The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: partisanship

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.

Election 2015: The Politics of Everywhere

directionlessTHE MORE ONE EXAMINES IT, the easier it is to conclude that politics of the heavily partisan nature is quickly losing its appeal to the average citizen living in a community and just desiring a good place to live and opportunities for their children. Previously we let political parties formulate their policies on various parts of the political spectrum and then citizens could select their priorities and vote from there.

In many ways it all functioned well: communities were offered choices, parties drew on supporters, and politics involved rigorous debate that clarified the issues. What we have been witnessing in the past two decades is the breaking down of that model for two key reasons.

The first arises when people don’t really know what political candidates and their parties really stand for anymore.

Are parties that once occupied the left-centre-right wing of the political spectrum moving collectively to the right, or is everyone cramming into the middle in pursuit of votes? It’s not only difficult to know who the players are, it involves great perplexity attempting to understand their teams. The pursuit of power has led to a great free-for-all that witnesses every party rushing whichever way the pollsters tell them are a key crop of voters. Practical ambition has taken the place of principled policy and voters are left in a daze trying to figure it all out.

I spoke with a Conservative at a church last Sunday who commented that he thought Stephen Harper “just wasn’t ready” (an interesting twist on the Con ads concerning Justin Trudeau’s youth) to be elected because his administration had become so corrupt and secretive that it put the lie to the PM’s first effort at legislation: the Accountability Act. The party had changed and he knew it. Journalist Chantal Hébert’s  observation on this point is prescient:

“If Harper’s most trusted aides — many of whom are still in place — were willing to use every lever at their disposal to lie their way out of an embarrassment to the Conservative party, how far would they go to sway public opinion on a matter of central importance to the government and the country? And if voters — upon being presented with undeniable evidence of a high-level cover-up designed to mislead them — are content to look the other way, how can they expect future governments to think twice about the risks of fooling Canadians into believing whatever best serves their partisan purpose?”

Our communities have quickly arrived at the point where they have just given up trying to figure it all out. In our desire to have everything – low taxes, affordable education and healthcare, security, independence, pensions, and meaningful investments in research and employment – we have persuaded our politicians that winning power trumps effective policy. Consequently, average citizens have concentrated on their immediate existence instead of their collective life because politics was no longer capable of drawing them together and empowering the communities in which they lived.

But that’s now beginning to change as many Canadians have begun the process of casting off partisan practices in favour of common goals. For our respective communities it couldn’t come a moment too soon. Political parties, by morphing into whatever it took to capture more voters, no longer hold much appeal. Worse still is the increasing practice of pulverizing other parties in order to secure supporters. To the average citizen, politics looks more like a Game of Thrones episode than a respectful appeal to the intellect of citizens.

The greater things of life are what should matter during a federal election, but they shouldn’t be paraded across the country as some kind of travelling bazaar. They are serious and speak to our collective condition as nothing else can, as when John Maynard Keynes noted, “The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are already doing, but to do those things which at present are not done at all.”

If politics is to be at all serious and effective it must, above all, be consistent and collaborative, neither of which has been evident so far in this election campaign.  Politics is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Election 2015: Have We Passed Our Peak?”

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THE SUBJECT ABOUT WHETHER AMERICA has peaked as a nation consumes much of the airtime south of the border in the run-up to their election. Repeatedly in Canada’s long election campaign the subject is being heard from various voices as well.

We’ve already referred to former Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark’s current book outlining how we’ve lost our national and global prestige, but there is a chorus of others from across the political spectrum pointing out our tragic slippage, including a book released just yesterday by former Ontario premier and MP Bob Rae, titled What Happened to Politics?

One would expect former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis to be concerned about our national direction over the past two decades, but lately it’s become clear that he’s upset, not merely worried. Lewis has his reasons and they’re compelling.

He took the gloves off recently and it would be intriguing to witness this 77-year old champion of public life take on our present political class while in combative mode. Lewis focused on five key areas to make his point and they formed a powerful narrative concerning how we have fallen in collective and international stature.

He opened up by reminding his audience that Canada’s image on the global stage is in free fall, then moved effectively to how the Harper government has denigrated Parliamentary traditions in a fashion that is has caused serious damage to the public spirit. He recalled his years as an opposition leader in Bill Davis’s Ontario Conservative government, when respect emerged from the top-down and how Davis built on that trust by providing solid government.

It was then that Lewis jolted the audience by reminding them that this country’s behavior towards its aboriginal communities has been merely benign and paternal, but outright racist. Climate change was his next subject, one he wasn’t required to dwell on because our loss of effectiveness both domestically and globally on the file as been a matter of record.

Finally, Lewis talked about how civil society itself has been humiliated by a government that neither seeks public partnership nor transparency our accountability in its dealings with the electorate.

There will be those who will say, “What do you expect? It’s Stephen Lewis, a socialist, and an NDP to boot.” Well, it’s not just Lewis. Add to the list the likes of Conservatives like Joe Clark and other former ministers from the Mulroney government, former Liberal PM Paul Martin, NDP lion Ed Broadbent, and scores of public service leaders who are emerging independently in an effort to remind Canadians that not much time remains before Canada itself becomes irreparable.

When Lewis says his emotions run “from rage to rage,” he’s hardly alone. Upon adding that all this, “does us damage. It does us shame,” there was a loud chorus of assent and concern from all parties and civil society.

Lewis wrapped up his speech with a compelling urge that an increasing number of Canadians are attempting to voice:

“Somewhere in my soul, I cherish the possibility of a return to a vibrant democracy, where equality is the watchword, where people of different ideological conviction have respect for each other, where policy is debated rather than demeaned, where the great issues of the day are given thoughtful consideration, where Canada’s place on the world stage is seen as principled and laudatory, where human rights for all is the emblem of a decent civilized society.”

These are powerful words, made more pungent by the growing state of unrest within the Canadian citizenry and a concurrent desire to “return to a vibrant democracy,” as Stephen Lewis phrased it. But before we return to such a place of meaning we must first detour by the ballot box in October and claim through our rightful ideals the kind of politics we want.

 

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