The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: partisanship

No Labels

It was bound to occur at some point, but the emergence of the group called No Label became inevitable even years ago as the hper-partisanship of Washington D.C. began to systematically tear down many of the accomplishments and hopes established in America following World War Two.

No Label is a group of Republican, Democrat and Independent lawmakers and supporters committed to the simple premise that it’s time for politics to get off its devolving cycle and start functioning effectively again. As the group put it in one of their press released:

“We understand that there are real philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans, and we don’t expect anyone to check their principles at the door. But we do expect our elected officials to replace the politics of partisan point-scoring with the politics of productive problem-solving.”

The rationale behind the movement is a simple but clear one: citizens have had enough and no longer trust their government to solve their greatest challenges and problems. The group launched back in 2010, recognizing even back then that the madness had already gone on far too long. Now, years later, its need has become even more pronounced. They have asked citizens to join the movement, while at the same recognizing that the current president and Congress might have to be swept away before the real reform can begin.

At present, the group includes over 70 what they term as “bipartisan” members – evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Understanding that Donald Trump has no interest in supporting their efforts, the group produced a hopeful paper titled The Policy Playbook for America’s Next President. Inside of five years, No Labels has signed up over half a million supporters from all states and established student chapters on 100 college campuses.

The problems with initiatives like this is that what sounds great on paper is often impossible to deliver on, and people become cynical as a result. Yet perhaps the process is the important aspect here – dozens of lawmakers seeking to work out their differences, even enduring opposition from their own parties, is itself a remarkable thing in a Trump and divided Congress era. Perhaps it’s about preparing the field for future harvest instead of being overrun by weeds. If so, then No Labels spells hope in a darkening era, even for Canada’s growing grumpy Parliament and provincial assemblies.

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.

The Real Duffy Dilemma

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You can also read this post on National Newswatch here.

DEPENDING ON THE PERSON YOU LISTEN TO, Mike Duffy has been fully exonerated, escaped conviction, or everything else in between. The failure of the Crown prosecution case to “bring it home” prompted Judge Charles Vaillancourt to veer from the anticipated criminal ruling into some unexpected observations of the political mess that formed the essential intrigue of the entire Duffy affair. One thing is certain: the manifest sins of the political elite in the highest places of the Harper regime tainted everyone involved, regardless of the trial’s outcome.

Mike Duffy is free to get back to business in the Senate, his budget and participation now reinstated. Or as the CBC’s Rosie Barton poignantly phrased it: Duffy now “rolls back into” the Red Chamber both exonerated and exhilarated.

And that’s just the problem. This highly partisan individual, so keen to serve at the Prime Minister’s command for party purposes, is striding back to claim his seat in a new era where partisan loyalties are supposed to take a back seat to the more noble responsibilities of the Upper Chamber.   As numerous pundits have effectively reminded us, someone might be declared criminally innocent who is nevertheless politically manipulative. There is nothing to stop Mike Duffy from continuing to pursue the same divisive practices as those he demonstrated prior to his trial.

We hear repeatedly that the Senate rules must change, that more oversight be given to independent bodies, that a more thorough examination be maintained over Senate activities. Who can argue? But none of these things can impede a hyper-partisan on a mission. Matching the need for more regulations over Senate practices must be the introduction of senators themselves who innately comprehend the need for decency, respect, and ultimately the necessity for compromise that more effectively reflects the opinions of Canadians across all regions.

This isn’t about partisanship, which is a requirement for political debate that provides voters with real choice and clarity of principles. Acknowledging the divisions among the electorate is hardly a bad thing. All positions along the political spectrum are alive and well in this country and should be admissible in the House of the people, where citizens carry more opinions than can possibly be assimilated into the governing process.

No, it isn’t healthy partisanship that ails our politics in Canada, but stupid, arrogant, blind, unbending, disrespectful and “gotcha” hyper-partisanship that has crippled us in recent years. Justin Trudeau should make ample room for the former in the Senate and refuse to appoint anyone who smacks of the latter.

We can’t be surprised when the Bipartisan Policy Centre south of the border, which has researched both the good and ills of partisan political behaviour, recently concluded that of the 12 most partisan years in American history, 10 have come in the last 10 years. The effects of that reality are playing out on our television screens during this American primary season. It is a theatre where things have become so belligerent that immovable partisan opinions are more embedded in concrete than open to compromise.

Canada is divided in its opinion, and always will be. The propensity for every succeeding government to maintain they have a mandate to do whatever they like is foolhardy, and will continue to be so until partisanship itself is wrestled back to the negotiating table and willful corrosion of the political system is expunged. That was what our first Prime Minister, John A. McDonald, struggled for when he noted, “A public man should have no resentments.” Neither should any modern public man or woman.

As former Clerk of the Senate, Gordon Barnhart, reminded Rosemary Barton last week, the Senate was once a place where members held themselves in deep respect until hyper-partisanship came in not long ago and friendships were destroyed. “I am hopeful that kind of respect will return,” he offered Barton in conclusion. But that can’t happen if people like Duffy aren’t humbled by the shamble they have created.

We must avoid at all costs the practice that David McLaughlin powerfully exposed in a 2013 Globe and Mail article:

“Faithful to the partisan glue that binds 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.”

Indeed we are. And if Mike Duffy reenters the Red Chamber as full of partisan braggadocio as his recent contributions have demonstrated, then it isn’t merely the Senate or the House that is the ultimate loser, but democracy itself. Fewer things are more dangerous than an unprincipled political operative. The task for Mr. Trudeau isn’t to cleanse the Senate of the partisans but, rather, of the unprincipled political warriors who would bring down a historic Canadian institution for the sake of unbridled power.

“Terrible Simplifiers”

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OVER THE LAST NUMBER OF MONTHS I have been asked when I’m going to compose some blog posts on the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. It would be easy to accomplish, but I hesitate about writing about someone who might not know the difference between hummus and Hamas. We have all underestimated his appeal to the disenchanted, but as his loss in Iowa revealed last evening, he may be more of a polarizing rather than a populist figure.

Donald Trump, along with numerous other seekers of power, forms the embodiment of what Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt called the “terrible simplifiers” – demagogues who seek power and fame by manipulating and exploiting the frustrations of those disenchanted with politics and politicians altogether. To be sure, politics itself these days is often characterized more by underperformance than delivering stable, even inspirational, government. And politicians themselves often appear more willing to play the role of party patsy than to carve out a space in the broader political order for those constituents who elected them.

However else you term it, the decay of politics has led to the age of extremism and polarization, perhaps best exemplified presently in Donald Trump. The hyper-inflated kind of politics is easily spotted in the extremism, crippling partisanship, and sectarianism slowly creeping into what was once historically stable politics. The Republican Party in the United States was one of the most credentialed and able political organizations in the world. Today, as it fires off in all directions, it has shifted its historical ability to unite Americans to splintering them and making effective governing almost impossible.

Canada has flirted with this kind of extremism but seems able to right itself when it seems to matter, keeping us distinctly different from our southern neighbours in ways that are still functional. As CBC writer Aaron Wherry stated at the end of yesterday’s Iowa voting: “American democracy is good for making Canadian democracy seem perfectly reasonable.” We watch our American cousins with interest and perhaps mild alarm at their flirtation with the terrible simplifiers, but we must be vigilant against such incursions into our own political system.

The rise of these great and dividing simplifiers has resulted in countless improvised groups in politics, civil society, and the media that evade proper public scrutiny and hide themselves in the great anonymity of the Web. They create untold opportunities for activities of deceit, confusing a disenchanted citizenry in the process. It all leads to a form of “stupid” politics that cheapens both politician and citizen alike.

Demagogues, charlatans, and hyper-partisan politicians have always been with us. What is new, however, is the environment we have allowed them to create within us a citizens that at least permits them easy access to power. This must be resisted at all costs.

Democracy is messy and never easy. Voters have always grown disenchanted over time with their elected representatives, and politicians inevitably sink deeper into the party structure than their own constituencies. But such developments are repeatedly overcome by a politics that can still inspire and pull from within us the better angels of our natures – individually and collectively. And we are at our best as citizens when we can contain the negative aspects of extremism and oversimplification. For that to happen, though, we need a good dose of that one quality we have permitted to erode over time: trust.

In his best-selling book V is for Vendetta, author Alan Moore notes that, “Demagoguery allows two roles: the torturer and the tortured. Twists people into joyless mannequins that fear and hate, while culture plunges into the abyss.” Excessive politics might belong to some terrible simplifiers, but culture belongs to us – all of us – and must never be permitted to atrophy because some leaders seek to arouse our anger instead of refining our intellect and our passions.

Sober Second Thought and Getting Real on the Senate

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WE’VE LIKELY HEARD ALL THE ARGUMENTS, pro and con, about our Senate and the debate will continue for years to come. But it’s time to get real on some realities about it. It’s true that the Red Chamber is a mess and a partisan swamp. Yes, there has been corruption, and, yes, many want it abolished because it is viewed as irrelevant. But it’s become clear over this past year that it will take years for such changes to come and that in the meantime it will remain as one of the two wings of Parliament responsible for proposing, researching, and passing legislation. Just because you can’t abolish it doesn’t mean you can’t change it. Let’s think about what we can do in the present to make it as relevant as possible.

There is no way a law can be passed or receive Royal Assent without the Senate’s approval. That’s in part why Friday’s Speech from the Throne is read by the Governor General in the Senate, not the House. For any government with an ambitious agenda, the approval from the Senate is the only way it can be enacted. So while numerous voices debate its abolition or relevance, it nevertheless retains a vital role in the collective of the Canadian people, whether people acknowledge it or not.

It is precisely this balance and accountability between the House and the Senate that proved so productive in establishing Canada as a nation to be admired and respected. Through it all the Senate of Canada played a vital role in moving the nation forward. Its logic and operation derived from centuries of parliamentary progress through that great mother of all parliaments in Britain. True, it was an old boy’s club, and, yes, it overlooked needed reforms just as the House of Commons did. But along the way it validated a woman’s right to vote, approved provinces joining Confederation, supplied support for our military forces overseas, partnered with the House to introduce pensions and healthcare across the country, and ultimately assisted in guiding Canada into the modern age.

There were times when the Senate purposefully held up needed legislation, but far more frequently it modified the bills sent over from the House, making them better and more workable. As the place where intensive scrutiny and research on legislation before it can be officially passed, the Senate is the final arbiter, the more refined tool for making laws effective. It has done this since the country’s beginning and shouldn’t be overlooked because some individuals from the political ranks sought to make it a blunt partisan instrument.

This is why the Senate has been appropriately labeled the sanctum of “sober second thought,” as John A. Macdonald put it. It has saved legislation that was severely flawed and fine-tuned our laws with other jurisdictions like provinces or even our overseas partners.

In the end, senators are not elected and know that the ultimate power lies with the House of Commons, where elected officials debate their priorities. And yet if the Senate itself becomes a theatre of partisan operation like the House itself, the opportunities to enhance and refine legislation grow greatly diminished.

The former speaker of the House, Peter Milliken, has been reminding people who for decades laws have been passed effectively and judiciously as individual members of the House and Senate followed rules of procedure and ethical public service. But in recent years both chambers have been cheapened, not by ineffective precedent or procedures, but by party hacks who have crippled their performance and undermined governance in the process. It’s not better rules we need in the House or Senate, but better people – representatives elected or appointed who understand that their primary purpose is the security, inclusiveness, and prosperity of Canada.

The Senate should be filled with knowledgeable and ethical representatives who, because they don’t have to be elected and remain susceptible to the worst practices of partisanship, can, like researchers, apply their minds and spirits to legislation that is sent to them to make better.

Does the Senate require reformation? Absolutely. But it is important to remember that it could still have been effective under its present procedures if it hadn’t been carpet bombed by partisanship in recent years. Good people, even in a difficult system, can make good laws. Political neanderthals, even with the best of support and research, can obliterate the democratic spirit through their actions.

Author David Brooks once defined what should be the true disposition of a public servant: “They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline are what drive their actions.” Put these kind of people in the Senate and even its worst tendencies will be transcended by integrity, knowledge, and dedication to public duty.

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