawa these days and within our own communities. Sad really. Read the Samara report and see what all of us – politicians and citizens – have allowed to come to pass.

%d bloggers like this: